His paternal home, in central Mumbai, stood next to the main temple of the religion of Ahura Mazda. For years, he regularly visited the place, reciting the three daily prayers, bringing himself to the site at dusk to pray silently to God. He would have never thought that one day his prayers would find an answer after a long journey by plane from Mumbai to San Giovanni Rotondo, in Italy.
“I heard Padre Pio mentioned for the first time in 1963,” Kersi said. “My German teacher had visited Italy and had come back with a book about him. I had studied in Catholic schools and colleges, but knew nothing about the Christian faith, except for the crucifixes hanging from classroom walls. I also knew that he had died on the cross.”
When the teacher gave him the book about the friar from Pietralcina, Kersi was 25-year-old. When he read it, he was moved. “I could not believe that in our modern world there could be someone like him,” he said. In the meantime, his mother, to whom he was very close, passed away.
Finding Padre Pio, his family situation and the desire to find answers to questions that he directed at God every day in the Mumbai temple led him to leave.
Kersi arrived in Italy in December 1963 and with a group of American friends came to Rome. Later he left for San Giovanni Rotondo.
“I had taken some souvenirs to bring back to India, including a hand-carved 15 centimetres long crucifix. I thought of giving it to Padre Pio,” he said.
When he got to San Giovanni Rotondo, a worn-out Padre Pio would still meet pilgrims every morning walking with the help of two friars.
Kersi got close to him and showed him the crucifix. Padre Pio did not realise that it was gift and was led away leaving the young man with his gift in hand.
Later that morning, a group of friends was able to get a private audience in the monastery with Padre Pio. “At that point, my stubbornness prevailed,” he said. “I pulled out the crucifix and gave it to Padre Pio, asking my friend Jack to tell him about my mother and explain that it was a gift. Padre Pio again looked at me straight in the eyes and smiled a beautiful smile, filled with love, like he was saying, ‘You little rascal!’”
When Kersi returned to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1978 to visit Padre Pio’s tomb, exceptionally he was allowed to visit the cell of the future saint and to his great surprise found that the friar had placed his crucifix on his bed.
Today Kersi calls Padre Pio his ‘Star of Bethlehem’. The three Magi followed the comet to reach Bethlehem; he followed the capuchin friar who became a saint to reach Jesus. Lest we forget, according to Christian tradition, all three Magi were (Persian) Zoroastrians.
“The meeting with Padre Pio (in 1963) made me want to dedicate my life to the service of God,” Kersi said.
His path to conversion was troubled though. He asked a priest at Mumbai’s Cathedral of the Holy Name to help him on one condition: “That you do not try to push me towards conversion.”
Six days a week, Kersi went to see the priest to learn about the Christian faith, “but there was one point that I could not believe, namely that God had become man. I understood it in my head but not in my heart.”
Long months of inner battles followed, “but I felt that my search was sincere and one day I felt deep down in my heart that Jesus was the ultimate truth and that the change in my heart had nothing dramatic about it.”
Kersi decided to be baptised on 3 October 1964, then the feast day of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and he wanted Padre Pio to perform the rite because he wanted to tell him about his mother. However, when he arrived in Italy, the friar was too sick. Thus on 4 October, in a chapel dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi in Rome, the young Indian man from Mumbai became Kersi Francesco Pio Mistry.
In honour of his “good friend” he adopted the names the saint received when he was baptised (Francesco) and took when he undertook his profession of faith (Pio).