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Abstract

In the Catholic world, pilgrimages and other devotional rituals are often undertaken to foster healing and well-being. Thus, shrines dedicated to saints are particularly relevant in times of pandemic. Pilgrimage to the shrines associated with 20th century Italian stigmatic, St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, known as one of the Catholic world’s most popular saints, is particularly informed by this notion, as Pio is understood as a healing saint thanks to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy that marked his ministry during his lifetime, as well as belief in the miraculous nature of his relics. Pio’s hometown of Pietrelcina and his shrine at San Giovanni Rotondo boast millions of religious tourists each year, especially from Italy, Ireland and the Philippines—many of whom come with the expressed purpose of healing their ailments, praying for others who are suffering, or rendering thanks for healing received through the saint’s intercession. The current COVID-19 crisis has also seen the faithful turn to Pio for the alleviation of this new form of suffering. This paper thus argues that Padre Pio can be considered a ‘pandemic saint’—one to whom the faithful pray specifically to alleviate their suffering and that of the community, and who serves as a model for moral behaviour, during a pandemic. First, employing ethnohistorical analysis and a close reading of Pio’s writings, I trace the development of Pio’s ‘ministry of mercy,’ which is predicated on the Christological ideal of suffering as a proxy for others. In particular, I show that Pio’s stigmata experience in 1918, and the meteoric rise of devotion and pilgrimage to him, was a partial result of the world’s last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu. Second, drawing on over a decade of ethnographic research at Pio’s shrines, interviews and analysis of news media during the current COVID-19 pandemic, and an examination of Pope Francis’ public discourses on both Pio and the coronavirus outbreak of 2020, I argue that Pio can also be considered a ‘pandemic saint’ for COVID-19. Third, the paper ends with an update on the impacts of COVID-19 on the main Italian shrines to Pio, which despite their importance and relevance for alleviating pandemic suffering, were closed to mass religious tourism and pilgrimage during Italy’s harsh quarantine in spring 2020, and are now beginning to contemplate new ways to serve the faithful and promote Pio as a pandemic saint in a post-COVID world.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.

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