By Antonio Malara
Starting with the post about Venice, I talked about how, together with my sister, I went back to the places where our parents took us as children. It was 2016 and subsequently also in Florence and Pisa the topic was the same, but in 2020 also due to the pandemic, we have in a certain way overturned this concept. In fact, two years ago we decided to be the ones to take our parents around exploring the typical places of Campania. I will talk later about those destinations that we have all done together while in this post I will talk about the return to San Giovanni Rotondo, a place that I had reviewed but that my family had not visited for a long time. The stage was the first of many others made on the same trip, organized in detail by my sister and me.
The road trip brought us to our destination one evening in June 2021, I had booked a hotel in a strategic position, located downstream of the new sanctuary which, as I had seen on Google Maps, was connected right next to our hotel by a new tree-lined path. That same evening, together with my sister, we immediately went exploring because I was too curious to see the path. Unfortunately this was totally dark and that bit of light came from the moon. Slowly trying not to stumble, we reached the end of the path and there I made a wonderful discovery. As I wrote in my previous post on San Giovanni Rotondo, when I saw the new sanctuary for the first time, I was very impressed by the cross with the bells that is located to the left of it. From the sanctuary, the cross rose a little more than the bells and I thought that was its height. The square actually stands on a slope and that evening together with my sister I discovered that the end of the avenue was actually the lower part under the square of the new sanctuary. The base of the cross started from there, and it was very high and beautiful. I did not believe my eyes I was surprised and thrilled at the same time, I would never have thought of such a thing. I tried to photograph the "new tower” despite it being dark and after some time spent there, we went down to our hotel again.
The following morning the path had a decidedly different aspect, less disturbing and more harmonious with the symmetrical trees that, with their perspective, led the gaze to the base of the cross. Right below it, I took an infinite number of photos of my new discovery and the more I took the more the cross fascinated me. A stairway placed right next to the cross led to the new sanctuary, there everything was as I remembered it, I believe that even the olive trees looked the same. Together with my family we went to see the tomb of Padre Pio which was located in the basement of the sanctuary. Even there it was all the same, the path with the large mosaics reached up to the tomb of Padre Pio, unfortunately when I arrived right in front of it I had an unpleasant surprise. They had removed the original sarcophagus of Padre Pio, replacing it with a transparent case where inside there was a wax statue depicting the dead Padre Pio. It was exactly like the ones you can see inside "Madame Tussauds", only I found this deceptive and disrespectful. Surely the wax statue will be fascinating for the masses, basically those people do not have a real spirituality but rely on the "saint" seeing him as a sort of personal protection. Being able to use religion as a means to achieve true spirituality is not for everyone and even I, as an atheist, did not appreciate that wax replica of a person whose mission was precisely to raise the spirit of the human being. The wax statue was a non-spiritual earthly thing but I don't think the pilgrims understood that.
Back outside the sanctuary, I moved to go and do one of the three things that motivated me to return to San Giovanni Rotondo. The first thing was to climb to the top along the Via Crucis. This place was to the right of the old sanctuary and was basically a tree-lined hill. This Via Crucis had always fascinated me but except for the first part of the staircase, I had never gone further. It was possible to reach the top either by climbing the central staircase or along the path with the various stops. I preferred to go up the steps and then go down the path. I got to the top in just five minutes, there was installed a large altar with a statue of Christ I believe represented during the resurrection. This monument was so large that it could also be seen from the first flights of the staircase and its size was not fully perceived because there was a large space in front of it. I will have stayed near the statue for about ten minutes and then I began the descent along the path that extended forming very large "S". Along the way I stopped to take photos at some stops of the Via Crucis, the ones that struck me even more. To be honest, however, that path through the trees gave me more of a sense of relaxation, probably thanks to the perfect oxygenation of the place, rather than a spiritual experience.
Around noon, I fulfilled the second goal I set myself during the visit, which was to take photos inside the new sanctuary. As I wrote in the previous post on San Giovanni Rotondo, during my previous visit I had taken some photos inside only with the iPhone 4 and since I had appreciated some originality, I wanted "real" photos. The amount of light found inside the sanctuary was such that it allowed me to shoot as if I were outdoors. I indulged in photographing those large overlapping arches that from some perspectives gave the impression of depicting a spider. I dwelt a lot on the great organ and in general I really liked the colors that were inside with shades of blue and yellow. Although very beautiful and with a different design, I found that in general both inside and outside the new sanctuary looks more like an auditorium than a place of worship. This is because the shrines are designed to hold thousands of people. I must say that even if this structure struck me a lot from the design point of view at the beginning, as a spiritual meaning it is not that great. Although inside there were many statues and divine images, it was missing that one good to connect with the “divine”.
I had left the last and most important "mission" to be carried out in San Giovanni Rotondo for the afternoon. After lunch I went to the old sanctuary where I retraced the part I saw several times during my youth. I paused in the large room that initially housed the body of Padre Pio, the one that still remains for me the true place of worship to celebrate the saint. Then I rushed to what for me was the most emblematic, mysterious and fascinating place in San Giovanni Rotondo; Padre Pio's cell. That day the saint really did a personal miracle to me! It was the time after the pandemic, so in general the city was not crowded. After climbing the stairs leading to the cell, I found myself in front of it totally alone. The antechamber and adjacent rooms were also completely deserted. Normally that place is stiflingly crowded while that day I was lucky enough to enjoy it in total harmony. Padre Pio's cell has always fascinated me; that room with still the objects of the saint, that intimacy remained intact and those furniture. In front of it I have always felt as if I was faced with a mysterious painting. A painting that hides something, I have always had the impression that there are meanings to be interpreted, something visibly hidden. The way I saw it, that intimate moment alone observing that room was the best I could aspire to. I am happy to have succeeded and even if as a child Padre Pio had disappointed me, when I grew up I wanted to give him the credit for that time spent alone to be able to enjoy his mysterious cell.
Pictures: Antonio Malara