At the turn of the century, San Giovanni Rotondo was a tiny village in the rugged Gargano mountains of Puglia, the province which forms the heel and spur of the Italian boot. Even forty years ago it was linked to Manfredonia, the nearby port, only by a mule track which zigzagged down through olive trees to the Adriatic. Now, though, San Giovanni Rotondo welcomes more than six million visitors a year, and has overtaken Lourdes as Europe’s most popular destination for Catholic pilgrims. It has more than a hundred alberghi and hotels, and will soon have a massive new cathedral designed by Renzo Piano. There is also an imposing new hospital, one of Italy’s largest and most modern.

Behind all this is San Giovanni’s most revered son, and one of the best known Italians of the 20th century: Padre Pio. His beatification on 2 May has been an epic feat of organisation, with most of the country immersed in preparation for the big event (and even the Serie A game between Roma and Inter postponed to the following day). Pope John Paul II is to celebrate a televised mass in St Peter’s, and then travel down to San Giovanni Rotondo to celebrate Mass there. The millions of pellegrini in attendance are to be transported by more than five thousand coaches (100 from Poland alone) and 19 special trains. A thousand chemical toilets have been set up in the village and big CCTV screens surround the two squares.

Long before San Giovanni Rotondo became famous, another nearby village, Monte Sant’ Angelo, was a place of pilgrimage: the village formed the end of the medieval ‘Route of the Angel’, which wound its way from Normandy to Rome and beyond. The reason for its fame is a mixture of local lore and millennial angst. The story goes that, in 490 AD, a local man went up into the mountains, searching for his prize bull. He found it at the entrance to a cave, way up on the most precarious promontory. The bull was reluctant to move, so the man shot an arrow at it: the arrow turned in the wind and embedded itself in the man’s forehead. The Bishop of Siponto was called on for advice, and when he arrived at the grotto he received a visitation from the Archangel Michael, who ordered him to consecrate a Christian altar on the site. It’s not known what happened to the man with the arrow in his forehead, but the result of his misadventure was the famous Santuario di San Michele. In 999 AD, the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary, and prayed that the apocalypse prophesied at the end of the first millennium wouldn’t happen. A thousand years later the same worries, together with the beatification of Padre Pio, have prompted a sudden risveglio, or reawakening, of religious piety and pilgrimage.

I am met off the train at Manfredonia – Nato action has closed the nearest airport – by Giovanni Granatiero, a friend whose family lives in the town. It’s almost midnight, and he drives me to my hotel. By the reception desk there’s a cabinet of Padre Pio mementos – letter-racks, mirrors, diaries, plates, each one bearing his by now familiar image: a high forehead, grey beard and bushy eyebrows, deep-set eyes above a slightly bulbous nose. The set of his mouth makes him look as if he is wincing. He seems kindly but austere: one hand is always raised in benediction, and a sleeve or more usually a fingerless glove covers up the reason for his fame – his stigmata. Giovanni says it’s a farsa, a ‘farce’: ‘this used to be one of the poorest parts of Italy, but it has suddenly become very wealthy, simply because of Padre Pio.’

Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione in 1887 in Pietrelcina, a small town half-way between Naples and Manfredonia. He was ordained into the order of Capuchin monks in 1910, and moved to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1916. He stayed there, almost always within the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, until his death, at 81, in September 1968. Almost exactly 50 years before, on 20 September 1918, he became the only Catholic priest to have received stigmata. A month after the wounds appeared, he wrote to his spiritual adviser, Padre Benedetto, describing what had happened:

After I had celebrated Mass, I yielded to a drowsiness similar to a sweet sleep. All the internal and external senses and even the very faculties of my soul were immersed in indescribable stillness. Absolute silence surrounded and invaded me. I was suddenly filled with great peace and abandonment which effaced everything else and caused a lull in the turmoil. All this happened in a flash ... I became aware that my hands, feet and side were dripping blood. Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day. The heart wound bleeds continually, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday. Dear Father, I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel in my soul. I am afraid I shall bleed to death if the Lord doesn’t hear my heartfelt supplication to relieve me of this condition. Will Jesus, who is so good, grant me this grace? Will he at least free me from the embarrassment caused by these outward signs?

