Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

On display, the body of a saint revered as a worker of miracles

More than a million pilgrims are expected to travel to southern Italy this year to visit and pray before one of the Catholic Church's most popular saints, Padre Pio, writes Peter Hutchison

Padre Pio's body has been exhumed and is on public display in San Giovanni Rotondo for the first time, 40 years after his death in 1968.

His body is being displayed in a crystal, marble and silver sepulchre in the crypt of the monastery where he spent much of his life.

Padre Pio looks peaceful, lying on his back, arms crossed. His face has been reconstructed with a life-like wax mask.

He is dressed in a brown Capuchin habit. He wears brown fingerless gloves, which he wore in life to absorb blood and cover his sores.

Catholics around the world revere Padre Pio as a miracle worker. Pope John Paul made him a saint in 2002 after being credited with performing two miracles following his death for people who prayed for him.

It is claimed that Padre Pio cured an 11-year-old boy who was in a coma and helped a woman with a medically incurable lung disease.

A poll in 2006 by a Catholic magazine found that more Italian Catholics prayed to Padre Pio than to any other figure, including Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Padre Pio spent most of his life in San Giovanni Rotondo. His legacy is a major tourist industry to the town.

It benefits to the tune of millions of pounds and is now second to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico for annual visitors.

So, what is it about the padre that causes him to be so devoted and encourages people to travel thousands of miles to pay homage to him?

During his lifetime the Italian monk was said to have the stigmata, the bleeding wounds of Christ's crucifixion on his hands and feet.

Wounds were on his hands, feet and side. It corresponded with wounds suffered by Jesus at the Crucifixion.

It is these scars that his brown gloves were used to cover. Padre Pio was born into a peasant family in 1887 in the southern Italian village of Pietrelcina. In 1910 he was ordained as a priest and the legend goes that he was marked with the stigmata in 1918 — two years after moving to San Giovanni Rotondo monastery.

People came from far and wide to tell the bearded monk their confessions. Quickly he became famous for possessing spiritual and mystical powers.

It is said that he predicted events in the lives of those that came to visit him and already knew what they were coming to confess about. He fought with the devil in his monastery, goes another legend.

There are historians and theologians, however, who have described Padre Pio as a fraud. Some have accused him of using carbolic acid to self-inflict his bleeding wounds.

Controversy dogged the padre's life. He was twice investigated by the Vatican and cleared of sexual misconduct and fraud.

In the eyes of the Catholic Church, however, and its followers, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina was a true saint. The monk dedicated his days to God and chastity. He lived in poverty, with few possessions or comforts. He brought a spirituality to hospitals when he built the Home for the Relief of Suffering.

When Padre Pio was close to death at the age of 81, it is reported that he said over and over again: "After my death I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death."

Pope Paul VI paid a fitting eulogy to the padre in 1971. He said: "What fame he had. How many followers from around the world. Why? Was it because he was a philosopher, a scholar, or because he had means at his disposal?

"No, it was because he said Mass humbly, heard confessions from morning until night and was a marked representative of the stigmata of Our Lord. He was truly a man of prayer and suffering."

There are approximately 3,000 Padre Pio prayer groups across the globe with an estimated membership of more than three million. In Belfast, the Sacred Heart Church has a popular and active Padre Pio prayer group. They gather regularly to remember the saint and extol the virtues he proclaimed. Thousands of people from Ireland are expected to make the pilgrimage to Italy to see the saint's exhumed body.

The Irish office for Saint Pio is organising two pilgrimages to San Giovanni Rotondo this year. One in May, the other in October.

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