Padre Pio to be canonised tomorrow


ITALY: Up to 400,000 pilgrims are expected to pour into Rome tomorrow for the canonisation of the Capuchin stigmatic, the Blessed Padre Pio of Pietralcina. Police, numbering 1,750, and 1,000 voluntary workers will be on hand to ensure the smooth functioning of one of the biggest religious celebrations that even the Eternal City has ever seen, a ceremony held in St Peter's Square and presided over by the ailing Pope John Paul II, himself a devotee of the Capuchin friar.

Given that large numbers of Roman citizens are likely to leave the city and head for the beach on a hot weekend, Roman civic authorities are confident that the city can cope with an influx of pilgrims due to start today and then pick up pace from as early as 4 a.m. tomorrow. The majority of pilgrims will arrive on more than 3,600 buses, with others travelling on 50 special trains and by private car.

Since the huge attendance will inevitably spill out well beyond St Peter's Square into the surrounding streets, nine giant TV screens have been erected to enable the pilgrims to follow the service. Down in San Giovanni Rotondo, Puglia, where Padre Pio lived for most of his life in a Capuchin monastery, a crowd of more than 100,000 will also be following the canonisation ceremony on giant TV screens.

Padre Pio, who died in 1968, is known to millions of Catholics worldwide for his holiness and for the stigmata (Greek for marks) or bodily signs of Christ's passion that he bore for the last 40 years of his life. Born into a poor peasant family near Benevento in southern Italy in 1887, Padre Pio had just finished conscript service in the first World War when he first reported the stigmata.

From then until his death, he remained a highly controversial figure, distrusted by a series of senior Vatican officials but increasingly ever more venerated by ordinary Catholic faithful. Upwards of eight million pilgrims now travel every year to his shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo.

Detractors claimed that his "condition" was merely a conjuring trick brought about by the use of phenol or carbolic acid or something similar. Yet, despite no less than 25 Vatican investigations, which on more than one occasion saw him suspended from priestly service, no one was ever able to offer a satisfactory explanation as to why his wounds oozed blood without any apparent laceration or why the wounds closed to leave no visible sign within hours of his death.

While many senior Vatican officials often treated Padre Pio with distrust, Pope John Paul II has never made any secret of his devotion to the Capuchin friar. As a young priest, Karol Wojtyla visited San Giovanni in 1947.

Sixteen years later he asked Padre Pio to pray for a Polish psychiatrist friend, Wanda Poltawska, then suffering from apparently terminal cancer of the throat. Some time after Padre Pio's prayers, Ms Poltawska recovered and that recovery gained Padre Pio an influential ally.

Another inexplicable recovery is at the heart of tomorrow's canonisation. Matteo Colella (8) seemed certain to die of multiple organ failure two years ago when he made a medically inexplicable recovery, attributed to the intervention of Padre Pio. Young Matteo is due to receive his first

Communion from the Pope during tomorrow's ceremony.