Saint's exhumed body on display

The remains of Padre Pio, Italy's most popular saint, have gone on display in at the start of observances marking the 40th anniversary year of his death.

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The late monk is a cult figure for millions around the world as many Christians believe he had permanent sores on his hands similar to the stigmata, or the wounds of Jesus Christ's crucifixion.

The remains, displayed in a glass case, were cloaked in a traditional black hooded Capuchin robe, while a silicone mask bearing the revered features of Padre Pio covered the dead saint's face.

The mask closely resembles a picture of the bearded monk that can be seen across the country in homes as well as shops, restaurants and on taxi dashboards.

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the Vatican's “minister” of saints, celebrated a special mass early Thursday to mark the start of several months during which pilgrims will be able to view Padre Pio's exhumed body in a glass enclosure.

The mass took place in the square outside the Saint Maria of Grace church where the body went on display.

The crowd was far smaller than the 50,000 initially expected and did not even reach the 15,000 predicted on Wednesday by the press service of Pio Padre's Capuchin Order.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to view the body, even though Padre Pio remains a controversial figure.

More than 75,000 people from around the world have already booked visits for the display of the body, Padre Pio's Capuchin Order said in a communique.

It will lie in the crypt of 1950's era Saint Maria of Grace church, rather than the enormous San Pio di Pietralcina, designed by the celebrated architect Renzo Piano and consecrated in 2004 with a capacity for 7,000 worshippers.

The new church, considered too lofty for the simple saint and shunned by the cult surrounding him, has seen little use.

The town where Padre Pio spent most of his life is almost entirely devoted to his memory, a host of souvenir shops selling Padre Pio memorabilia. There is even a television station that broadcasts nothing but programmes about the monk.

Responding to scepticism over the purported stigmata, Pope John XXIII ordered a medical investigation in 1960, and his successor Paul VI rejected the doubts four years later.

While the popular cult focuses on the stigmata, the Church hierarchy stresses the monk's good works including a hospital that dominates the village along with the dozens of hotels and religious souvenir shops.

Padre Pio's run-ins with the Vatican fueled rather than dampened the personality cult that surrounded him.

After his death on September 23, 1968, Padre Pio achieved sainthood in record time thanks to John Paul II, who beatified him in 1999 and canonised him in 2002.

Padre Pio's body was exhumed in March to allow experts to prepare the body.

Bishop Domenico D'Ambrosio, who presided over the opening of the coffin, said the saint's hands appeared “as smooth as if they had just been manicured.”

The wounds were said to have disappeared upon Padre Pio's death.

Some faithful had tried legal means to prevent the exhumation, which they considered a sacrilege; they also fear that the body will be transferred to the new church designed by Piano.