Padre Pio's new crib

"We're in 2004. You have to look ahead." That triumphalist remark is the heart of an energetic New York Times report about a massive new church built at San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, in honor of the Catholic mystic and stigmatic Padre Pio. The new church was designed by Renzo Piano, the architect of the modernist Pompidou Center in Paris. (Click here for fine photographs of the church's exterior, and related text for architecture buffs.)

Times reporter Jason Horowitz diligently pursues the idea of modern architecture as a means of getting more people into the pews on architecture pilgrimages, and maybe persuading them to stick around for worship.

The closest Horowitz can deliver to someone who endorses this idea is Bishop Ernesto Mandara, head of the office that commissioned 50 new churches in Italy: "We turned to these big names [of architecture] for the same reason that when one has a sickness he goes to the best doctors."

Piano's design will remind some worshipers less of St. Peter's than of an airport concourse, as both the Times and a glowing review in the Guardian point out:

Inside, stone floors and walls curve up, supported by stone arches arranged in a radial pattern, to create one of the most unexpected domed spaces of all times: powerful, filled with light and, in architectural terms, all but miraculous. An invention extending Piano's canon of airport terminals, art galleries and office towers, the Padre Pio church will draw people from every (or no) creed, for whom inspiring architecture is its own spiritual reward.

Considering Padre Pio's colorful history, should forward-facing Catholics in 2004 have expected something subtle? Jonathan Glancey of the Guardian elaborates:

The subject of at least 600 biographies, and many more souvenir statues, prayer cards and "snowstorms", he allegedly bore the stigmata, the five bleeding wounds that marked Christ's body as he hung on the cross at Calvary. Investigated twice by the Vatican for alleged fraud and sexual misconduct, and banned from saying Mass in public at one point in the 1930s, he was reinstated with honour.

Among Padre Pio's other gifts, according to his followers, were prophecy, conversion, the reading of souls, miraculous cures and bi-location. This last meant that he could appear in two places at once. Which he did, apparently, during the second world war. Allied pilots claim to have seen the face of the saintly friar appearing in the clouds, beseeching them not to bomb San Giovanni Rotondo, his home since 1916. The sight of a giant bearded monk looming up in front of the cockpit of a Wellington or Liberator might have prompted their pilots to take evasive action, and to have dropped their bombs elsewhere.

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