Tens of thousands of worshippers gathered this morning at the shrine of the Roman Catholic saint and mystic Padre Pio to be among the first to view his exhumed body.
More than a million people are expected to file past a glass casket holding his restored corpse between now and the end of the year. Catholic practices allow for the remains of saints to be exhumed, checked for their state of deterioration, and put on display as relics for veneration.
Padre Pio’s body is unusually central to the cult that surrounds him, and exceptionally controversial. For believers, the visible evidence of his sanctity were the stigmata – the wounds of Jesus on the cross – that first appeared in 1910.
But according to a book published last year, Padre Pio acquired carbolic acid from a local pharmacist that may have been used to create his wounds. His body was exhumed on March 3 and its condition has been variously described as “fair” and “almost intact”.
A team of biochemists and other experts has been working since then to get it into a fit state for display. An unanswered question to be resolved today is whether Padre Pio’s face will be covered by a wax mask sent from Madame Tussauds museum in London.
Reports from the vast church built to his memory at San Giovanni Rotondo near the Adriatic coast said at least 15,000 were expected to attend a service celebrated by the Vatican cardinal whose department oversees the making of saints.
Capuchin friars bustled to and fro, directing the faithful down one of three routes – one for the disabled, another marked green for those who had reserved, and a third marked red for those who had not. Italy’s public broadcasting service, RAI, was to transmit the mass live.
Though still known to millions of Catholics around the world simply as Padre Pio, the Capuchin friar was made a saint by the late Pope John Paul II. He was credited by his fellow friars with more than 1,000 miraculous cures and interventions.
But until his death in 1968, the church authorities remained deeply sceptical of the claims made on Padre Pio’s behalf. It was only the sheer momentum generated by his devotees that prompted a rethink.
Another adherent to the cult surrounding the mystic friar emerged this week. Carlo Ancelotti, the AC Milan coach, said he sometimes prayed to the saint from the bench.
Maria Stella Candela, who arrived in San Giovanni Rotondo from Trapani, Sicily, told the Ansa news agency: “My 37-year-old son is sick. He has a tumour. I pray – I have always prayed – to Padre Pio. And now I am here to pray some more.”