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Barto PA National Shrine to St. Gerard Padre Pio pilgrimage saints Shrine to Padre Pio St. Gerard St. Lucy's Catholic Church

Putting Faith Into Action By Making Pilgrimage To Holy Places

pilgrimage to st. gerard national shrine
St. Gerard Maiella
No sooner had I shared the news of our expected little one with my priest, that he encouraged me to make a pilgrimage to St. Gerard’s Shrine. The patron of mothers, St. Gerard had become a favorite confidant and intercessor of mine. Did Father know that this beloved saint was honored just one town over from my childhood home or had Divine Providence intervened?

Several months would pass before the opportunity presented to entertain his recommendation, but recently a return to my hometown placed me in the neighborhood. Hard to imagine how I’d spent 18 years so close and yet so far from this holy place, but now the National Shrine of St. Gerard beckoned me to come. Sightseeing in beautiful churches is a worthy effort, but this was a pilgrimage, a deliberate journey to a holy place to worship God, to offer thanksgiving, to beseech divine aid, to seek Him.

St. Lucy's Catholic Church, Newark NJ
National Shrine of St. Gerard
When we were planning our week’s itinerary, my mother suggested traveling to visit the Shrine of Padre Pio. Considering that the initial trek home meant 9 hours trapped in a van full of my energetic offspring while steering across five states, the notion of sacrificing four more hours in commute sounded unpleasant. Never fully answering her question, I decided to mull it over. My feet were surely pointed toward St. Gerard, but somehow I couldn’t completely discount this second pilgrimage.

Padre finds me

Arriving at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church, home to St. Gerard’s shrine, the van door swung open and children piled out when what to my wandering eyes should appear, but Padre Pio. Laughing at the notion that once again this powerful saint had crossed my path, something stirred in my heart.

Together the children and I, accompanied by extended family, soaked in the beauty, the serenity, the distinct sense of holiness in the courtyard located within a busy, tired old city. Low income housing projects surround St. Lucy’s and vacant, trash-filled lots are only a stones throw away, but the ugliness of poverty and worldliness disappeared when our feet tread that sacred ground. Perhaps, therein lies some of the blessing received when one makes a pilgrimage. We seek and find God in the midst of a moment in our lives. We purposefully set aside time to let our everyday routine fade into the shadows and look directly into the eyes of God through His Creation, His inspired places.

Stepping through the heavy wooden doors leading to the sanctuary, a rush of peace surged through my mind and body. Although a pilgrim in this particular location, the sights and smells spoke of home, the Lord’s home. No matter how far and wide one might traverse in search of God, He is easily found and He has the power to transform the ordinary into the sacred.

St. Pio statue in Newark NJ
Padre Pio
No sooner had the aroma of fresh, Easter lilies wafted under my nose, then a medium-sized statue of Padre Pio stationed near the wooden entryway again drew my immediate attention. “Okay,” I relented, “I will come to visit your shrine, too.”
decorative ceiling depicting St. Gerard Majella
ceiling in the St. Gerard chapel

The morning culminated with our entrance into the side chapel devoted to St. Gerard. Gerard’s looming statue directed our gaze and thoughts upward. The dimly lit room, glinting in candlelight, reminded us to rest awhile. Climbing the narrow stairway that allows devotees to finger the cloth cassock shrouding the saint’s likeness, I reflected on the challenge to take the narrow road in life. Considering the handwritten notes tucked behind him, I realized how available the Creator of the whole universe makes Himself to us, His lowly creatures. Whispering my words of thanksgiving and my prayers for continued intercession, I was uplifted by his saintly friendship.

Mission accomplished?

My mission, so many months anticipated, was accomplished, so why I wondered was that second pilgrimage summoning. Honestly, both St. Gerard and Padre Pio have been my most recent companions, the saints I’ve turned to daily for guidance, inspiration and intercession. But seeing as both of these godly friends are aiding me toward the same goal, communion with our Heavenly Father, I couldn’t help but question what a second journey had to offer. Queries aside, it seemed Divine Providence aligned circumstances to set the trip’s agenda.

My children had not heard the same call. They were oblivious to Padre’s persistent appearances, so their audible grumblings were somewhat understandable. Trading unencumbered cousin-time for more stifled van-time certainly didn’t sound like fun, but something greater lie down the path even if they didn’t realize it. So, they less-than enthusiastically, but obediently, stuffed themselves back into our vehicle and endured the long route that delivered them into another state.

Padre Pio shrine in Barto, Pennsylvania, US
shrine of Padre Pio, Barto, PA

Finally, reaching this second shrine, the Shrine to Padre Pio, we were greeted by a very different setting. Unlike St. Lucy’s church, which shone amidst a tight backdrop of city life, Padre’s shrine seeks to mirror the wide expanse of San Giovanni, the Italian home of the saint. While we sensed the beauty and peace of this holy place, there was also a feeling of loneliness, emptiness. The numerous parking spots unoccupied and spacious grounds mostly vacant. Not unlike the trials which plagued Padre Pio in his lifetime, this shrine site has been the source of controversy and contention between the Church’s shepherds and the devotees who built the pilgrim site. Placing my feet on those grounds felt like an act of solidarity. Holy Mass is currently prohibited at this sacred site, but that doesn’t stop the faithful from worshiping God. In fact, I suppose it simply leads pilgrims to pray all the more fervently for the privilege of one day celebrating there.

Divine Mercy novena

The day we arrived was the last day of our family’s novena in preparation for Divine Mercy Sunday. Fittingly, our entrance into the building was timed exactly, through no earthly planning, with the start of a communal recitation of the chaplet. Just as we, the limited members of the Church, have the chance to beg God’s mercy for not only ourselves but for the whole world, that small assembly of pilgrims joined in unison to plead for God’s mercy to be poured out for all. What a sublime deed we were called to participate in just six days into Easter.

Soon after the chaplet finished a relic, a glove that once concealed Padre’s wounded hand, arrived and we were invited to receive a blessing. My beloved friend made himself manifest in a tangible way through that relic further reminding me that God lives and makes Himself available to us if only we avail ourselves.

Our Lady of Grace and Padre Pio painting at Barto shrineMy pilgrimages successfully concluded, I recalled the abundance of blessings showered upon us from inviting weather to restful moments. Faith alone leads our minds to our Triune Lord, to the contemplation of lessons taught by Jesus Christ, to ruminations of the examples set before us, but faith alone is not enough. For faith, without works is dead. So, these pilgrimages provided the occasion to put my feet into motion, my faith into action. The journeys required sacrifice and energy, time and physical participation. I can find God in my local parish. I can find Him kneeling beside me at my bedside, but making a pilgrimage is actively seeking.

My beloved patrons, St. Gerard and Padre Pio dedicated their lives to seeking God and to making Him present in the world. These pilgrimages invited us to share in their missions, to continue the work they’d begun. They led us to new experiences, called us into meditation, displayed the different ways in which God appears in the world. They inspire us to carry these messages, these experiences, outside of the shrines and into a world desperate for love, rest, beauty and mercy. A world seeking.

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