VATICAN CITY — On Saturday, Pope Francis will make a short trip to the Italian towns of Pietrelcina and San Giovanni Rotondo, the places where St. Padre Pio was born and lived his life and where his work continues today in the form of the hospital he founded.
Pope Francis’ brief March 17 visit marks the year of the 50th anniversary of St. Padre Pio’s death and the 100th year of the appearance of the saint’s visible stigmata.
Two highlights of the Pope’s visit will be his stops to pray at the tomb of Padre Pio and to see the young patients of the pediatric oncology ward of Padre Pio’s hospital, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza in San Giovanni Rotondo.
Giulio Siena, who is the communications director of the hospital and a member of the planning committee for Francis’ visit, told CNA that meeting with the children at the hospital was the Pope’s main request.
Francis’ “first thought was for the children — for the children with tumors, with cancer, with leukemia,” Siena said. “He said: ‘I want to greet the children; then there is Mass.’”
After the papal helicopter lands in San Giovanni Rotondo, Francis will be driven by car to the hospital, where he will greet and bless the sick gathered outside. From there, he will meet privately with the hospital’s young patients.
“To lift up who is suffering, to listen to the cry of innocent pain, this [is what] the Holy Father will do visiting the children of our oncology pediatrics,” said Archbishop Michele Castoro, the president of the hospital.
“The sensibility of the Pope for the existential peripheries, his dream of a Church as a ‘field hospital,’ a Church that cares and binds wounds, is found in the work of Padre Pio,” he wrote in La Casa, the magazine of the hospital’s foundation.
Archbishop Castoro said the hospital anxiously awaits the words of the Holy Father, which have always tasted of the “candor and perennial newness of the Gospel, the strength and power of the Name of Jesus.”
As archbishop of Manfredonia-Vieste-San Giovanni Rotondo, he is the president of the hospital, one of just two belonging to the Vatican. The Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza was given to the Holy See by Padre Pio in 1957, soon after its launch.
After the hospital visit, Pope Francis will visit the Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a large church built in the late 1950s to supplement the smaller original chapel of the Capuchin friars, in which Padre Pio spent hours hearing confessions and preaching.
Padre Pio’s body lies in the crypt of the newer church, which was visited by Pope St. John Paul II in 1987 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Francis will also venerate the “Crucifix of the Stigmata.” This is the crucifix that Padre Pio was praying before on Sept. 20, 1918, when he received the visible stigmata, bleeding wounds corresponding to the five wounds Christ received at his crucifixion.
Pope Francis will then celebrate Mass in the Church of Padre Pio, a more modern building completed in 2004, which can hold 6,500 Massgoers.
After Mass he will greet Archbishop Castoro, other authorities and a group of local Catholics, before returning to Rome by helicopter.
Before he lands in San Giovanni Rotondo, the Pope will also stop at the birthplace of Padre Pio, the small town of Pietrelcina. There, he will pray at the Chapel of St. Francis, which is in front of “the elm of the stigmata,” a tree that Padre Pio would pray beneath.
He will also meet with local Catholics and deliver a speech in the square outside the town’s “Liturgical Hall.” He will then greet the community of Capuchin friars.