Thousands drawn to relic of St. Padre Pio

A woman venerates the relic of the heart of St. Padre Pio at Immaculate Conception Church in Lowell. The church was the first stop in a Sept. 21-23 tour of the relic to the Boston area. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

SOUTH END -- An evening Mass celebrated by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston Sept. 23 drew to a close the three day visit of a major relic of St. Padre Pio to the greater Boston area.

The relic of the saint's heart was brought to the area by the Capuchin Friars that run the Shrine of St. Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo. It was the first time a major relic of the saint had been outside of Italy.

From Sept. 21 to Sept. 23, the relic moved around the Archdiocese of Boston, stopping at several different sites. Each stop attracted hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who came to venerate the relic.

On Sept. 21, it was at Immaculate Conception Parish in Lowell, where Bishop Robert Hennessy celebrated a noon Mass. Later that day, the heart was brought to St. Leonard's Church in Boston's North End for veneration and a Mass celebrated by Bishop John Dooher.

On Sept. 22, the relic was brought to the archdiocese's Pastoral Center in Braintree, where an estimated 6,000 people came for veneration and a Mass celebrated by vicar general Bishop Peter Uglietto. That evening, the relic was transferred to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where cathedral rector Father Kevin O'Leary celebrated a Mass in Spanish.

On Sept. 23 the relic remained at the cathedral, with Bishop Robert Reed celebrating a morning Mass. Cardinal O'Malley celebrated Mass at the cathedral at 7 p.m. that evening.

Thousands attended the Mass, with people standing by the doors and in the aisles after the pews in the cathedral were completely filled.

In his homily, Cardinal O'Malley spoke to the large number of attendees about the early life of St. Padre Pio. He said the saint, born Francesco Forgione, grew up in the small farming village of Pietrelcina, Italy.

When Forgione was young, a Capuchin brother came to the village to beg for money for his order. The brother was kind and generous, and when Forgione saw this, he realized he wanted to become a Capuchin, the cardinal said.

"The goodness of that friar inspired this young man, Francesco Forgione. He inspired his heart, that heart that we venerate here tonight, to give his life to God. Tonight, we want to be touched by this heart so that we will make a gift of ourselves to God," said Cardinal O'Malley.

When he grew older, Forgione joined the Capuchin seminary, and it was there that was given the name Pio.

"And hence, he was no longer known as Francesco Forgione, but Brother Pio of Pietrelcina," said the cardinal.

He said St. Padre Pio's "life as a friar was beset by much sickness and suffering."

"His hidden life was disrupted when he received the stigmata... Like St. Francis before him, Padre Pio became a living crucifix. He suffered great physical pain, spiritual torment, and even persecution from the Church, because many prelates were suspicious of Padre Pio, and tried to keep him away from the people, even to the point of not allowing him to engage in public ministry or letting seminarians visit him," said Cardinal O'Malley.

"Yet, few saints have garnered the devotion that Padre Pio has received," he said.

In life, the cardinal said, St. Padre Pio was a "simple man," and his existence could be captured in two themes -- prayer and mercy.

"Prayer and mercy, the great themes of his life, are the two antidotes of the woes of our world today. People don't have time for prayer, people don't have time for the works of mercy, and look at what a mess we can make the world without prayer and without mercy," he said.

"Padre Pio's life of prayer and mercy extended to the corporal works of mercy, which is most manifest in his determination to build what is one of the largest and most important hospitals in Europe, Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza -- the House of the Relief of Suffering," said the cardinal.

He likened the saint to St. Mother Teresa, who he said also lived a life of prayer and mercy.

"Pope Francis has said the face of God is mercy, in these saints, we glimpse that beautiful face of God," said Cardinal O'Malley.

He said we should try to imitate St. Padre Pio's mercy and love, saying that we should love the cross and not fear it.

"Our fear of the cross is what makes us such mediocre Christians. Like Padre Pio, let us glory in nothing but the holy cross, through which the world has been crucified to us and we to the world," said the cardinal.

"The cross is liberating, the cross is the key to God's heart, as Padre Pio always said. In this Year of Jubilee, let us embrace these great loves, these great themes of Padre Pio's life. Prayer and mercy, compassion for the sinner, tender love and care for the sick and the suffering. In this saint, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are born of a heart transformed by prayer and fidelity to the cross. May the heart of this holy friar touch our hearts, and help us to have loving hearts. And may his heart lead us to the heart of Christ, pierced by the lance for love of us," he concluded.

Before the dismissal, Amii Stewart, an American disco singer best known for her 1979 cover of "Knock on Wood," sang the song "Con Te" in honor of St. Padre Pio.

Stewart, who had traveled from Italy where she resides to be at the Mass, also sang "Con Te" at the 2009 reburial of St. Padre Pio. While the title of the song is Italian and she is able to sing it in a few different languages, she sang it in English at the cathedral.

Following the Mass, many of those in attendance lined up to venerate St. Padre Pio's heart.

Among those who venerated the relic was Joseph Dibenedetto.

"I've read many articles about him, and it's just the real deal," said Dibenedetto.

He said he viewed St. Padre Pio's life as "amazing," citing the saint's healing abilities and the numerous hours he spent a day hearing confessions.

"It's inspiration to me. In a world that's so troubled, this is a shining light," he said.

Pamela McLaughlin also venerated the relic, but said it was not the first time she has encountered the saint.

She said she has traveled to Italy a number of times during her lifetime, and has been to the Shrine of St. Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo.

Yet, to have his heart in Boston, is "just special, because I had an accident and I'm praying for a special intention. He's helped me before and I'm sure he'll help me again," said McLaughlin.

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