Who was Padre Pio, and why is he the cause of such controversy?
Why ask this now? Yesterday the corpse of the vastly popular saint was exhibited to his devotees, for the first time since his death in September 1968.
Who was he, and why should we care?
An uneducated Capuchin friar from the town of San Giovanni Rotondo in the Gargano peninsula of Puglia, southern Italy, Padre Pio became the most charismatic holy man in the modern history of the Catholic Church, widely hailed as a saint during his lifetime and credited with at least 1,000 miracle cures. The most famous signs of his claimed sanctity were the stigmata – the Christ-like wounds that he bore in the palms of his hands and his side.
So why has his rest been disturbed?
"To check on the state of the body and to carry out all the necessary work to guarantee the best conditions for its conservation," according to the local archbishop, Domenico Umberto D'Ambrosio. The corpse probably will remain on display in a crystal casket until Christmas, when it will be interred permanently in a magnificent sarcophagus in the crypt of the church erected at the centre of his cult. During his lifetime, Padre Pio could hardly lift a finger without causing controversy, and the same remains true 40 years after his death: the exhumation was fiercely opposed by a group founded to protect the saint's image, which took legal action to stop it happening. They lost.
So the event has caused quite a stir?
You could say that. Since Padre Pio's death, San Giovanni Rotondo has become the second most visited pilgrimage site in Christendom after the shrine of Our Lady of Guadelupe in Mexico, attracting some 7 million people every year, and the exhumation has intensified the passions of his followers yet further. The Holy Mass celebrated yesterday to mark the display of the corpse was carried live on Italian state television and many other channels, including Al Jazeera, and tens of thousands filled the vast church – designed by Italy's most famous architect, Renzo Piano – and the adjoining piazza. Officials from Padre Pio's Franciscan order said that 800,000 pilgrims have already booked to visit the corpse before Christmas.
What accounts for his astounding popularity?
Above all, the fact that he was believed capable of achieving miracle cures. Millions of people around the world, 80 percent of them from Italy and most of the rest from Ireland and the United States, believe firmly that Padre Pio "never turned down a request", and his own death, they maintain, hasn't diminished his powers.
The friars responsible for his exhumation have firmly denied rumours that a finger of the saint is to be removed and presented to the Pope, or that any other relics are to be plundered from the corpse, but if they were there is no doubt that they would be in great demand. As it is, the tawdry souvenir shops around San Giovanni Rotondo, crammed with life-size and half-size Padre Pio statues as well as, ashtrays, pens, keyrings, mugs, T-shirts, calendars, rosaries, cigarette lighters, snowstorms and much else adorned with his image, bear witness to the fact that any tangible reminder of the saint is regarded as better than none by his followers.
Is the Roman Catholic Church united behind this event?
After decades of grave doubt and suspicion, the Catholic establishment has come round to the view that there is no arguing with Padre Pio's colossal fame and reputation, and the only thing to be done is to bless it and keep a beady eye on it. L'Avvenire, the semi-official church daily paper, devoted a glowing full page yesterday to the display of the corpse, with nary a word of misgiving. But it was not always so.
For several decades spanning the Second World War, when the Church saw its task as seeking a rapprochement with the modern, secular world rather than confronting it head on, Padre Pio was a grave embarrassment. It was not just the miracle cures, which brought a powerful reek of the Middle Ages; he was also widely suspected of being a fraud. Doubters noted that he wore fingerless mittens to cover the ugly sores. Padre Pio claimed that the blood was constantly flowing from the wounds, but many in the church maintained that the wounds were self-inflicted and that he kept them open by dousing them with acid, a view supposedly confirmed last year in a new book containing the account of a woman who procured acid from him from a chemist's shop.
Were there other doubts about his authenticity?
No fewer than 23 separate claims that he had faked miracles and had sex with women parishioners, in the confessional box or in his cell, were investigated. The "odour of sanctity" that followed him around was believed to have been obtained from eau de cologne, and for the long periods that these claims were investigated the friar was banned from celebrating Mass. Pope John XXIII, the modernising Pope behind the Second Vatican Council, was even reported to have had the turbulent friar's confessionals bugged, to keep tabs on his activities.
So all these accusations were found to be groundless?
Let's say that Padre Pio benefited from a dramatic change of mood at the Vatican, coinciding with the arrival of Pope John Paul II. The Polish pope had been a devotee of Padre Pio's from his youth, travelling all the way from Warsaw to Puglia in 1947 so that the friar could hear his confession. Many years later, when Karol Wojtyla was auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, he asked the friar's intercession for a woman friend suffering from throat cancer who dramatically recovered 11 days later.
With this conviction of the authenticity of Padre Pio's sanctity in his past, John Paul II was quick to rehabilitate him, and in June 2002, before a crowd of half a million in St Peter's Square in Rome he pronounced him a saint, the 462nd saint he had created, as St Pio of Pietrelcina, the name of the village where he was born.
San Giovanni's friars hope that their patron's rehabilitation will be cemented by a visit from Pope Benedict – though for now the Vatican is remaining silent on the matter.
So is the Padre a true miracle worker?
* The seven million pilgrims who flock to San Giovanni Rotondo every year can't be wrong
* He's done more to turn around the economy of rural southern Italy than 61 Italian governments
* He's forced an often intransigent Church to accommodate him and his deeds
* While some in the Church establishment have accepted him, others remain hostile
* While John Paul II declared him a saint, Pope Benedict has yet to visit San Giovanni
* The awkward questions about the origin of his stigmata won't go away