Over three days thousands of people travelled from near and far and waited in long lines to venerate the relic of Padre Pio, a holy man, a saint of our time.
Disciples in Mission is a plan that calls for one pastor to lead one, two, or three parishes. True. A cursory glance of the actual document, however, makes clear that it is also a plan for evangelization, a plan to grow the Church. Mass attendance numbers are abysmal, survey after survey reveals discouraging news about the growing number of people who self-identify as "former Catholics." It looks bleak. But as St. Peter wrote: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope." (1P 3:15). If anyone was looking for a reason to hope, they found it last week at the sites where the relic of St. Padre Pio was being venerated: Lowell, Boston's North End, the Pastoral Center in Braintree, and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. At each site, the numbers were staggering. Accompanying the relic from place to place, Father Paul Soper, Cabinet Secretary for Evangelization and Discipleship (SED) and Director of the Office of Pastoral Planning tweeted: "They come and they come and they come"; "Is Catholicism dying? Um ... I don't think so. Thousands in the North End"; and later, "Conservative estimate -- yesterday (Wednesday) 5000 people venerated the heart of Padre Pio in Lowell and the North End. Let's see what happens today." "Today" was Thursday, Sept. 22 when the relic arrived in Braintree. Here is a look at the Braintree experience.
Preparations always look complete on paper; the real test is when thousands arrive. For Pastoral Center staff it was "all hands on deck." Michael Lavigne, assistant SED Cabinet Secretary, mobilized his team. Outside, they walked the long line in the bright, hot, sun distributing bottled water and assisting those with walkers and wheelchairs who needed help. They chatted with the people waiting so patiently. Inside, Pastoral Center staff welcomed people, organized the line in and out of the chapel, and answered questions. The building cleaning crew, cafeteria workers, security and facilities personnel were all on duty. The air was charged with excitement and joy -- this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Msgr. William Fay, director of Pontifical Mission Societies and director of Campus Ministry, likened it to World Youth Day, "Everyone there wanted to be there and knew that something special was happening." He stood for hours chatting with every pilgrim who walked past him, inching their way through the door, through the lobby, to the corridor and the chapel. He met people from all over New England, from Westchester, N.Y., and from New Jersey -- a father and son who, "got in the car this morning and came." Msgr. Fay was struck by the number of recent immigrants -- many of whom spoke little or no English -- from Argentina, Ecuador, and Columbia. He was surprised at the number of Vietnamese people, "Who would have known that the Vietnamese would know and fall in love with Padre Pio?" As with other visitors, venerating the relic was important.
So many people said that they "had to come," including one man who had just returned from Rome -- a city filled with churches and relics. For one couple, this was their third attempt -- having been deterred by crowds in Lowell and Boston. All ages were represented. Four generations of one family made the trip together: from great grandmother to baby in stroller. Another mother came with her five children, one carrying a large portrait of Padre Pio. Some years ago as the family was leaving Mass, a young man approached them in the church parking lot, spoke briefly, handed them the picture and drove off. Now this mother was bringing the children to venerate the relic of the saint whose picture was an unexpected gift from a stranger. A mother with four young children admitted that they wouldn't understand what was happening, but she wants them to remember the day. And the father and son from New Jersey? The father explained that they had to come -- Leo, his son, received his First Communion in Italy, at age 7, from Padre Pio.
Over three days thousands of people travelled from near and far and waited in long lines to venerate the relic of Padre Pio, a holy man, a saint of our time. Prayerful, respectful, hopeful, they brought their joys and sorrows, their wants and needs. It was truly a graced time. In parishes across this archdiocese Mass is offered every Sunday. At every Mass, Jesus Christ is truly and substantially present in the Eucharist. Padre Pio knew this. We do too -- knowing this should make a difference.
Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.