SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy (AP) – Pope Francis on Saturday traveled to southern Italy to honor a hugely popular Italian saint, Padre Pio, praying silently before a glass display case holding the mystic monk’s body in a shrine town that draws millions of pilgrims each year.
Francis took a helicopter from the Vatican early Saturday morning to visit Pietrelcina, the birthplace of the Capuchin monk. There he told faithful that Padre Pio “loved the holy church … and its sinner children.”
He then flew to San Giovanni Rotondo, a mountain town in the southeastern region of Puglia.
Padre Pio is famed for holiness, and his popularity began to spread in 1918 when he bled from his hands, feet and sides. The monk, who died in 1968, is considered the first priest in centuries to display signs of the stigmata, or the wounds suffered by Jesus at crucifixion.
Francis made the half-day visit to the south to mark the 50th anniversary of the saint’s death and 100 years since the stigmata was seen. The phenomenon is said to have caused the monk much physical torment in his life.
Padre Pio was made a saint in 2002 by Pope John Paul II, who himself, while still a simple priest, had journeyed to Puglia from Poland in 1947 to see him for confession.
In San Giovanni Rotondo, Francis visited a chapel where the monk’s body is kept in a see-through glass case and, with his hands clasped, prayed silently for a few minutes.
He also cheered up child patients in the oncology department in the hospital that Pio founded in San Giovanni Rotondo. He wrote a message on a drawing the children had made for him, thanked them for their greeting cards, and chatted with some of their parents.
In his homily at an outdoor Mass attended by thousands of faithful, Francis spoke about those needing help in life, especially the elderly and children.
“Whoever takes care of the little ones is on God’s side and wins over the throw-out culture, which privileges the powerful and considers the poor useless,” Francis said.
Doubted and rejected by many in the Vatican for much of his life, and accused by detractors of being a fraud, Padre Pio persisted in his lifetime labor of prayer, while his popularity among rank-and-file Catholics soared.
Many Italians display photographs or paintings depicting him in their homes, shops and even cars. Devotion to him spread abroad, thanks in part to Italian emigrants, who brought with them their faith.