The cult of Padre Pio (aka San Pio da Pietrelcina; née Francesco Forgione) seems to be alive and well in San Giovanni Rotondo.
San Giovanni Rotondo was, as described by contemporary visitors there in the early 20th Century, an isolated, impoverished and superstitious town in the Gargano mountains of Puglia.
Padre Pio and his claimed stigmata changed that forever. The town is now a bustling hub of trincket stalls, hotels, motels and restaurants offering tourist menus. And, of course, there is the omnipresent Pio himself, living on in a vast array of statues and paintings, and on postcards, plaques, bracelets and other items for sale at the shrine. Pick your price point, and there’s a devotional souvenir for you.
The interest in, and devotion to, the Capuchin friar has scarcely waned in the nearly 100 years since word of the miracle of his stigmata spread, first across Italy, and then across the globe. Early and concerted efforts by Vatican officials to put an end to the cult and permanently remove Pio from San Giovanni Rotondo were thwarted by the locals (who correctly foresaw the road to prosperity as leading through Pio’s piety) and the Fascist Party, who used Pio (who signaled his own approval) and his threatened removal to rally the population against the Socialists, who were organizing rural farm workers and had managed to win local elections.
The current shrine/church complex story largely glosses over both the social context, along with the medical and religious skepticism that surrounded Pio in the tumultuous period in Italy following the tragedy of World War I. And I could find no mention of the deep suspicion, founded on both personal medical observation and Pio’s own correspondence, that the stigmata itself was manufactured by Pio’s surreptitious use of carbolic acid, smuggled to him by one of his female admirers (there’s just too much of that, or his malingering during World War I duty, to go into here).
But Pio not only survived the Church hierarchy’s efforts to isolate him and suppress the cult, but, thanks to the tireless efforts of some shady characters like Emmanuele Brunatto, saw the tide swing to his favor by the 1950s.
The result was eventual beatification, and then sainthood, by Pope John Paul II.
There are now three churches in San Giovanni Rotondo directly linked to Pio and the cult: a modest structure of the Capuchin convento where he lived most of his days; a second, grander church built after his fame was secured; and the magnificent and modern cathedral where he is now on display, designed by the world renowned architect Renzo Piano.
But most special of all is the hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo built from donations by his believers from around the world. The Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza is a testament to the actual good that can emerge even from such a movement. It was at the hospital that I felt most at ease, and least likely to think of the idolatry and fetishism that had been surrounding me everywhere else I turned in San Giovanni.