Between the wars Padre Pio’s fame grew, thanks to the stigmata and to endless stories about his miracles: there were tales of bilocation, inexplicable cures, celestial perfumes, instant conversions and prophetic visions. Every Italian seems to have a favourite anecdote: he blessed a pile of envelopes brought to him, but refused to bless one (when it was opened it was found to contain coupons for the football pools); he knelt to pray for George VI before his death had been announced; he appeared in the cockpit of an American aircraft during bombing missions in the Second World War; his most celebrated feat was to have picked out a letter from Poland, which pleaded for his intercession on behalf of a mortally ill woman. ‘We cannot say no to this one,’ Padre Pio is supposed to have declared. The woman recovered, and the Polish priest who had written on her behalf, Bishop Wojtyla, subsequently became better known as Pope John Paul II.

Padre Pio’s relations with the higher echelons of the Catholic Church were strained. Doctors were repeatedly sent to inspect his wounds, and there was an attempt to have him transferred to Spain (averted only by the intervention of the Ministry of the Interior). ‘It’s very interesting,’ Marco Tosatti, vaticanista for La Stampa, says, ‘to see how his relationship with the Catholic Church – I mean Rome, principally – has been generally bad. He was put on trial by the Holy See, and among his major enemies was Padre Agostino Gemelli, one of the greatest churchmen of this century and founder of the Catholic University of the Sacro Cuore. He seems to belong to older times and an older faith.’ Italian admirers have included D’Annunzio, who was one of his correspondents; the TV presenter, Luciano Rispoli, at whose marriage he officiated; and the actress Lorella Cuccarini, who likes to drop his name in interviews. The magazine Gente, a cross between Hello! and the Catholic Herald, regularly runs new anecdotes about him, and offers cassettes of ‘la sua vera voce’. Abroad he is just as popular: the Padre Pio Foundation of America has a doting website, and there’s a bookshop entirely devoted to him in Vauxhall Bridge Road in London. Padre Pio has become something of a thorn in the side of the Catholic establishment

In November 1969 it was decreed that he had died in the ‘odore di santità’, and the case for his beatification was formally put by the Bishop of Manfredonia. The process is a tortuous one: first, the Triunale Diocesano gives its verdict, then the matter is passed on to the Congregazione per le Cause dei Santi in Rome. The theologians and cardinals on this committee re-examine all the relevant writings and testimonies and, if they are satisfied that someone deserves to be recognised as a ‘Beato’, medical evidence is called on to demonstrate that miracles occurred as a result of his or her intercession.

The day Giovanni and I arrive in San Giovanni Rotondo it is raining heavily, and the town – with its roads and woodlands disappearing into the low clouds – resembles a new ski resort. There are cranes everywhere, constantly gyrating as they lift lumps of concrete into place for the next huge hotel. Opposite the façade of Santa Maria delle Grazie are a series of scalinate, staircases that rise high into the hills, flanked by statues of the Padre and the Madonna. Nearby, a Portakabin serves as the studio of the official radio station, La Voce di Padre Pio.

There is normally a three-hour wait to get into the Chiesa, though we get in quite quickly thanks to the rain. The hushed queue snakes round the monastery, past strategic notices and collection boxes. You can get objects blessed every 15 minutes and a line of people has already formed with wedding-rings or car keys at the ready. The Padre’s tomb is a massive marble edifice, surrounded by wrought-iron railings and boxes into which photographs and letters can be posted. Some two hundred people are gathered round it, lighting candles, falling to their knees and whispering prayers.

There’s a spontaneous outburst of ‘Hail Mary’s as we approach Padre Pio’s sealed-off cell, above which are written Thomas à Kempis’s words from The Imitation of Christ: ‘Worldly honours always have sorrow for company.’ Through the glass you can see every book, painting, photograph, as well as his comb, perfectly preserved. The bed is made, and by it are his size nine shoes, purple-black and almost as wide as they are long because of the bleeding and swelling. In the nearby chapel a plaque marks Pio’s seat, and the exact location in which he first received the stigmata. Facing the piazza outside, still teeming with pilgrims, is a narrow window. It was from here that, like the Pope, Padre Pio used to bless his visitors, raising his hands so that everyone could get a look at his bandages.

Back outside in the rain, every shop is offering articoli religiosi, from paintings and postcards of the man to statues costing as much as four million lire. With an embarrassed smile, Giovanni tells me that his father built a house here for an old lady – it had a large garden, three storeys and a lift – whose income derived entirely from the sale of these trinkets. I come from a Methodist background, and I’m uneasy with icons and relics, but my objections here are mainly aesthetic – too many semi-naked women releasing a dove to the heavens, where, of course, the famous Capuchin priest is sitting.

