By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 19, 2017
ATLANTA—A half dozen relics of the beloved St. Pio of Pietrelcina drew crowds of believers to Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta Oct. 3 for veneration and prayer.
The relics, brought from Italy to the United States, made the only stop in the southeast U.S. as part of a national tour sponsored by the Saint Pio Foundation.
The tour marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of the saint, who was widely known as Padre Pio. It has been 15 years since he was recognized as a saint.
In the nearly 11 hours of the exhibition, an estimated 3,300 people spent time with the relics, reported the church. Some 750 people attended the closing Mass with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory as the celebrant.
Kim Schulman, Holy Spirit’s director of communications, said the experience of relics veneration always invigorates the community. Hundreds of parishioners volunteer to help visitors, some who travel from far away to spend time in prayer, she said. There’s a renewed energy at the parish during the day that continues after the relics have left, noted Schulman.
Veneration of saints is an ancient tradition of the church, said Msgr. Edward Dillon, pastor of Holy Spirit Church. The church hosted visiting relics in October 2015 when the remains of St. Maria Goretti attracted many pilgrims.
Msgr. Dillon said seeing relics and praying with them allows devotees to “feel a connection with saints.”
On the eve of the public veneration, the tour organizer shared the relics with 80 members of the parish men’s club.
The relics, including a lock of Padre Pio’s hair, blood from his wounds and garments, were displayed in ornate reliquary cases. Some of the relics have never been seen in this country. They are on loan to the Saint Pio Foundation for the 21-stop tour from Rhode Island to California. To accommodate all of the requests, another tour is expected in 2018.
One of the relics was a brown cloak worn by the Capuchin friar.
In the middle of a sunburst reliquary was a fingerless glove soaked in the saint’s blood.
Padre Pio had wounds on his hands and feet, which the faithful believe mimic the wounds of Jesus, known as stigmata. These gloves covered his wounded hands.
Luciano Lamonarca, the founder and president of the Saint Pio Foundation, said the saint lost “half a liter of blood a day” from his wounds.
St. Pio was born Francesco Forgione in 1887 in southern Italy. He joined the Capuchin religious community, an offshoot of the Franciscans, and was ordained a priest in 1910. He received the religious name of Pio, Italian for Pius.
A reputation for holiness surrounded the friar. A popular confessor, Padre Pio was said to be able to look into people’s hearts and would hear confessions for several hours at a time.
He was also said to have shown supernatural phenomena, including the stigmata and the ability to bilocate—to be in two places at once, said Msgr. Dillon.
In 1940 Padre Pio started planning for a hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, where there was no hospital. The renowned Home for the Relief of the Suffering (Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza), was officially opened in 1956 and has grown to a 1,000-bed facility.
The monastery where he lived attracts some 7 million pilgrims a year.
Lamonarca, who sings professionally as a tenor, talked about his own mystical experiences. His faith had been shaken after his wife had a miscarriage.
On a trip to his native Italy, Lamonarca and his wife shared a meal with a friar who had been a friend of St. Pio. The man opened a bag holding a relic, a blood-soaked handkerchief. Suddenly, the room was “full of the scent of roses,” he said. It was like “100 florists brought 100 roses,” he said. Lamonarca and his wife conceived a son soon after that experience.
Lamonarca, who started the foundation in 2014, organized the tour to raise the profile of the saint. He said Padre Pio held the laity of the church in the highest regard, which is why he started the hospital with only one priest, the rest being lay Catholics.
Appearing before a group such as the Holy Spirit Men’s Club is important because it would be the type of ministry Padre Pio would endorse as he wanted people to find holiness, said Lamonarca. Men and women can follow the saints so their lives can be transformed, and relics help people feel close to the saints they admire, he added.
“They aren’t magic. It is a spiritual touch. They allow us to be in more close contact. We have Padre Pio here much closer to us,” he said.