ROME – During a visit Saturday to the southern Italian town of Pietrelcina, the birthplace of Padre Pio, and San Giovanni Rotondo, where the famous Capuchin stigmatic friar lived for more than fifty years, Pope Francis invited the faithful to imitate the saint and continue loving the Church, “despite its troubles, our sins.”

The pope broke safety protocol Saturday by walking among the thousands of people, many coming from all over the world, gathered in the town’s main square to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Padre Pio’s death and the 100th anniversary of his receiving the stigmata.

After visiting briefly a chapel containing an elm tree under which Padre Pio would usually pray, the pope spoke to the crowd.

Padre Pio “loved the Church, with all its troubles, our sins. We are all sinners, we are ashamed, but God’s Spirit gave us this Church, which is Holy. And Saint Pio loved this Church,” Francis said, adding in an off-the-cuff remark that the saint “never denied his country, remember, he never denied his origins, he never denied his family.”

While Francis did not cite any specific problems or sins, his words come at a time when the pontiff himself is facing mounting criticism for his handling of the clerical sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism, focusing on the case of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by the country’s most notorious pedophile priest.

In saying that Padre Pio loved the Church despite its sins, Francis may have had in mind the stigmatic saint’s own troubled history with church authorities during his lifetime.

Between 1916 and 1968, the year he died, Padre Pio was investigated by the Holy Office, the forerunner of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, somewhere between 12 and 25 times, depending on how one counts. At various points, he was forbidden from saying Mass in public, from publishing, from receiving visitors, even from talking to women alone.

Despite that harassment, the eventual judgment of the Church was positive, as Padre Pio was beatified under St. Pope John Paul II in 1999 and canonized in 2002.

In Padre Pio visit, Pope embodies Church’s complex take on suffering

The pope proved to be familiar with the Capuchin saint. During Francis’s time as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, prayer groups on Padre Pio began surfacing all over the world, including South America, and a statue and relic of the saint can be found in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires.

“This humble Capuchin friar shocked the world with his life, by entirely dedicating himself to prayer and by patiently listening to his brothers, on who’s suffering he would pour the balm of Christ’s charity,” Francis said, inviting faithful to “imitate his heroic example and his virtue” so as to become instruments of Christ’s love for the weakest.

“At the same time, on account of his unconditional loyalty to the Church, you will be a witness to communion, because only communion, that is always being united in peace between us, the communion between us, edifies and builds,” he said March 17.

According to some observers and local media outlets, the pope’s remarks could be seen, in part, as a reflection on the divided and paralyzed political situation that has emerged in Italy after elections in early March.

“A country that fights every day scares people, it’s a sick and sad country… A country where everyone loves one another, more or less, and don’t wish each other harm, grows, grows, grows.”

“It becomes wider and it becomes strong,” he said.

He asked those gathered and watching to “not waste time fighting amongst each other,” which is the only way to move and to walk forward.

“Please, peace among you, communion among you, and if one of you gets the desire to talk ill of another, bite your tongue,” he said, “it will be good for the soul and for the country as well.”

Francis underlined that in September 1911, Padre Pio came to Pietrelcina to “breathe some fresher air” since his body had weakened. He added that “it was not an easy time” for the Capuchin, who was “strongly tormented within” and thought the devil was attacking him.

“The devil doesn’t give peace, because he moves. Do you believe that the devil exists?” Francis asked the crowd in an unscripted remark. “He exists, he comes within us, he tricks us, and Padre Pio feared that the devil would take over him, and push him toward sin,” he said.

Through Mass and prayer, Padre Pio reached “an elevated level of union with the Lord,” Francis said referring to the “the special mystical gifts” that connected the saint with the signs of Christ’s passion.

“I hope this territory will draw from the life teachings of Padre Pio in this difficult moment like the present, while  the population progressively diminishes and ages because many young people are forced to go elsewhere to find work,” he added.

The pope pointed to the “grave problem” of the internal migration of youth, where many university students in the poorer, unemployed South of Italy leave their cities and towns to study or work in the north. He asked that Padre Pio intercede to offer youth “concrete possibilities for a future of hope,” and invited all to offer attention and tenderness to old people.

“I would like it if one day they gave a Nobel Prize to old people, who give memory to humanity,” Francis said off script. “Don’t marginalize old people. No, no, old people are wisdom. May old people learn to speak to youth, and may youth learn to speak to old people. Speak to them!” he added.

After his visit to Pietrelcina, the first time a pontiff had visited the town, Francis took a helicopter ride to San Giovanni Rotondo, site of the hospital and sanctuary “House of Relief of Suffering,” founded by the famous stigmatic saint in 1956 and considered one of the most efficient health care facilities in Italy and Europe.

There the pope spent some time with medical personnel and children in the oncology department, before moving to the sanctuary of “St. Mary of the Graces,” where he met with the Capuchin community of San Giovanni Rotondo and then prayed before the remains of Padre Pio.

The final stop was the Mass, where during the homily, Francis referred to Padre Pio as “an apostle of the confessional” who beckons faithful to engage and communicate with God. He pointed to the “three visible signs” left by the saint in the prayer groups, the sick in the “House of Relief” and the confessional, which remind us of “the three precious heirlooms: prayer, smallness and wisdom of life.”

Concerning prayer, the pope asked whether faithful pray enough, and if they do, if it’s motivated by need or an actual desire to speak to God. “Saint Pio, fifty years after his going to Heaven, helps us, because he left us the heredity of prayer,” he said.

“Do our prayers resemble those of Jesus or are they reduced and saltuary emergency calls? Or do we mean them as tranquillizers to be taken in regular doses, in order to get some stress relief?” the pope asked. “No, payer is an act of love, it’s being with God and bringing him the life of the world: it’s an indispensable work of spiritual mercy.”

The smallness, Francis said, refers to the fact that Jesus privileged the little ones in revealing the mysteries of his Kingdom. “The little ones are those who have a humble and open heart, poor and needy, who feel the need to pray, to give themselves and let themselves be accompanied,” he said.

The pope compared the little ones to “an antenna that captures the signal of God,” whereas those who think themselves to be “big” create “an enormous interference.”

Finally, when it comes to wisdom, the pope said it should not be confused with great abilities or great power. “The only knowing and powerful weapon is charity animated by faith, because it has the power to disarm the forces of evil,” Francis said. “Saint Pio fought evil for his entire life and fought it wisely like the Lord: with humility, obedience, the cross, offering his suffering for love.”

The pope said that while many admire the friar, few follow his example, the same way many “are willing to put a ‘like’ on the [Facebook] page of the great saints,” but few live like them.

“Christian life is not ‘I like,’ but an ‘I give’,” Francis said. “Life perfumes when it’s offered as a gift; it becomes flavorless when it’s kept to oneself.”