.- Thousands of devotees of the Italian mystic St. Padre Pio gathered at his shrine to see his exhumed body, which is on display for the first time since his death nearly 40 years ago.
More than one million people are expected to view his corpse, which is displayed in a transparent casket, between now and September 2009, according to Agence France Presse.
On Thursday more than 15,000 people viewed the saintâs body and also attended a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vaticanâs Congregation for Saints.
Cardinal Martins said in his homily, âWhat we see is a dead body, no longer animated by the breath of God. But Padre Pio is not simply a corpse: he lives on in communion with Jesus resurrected.â The cardinal also called Padre Pio a âsaint of the people.â
The Italian state broadcaster RAI broadcast the events live across the country. According to AFP, Consilia De Martino, who was cured from a ruptured lymph duct through the Padre Pioâs intercession, was present. Her recovery was considered one of the miracles necessary for the saintâs canonization.
Padre Pio, a Capuchin friar, was credited by his fellow friars with more than 1,000 miraculous cures and interventions. Church authorities were skeptical of the reputed miracle worker until his death in 1968. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II.
In 1910 St. Pio began to bear the stigmata, the wounds that Jesus received from his crucifixion.
Investigators examining his cause for sainthood considered and dismissed allegations that Padre Pio acquired carbolic acid from a pharmacist that could have been used to simulate the stigmata. A book published last year repeated the allegations.
The saintâs body was exhumed in March and was reportedly in âsurprisingly good condition.â His beard, nails, knees, and hands were clearly visible.
Biochemists and forensic scientists have worked to make the body fit for display. His displayed body wore a lifelike silicon mask of his face and was mainly hidden under his monkâs habit. The forensic scientists, addressing a press conference, denied that the face was badly decomposed. They said the mask was used to protect the sensibilities of visitors.
Local Bishop Umberto Domenico DâAmbrosio told the press conference that when the tomb was opened there was no unpleasant smell. âWhen I asked the doctors for an explanation they told me it was up to me to provide an answer, not them," he said.
In 2009 the body will be returned to the crypt of Santa Maria delle Grazie church in San Giovanni Rotondo, next to the friary where Padre Pio lived for most of his life.