The canonisation of Padre Pio on 16 June 2002 drew a crowd of at least 300,000 to Rome, filling St Peter's Square and its surroundings. 3,700 buses and 50 special trains had begun disgorging their passengers as early as 4 am. Among this enormous crowd were two organised groups from Australia and many individual Australians.
The numbers were not surprising, considering that some eight million people now visit Padre Pio's friary at San Giovanni Rotondo every year. Many go because of the countless miracles attributed to Padre Pio, but more are drawn by his sheer sanctity. Their motives are spiritual - the friars at San Giovanni Rotondo say the majority of the petitions placed on his tomb are of a spiritual nature.
While Padre Pio has long been regarded - especially in his native Italy - as a saint (he died just 24 years ago), the Church has now officially placed him in the company of Heaven and presented him to the world as a hero for the 21st century.
One of the friars who knew him well, Fr Eusebio Notte, said that the most precise description of Padre Pio was that he was "a man become prayer", just as was said of St Francis of Assisi. He was at every moment in intimate union with God - he lived in the supernatural. It was for his holiness, not his extraordinary gifts, that he has been canonised.
It is only his union with God which can explain these gifts - his reported ability to read souls, his knowledge of the future, bilocations, appearances in many parts of the world, the perfumes by which he signals his presence and his innumerable cures. Of these, many continue to the present day.
It is the cures obtained through his intercession which compel attention. Shortly after Padre Pio was beatified, in May 1999, the miracle required for his canonisation occurred, in Febuary 2000. A seven-year-old boy, Matteo Pio Collela, in a coma and hopelessly near death from meningitis, recovered and told his mother he had seen Padre Pio, who told him he would be cured.
One might ask - what is the real purpose of these miracles? Surely it is the same as it was with the miracles Our Lord performed. As Jesus told Martha: "Have I not told you that if you have faith, you will see God glorified?" (Jn: 11.40). The prayer which millions of people have prayed for the canonisation of Padre Pio recalls that he "laboured so faithfully for the glory of Your heavenly Father and for the good of souls".
For Pope John Paul II, who met Padre Pio personally while he was a student in Rome, ("Our dear Padre Pio", as he referred to him) the canonisation ceremony must have recalled his own experience of the saint's intercession. In 1962 he wrote to Padre Pio on behalf of a friend in Poland, Dr Wanda Poltawska, a concentration camp survivor, who was to be operated on for throat cancer. In the operating theatre, it was found the cancer had vanished. Dr Poltawska has since been a close associate of the Pope, and was appointed by him to the Pontifical Commission on the Family.
[In this context, it is perhaps worth noting that in 1980, a six-year- old boy from Naples, Paolo Feliciano, was presented by his parents to Pope John Paul at an audience in St Peter's Square. The boy was gravely ill with leukemia, with not long to live. The Pope took the boy's hand and, according to his mother, said: "É guarito" ("He is cured"). Back in Naples, hospital tests confirmed that the leukemia was gone. The boy, now 28, is leading a normal life as a teacher.]
In the secularised, materialistic and often nihilistic world of the 21st century, Padre Pio's miracles reaffirm the spiritual. And the stigmata which he received as a young priest and bore for 50 years had the effect of identifying him as an image of Christ. This is how the Pope described him at his beatification.
Yet to all appearances, all Padre Pio did as a priest was say Mass and hear confessions (sometimes sending away those he believed were not sincerely repentant). He never left the friary after arriving there in 1918. A pre-Vatican II priest? Well, the Pope has described him as "a model of the priesthood" for our times. He was no social worker, but he inspired the construction in his little mountain village of what is now a 1000-bed hospital that ranks among the best in the world.
Padre Pio is the 462nd saint canonised by the present Pope. He died aged 81 on 23 September 1968, which is now his feast day. Many people have their favourite saints, and the recent visit to Australia of the relics of St Thérèse demonstrated her popularity.
Padre Pio said of himself: "Io sono per ognuno" ("I am for everyone"). And his life illustrates virtually every aspect of the Church's life and teaching.
In Padre Pio the Church presents the third millennium with a saint comparable to his spiritual father, Francis of Assisi.
- Paul MacLeod is Director of the Padre Pio Centre of Geelong, Vic.