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Italy prepares for saint display

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

Picture of Padre Pio
Padre Pio was born the son of poor farmers from southern Italy

For 50 years he was said to have borne the bleeding wounds of Jesus.

His followers said he could see into the future and be in two places at once.

Forty years since his death, Padre Pio, now officially Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, continues to move and inspire millions of followers worldwide.

On Thursday, to mark the anniversary of his death, his body will go on display in a glass coffin at his friary at San Giovanni Rotondo, in Puglia, southern Italy.

Already some 700,000 people have registered to visit the sanctuary. Millions more are expected through the year.

The church says entrance to the crypt is free and no decision has yet been taken on how long the coffin will remain on show.

The chin is perfect and the rest of the body is well preserved. The knees, hands and nails all clearly visible
Archbishop Domenico D'Ambrosio

Padre Pio's body was exhumed in March. The Capuchin friars said it was in "surprisingly good condition".

No special measures were taken to preserve the body when he was buried in 1968. It was injected with formalin, but only to preserve it better during the following days in which the devotees filed past the coffin.

Archbishop Domenico D'Ambrosio, who led the service to exhume the body, said: "We could clearly make out the beard. The top part of the skull is partly skeletal but the chin is perfect and the rest of the body is well preserved. The knees, hands and nails all clearly visible."

Since then it has been treated by a mortician to make the face more recognisable.

Stigmata

But there is still one thing missing. The stigmata.

Neither his feet nor his hands show any signs of the wounds from which, the church says, he bled spontaneously for much of his life.

Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione, the son of poor farmers from southern Italy. He joined the Capuchin order at the age of 15 but it was not until he was 23 that the wounds started to appear.

In 1911, he wrote to his spiritual adviser, Padre Benedetto, describing something unusual that had happened to him.

Statue of Padre Pio in Messina, Sicily in March 2002
A statue of Padre Pio drew crowds after reports that it shed tears of blood

"I can neither explain nor understand it," he said.

"In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared, about the size of a penny, accompanied by acute pain in the middle of the red marks.

"The pain was more pronounced in the middle of the left hand, so much so that I can still feel it. Also under my feet I can feel some pain."

As word of his miracles spread, the cult following grew.

It alarmed the Catholic Church.

At one point, he was banned from celebrating Mass in public, although one of those who was said to have made a pilgrimage to Foggia for confession with him was a young Pole who would later become Pope John Paul II - and make Padre Pio a saint.

'Self-harmer'

More recently the sceptics have cast doubt on the miracles he performed. The founder of Rome's Catholic University hospital concluded Padre Pio was "an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people's credulity".

Last year, historian Sergio Luzzatto suggested Padre Pio was a self-harmer who had used carbolic acid to create the wounds.

The research was based on a document found in the Vatican's archive: the testimony of a pharmacist from San Giovanni Rotondo and from whom he had ordered four grams of acid.

Padre Pio is big business. His portrait hangs from rear-view mirrors, in dry cleaners, in restaurants and police stations

According to the pharmacist, Padre Pio had asked her to keep the request secret, saying it was to sterilise needles.

The document was examined but dismissed by the Catholic Church during Padre Pio's beatification process.

Today the essence of his condition remains a mystery. He is said to have lost a cup of blood a day through his wounds and yet never showed any signs of anaemia.

The wounds were never infected. He ate very little: one account states that he went 20 days on only the Eucharist without any other nourishment.

And so, despite the scepticism that has grown in some quarters, Padre Pio still fascinates and enchants millions around the world.

In Italy, Padre Pio is big business.

His portrait hangs from rear-view mirrors, in dry cleaners, in restaurants and police stations.

His following has transformed the small town of San Giovanni Rotondo.

It is now a centre for pilgrims from around the world. A modern hospital has been built for those seeking cures and, in 2004, a vast new church, designed by internationally renowned architect Renzo Piano, was officially consecrated.

It cost the church $36 million to build and can hold 30,000 pilgrims.

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SEE ALSO
Controversial monk made saint
16 Jun 02 |  Europe
Padre Pio TV goes on air
11 Feb 02 |  Entertainment
Country profile: Vatican
25 Mar 03 |  Country profiles

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