SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy — As a priest conducted midday Mass for hundreds of pilgrims, other believers in Padre Pio crowded around his statue at the side of the sanctuary.
Some lovingly caressed the bronze hands marked with stigmata for which the controversial mystic was famous. The less reverent posed for souvenir snapshots, oblivious to the disruption that their flashes caused to more devout followers of the beloved Capuchin friar.
Welcome to San Giovanni Rotondo, dubbed by some "the Las Vegas of the faithful." Padre Pio--who will be canonized by Pope John Paul II today, 34 years after his death--rose to fame and spent most of his working life in this remote town in southeastern Italy.
To his millions of followers worldwide, Padre Pio was always a saint. Their faith is now being rewarded with the exceptionally rapid elevation to sainthood of a figure repeatedly investigated by the Vatican during his lifetime as a suspected fraud and a sexual wrongdoer.
"In our hearts, Jesus Christ holds the first place, but Padre Pio comes second," explained Angela Bellopede, 56, a small-town Italian who said she comes here twice a year. "All the people just want to honor him because he grants many graces."
Some say that with Padre Pio's canonization, San Giovanni Rotondo might replace Lourdes, France, as Europe's premier pilgrimage site--if it hasn't already done so in terms of sheer numbers. A widely quoted estimate is that 7.5 million visitors a year come here, while Lourdes claims only 5 million.
Padre Pio, who died in 1968 at 81, drew the displeasure of several popes but the support of others, giving a roller-coaster character to his career. He was named Francesco Forgione at birth and later adopted the religious name Pio.
His fame was launched--and the suspicions against him began--in 1918, when word spread that he had been marked by stigmata--wounds on his hands, feet and side similar to those of Jesus on the cross.
Such marks are viewed in Roman Catholic tradition as an extraordinary sign of holiness and are believed to have been borne by St. Francis of Assisi, an important role model for Padre Pio.
Over the decades, Padre Pio was investigated for alleged sexual misconduct; doubt was cast on the stigmata, which his followers say he bore until his death; and he was banned at times from saying Mass or hearing confessions.
Now, with the support of Pope John Paul, who met Padre Pio decades ago and reputedly credits him with curing a friend of cancer through the force of prayer, all the old concerns have been decisively swept aside.
His canonization comes just three years after his beatification, the last step before becoming a saint.
In a brief biography, the Vatican credits Padre Pio's fervent followers with a key role in the decision to grant him sainthood.
"In the years following his death, his reputation for sanctity and miracles grew steadily and became established in the church all over the world and among all kinds of people," it says. "God thus showed the Church his desire to glorify on earth his faithful servant."
Padre Pio's photo, showing him with a white beard and a deep gaze, can be found all over Italy. Police even reported finding it alongside a handgun in the pocket of accused Mafia boss Antonino Giuffre when they arrested him in Sicily this spring.
But the seat of his greatest glorification--and commercialization--is San Giovanni Rotondo. Here the streets are lined with shops selling Padre Pio statuettes, Padre Pio photos, Padre Pio T-shirts and Padre Pio trinkets.
On the hillside is another Padre Pio legacy: one of southern Italy's biggest and best hospitals. Called the House for the Relief of Suffering, it opened here in 1956 despite its hard-to-reach location near what might be called the spur of the Italian boot. Padre Pio made fund-raising for the hospital and details of its organization a key focus of his work.
"I'm happy that you can find a souvenir of Padre Pio, but I think there's some exploitation of the phenomenon," said Carmela Lisanti, a pilgrim from the town of Ferrandina.
"I'm happy about the hospital because it has good facilities and good doctors. But I don't like too much the souvenir trade."
But the souvenir trade is important for San Giovanni Rotondo, for the town of 27,000 lives on little but Padre Pio. "Beyond his sanctity, Padre Pio brought us much work," said Antonio Russo, 40, who works at a restaurant catering mainly to visitors.
Vatican investigations of Padre Pio began in 1920 under Pope Benedict XV after the local bishop suggested that the Capuchins, a Franciscan order known for vows of poverty, were making a spectacle out of Padre Pio to attract contributions.
Specialists soon suggested that his wounds were due to hysteria, or that he was keeping them open intentionally under the guise of treating them with antiseptic. The stigmata were rarely seen because he almost always wore gloves to hide them in public.