ROME, Italy (AP) -- The body of Padre Pio, a hugely popular Italian saint, will go on public display starting Thursday, with thousands expected to visit and pray to the mystic monk whom many Catholic faithful believe bore the signs of Jesus' crucifixion.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vatican's sainthood office, lead an open-air Mass before thousands of faithful before the unveiling of the saint's body in a church in San Giovanni Rotondo, where he lived.
"Today, we venerate his body, opening a particularly intense period of pilgrimage," Saraiva Martins said. "This body is here, but Padre Pio is not only a corpse. Looking at his remains we remember all the good that he has made."
The Capuchin monk, who had an enormous following in Italy and abroad, died in 1968 after living for decades with inexplicable, bleeding wounds on his hands and feet, like the wounds Jesus suffered at crucifixion. Pope John Paul II made him a saint in 2002.
Church officials exhumed the body so the faithful could pray before it, since this year marks the 40th anniversary of his death. They also wanted to take measures to ensure it was being well preserved.
Since the unearthing in March, the body has been prepared for public viewing in the crypt of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in San Giovanni Rotondo, a town near the Adriatic in southern Puglia.
Church officials have said there was no sign of the so-called stigmata on his limbs after an initial examination, but otherwise, the body was in good condition.
Organizers say they expect 15,000 people to pay their respects to Padre Pio on the first day of the viewing. It is not yet known when the body will be reburied.
Padre Pio had a huge public following in life as in death and his beatification and canonization ceremonies drew hundreds of thousands of people to the Vatican.
For decades, though, many in the Vatican were made uneasy by his popularity and scorned him, doubting that his wounds were real and that his mystical virtues were authentic. He was banned for years from saying Mass in public, even as his following grew immensely.
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