Attracting the diverse

By Aby Sam Thomas

Valentina Franzese. | Photo by Aby Sam Thomas.

Valentina Franzese came to the Padre Pio shrine on a "journey of faith, to figure out answers to her existential dilemma." | Photo by Aby Sam Thomas.

20-year-old Valentina Franzese looked out of place in the throng of visitors to the Padre Pio shrine at the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church on a sunny Saturday morning in San Giovanni Rotondo. With a snazzy sense of style, which today showcased a chic scarf and large dangling earrings, Franzese, with her hair pulled back in a pony-tail, could have easily passed or a fashion model.

In fact, Franzese herself says that most of her friends would have thought she was wasting her time at San Giovanni Rotondo and that she should have gone shopping instead. However, Franzese swum against the tide of her peers and chose to take on the role of pilgrim instead. She has been travelling with her family to various destinations in Europe, all of religious significance.

“It’s a journey through faith for me,” she said, having made stops in Rome earlier before coming to pay her respects to Saint Pio. Pointing at the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, the hospital which Padre Pio set up, she said that seeing people from different backgrounds coming together to help the needy gave her a lot of satisfaction and hope for the future.

However, Franzese said she was surprised at the display of wealth in the relatively new Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church, built next to the original shrine of Padre Pio. Designed by the Genoan architect Renzo Piano, the church also houses a magnificent crypt covered with gold mosaics, holding the body of Saint Pio in a decorated Pharaonic sarcophagus.

Milena Ercolino. | Photo by Aby Sam Thomas.

Milena Ercolino stands beside the door of the Padre Pio shrine, ready to greet the pilgrims and help them out with their questions. | Photo by Aby Sam Thomas.

According to Franzese, the excessive display of wealth seemed vain and materialistic, which was in stark contrast to the humility that was paramount to the saint’s life. But for others like San Giovanni native, Milena Ercolino, the beauty resplendent in the new church was something that made her proud.

The bespectacled, short-haired Ercolino, who has been working as a guide at the Padre Pio shrine for more than 12 years, said that while the original church was something that Padre Pio built for the little town, the new church was the town’s gift to the memory of the venerated saint. “It’s the only thing that is beautiful here,” she said of the new church.

Her job greeting and helping visitors to the church had enabled Ercolino to see both the positive and negative aspects of pilgrims. She mostly got irritated at people who are loud and noisy in the church, showing a lack of respect to the sanctity of the church. Ercolino also added that it was important for the faithful to remember that they needed to pray to God, and not to Padre Pio.

Ercolino however was quick to add that there had been a lot of good that she had both seen and heard of at the church as well. Ercolino retold the story of when the previous pope, John Paul II, wrote to Saint Pio on the condition of Paul’s dear friend, Wanda Poltawska, a psychiatrist who had been diagnosed with throat cancer.

The story then says that once the saint received the letter, Poltawska’s cancer had been miraculously healed, with doctors unable to explain the phenomenon. With stories like these to tell the hordes that come to pay homage to the saint, Ercolino hopes to stay on in her current job with the church, having recently signed a full-time contract. Her reasons for staying on though are hardly religious or spiritual though.

“It’s hard to find other jobs here,” she said. “I hope to work here until they fire me.”

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