VATICAN CITY — On Sept. 23, 2003, your local parish priest will celebrate the feast of St. Pio of Pietrelcina — no matter where you are.

Declaring that “our time needs to rediscover the value of [Padre Pio's spirituality of the cross] for opening the heart to hope,” Pope John Paul II announced that the “date of his birth in heaven,” Sept. 23, would henceforth be observed as an obligatory feast day for the whole Church.

Only one other 20th-century saint has been so honored — Padre Pio's fellow Franciscan, St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast is August 14. The two saints have been given what in liturgical par-lance is called an “obligatory memorial,” a rank they will share with their fellow Franciscans, Sts. Francis, Clare, Anthony and Bonaventure.

“The life and mission of Padre Pio give testimony that difficulty and suffering, if accepted with love, transform themselves into a privileged path of sanctity, opening toward a larger good that is known only to the Lord,” the Pope said during the Mass.

John Paul canonized 460 saints before Padre Pio, but the June 16 canonization of the Capuchin friar, mystic and stigmatist was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated.

The Holy Father was not able to finish the formula of canonization without interruption. As soon as the immense crowd heard the words “we declare and define Blessed Pio of Pietrelcina to be a saint,” they erupted in sustained applause.

Enthusiastic Crowds

The canonization Mass drew more than 300,000 pilgrims, making it one of the largest events ever held at the Vatican. As early as 5 a.m. the first of 2,000 buses began depositing pilgrims at St. Peter's. Ten special trains were chartered for pilgrims.

Saluting the crowd for its courage in braving the blistering 90-degree heat for many hours, John Paul clearly shared their enthusiasm, directing his popemo-bile to drive the entire length of the Via della Conciliazione, the street leading to St. Peter's Square, where overflow pilgrims watched the Mass on large screens.

More than 900,000 tetra-packs of water were distributed — each marked “Padre Pio Santo” — and water trucks sprayed the crowd during the Mass. Nevertheless, more than 400 people were treated by first-aid workers for heat exhaustion.

One of the first to be overcome by the heat was the dean of the College of Cardinals, 80-year-old Cardinal Bernard Gantin, who was rushed from the Mass in a wheelchair only 15 minutes after it began. The heat was so intense that the yellow-and-white umbrellas kept on hand in case of rain were distributed to shade the bishops and concelebrants.

While there were pilgrims from all over the world, Padre Pio's fellow countrymen were the most numerous and most visibly devoted. A large delegation represented the Italian government, including the speaker of the Italian parliament and the mayor of Rome. The presence of so many Italian politicians underscored that Padre Pio is an Italian icon, even for those who are not particularly fervent in their faith.

“May God be blessed for having given us a friar like you, a saint,” wrote former dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937 to Padre Pio. It was the only letter he ever wrote to a religious.

The Holy Father proposed Padre Pio's heroic service in the confessional — sometimes 10 or 12 hours a day — to priests today, encouraging them to devote themselves “with joy and diligence” to hearing confessions.

John Paul also addressed the “apparent harshness” with which Padre Pio sometimes treated penitents who were insincere or unrepentant. This was due to the new saint's “awareness of the gravity of sin,” the Pope said, noting that such penitents “almost always returned for the peacemaking embrace of sacramental forgiveness.”

“I too had the privilege during the years of my youth to benefit from his availability in the confessional,” John Paul said, spontaneously departing from his prepared homily text.

In 1947 the young Father Karol Wojtyla went to Padre Pio's friary in San Giovanni Rotondo to confess to him. In 1962 Bishop Wojtyla wrote to Padre Pio to ask his prayers for a Polish woman suffering from throat cancer. Dr. Wanda Poltawska, a long-time friend of the future Pope, was cured within days. She was present at the canonization Mass.

Also present in St. Peter's Square was Matteo Colella, an 8-year-old boy whose inexplicable cure from multiple organ failure was the miracle accepted for Padre Pio's canonization.

Colella, who was cured in 2000, made his First Communion at the canonization Mass. He had been scheduled to receive Holy Communion from the Pope, but he received it from another bishop when the Holy Father was too tired to distribute Holy Communion.

“Without constant reference to the cross one cannot understand his holiness,” John Paul said in his canonization homily, which concluded with an extraordinary prayer addressed to Padre Pio himself: “Help us to pray without ever tiring, certain that God knows what we need, even before we ask him. Obtain for us the outlook of faith capable of quickly recognizing the face of Jesus in the poor and the suffering. Sustain us in the hour of combat and of trial and, if we should fall, grant that we may experience the joy of the sacrament of forgiveness.”

Daylong Celebration

The canonization festivities concluded with a special concert in the Paul VI Audience Hall followed by an ear-splitting fireworks show over St. Peter's Square that rattled windows in the Apostolic Palace.

At 10:30 p.m. St. Peter's Square was still full, with more than 5,000 pilgrims on hand, many of them singing and chanting, hoping that they could persuade the Holy Father to come to his window. While they were disappointed at night, John Paul received them in an audience the following day.

“What is the secret of the great admiration and love for this new saint?” John Paul asked, addressing pilgrims June 17. “He was above all a ‘friar of the people,’ traditionally characteristic of the Capuchins. He is, moreover, a miracle-working saint, as the extraordinary events that marked his life testify. Above all, Padre Pio is a religious sincerely in love with Christ crucified. In the course of his life, he participated even in a physical way in the mystery of the cross.”