SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy — Although he died in 1968, the popularity of Padre Pio — a stigmatist, reader of souls, mystic soon to be declared a saint — has grown over the years.

In fact, this simple Capuchin friar is so well known that more pilgrims journey to the small town of San Giovanni Rotondo every year than to Fatima, Lourdes, or any other shrine in the world except Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

While Blessed Padre Pio will be canonized sometime this year, the date of the canonization is still uncertain, said Charles Abercrombie, the English language editor of the Voice of Padre Pio, the official bimonthly magazine of the cause of Padre Pio published by the friary in which he lived in San Giovanni Rotundo. But he says the friars have asked for a date in May, and the date will be known in late January after negotiations between the Vatican and the municipal officials in Rome.

Blessed Padre Pio has become a “popular figure ... especially in Italy” since “because of his humble background, people can relate to him,” says Abercrombie. In the United States, too, Padre Pio is immensely popular, and Abercrombie sees that trend dating back to the 1940s when “many American soldiers during World War II came here and met Padre Pio.”

Capuchin Father Ermelindo runs the English-speaking office at the friary where Padre Pio once lived. He said that Padre Pio once told him, “After my death, I will get more attention than when I was alive.”

Added Father Ermelindo: “I was here then and now.” He noted that, even today, construction is under way for a new church near the shrine, which will be able to seat 10,000, since the current church is too small to accommodate the crowds.

He recalled with a smile that in 1958 when the then new church was opened, Padre Pio remarked that it was too small, saying, “What have you built me, a matchbox?”

Crosses to Bear

But Padre Pio did not always attract this kind of attention. He was born May 25, 1887, in Pietrilcina in southern Italy into the Forgione family, a family of poor farmers. In 1903, at the age of 15, he entered the Capuchin novitiate, and was ordained in 1910 at the age of 23. Between 1915 and 1918 Padre Pio was called up several times by the army, but was ultimately discharged because of his chronically poor health.

It was on Sept. 20, 1918, that Padre Pio received the stigmata — the wounds of Christ's crucifixion — while praying in the choir loft of the 16th-century church attached to the friary.

After this event, his fame grew, and by 1922 he had attracted the attention of many people — including the Vatican's Holy Office, which began an investigation. As a result of this investigation, which concluded that Padre Pio was not experiencing anything supernatural, the Holy Office attempted to transfer him to another monastery in 1923. An uprising of the people in San Giovanni prevented the move. Nevertheless, the friar was not allowed to say Mass publicly, or even to correspond with those who wrote him.

In Terlizzi, a small town near Bari, about two hours from San Giovanni, another Capuchin who knew Padre Pio said of him, “Knowing Padre Pio was like knowing Jesus Christ,” he said.

The key examples from Padre Pio's life he says, are “silence and obedience.”

Referring to the years when Padre Pio was suppressed, Padre Pancracio noted: “With one word he could have changed things, but he kept silent.”

It was not until 1934 that all of the restrictions on him were finally lifted and people began to flock from around the world to see him. Still, in addition to the stigmata, he had many crosses to bear. Some people spread vicious rumors about him, and Padre Pio reported that the devil himself came on many occasions to physically beat him.

This suffering allowed him to touch many souls, and he was especially sought after as a confessor. He is renowned for his ability to read souls and recount a person's sins in more detail than the penitent.

The stories of Padre Pio's advice in the confessional are numerous, and range from kind to stern. To one man who told the Padre that he did not believe in hell, Padre Pio replied: “You will when you get there.”

Countless people, even hardened atheists and agnostics, were converted while visiting Padre Pio, and because of his gift for reading souls he was also sought for his spiritual advice. People the world over consider themselves his spiritual children. Padre Pio was likewise sought out for physical cures — he was especially famous for curing the blind, and those with cancer. He cured countless people of a variety of other ailments as well.

Padre Pio used to say: “In heaven I can do much more for all of you than by being here on earth”; and according to Father Ermelindo people are still cured, and Padre Pio is still saving souls. “Many come to ask for [cures of] the body, but have a spiritual conversion and ask for confession,” explained Father Ermelindo.

And physical cures still happen as well. Padre Ermelindo cited the miracle approved for Padre Pio's canonization, the cure of Matteo Colella from what should have been a fatal bout of meningitis.

But it is the spiritual conversions that Father Ermelindo insists are the most important:

“People today have lost the faith,” he said “but they find in this saint the guide to God.”

Popular Prayer Groups

Many priests and lay people belong to “Padre Pio Prayer Groups,” which are formally registered at the House for the Relief of Suffering, the hospital built in San Giovanni through the efforts of Padre Pio. These prayer groups had their statutes approved by the Vatican in 1986, and by 1998 numbered over 2,100, with 50 in the United States.

Charles Mandina, who spent several months with Padre Pio during the 1960s, working as his English translator and correspondence secretary, was a member of one of the first U.S. groups in 1968 in Los Angeles. “The first group was in San Giovanni,” he recalled, and “was in response to Pope Pius XII's request that priests encourage people to pray more.”

Since then, the prayer groups have been administered by many different priests from many different congregations.

At the first prayer group in Los Angeles under Salesian Father Albert Negri, there “were over 700 people” who attended regularly, said Mandina.

Among the priests in Los Angeles who took charge of the group in later years was diocesan Father Jack McKenna, who gave up a chance to play with the New York Yankees after Padre Pio told him to be a priest during World War II. “You need a priest in order for the group to work,” explained Mandina.

At least four popes have been vocal in their support of Padre Pio: Benedict XV, Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II, who met Padre Pio personally before he was Pope.

In a May 3, 1999, speech to pilgrims who had come to Rome for the beatification of Padre Pio, Pope John Paul II said:

“The prayer groups and the House for the Relief of Suffering: These are two significant ‘gifts’ which Padre Pio has left us. ... As for the prayer groups, he wanted them to be like beacons of light and love in the world. He longed for many souls to join him in prayer: ‘Pray,’ he used to say, ‘pray to the Lord with me, because the whole world needs prayers. And every day, when your heart especially feels the loneliness of life, pray, pray to the Lord together, because God too needs our prayers!’

“It was his intention to create an army of praying people who would be a ‘leaven’ in the world by the strength of prayer. And today the whole Church is grateful to him for this precious legacy, admires the holiness of her son and invites everyone to follow his example.”

Andrew Walther wrote this story from Milan, Italy.