A house for the suffering: March 16, 2012

By Hoda Emam

The chapel is said to have been strategically located in the center of the Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza Hospital. | Photo by Hoda Emam.

The chapel is said to have been strategically located in the center of the Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza Hospital. | Photo by Hoda Emam.

SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO — Dominating the mountaintop of this pilgrimage town in southern Italy is a vast hospital with commanding views of the verdant Italian countryside and the Adriatic Sea. The name of the hospital is Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza (Home of the Relief of the Suffering) and its location is no accident. “We think the view helps in the recovery process for patients,” said a doctor as he pointed out one tall rectangular window in the patient social area of the hospital.

The hospital was founded in 1956 by Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin friar who for decades had been known as a healer and miracle worker. In 2002, 34 years after his death, Pope John Paul II declared Padre Pio a saint of the Catholic Church.

While millions had made this trip before us, we were coming not as pilgrims but as journalists. We had heard much about Pio before arriving in Italy and even read a book in preparation. The book, written by Sergio Luzzatto, is called “Padre Pio: Miracle and Politics in a Secular Age.”

Luzzatto writes about the unusual nature of a faith healer establishing a hospital. “Apart from its impact on the health of the population, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza was a first in Italian and European religious life because its founder was after all, a miracle healer.” Luzzatto goes on to write, “Since the 19th century, the effort to bridge the gap between scientific explanations and miracle cures had come entirely from the medical side… where miracle cures were examined using modern symptomological and statistical techniques. With Casa Sollievo, however, Pio headed in the other direction, not from science toward miracles but from miracles toward science.”

We were greeted at the hospital like visiting celebrities. The hospital’s administrator and the heads of several departments, many in their white coats, met us on the front steps. We were given a tour of the wards and public areas and stopped also to see the chapels of the hospital. “No matter how you feel about Padre Pio, it’s amazing that one man can be behind a legacy like this, it’s so rare for a little town to have something to show for itself and this hospital is attracting people from Europe,” said Nathan Vickers.

At the center of the hospital is the chapel. The pearl-colored walls of the sanctuary made the small rectangular room look larger than its actual size. As we sat on the brown benches listening to the tour guide, the sunlight shined through the mostly blue and brown stained glass behind the altar.

Both inside and outside the hospital, pictures of Pio abound.  He is depicted as a slightly hunched-over, fair-skinned man with a short white beard and dark eyebrows. The focus of much interest are his hands, which were said to be marked by stigmata, wounds like those suffered by Christ.

In 1956, Pio inaugurated Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza, which quickly became the center of the town where shrines, businesses and homes began to populate the once barren city. The San Giovanni Rotondo Catholic Shrine, which sits across from the entrance to the hospital is said to be evidence that the healing spirit and body cannot be divided, welcomes around four million tourists and pilgrims annually. The hospital alone has over 2,500 staff members with just over one thousand hospital beds.

In a city where the Catholic faith and human health are mutually important, the tensions between modern medicine and faith are played out. Domenico Crupi, the vice president and general director of the hospital, said that even though abortion is legal in Italy, no abortions are performed at Sollievo Della Sofferenza. No contraceptives are disbursed either, he said. “We don’t do abortions but the state doesn’t tell us what we can and cannot do.”

While other Italian hospitals may be under government pressure to conform, Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza has a special status among Italian hospitals. The medical center is supported and run by the Vatican and often receives substantial donations from adherents of Pio as well as patrons. In fact, it is said that even at the time of his death, Pio was resentful of the Italian bureaucracy. According to Bernard Ruffin’s, “Padre Pio: The True Story,” in 1948 the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitations Administration gave 400 million lira (approx. $738,607 USD) for the construction of the hospital. However, the money was paid to the Italian government. “To Padre Pio’s immense rage and stupefaction, the Italian government passed only two hundred fifty million lire to the Casa,” wrote Ruffins. Pio considered the act by the government as robbery.

On our visit, we saw how the Catholic faith is integrated into the treatment. We met a Capuchin monk who is the head of the chaplains in the hospital. His welcoming smile grabbed the attention of many of us, prompting everyone to put down their cameras and listen as the petite fair skinned man with a long white beard and long brown tunic told us about his hospital duties. On one floor, we saw a nun in a white ankle-length dress singing prayers and swinging a rosary as she paced through the halls. As the tour continued through the hospital, Brandon Gates stopped to take a few photos of the nun. “It was interesting to see the her walk down the hall praying for the residents in the hospital, simply because people tend not to focus so much on religion when they are in a hospital,” said Brandon “Usually there is a conflict between religion and science but at this hospital there was the merging of the two.”

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