We walk towards the hospital, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, or House for the Alleviation of Suffering, which dominates the town with its massive white façade topped by a statue of St Francis. In 1940 Pio decided that a hospital should be built. Legend has it that he single-handedly sought funding for the building from his visitors, placing donations in his handkerchief every day, and emptying out the coins onto his bed every evening, but in fact the hospital also received 250 million lire from UNRRA in 1947. A protein used to treat diabetes was discovered in the hospital’s laboratory, adding to its renown, and – peculiarly – visitors are offered guided tours round its theatres and wards. On the anniversary of Pio’s death tens of thousands of pilgrims gather to walk round the hospital through the night, keeping a candlelit vigil.

We return to Giovanni’s house in Manfredonia. His father shakes his head when we begin talking about the town: he knew Padre Pio and describes him as scontroso – ‘surly’. (Similarly, Rispoli, the TV presenter, says that Padre Pio was ‘burbero, ai limiti della scortesia’ – ‘gruff, on the verge of discourtesy’.) Everyone seems sure that he would not be pleased with what now goes on in his name. Certainly the town bears very little resemblance to a description of it by another priest in 1915, the year before Padre Pio’s arrival. ‘Only a deep silence is around me,’ he wrote, ‘sometimes interrupted by the sound of the bell hung on the neck of some sheep or goat which shepherds take to graze on the mountain behind the convent.’ Now, the Frati Cappuccini have a website, urging exorbitant contributions to the new cathedral and quoting by way of encouragement the implausible last words of Padre Pio: ‘Make it big.’

The following day is warm, the sky entirely clear. We are going to visit the sanctuary at Monte Sant’ Angelo, but Giovanni won’t drive there: the village is very dangerous, because of a feud between two families which started 50 years ago, when some livestock was stolen, and the two sons of the offending family were killed and dumped in the town. It’s not a place Giovanni wants to leave a smart car, so we take the coach. The scenery, as we rise away from the sea, is spectacular: hairpin bends take us towards white-washed houses where linen, hung from every balcony, billows in the wind. The town seems older than San Giovanni: the streets are narrow and steep, with labyrinthine flights of steps leading to the medieval quarter. The red-tiled roofs you can see from the top of the mountain are huddled together at odd angles, and the only reminder of the present is the Nato planes that fly overhead at regular intervals. From here you can see clean across the Adriatic to the coasts of Albania and Montenegro.

Even the local delicacy reflects the influence of the Catholic Church: ostie ripiene, literally ‘stuffed hosts’, are two large, obviously unconsecrated, communion wafers around a filling of almonds and honey. Lining many of the pavements are religious stalls: next to the tiny bottles claiming to contain the Profumo di Padre Pio are ashtrays inscribed with a word of advice to users: ‘Stronzo, smettere di fumare’ (‘Shit-head, give up smoking’).

The Santuario di San Michele is carved into the mountain. ‘This,’ it says in Latin above the entrance, ‘is the house of God and the gate of heaven.’ Legend has it that the Archangel Michael left a footprint here, which has prompted thousands of pilgrims to scratch the outlines of their own hands and feet into the stone slabs. Some, those in the prime positions, have become templates into which other people have placed their own hands. And I do have some sense of a gateway, even if it’s not a strictly religious sense – more the feeling that centuries of pilgrims, millions of them, have put their hands in the same spot, and that their touch has gradually eroded and smoothed and humanised the hard stone, which reminds me of cathedral steps hollowed in the middle after centuries of use.

As we look at the initials and the dates, I realise that there’s something very reassuring about antiquarian graffiti; about the fact that people exactly one thousand years ago were making this journey with miracles and the millennium in mind. Two centuries after Otto III, St Francis of Assisi visited the Santuario, but – feeling himself unworthy – didn’t enter it. We, of course, do, and admire the Byzantine Madonna of Constantinople and the filigree, crystal cross (a gift from Frederick II) which is said, like so many others, to contain wood from the Crucifix.

We emerge from the cold Santuario and sit on a wall overlooking the sea. There are gulls soaring in the breeze, and way below we can just see a fleet of fishing boats setting out from Manfredonia. Eating my ostie ripiene, I feel, if not the piety of the pilgrim, at least the serenity of the pilgrimage.

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