"It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" Gal 2:20)
On September 23, 1968 in the small and obscure village of S. Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy died a saint. He was known simply has Padre Pio. He lived his life as a humble servant and disciple of Jesus Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis as a simple Capuchin priest and brother. Now 44 years later in that same town, in the piazza near the same church that he had ministered in for so many years, thousands of pilgrims gathered to pray for the intercession of this saint who now is in heaven interceding for his spiritual children. I had the great grace of being among the pilgrims gathered in prayerful vigil the night before the feast day.
I had been in S.Giovanni Rotondo this summer living with a host family and working at one of the local parishes. I have to admit I was really looking forward to returning there for the weekend. I've grown close to my host family, and I missed the small town 'feel' so to speak. I brought along two of my classmates. The weekend was more than I had hoped. I enjoyed catching up with 'Mamma' and 'Babbo' and Maurilio, my host brother. It was a real treat to go back to the parish for Mass, Rosary, and evening prayer. Maurilio and I drove the two other seminarians around the area and showed them some of the more important sites including Monte San'Angelo, the site of an 5th century apparition of St. Michael the Archangel.
The real highlight of the trip was the evening prayer vigil on Saturday night. People began arriving in the afternoon to save seats. The vigil began at 7pm with evening prayer, followed by Eucharistic Adoration for vocations, an international Rosary, conferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and at midnight the celebration of Holy Mass for the solemnity of San Pio da Pietrelcina. (Of course the rest of the world celebrated the 25th Sunday in Ordinary time) The Rosary was a prayer dear to the heart of Padre Pio. He always exhorted his spiritual children to pray the Rosary every day. That evening before the Rosary, I was behind the outdoor sanctuary trying to find out where we'd have to go later to vest to serve Mass, when quite randomly someone asked me if I spoke English. I replied in the affirmative. He took my arm and told me quickly (in Italian) that I'd be leading 10 Hail Mary's in English for the Rosary, which was beginning in two minutes. I don't normally get nervous for things such as this, but there was a large crowd, and I felt as though I couldn't remember the words. I was comforted by the fact that hardly anyone in the crowd would know if I made a mistake anyways. It was a really moving experience for me to pray with everyone there in a visible way. During the Rosary I thought of everyone back home, and I included you all in my prayer. The climax of the night was the midnight Mass celebrated by the superior general of the Capuchin order. His homily highlighted the beautiful mystery that Padre Pio, who though we call 'Padre' (Father) never was a pastor of a parish or a bishop, continues in a real way with his prayers from heaven to lead and guide his spiritual children towards Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. This highlighted the real humility of Padre Pio, who always submitted to obedience to Christ by obedience to the Church.
A special aspect of all this for me is that Padre Pio's feast day coincides with my birthday, 23rd of September. How cool is it to be able to participate in the Holy Mass at midnight on one's birthday? What a beautiful gift! The next morning, having arrived back home after 3am, we slept in just a bit. The older sister had all of us over at her and her husband's house for lunch. And in typical Italian style the food was incredible. She even made a cheesecake! The family even sang 'Tanti auguri a te' (Happy Birthday). I was able to connect by phone with my family later that day (once the sun rose in Michigan).