Friday, April 25, 2008

The People's Pio

Arguably the most beloved Italian saint, the body of Padre Pio -- exhumed last month -- has gone on display to mark the 40th anniversary of his death... and, as expected, the masses have converged on his shrine at San Giovanni Rotondo:
The economy of this southern town revolves around the cult of Padre Pio and heaving crowds waited to see his body, displayed in a crystal, marble and silver sepulcher in the crypt of the monastery where he spent most of his life.

His face was reconstructed with a lifelike 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, its 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 in the afternoon.

"He knows what I want from him," said Antonio Zimbaldi, 19, who attended Mass with his face, except for his lips, covered 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 medical examiners and biochemists has worked to preserve and reconstruct the corpse....

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.

Eighty-year-old Assunta Antico attended the Mass sitting in a wheelchair and was covered with a shawl in the same deep brown that Padre Pio wore. "I had a stroke two years ago. I'm paralyzed and I want to walk again."

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 have 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.