Million to see canonisation of Padre Pio, the miracle monk who makes fortunes

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Up to a million people are expected to flood St Peter's Square today when Padre Pio, the bearded Capuchin friar from San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy, is made a saint only 34 years after his death.

Up to a million people are expected to flood St Peter's Square today when Padre Pio, the bearded Capuchin friar from San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy, is made a saint only 34 years after his death.

Padre Pio became a cult during his life, and his gold-haloed visage is unavoidable in Italy. It looms on posters in piazzas in Rome, grins from television sets, and glares from postage stamps.

Famous for the bleeding stigmata on his hands, feet and side, and credited with dozens of miracles, the monk is thought to have 10 million devotees around the world, including celebrities such as Sophia Loren. The writer Graham Greene is said to have carried two pictures of Padre Pio around with him.

However, not everyone is comfortable with this rapid canonisation, or with the way the Padre Pio phenomenon has been exploited.

Alessandro Maggiolini, Bishop of Como and an eminent theologian, spoke out yesterday against the vast industry that has grown up around the holy man. "Jesus Christ chased out the merchants from the temple, but I see now that they have returned," he said in an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica.

He was expressing the unease felt by many Catholics at the vast sums of money generated from followers of a monk whose order espouses poverty. Tickets for today's ceremony, originally given out free, are being sold by touts for €200 (£128) each. Vendors have set up stalls to sell Padre Pio statuettes for €116 each, and life-size statues for up to €3,300, along with dashboard ornaments, snowstorm paperweights and scarves with scenes from his life. Padre Pio ice cream is on sale, and there are 200 biographies of him in the shops.

In San Giovanni Rotondo itself, a hawker of Padre Pio memorabilia is claimed to earn €150,000 a year. The remote town, complete with a McDonald's and a bingo hall blessed by a Franciscan priest, is often known as the Catholic Las Vegas. With 100 hotels for the eight million or so visitors who pass through each year, it competes with Lourdes as a magnet for pilgrims.

Padre Pio was just over 30 when, in 1918, other monks were supposed to have heard him cry out. He was found unconscious, with blood pouring from his hands and feet and from a wound in the shape of a cross in his side. These stigmata were said to have oozed a cup of blood a day throughout his life, although they disappeared as he died.

The monk quickly attracted followers, whose claims for him grew with the years. He was said to emit a scent of violets and roses, which lingered on everything he touched. He was also supposed to have been capable of bi-location, so that although he never left the friary in San Giovanni Rotondo, there were sightings of him in Uruguay, Rome and Milwaukee.

Many believe Padre Pio was able to levitate, and that during the Second World War he soared into the sky to rescue an Italian pilot struck by enemy fire. A lock of his hair was said to have brought a youth out of a coma in Sicily, while prayers to him are claimed to have cured cancer and brought longed-for pregnancies.

But while Pope John Paul has supported Padre Pio's canonisation, the relationship between the friar and the church has not always been cordial. He was accused of sexual relationships with women, and under Pope John XXIII the church authorities tapped his confessional box. The authenticity of his stigmata was also questioned, and he was banned from saying mass in public.

Although Padre Pio was personally exonerated, there were claims that his fame was used to raise funds for right-wing religious groups. Benito Mussolini was supposed to have written to him, expressing hope that one day the friar would be made a saint. And while many church institutions were ruined by a shady investment scheme, Padre Pio's monastery was swamped with money.

The canonisation will give the Padre Pio industry further impetus, although some are said to fear that his new name, St Pio, might not be such an instantly recognisable "brand". But a vast new church in his name, designed by Renzo Piano, is being built in St Peter's at a cost, so far, of €25m. It will seat 7,000 worshippers and have standing space for a further 30,000.