The first sign that one is nearing San Giovanni Rotondo, “the city of Padre Pio,” is the shining white façade of the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, often referred to as one of Padre Pio’s miracles: a twelve-hundred-bed hospital erected in what was a barren and forsaken spot when Pio first arrived in 1916.
San Giovanni Rotondo was then no more than a hamlet, connected by a flinty path to the Franciscan monastery and the tiny church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Today, that path is the Viale Cappuccini, lined from end to end with hotels. In 2002, the year of Padre Pio’s canonization, almost seven hundred thousand people visited the town. Little Santa Maria delle Grazie is now dwarfed by the Nuova Chiesa di Padre Pio, a masterpiece designed by one of Italy’s best-known architects, Renzo Piano. Completed in 2004, the church stands over a vast piazza that can hold up to thirty thousand people.
Nowadays you often hear San Giovanni Rotondo compared to Lourdes, and there is no denying that Padre Pio’s legacy is big business. But although you see pictures and statues of him everywhere in Italy, and his image is a constant companion in Italian daily life-in a toll taker’s booth, beside a bank clerk’s workstation-he remains an enigmatic and elusive figure.
Padre Pio was born to a poor family in Campania in 1887. Named after St. Francis of Assisi, Francesco Forgione showed...