Thousands queue to see corpse of Padre Pio

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Twenty thousand pilgrims queued for hours for a glimpse of the body of St Pio of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio, with a mask ordered from the company that supplies Madame Tussauds covering the skull.

The body of the most popular and controversial saint of modern times was put on public display yesterday, 40 years after his death, at the centre of his cult in San Giovanni Rotondo.

At a mass held in the town before the unveiling, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the head of the Vatican's sainthood office, said: "Today we venerate his body... Padre Pio is not only a corpse. Looking at his remains, we remember all the good that he has done." The bearded Capuchin friar was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002 before one of the biggest crowds St Peter's has seen. He was hailed by millions around the world as a miracle worker, and the little southern Italian town where he lived and died became the focus of mass pilgrimage and has prospered greatly as a result.

He died in September 1968, aged 81. Last month, he was exhumed so the condition of the body could be ascertained before being consigned to its permanent home in a crypt under the town's vast modern church.

Officials who examined the corpse said it was in "fair condition", apart from the head, much of which had been reduced to bare bone. A team of medical scientists and biochemists has been working since then to restore the corpse to a presentable condition. The face has been covered with a wax mask commissioned from a company that supplies waxworks to Madame Tussauds.

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