Indian food in Italy, became a norm! Thanks to the Indian Chef from Sweden, a hearty breakfast made its way to everyone’s stomach. The agenda of the day was set by Bhagawan the previous evening. A visit to the Ashram land and of course, ‘the pilgrimage’ to San Giovanni Rotondo in Foggia to the place where San Padre Pio lived, and built institutions of healthcare.
Close to a 100 devotees had gathered at the stunningly serene and beautiful site of the ‘to-be-built’ Sai Prema Ashram. One small trulli structure exists, which was converted to Swami’s room. The Lord entered amidst bhajans, blessing everyone gathered. As the room could accommodate only a handful, all the devotees sat outside, and Swami asked them to continue singing bhajans. The Lord spoke for over an hour to a few members of the Sai Prema Association.
Swami commenced by telling a short story of a big businessman who had come to Him, saying he was made President of the Trust of a large Vishnu temple in India. He asked Swami what would He like him to do. He asked whether he should improve any aspects in the temple, the decoration or gold covering for the temple. He asked what can be done for the comfort of Lord Vishnu inside the main Sanctum Sanctorum.
Swami replied, “I told him Vishnu will not be happy if you put a gold shade over His head. He will not be happy if you do more elaborate rituals. He will not be happy if you chant mantras from morning till night. For whom is this temple? Temple is not for God, but for devotees. God is also there only for His devotees. So, I told him look at the comfort of the devotees, as they walk in long queues to come & see me. There is lot of heat due to the sharp sun, and even the stone underneath their feet gets very hot. They suffer a lot, they need water to drink, food to eat and a little place to rest. The elderly, the young and even mothers carrying infants come to the temple, and since they traverse long distances, they need rest. As you are the President, don’t spend money on making golden shade for the Lord. Don’t worry about comforts and duties for the Lord. Rather put up a shade over the place where the devotees walk. Provide them with water, food and shelter. Have a little place for the elderly and young to rest. Then I will be very satisfied. For, I am also there only to serve My devotees, and therefore you must also do the same. If you understand God’s heart truly, you will know that His heart is there only for His devotees. He needs no comfort and convenience. But He is more interested in the welfare of the devotees!”
Swami’s heart went out to the devotees who were seated outside, and were unable to come inside, due to space constraints. He advised and patiently answered many queries of the team regarding the construction of the Ashram. After blessing everyone, He made His way along with His entourage and Italian devotees back to the resort IL Portico.
The entourage was to leave for San Giovanni Rotunda in Foggia, the place of San Padre Pio. As always, Swami said He will reach by the skyline.
After travelling for about three and a half hours, the entourage reached San Giovanni Rotunda, a beautiful little village tucked away in the hills, that over took the large, and almost endless plains below. Cool breeze accompanied by a light drizzle welcomed everyone, as they alighted from the vehicle outside the Church. A glance around, and the magnificent free hospital which was founded and named by Padre Pio as the “Home for relief of suffering” (Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza) could be seen, standing tall, welcoming and embracing evey person who walked through the doors. San Padre Pio believed that it should be more of a home, than a hospital, and must serve everyone at no cost!!! Now, we knew why Swami liked San Padre Pio, for he too like Swami believed in free healthcare for the poor and sick.
This was the 100th year since San Padre Pio came to this convent, which is run by the Franciscan order under the guidance of the Vatican. Born in 1887, he also served as a soldier in Italian army for one year, which was mandatory at that point in time. As per the law, every young man had to be trained as a soldier, but soon found his heart more in peace, than in war. He attended a seminary, and was bestowed priesthood at a young age, while he was in his late twenties. Padre Pio came to Foggia, to this convent as a priest in the year 1916. The convent itself was very old and was founded way back in 1222; since that time it has undergone several renovations.
Quoting a beautifully written book, ‘Padre Pio of Pietrelcina’ by Father Alberto D’Apolito, “In our recent times, we go in search of Christ, but we are not always successful in finding Him. Christ Himself, however, sent us some persons who can bring us to Him, and help us to see Him in His authenticity. They are the saints. Those who, opening themselves completely to the love of God, empty themselves of their own defects, weaknesses and human miseries, and leave to Christ the full possession of their souls. Padre Pio was one of these! That is why, seeing and encountering him was like seeing and encountering Jesus.”
The entourage, along with Mr Ampilio and his family, Mr Salvatore and his wife, entered an ally that lead to the inner chambers of the convent, where today, about 40 Brothers reside and serve. A very kind gentleman, Brother Francisco, in his mid fifties, who happened to be the Guardian Father of the convent, was the guide. When he learnt that the team was there, as per the command of Baba and invitation of San Padre Pio himself who appeared and beckoned the team, he was visibly moved! He decided to take the team to certain parts of the convent, which were otherwise inaccessible to general devotees and visitors. The inner chambers of Brothers, humble small rooms with a window and a door, a bed and a table, that housed these holy men who have chosen the path of God, was an endearing sight to see.
