Who Was Padre Pio, and Why Is He the Cause of Such Controversy?

Article excerpt

The big question

Why ask this now?

Because 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. …