SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, ITALY — The exhumed and cosmetically enhanced corpse of Padre Pio, mystic monk and one of the world's most revered saints, went on display here Thursday amid weeping devotees and eager souvenir-hawkers.
By evening, several thousand pilgrims had filed past the body of the purported worker of miracles and reader of souls whose cult-like following spans the globe.
Padre Pio died 40 years ago at the age of 81, and the tomb containing his remains was unearthed from a church crypt here last month. A team of forensic specialists, doctors and a biochemist worked to restore the body for Thursday's ceremony.
A London company that supplies figures for wax museums created a special silicon mask to represent his face, complete with beard and bushy eyebrows.
Resting in a regal glass-and-marble coffin in the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church, Padre Pio is wearing the brown hood of his Capuchin order, and an ice-white silk stole embroidered in crystal and gold covers his shoulders. His hands are placed on his chest under a large wooden cross, darkened fingers poking out of partial gloves.
"My heart is crying," Anna Menga, 56, said after praying alongside Padre Pio's body for the health of her sick son. "Whenever we have problems or we feel sad, we turn to Padre Pio. He has changed my life."
Roman Catholic bishops and priests were among the first to view the body, many using cellphones to snap photos. Nuns standing to one side of the coffin said prayers.
Padre Pio has such a loyal following that in some parts of Italy his name is invoked in prayer more frequently than that of the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ.
He is also big business, and business in this rustic region of southern Italy has been hurting. Numerous hotels built after Pio became a saint six years ago have gone bust, and a mayor was convicted of absconding with funds. City fathers and church officials are hoping the renewed reverence will give a boost to the economy.
Prospects look good: City officials say about 750,000 pilgrims and tourists have made reservations to view the body through June, and hotels are booked full.
Anna Manzelli, 31, of Sicily brought her sick mother-in-law to Padre Pio's hospital and her two little children to Thursday's Mass in his honor. Her 2-year-old is named for the saint.
"I pray to Padre Pio. I don't ask for money or anything like that but for love, family unity and peace," said Manzelli, who works as a psychotherapist.
In life, Padre Pio cut an imposing figure, a large but tormented man with a full beard, clad always in his brown robes. He bore stigmata, bloody wounds on his hands and feet that believers say simulate the injuries of Jesus on the cross.
Photographs almost always show Pio, who was born Francesco Forgione, with a furrowed brow and a slightly crazed look about the eyes. Believers who knew him say he could look into their souls and know their sins without a word being spoken. The lore surrounding him also says he was capable of "bilocation," being in two places at once, and was able to effect miraculous cures and tell the future.
Paula Zamparelli, 81, who knew Padre Pio for many years, credits him with curing her tuberculosis shortly after World War II, when her family was poor and hungry. She also said he helped find her a husband and encouraged her to have children, even when the doctors told her she was too sickly.
"He always had so many people around him," Zamparelli said in an interview in her small apartment as she pored over family photos showing Padre Pio at her wedding and the baptisms and first communions of her children. "He'd look at you with this steady gaze, a stare, and you'd get scared because you knew he knew everything you had done."
For critics, the adulation of Padre Pio represents the kind of superstition-infused popular worship frowned upon by more modern Catholicism. The Vatican periodically tried to rein him in, banning him from priestly duties for a couple of years, though his following only continued to grow. And he was frequently accused of being a fake, to the point of suggestions that he used acid to inflict his stigmata wounds.
However, the late Pope John Paul II embraced him fully, canonizing Padre Pio as a saint in 2002.
Even some believers, however, say the hoopla surrounding Padre Pio is the last thing the humble servant of God would have wanted. Some Padre Pio devotees, especially an older generation that knew him in life, vehemently opposed the decision to exhume his body.
"The faithful feel anguish and astonishment about what has happened and many faithful are offended," said Francesco Traversi, a lawyer who says being blessed at age 7 by Padre Pio was a life-altering experience.