ST. PETERSBURG — Friday, the relics of one of the most popular saints of the modern era will go on display in St. Petersburg, where they are expected to be venerated by thousands of Catholics from Tampa Bay and beyond.
Some will come with rosaries, prayer cards, crucifixes and even photographs of loved ones and touch them to objects connected to St. Padre Pio, the Capuchin Franciscan friar who died in 1968. The saint is said to have borne crucifixion wounds similar to those of Jesus Christ and to have healed the sick. Tradition also holds that Padre Pio, described as a mystic, could bilocate, that is, be in two places at once.
His relics will be on view at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle. Displayed will be a fingerless glove, crusts from his wounds, a piece of cotton gauze stained with his blood, a lock of hair, a handkerchief soaked with sweat shortly before he died and his mantle or friar's cloak. Except for the cloak, each relic will be exhibited in a container for sacred relics, known as a reliquary.
Making the pilgrimage to St. Jude's this week will be Mercy Stitt, a member of the Padre Pio prayer group that meets at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Tampa. A year ago, Stitt drove to Jacksonville to see the relics on their first visit to the United States, "never dreaming that they would be here."
The stop in St. Petersburg has been arranged by the Saint Pio Foundation, a nonprofit based in New Rochelle, N.Y. Luciano Lamonarca, its founder, president and CEO, said the sacred items travel in the care of one of four custodians and never leave their sight. "The relics come with us in a personal, custom-made case, like a carry-on," he said.
The next stop after St. Petersburg will be Youngstown, Ohio, followed by Honolulu and then Trenton, N.J., before being returned to Rome.
The saint was born Francesco Forgione in Pietrelcina, Italy, and ordained a priest in the Capuchin Franciscan order at 23.
"Padre Pio is an amazing man of the 20th century who had the incredible gift of reading people's hearts and souls, so when people would come to him for confession, he would help them to go even deeper. He spent hours and hours every day hearing confessions," said Monsignor David Toups, a priest of the Diocese of St. Petersburg who is rector of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach.
"He also possessed what we as Catholics believe was the stigmata. He shared in a physical and spiritual way the sufferings of Christ, the actual wounds of the Passion. Doctors couldn't medically describe his condition. It was ruled a miracle, even in his own lifetime."
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But the bleeding, Christ-like wounds stretched credulity.
"There was a good period of time when he was silenced and he was asked not to do public ministry while it was investigated by the Vatican," Toups said.
Padre Pio was 81 when he died in 1968. Pope John Paul II elevated him to sainthood in 2002 and six years later, his body was exhumed and put on display with his face portrayed by a lifelike silicone mask. In 2016, Pope Francis asked that the crystal coffin bearing the saint's remains be taken to St. Peter's Basilica to mark that year's Jubilee of Mercy.
Stitt, 79, has been a Padre Pio devotee for almost 40 years.
"I had never heard about Father Pio, but I went to the rosary at Sacred Heart Church and there was a person who was talking about his life and who he was," said Stitt, who is actually a parishioner of Incarnation Catholic Church in Tampa.
The prayer group she attends was founded by Caterina Plazza, who, like Padre Pio, is from Italy.
Stitt, a grandmother and great-grandmother, will volunteer at Friday's veneration and the Mass that follows.
Dioceses pay nothing to host the relics, Lamonarca said.
"The bishop of the diocese has only to request the relics," he said. "We are allowed to receive donations, but it is a free public veneration. We cover all the costs of bringing the relics there."
The foundation also offers religious items such as prayer cards, rosaries and Padre Pio statues for sale.
Lamonarca, 40, who grew up in the same region as Padre Pio, said his devotion to the saint became stronger after his wife suffered a miscarriage in the fifth month of pregnancy.
"We prayed in front of Father Pio's body at the monastery on our first wedding anniversary," he said. There were more miscarriages, but in 2015, their son was born.
Toups correlated the veneration of saints and their remains to visiting the graves of a loved one. Saints are part of a Catholic's spiritual family, he said.
"When we venerate the saints, it's for two reasons. We look to them for their example in life, the way they followed Jesus, to be inspired to follow Jesus similarly," Toups said. "And secondly, we ask for their prayers. We ask for their intercession. We believe that the saints are fully alive in heaven and can pray for us in the same way that we pray for each other on earth, and this is where the relics come in."
The priest said Catholic teaching about relics is based on Scripture, specifically Acts 19, verses 11 and 12. There's a belief that God can work "in extraordinary ways, not only through the lives of the saints, but even through their earthly remains, because their souls are already in heaven," he said.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.