"I don't believe it," I thought, "This can't be right." I had been looking forward to visiting the tomb of Padre Pio, but now, as we saw the church for the first time, a feeling of dread and disbelief came over me. It looked like an awkward heap of green shingles and bent white bars; the front wall was covered with a monstrous graffiti-like painting.
Within, spidery pillars arched upward from a disproportionate center reminiscent of a blue web--the sanctuary. There was no tabernacle. It looked, as one of my fellow pilgrims put it, like a vandalized spaceship. I passed the altar and an old cross; I remember now that the cross was beautiful, though I had difficulty appreciating that at the time. We followed a spiral descent into the crypt where Padre Pio's remains were interred. Glittery gold paint was all around the interior, which was full of odd angles and queer shapes, all shining with overt gaudiness. There was no avoiding the unsettling modernist flavor.
I wanted to cry. I could only sit back and stare with wide-eyed horror around me. The whole thing was wrong, entirely out of keeping with the character of Padre Pio. He must be rolling over in his grave, I groaned inwardly. He was a holy, humble, traditional friar, an Italian farm boy turned Franciscan priest, full of common sense and devotion, who wasn't afraid to rebuke sinners, who worshiped God daily in a small, ordinary church that was erected with respect for our sacred Catholic heritage. And now, supposedly to honor his memory, someone had built for his tomb a top-heavy monstrosity wrongly bearing the name of "church." Huge sums and long years of labor had been spent--wasted--on this place. I was only too glad to leave it, and almost too sad to continue on to the monastery.
"We go now to the English office," announced the guide, without explaining what this detour meant, while our group was silently escaping from the church.
We were taken to small room where we were shown a short video about the life of Padre Pio. I watched it distractedly, still mulling over the bloated piece of architecture which I had just left, and which I so heartily wished didn't exist.
But a surprise awaited me. A friar (God forgive me that I don't remember his name, though I shall never forget the man himself) who had known Padre Pio was going to come, speak to us, and give us his blessing. We waited for some time, but at last he entered: a soft-spoken, elderly Franciscan wearing a scarf and an extra layer over his habit to keep out the chill. A well-worn rosary hung from his belt. He gently put aside a parcel he was carrying and apologized in simple English for making us wait.
"When he was a young friar, he knew Padre Pio," explained the American assistant, "So that makes him a second-class relic!" We all chuckled, and the little friar laughed but said, "No, no, a third class relic!" When the laughter died down, he added: "But remember: I am not a saint. Padre Pio is a saint. I am only a friar."
He said that instead of telling us what we already knew about Padre Pio, he found it was better if we asked him any questions we had and he would try to answer. We eagerly complied. He told us many beautiful and simple details in answer to our queries about Padre Pio--his special devotions, his daily habits, etc. I wish I had a word-by-word account of what he said, this incredibly humble and patient friar who tried, despite his incomplete knowledge of English, to answer our questions as thoroughly as he could. He even related a little personal story about Padre Pio; one day, he said, toward the end of Padre Pio's life, when his health was failing, this friar was assigned to accompany the saint on the meditative walks he liked to take about the monastery grounds.
"What are you doing here?" Padre Pio asked him as he saw the quiet young friar standing there awkwardly to one side.
"I'm here to keep you company." the timid man replied.
"I'm here to keep you company." the timid man replied.
"You're not very good company," Padre Pio responded.
Near the end of this wonderful interview, one of our company articulated what was on everyone's mind, though no one had yet mentioned it; the incongruity of the elephantine structure we had just visited with the character of Padre Pio. The poor friar's response was patient and tactful: he did not laud or even excuse the church, nor did he denounce it; rather, he implied that, no matter what we thought of the design, there was a more important element to it that we should bear in mind.
"In this church, always at the center is the altar and the cross. That is what we must see: at the center of the church is the altar and the cross. They were at the center of Padre Pio's life, and it is right that they are in the center of his church."
He was right, and his words comforted me. In the center of that queer building, there was Jesus on the crucifix, and the altar used for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There are many modern churches in America, and some of them are regrettably ugly and irregular, like the one in San Giovanni Rotondo. For those of us who must attend them weekly, especially after seeing such glorious churches as St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, it can be distracting and even upsetting that we cannot worship in surroundings that reflect God's beauty and are more conducive to true prayer. I take comfort, however, in the holy friar's words. Always at the center of the church--spiritually, at least--there are the two focal points of our faith: the sacred altar of sacrifice where bread becomes God in the Eucharist; and the Cross, the symbol of the meaning of suffering, the comfort and challenge of all Christians. Christ, on the cross or on the altar, is always at the center of our faith and our hearts--no matter what else surrounds us.
On a final note, we had seen a powerful contrast that day. There was the grotesque new church, which was absolutely inconsistent with our knowledge of Padre Pio. And then there was the quiet friar, who recalled to our minds everything we knew about the life and spirituality of the humble saint. Man had built the church; but God had made the friar; and he, and the saint whose story he shared with us, was a little sampling of what God can do--and has done. As my father put it, man had failed to capture, in that church, the essence of Padre Pio; but there at the English Office, we met the essence of Padre Pio, shaped by God in the little Franciscan friar.
*Special thanks to Miss Sandy for the pictures.