NEW ORLEANS — One by one, the faithful walked toward the altar to see the blood of one of the most revered saints in the Catholic Church.
The relics of St. Padre Pio are being taken on a national tour, and for just one day they were at St. Rita Catholic Church in New Orleans.
Hundreds of believers, “a steady stream” according to Father Peter Finney, waited their turn to look at tiny fragments of the saint’s body, framed under glass in ornate cases.
For many Catholics, Padre Pio is one of the most mystical of all the saints.
Pio (“Peter” in Italian) was a friar in a small Italian village during World War I. According to various biographies, he prayed to God in 1918 that he would be allowed to take the pain of the war upon himself. The answer to that prayer, he said, was a vision in which an angel pierced his side with a spear, wounding him physically in the way that Christ was wounded by the Roman soldiers at Cavalry.
A few days later, the angel visited him again and inflicted the “stigmata”– wounds on his hands and feet that resembled – and bled – like the hands and feet of Christ on the cross.
Padre Pio is said to have been honored to bear the pain of Christ but “embarrassed” by the visible stigmata, which stayed with him until he died, fifty years later in 1968. Several photographs of Pio show him wearing gloves to cover the apparent holes in his hands.
For most of his life, leaders in the Catholic Church dismissed Padre Pio’s visions and said his stigmata was a hoax. But over time, his reputation was restored, and Pio was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Fast forward to the present, and Saint Pio’s relics can bring some believers to tears.
Helen Hughes said she and her husband were in awe of the small symbols of Pio’s life, including a bit of gauze stained by his blood and part of a glove he wore to cover the stigmata on his hands.
“Oh, my gosh. The main relic with his blood,” said Hughes. “It gives you chills.”