Sainthood for Stigmata monk
VATICAN CITY -- A monk whose hands bled like the wounds of Christ has been made a saint.
Hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims converged on the Vatican for the canonisation of Padre Pio by Pope John Paul II on Sunday.
"We include the blessed Pio of Pietrelcina in the annals of saints and we establish that throughout the whole Church he be devotedly honoured among the saints," the Pope said.
Padre Pio was extremely popular among parishioners, attracting an international reputation, but doubted for most of his life by the Vatican with some insisting his stigmata wounds were a fraud.
But in troubled times for the Church Pio fits into Pope John Paul's quest for role models of unstinting belief and obedience, having lived a life of piety and refusing to rise to criticism of him.
Italian civil protection squads distributed about one million bottles of water and hosed down the estimated 250,000-strong crowd to bring relief from sweltering temperatures in St Peter's Square.
Huge screens were placed along the long boulevard that leads from the River Tiber to the Vatican so that pilgrims could follow the ceremony.
Pio was considered the first priest in centuries to bear the signs of the stigmata, the wounds that Christ suffered in his hands, feet and side, at crucifixion.
His popularity among rank-and-file Catholics grew wildly and Italian celebrity magazines sold briskly when Pio was on the cover instead of the usual photo of a cinema sex symbol.
The monk's reputation spread abroad. While a simple priest, John Paul -- then Karol Wojytla -- journeyed from Poland to Puglia, in south-eastern Italy, to receive confession by Padre Pio.
As pontiff, John Paul prayed at Pio's underground tomb -- the monk from the Capuchin order died in 1968 -- at the sanctuary in the southern Italian town of San Giovanni Rotondo.
Even before sainthood, millions of Catholics found their model in Pio. San Giovanni Rotondo rivals Lourdes, France, as a top-drawing shrine.
In May 1999, the pope beatified Pio, the last formal step toward sainthood. After that, one miracle was needed to clinch canonisation, and believers had only to wait eight months.
A little boy, the son of a doctor who works in a hospital Pio founded in San Giovanni Rotondo, awoke from a coma triggered by meningitis. Doctors consulted by the Vatican concluded that Matteo Pio Colella's recovery had no scientific explanation.
"The doctors gave him up as a lost cause. I entrusted him to Pio," Matteo's mother, Maria Lucia Ippolito, told The Associated Press as her son, dressed up like a little monk, rehearsed at the Vatican for a musical in early June about Pio.
A Capuchin priest who formally argued the cause of sainthood at the Vatican, the Rev. Forio Tessari, said it was Padre Pio's uncomplaining life of pain which impressed John Paul.
"The pope was struck above all by the spiritual figure of Padre Pio, a man who had a strong experience of God, who prayed, suffered in silence, obeyed his superiors with faith," Tessari told AP.
Some of this silence was imposed by Vatican officials wary about his mysticism.
When 15-year-old Francesco Forgione in a small town near Naples had a vision, he entered a convent and took the name "Pio," which means pious in Italian. In 1910, hours after celebrating his first Mass, Padre Pio reported pain in his feet and hands, a foreshadowing of the bleeding he was to report a few years later.
In the 1920s, the Vatican expressed doubts about the supernaturalism of the wounds and ordered him to stop celebrating mass in public - a ban that would last a decade.
Some in the church hierarchy wondered if he caused the wounds himself by perhaps pouring acid on them.
Sceptics in the Vatican were eventually won over, said Tessari, "by how he reacted to before the accusations, with silence, serenity."
Pope John Paul has sought to rejuvenate faith among Catholics by raising to sainthood a record-number of figures in his 24 years as pope.
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