SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy – The body of Padre Pio, a hugely popular 20th century Italian saint, went on public display Thursday in a southern Italian town where thousands gathered to pray.
Padre Pio, who died in 1968 at age 81, was a mystic monk who many Catholic faithful believe bore "stigmata," or wounds like those Jesus suffered at his crucifixion, on his hands and feet. He was made a saint in 2002.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vatican's sainthood office, lead an open-air Mass for thousands of faithful before the unveiling of the saint's body in a church in San Giovanni Rotondo, where the saint had lived.
"Today, we venerate his body, opening a particularly intense period of pilgrimage," Saraiva Martins said. "This body is here, but Padre Pio is not only a corpse. Looking at his remains we remember all the good that he has made."
Saraiva Martins and other church officials later descended into the church's crypt for a private viewing of the body. State-run broadcaster RAI showed the body in a casket enclosed in crystal, wearing a monk's hooded dark robe.
The officials gathered solemnly around the crypt, and prayed. The faithful, who will be able to file past the body later Thursday, followed the ceremony through maxi TV screens outside.
The Capuchin monk, whose original name was Francesco Forgione, had an enormous following in Italy and abroad. He lived for decades with inexplicable bleeding wounds on his hands and feet.
Church officials exhumed the body so the faithful could pray before it, since this year marks the 40th anniversary of his death. They also wanted to take measures to ensure it was being well preserved.
Since the unearthing in March, the body has been prepared for public viewing in the crypt of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in San Giovanni Rotondo, a town near the Adriatic in southern Puglia.
Church officials have said there was no sign of the so-called stigmata on his limbs after an initial examination, and that the body was in good condition.
Organizers say they expect 15,000 people to pay their respects to Padre Pio on the first day of the viewing. It is not yet known when the body will be reburied.
Padre Pio had a huge public following in life, as in death, and his beatification and canonization ceremonies drew hundreds of thousands of people to the Vatican.
For decades, though, many in the Vatican were uneasy about his popularity and scorned him, doubting that his wounds were real and that mystical virtues attributed to him were authentic. He was barred for years from saying Mass in public, even as his following grew immensely.