MILWAUKEE — The second-most visited Christian shrine in the world, ranking behind only the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, is not in Lourdes, Medjugorje or Czestochowa. It’s in the Italian mountain town of San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio spent most of his priestly life – and remains in death.

Capuchin Fr. Gianluigi Pasquale, a recent visitor to the Milwaukee Archdiocese from Padre Pio’s homeland, made this claim, and Fr. Pasquale ought to know. Over the past 11 years, the theologian from his order’s Venice province has become an expert on Padre Pio, whose home was the Capuchin monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo.

Fr. Pasquale never met his fellow Capuchin; he was only a year old when the future St. Pio of Pietrelcina died in 1968. But the amiable Fr. Pasquale, bearded, bespectacled and slightly built, probably knows Padre Pio as well as anybody. Fr. Pasquale regards Padre Pio as a role model, while seeing himself as “a humble servant” of both the Padre and the Lord.

With doctorates in philosophy and theology, Fr. Pasquale is a professor at the Lateran Pontifical University in Rome, as well as president and professor at the Theological Study Center in Venice. He has published books on the letters of Padre Pio and on St. Francis of Assisi. In the area to give a Holy Week retreat to Capuchin confreres, Fr. Pasquale remained at the invitation of local Capuchin Fr. Bill Hugo to present conferences on Padre Pio at St. Francis Parish, Milwaukee. The April 6-9 sessions dealt with the saint’s popularity, particularly among the young; similarities between Padre Pio and St. Francis, including the stigmata; and other topics.

Did you know?

Padre Pio is not the only saintly figure with whom Fr. Gianluigi Pasquale is closely associated. The first individual beatified by Pope Benedict XVI,

in 2005, was Eurosia Fabris Barban (1866-1932), affectionately known as “Mamma Rosa.” Blessed Eurosia was a seamstress, the mother of 12 …and Fr. Pasquale’s great-grandmother!

“I was not interested in Padre Pio at all,” Fr. Pasquale confided during the opening conference. He was studying in Frankfurt in 1999, as Padre Pio was about to be beatified. Capitalizing on Fr. Pasquale and Padre Pio’s shared native language, a Frankfurt priest persuaded Fr. Pasquale to lecture in German on Padre Pio’s letters. Ironically, Fr. Pasquale’s grudging acceptance has led to nine volumes on the letters and to oral presentations on the saint “all over the world.”

Fr. Pasquale identified Padre Pio as the most popular holy man of the 20th century, noting that Rome’s population literally swelled by millions June 16, 2002, the day of Padre Pio’s canonization – a canonization attended by more people than any other. Fr. Pasquale further noted that many Italian teenagers carry holy cards bearing the saint’s image and that many young men have Pio as their middle name.

In  this era of absentee parents, the theologian said, “the youths need to have fathers and mothers” – and the youths regard the saint as a trustworthy father figure, reflected in the Italian preference for the appellation “Padre Pio” over “St. Pio.”

Additionally, a 2006 survey indicated Italian Catholics prayed more often to Padre Pio than to any other saint.

Padre Pio isn’t merely an Italian phenomenon. There are more than 3,000 lay-run prayer groups worldwide, numbering 3 million members, dedicated to the saint. Fr. Hugo, the Milwaukee-based Capuchin postulancy program director, noted in introducing Fr. Pasquale to the April 6 conference audience that U.S. religious order vocations have been on the upswing, and that, in the case of the Capuchins, interest in Padre Pio has been a factor.

Capuchins are sometimes referred to as Capuchin Franciscans – appropriately, in the case of Padre Pio. The saint, said Fr. Pasquale, was “humble, generous” and joyful and had “a very, very Franciscan way of writing.” His approximately 480 letters reflected Padre Pio’s love of the priesthood and of nature, as well as a Franciscan spirituality.

“St. Francis deeply believed that God is talking to us through creation,” Fr. Pasquale said.

Padre Pio was on the same wavelength: he could wax poetic when nature was the subject. Also, both saints were able to see Christ in other people.

Padre Pio received the stigmata – five marks paralleling Christ’s wounds on hands, feet and side – Sept. 20, 1918. He’s regarded as the first priest stigmatic and bore his marks the last 50 years of his life. These marks were open wounds, impervious to infection; Fr. Pasquale noted, Padre Pio would bleed especially when he celebrated Mass.

Fr. Pasquale said the stigmata “frightened” and “troubled” the saint early on; Padre Pio himself wrote of his “confusion” and “humiliation.” The young priest was reluctant to display his hands (he would often wear gloves) or talk about his marks.

Padre Pio was sickly much of his life, with a variety of ailments, and the stigmata exacerbated his frail health. Adding to what Fr. Pasquale called Padre Pio’s “deep suffering” were accusations the Vatican would eventually declare groundless: insanity, misappropriating funds, using the confessional for seduction, faking the stigmata with the aid of carbolic acid. There were medical examinations and ecclesiastical investigations. Apparently, due to church authorities’ fear of uncontrollable fanaticism on the part of his followers, Padre Pio was for some years prohibited from celebrating Mass, preaching, hearing confessions and meeting with the faithful. Nevertheless, people showed up at his monastery just to catch a glimpse of the future saint. The suspension of ministerial duties enabled him – happily, according to Fr. Pasquale – to delve into the Bible and do additional spiritual reading so as to better inform his own religious writing. Fr. Pasquale indicated Padre Pio’s body of writing could conceivably lead to his being declared a doctor of the church one day.

Born Francesco Forgione in the southern Italian town of Pietrelcina in 1887, Padre Pio was the son of illiterate peasants. Deeply devout, his parents encouraged Francesco’s desire to join the Capuchins, a desire rooted in the boy’s meeting of an influential priest of that order. Francesco joined, taking Pio as his religious name, and was ordained in 1910. Early in his priesthood, he served as a seminary teacher, spiritual director and (during a period of living in his father’s house rather than in a monastic setting, for health reasons) parish priest in Pietrelcina. He also performed military service with the Italian Medical Corps. Later he would hear confessions for as many as 10 hours a day and oversee the construction of a large hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo. When Padre Pio died of pulmonary problems, more than 100,000 people attended his funeral.

There are stories aplenty of cures, conversions, prophesies and visions involving Padre Pio. One tale, perhaps apocryphal, has Fr. Karol Wojtyla encountering Padre Pio in the sacrament of reconciliation – and the confessor accurately predicting that the Polish penitent would ascend to the papacy. Admittedly “very suspicious” of people claiming to have seen Padre Pio after his death, Fr. Pasquale interviewed some of these supposed visionaries one-on-one. Purposely not prompting, he heard remarkably similar accounts (one common denominator: the aroma of perfume in the vicinity of the saint) and came away convinced of the accounts’ credibility.