VATICAN CITY -- The body of Italy's beloved saint Padre Pio went on display last month at his shrine in southern Italy; over the coming months, more than 1 million people are expected to see it.
Pilgrims file past a casket with walls of bullet-proof glass, where Pio lies with his face covered by a life-like silicone mask, produced by a British firm that supplies wax museums.
The spectacle may strike some as strange or downright ghoulish. Even some of Pio's devotees have protested the exhumation and display, denouncing them as contrary to the saint's wishes and the "simplicity and humility" that he exemplified in life.
Yet the exhibition of a holy person's mortal remains for public veneration is part of an ancient Christian practice. "We do not worship, we do not adore ... but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are," wrote St. Jerome, a doctor of the church who died in the fifth century.
The concept of relics, which originally referred to …