By Jim Wogan
The faithful of the Diocese of Knoxville will have a unique opportunity this month to pray in the presence of one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved saints when the relics of St. Padre Pio visit the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Tuesday, Sept. 26, and the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on Wednesday, Sept. 27.
St. Pio of Pietrelcina, popularly known as Padre Pio, was a Capuchin friar who lived in Italy from 1887-1968 and is best known for his devotion to long hours of prayer, a profound acceptance of suffering, and the intense scrutiny he faced from Church authorities for claims of bilocation, receiving the stigmata, and other mystical experiences.
“One thing that strikes me deeply is that in a time like we are in where everybody is trying to give away our sufferings, we always complain. … Padre Pio teaches us to bear our sufferings in ways that only saints can do,” Luciano Lamonarca, who is the founder of the Saint Pio Foundation, said in a recent interview on the “Inside the Diocese of Knoxville” podcast.
“So, Padre Pio became undoubtedly, not only in Italy but in many parts of the world, a saint to emulate in the sense of… to ask for guidance and direction,” Mr. Lamonarca said.
The relics of Padre Pio first toured the United States in 2017. Knoxville and Chattanooga are two of nearly 30 U.S. cities to host the relics this year. Mr. Lamonarca believes this is the first time the relics have visited a church or diocese in Tennessee.
“Following Pope Francis in 2016, during the Holy Year of Mercy, he invited St. Pio’s and St. Leopold’s bodies to Rome, I thought that would be a good way of doing outreach and to bring something personal of St. Pio to the faithful in other countries,” Mr. Lamonarca said.
“In 2017, we started our journey, so we bring around the relics so people who approach the relics might find a more deep spiritual connection and pray in asking for Padre Pio’s intercession at the presence of these relics,” he added.
According to the Saint Pio Foundation, the authentic relics typically on display include cotton gauze bearing Padre Pio’s blood stains, crusts of his wounds, a lock of his hair, his handkerchief soaked with his sweat only hours before he died, and a piece of Padre Pio’s mantle.
Mr. Lamonarca grew up in Puglia, Italy, and moved to the United States in 2008. He is an accomplished professional opera singer who has performed in Europe, the United States, and many other parts of the world. His devotion to Padre Pio came naturally as a young man living in Italy.
He said the relics tour benefits those who can’t make a pilgrimage to Padre Pio sites in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, where the intact body of the saint lies in the St. Padre Pio Shrine, which receives about 6 million visitors a year, making it “one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in the world,” according to one website.
“In my heart there was only one mission, to make sure that Padre Pio goes out to as many people as possible,” he noted. “For somebody who comes from Italy, like me, and I was born in the Puglia region where Padre Pio lived and died in San Giovanni Rotondo, it is a given [that] every town, every city, every office, every house has a picture of St. Pio, and everybody goes on pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo or Pietrelcina. When I came to the United States of America in 2008, I saw that was difficult, despite a great devotion, many have never visited St. Pio’s places or never had the possibility to get as close as possible to some things that belong to him.”
The path to sainthood usually isn’t smooth, and before his canonization in 2002 by St. Pope John Paul II, Padre Pio, born Francesco Forgione, experienced his own difficulties. The Vatican imposed restrictions on his priesthood, including his ability to publicly celebrate Masses, beginning in 1920. Pope Pius XI restored the priest’s faculties to celebrate public Masses in 1933 saying, “I have not been badly disposed to Padre Pio, but I have been badly informed.”
Like the Diocese of Knoxville, which is about to conclude its own investigation into the Cause for Sainthood of Father Patrick Ryan (1845-78), the Holy See authorized an investigation into possible canonization for Padre Pio in 1982. He was declared a Servant of God in 1990, and more than 300,000 people attended his canonization Mass in Rome in 2002.
St. Pio’s priesthood was a long journey filled with moments of joy and struggle. Mr. Lamonarca favorably compares him to being like a grandfather who is depended on as a “voice of reason.”
“We know Padre Pio was not a hero. He was just a humble man, a humble man with virtues, very important virtues, but just a humble friar that attracted the attention of millions of people, not only because he received the stigmata, but because among his virtues … was [his ability] to perform miracles and saving lives, which he did during his lifetime and still continues to do today.
“I do believe that is one of his main teachings. If I stand up from my bed, and I know I am going to have a very challenging day… believe it or not, I have a nice picture of St. Pio smiling near my bed, and I look at that and I say, well, if he can smile, I can, too.
“Because many people think Padre Pio was very serious or was never smiling, we know there was a Padre Pio who used to sip some beer… or there were some honest little jokes with his friars. But also, [he] was a man who dedicated 14 hours in confessional and was a man who was saying countless rosaries every day and meeting people every day. So, he did dedicate some time for the pleasure of [being] a human being… but the best teaching is to bear our sufferings in a unique way and that we offer that to God’s will. That is the best teaching we can take from him.”
The relics of St. Pio of Petrelcina will be available for viewing and veneration at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville on Sept. 26 from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
A Mass in honor of Padre Pio will be celebrated at noon. Contact the cathedral office at 865-588-0249 or firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.
The relics will be available for viewing and veneration at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga on Sept. 27 from 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Father Michael Hendershott will offer a reflection on St. Pio in English at 5:30 p.m. in the parish hall. Deacon Renzo Alvarado Suarez will offer a reflection on St. Pio in Spanish at 6:15 p.m. in the parish hall. A multilingual Mass in honor of St. Pio will be celebrated at 7 p.m. in the basilica. Contact the basilica at 423-266-1618 or email@example.com for additional information.