St. Padre Pio, a beloved Italian friar who died nearly 50 years ago, will be visiting Vineland this weekend — or at least a part of him will.
The saint’s heart will make a stop at Our Lady of Pompeii Church for the 14th annual St. Padre Pio Festival. It’s the first time the organ has ever left Italy.
“It’s huge,” said the Rev. Robert Sinatra, pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii. “This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Sinatra said the parish is preparing for 6,000 visitors for Sunday’s festival, which is nearly double normal attendance. The interest in Padre Pio’s heart highlights the popularity of relics — or parts of a saint’s body—in the Catholic community in South Jersey.
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“It is kind of gross,” said the Rev. Peter Saporito, pastor of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel Parish in Hammonton. “But at the same time, you have a part of this person — a saint.”
Saporito, who started the St. Padre Pio Festival when he was stationed in Vineland, is a relic collector of sorts. He has bone chips from St. Anthony of Padua and St. Therese of Lisieux. He used to possess a lock of hair from the recently canonized Mother Teresa.
“I gave it to an Indian family,” Saporito said. “I probably should have kept it.”
Small bone chips, blood-stained cloths and strands of hair are some of the more common relics. Getting the entire heart of a saint is rare.
“It’s a unique and interesting opportunity,” said Carol Kirchman, the advancement director at St. Mary’s School in Vineland.
“I never knew it existed, and I’ve been to San Giovanni (the Italian town where St. Padre Pio was laid to rest) a number of times,” said Saporito, who has a special devotion to the Italian saint.
Sinatra explained the process of what happened to Padre Pio’s body following his canonization in 2002.
“After Padre Pio was declared a saint, they exhumed his body and the friars saw that it was incorrupt,” he said. “To preserve parts of his body, they took his heart out and put it in a reliquary.”
A reliquary is a container that holds such holy objects.
The heart is visiting Massachusetts, Vineland and possibly a monastery in Philadelphia before heading back to Italy, Sinatra said.
It arrives in Vineland on Saturday night, and an all-night vigil will be held after the 5 p.m. Mass. Throughout the day Sunday, visitors will be able to venerate the relic, which normally involves kissing its case and perhaps touching a rosary or prayer card to it.
Saporito said visitors say a prayer invoking the name of Padre Pio and hope for a blessing.
The relic will be present in the church during the 11 a.m. Mass and procession, as well as during a Mass in Italian at 2 p.m. The festival, which runs from noon until 6 p.m., will include food and entertainment on the Our Lady of Pompeii church grounds.
Sinatra said Vineland was selected as one of the heart’s destination because St. Padre Pio Parish, which includes Our Lady of Pompeii Church and St. Mary’s Church, has had a relationship with the friars in San Giovanni Rotondo, where St. Padre Pio died and spent most of his life.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, asked the Italians if they could send the heart to Boston, and an Italian friar staying in Vineland caught wind of the request and told Sinatra the relic was coming to the United States.
Sinatra said he contacted the Bishop of Camden, Dennis Sullivan, who submitted a formal request for the heart to travel to Vineland.
Sinatra and Saporito both said they expect large crowds at Sunday’s festival due to the saint’s popularity.
“He had the visible signs of Christ’s suffering,” said Sinatra, referring to the stigmata associated with St. Padre Pio.
“It’s something people get excited about,” Saporito said. “Padre Pio is very big in this area.”
St. Padre Pio was a Capuchin friar and mystic. The Italian is known worldwide for the miracles surrounding his life, including other priests who said he levitated while praying, the development of the wounds of Jesus on his body and telling Pope John Paul II that he would become pope more than 30 years before it happened.
“There are just so many amazing stories about him,” Saporito said.
And you can add another one — his heart visiting a city in South Jersey.