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ROME, Italy (AP) -- 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 were 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.
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.
Among the stories that surround the monk, who died at the age of 81, is one that he wrestled with the devil one night in his monastery cell and emerged bloodied and bruised.
Some believers also say Padre Pio was able to predict events, was seen in two places at once and could tell people their sins before they confessed them to him.
However, he was dogged during his life and after his death by accusations of fraud. A book last year suggested he was a self-harming man who might have used carbolic acid to cause his wounds. Church officials have denied he was a fake.