One such room like any other, was the room of Padre Pio where he lived for 27 years till he was requested by his Brothers to move in to a larger room, which was made by combining two rooms into one. He suffered from Asthma, and they wanted him to have a larger space, with better air circulation. The room had a small bed, a table and a chair, a shelf that carried the writings of Padre Pio, his writing spectacles, pen and the gospel that he read everyday. It was truly remarkable to see such humble dwellings. Simple living and high thinking, as Swami often reminds us!
Thereafter, Father Francisco lead the entourage to a small prayer room, where Padre Pio was confined for two years for all his prayers and not allowed to meet the devotees or celebrate mass in public, at the command of the Vatican, for he was growing too popular!
The prayer room could barely seat 12 people and had a small altar, the original one made in stone and wood. Father Francisco told that one of the adjoining roommates of Padre Pio would often notice bright light emerging out of the gaps in the door of Padre Pio’s room. Once, out of curiosity as he peeped through the door he saw Padre Pio holding Infant Jesus in his hands, and was surrounded by a blinding bright halo!
Padre Pio received the stigmata or wounds of Jesus on his hands, feet and ribs in 1918, and since then suffered the pain silently for 50 years till his death! One could see through the hole in his hands, said Father Fransisco. Then, suddenly he asked the entourage to wait while he returned in a while with a box, containing one of the hallowed hand gloves of Padre Pio! He allowed everyone to see and touch, and everyone could feel a kind of deep surreal connect with his soul! Father Francisco, our guide had the honour of preparing the body of Padre Pio while it was to be taken to Vatican and kept there for two years, a rare honour to only two of such saints in the past from places other than Rome. Now, the body has been brought back and the face has been reconstructed for ‘Darshan’, in the magnificent new church, which the entourage were to see later.
Now, came the most interesting episode!! While Father Francisco went out to fetch the hand glove, Swami appeared there along with Padre Pio, and told Brother Madhusudan that the Brothers of Assisi are the same as the Tyagajeevi Brothers, who have chosen a life of complete dedication to the mission of their Master. Swami said, “This is what I wanted you all to see!” So bro Madhusudan prayed, “Swami! Please bless us all that we may become your servants like Padre Pio.” Swami laughed and told him in the presence of Padre Pio, with the warmth of a friend, “Oh! Do not become like him, he used to beat and shout at people! ( Kotte vadu, thitte vadu)”.
Brother Madhusudan said he was surprised to hear that, but later other devotees present at the church confirmed that while Padre Pio had the love of a mother, he was also strict as a father, and many devotees had been blessed recipients of his fatherly strokes of Love as well!
Father Francisco, informed the entourage that he was to come to Bangalore to visit his Brothers who work there, but somehow the trip got postponed may be because he had to meet Baba’s entourage, who lovingly invited him to Swami’s ashram, which he very happily accepted! Swami standing right there told Brother Madhusudan, “He will come in a month’s time to India!” Surely, there was more to this Divine plan than what our puny minds could comprehend!
Thereafter, Father Fransisco took leave. Bidding a warm farewell with a joyous heart, Swami’s entourage were grateful to him for all that he did in the last hour.
Everyone walked around the church and even saw the statue of Jesus on the cross, from where the Lord had spoken to Padre Pio before he received the stigmata.
The new church which can seat 2000 people at a time, second only to Vatican, was designed for free as a service, by the world renowned architect Renzo Piano (http://www.arcspace.com/features/-piano-/padre-pio-pilgrimage-church/), who also had designed the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The architecture was one of its kind! The Sanctum Sanctorum that housed the divine body of Padre Pio, was the most beautiful, with mosaics on the wall about his life story and that of San Francis of Assisi. Gold, red, blue, green and beige, pieces of mosaic so intricately put together by the artists from Venice, that make the whole place come alive!
As the entourage returned from this holy place, with hearts full of gratitude to Swami, for having kept this day absolutely free and unplanned in the itinerary, so that His divine plan may manifest! The whole experience was over whelming, and made each person feel all the more humble. He shows His way, and His servants around the world! Padre Pio had a great desire to go to India it is said, and while one of his spiritual followers sought his blessings for his trip to India, Padre Pio shed tears saying that he too wanted to visit the land. He would say he was merely an instrument, and God had commanded him to be where he was at that moment, and hence he is unable to travel.
Being the contemporary of Swami, the reasons for his deep desire to visit India could be understood. But, here was God, as our Swami visiting him in his place much after his demise, only to fulfil that heartfelt desire, is what passed through our mind!
This day will remain etched in our memories forever!