'It's like he's only sleeping'
The exhumed body of Padre Pio, a saint considered a miracle worker by his devotees, attracted thousands of pilgrims yesterday, when it went on display 40 years after his death.
The economy of the southern town of San Giovanni Rotondo revolves around the cult of Padre Pio and heaving crowds waited to see his body, displayed in a crystal, marble and silver sepulchre in the crypt of the monastery where he spent most of his life.
His face was reconstructed with a life-like silicone mask of the type used in wax museums because it was apparently too decomposed to show when the body was exhumed.
"He seems like he is sleeping. Even if they had to re-do the face, it's better remembering him this way than looking at a slab of cold marble," said Domenico Masone, deputy mayor of Pietralcina, the town where Padre Pio was born.
Some 15,000 devotees attended a Mass said by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vatican department that oversees the Catholic Church's saint-making process, before the body went on display.
"He knows what I want from him," said Antonio Zimbaldi (19), who attended Mass with his face covered, except for his lips, with white gauze.
"I have been devoted to him for as long as I can remember."
Zimbaldi's entire body was burned in a fire caused by a gas explosion two years ago.
The body of the bearded Capuchin monk was exhumed from a crypt on March 3 and found to be in "fair condition" after 40 years. Since then, a team of experts has worked to reconstruct the corpse.
In the sepulchre, he is dressed in a brown Capuchin habit and wears fingerless gloves that he used to absorb blood from wounds on his hands. The mask was made by a London company which makes life-like sculpted figures for museums.
A poll in 2006 by Catholic magazine 'Famiglia Cristiana' found that more Italian Catholics prayed to Padre Pio than to any other figure, including the Virgin Mary or Jesus. His picture is stuck to the dashboards of many taxis and cars throughout Italy.
This town is home to a large hospital founded by the monk and many hotels and restaurants cater to the pilgrim trade.
As of Friday, the first of 750,000 people who made reservations to see the body between now and December will file past the glass coffin at a rate of about 7,200 a day.
There are about 3,000 Padre Pio prayer groups in the world, with a membership of three million.
Pope John Paul made him a saint in 2002 before one of the biggest Vatican crowds ever.
Padre Pio's rise from peasant to celebrity confessor
- Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione in 1887. he was one of eight children in a family of peasant farmers in the southern village of Pietrelcina.
- He was ordained as a priest in 1910 and was said to have been marked with the stigmata eight years later. Padre Pio moved to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1916 where decades later he had built the giant hospital, Home for the Relief of Suffering.
- He lived most of his life in the San Giovanni Rotondo monastery where people flocked to have him hear their confessions.
- Padre Pio was said to have wrestled with the devil in his monastery cell, to have predicted events in the lives of visitors, to have known what penitents were about to confess and to have been seen in two places at once.
- For the last nine years of his life, Padre Pio said mass at a large modern church he had built in San Giovanni Rotondo to hold the huge numbers of visiting pilgrims. He died in 1968.
- Pope John Paul II made him a saint in 2002 at a ceremony attended by one of the biggest crowds seen in the Vatican. He was credited with performing two miracles after his death for people who prayed to him.
- He had wounds in the hands, feet and side that corresponded with the wounds Christ suffered at the Crucifixion. He wore brown fingerless gloves to absorb the blood and cover the wounds except when he said Mass.
- Padre Pio was investigated by the Vatican and cleared of sexual misconduct and fraud.
- About 750,000 people have made reservations to view the body up to the end of December, according to church officials.