SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy (Reuters) - The exhumed body of Padre Pio, a saint considered a miracle worker by his devotees, attracted thousands of pilgrims on Thursday when it went on display 40 years after his death.
Padre Pio is one of the Catholic Church's most popular saints and during his lifetime the Italian monk was said to have had the stigmata, the bleeding wounds of Jesus' crucifixion on his hands and feet.
The economy of this southern town revolves around the cult of Padre Pio and heaving crowds waited to see his body, displayed in a crystal, marble and silver sepulcher in the crypt of the monastery where he spent most of his life.
His face was reconstructed with a lifelike silicone mask of the type used in wax museums because it was apparently too decomposed to show when the body was exhumed.
"He seems like he is sleeping. Even if they had to re-do the face, its better remembering him this way than looking at a slab of cold marble," said Domenico Masone, deputy mayor of Pietralcina, the town where Padre Pio was born.
Some 15,000 devotees attended a Mass said by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vatican department that oversees the Catholic Church's saint-making process, before the body went on display in the afternoon.
"He knows what I want from him," said Antonio Zimbaldi, 19, who attended Mass with his face, except for his lips, covered with white gauze.
"I have been devoted to him for as long as I can remember." Zimbaldi's entire body was burned in a fire caused by a gas explosion two years ago.
The body of the bearded Capuchin monk was exhumed from a crypt on March 3 and found to be in "fair condition" after 40 years. Since then a team of medical examiners and biochemists has worked to preserve and reconstruct the corpse.
In the sepulcher, he was dressed in a brown Capuchin habit and wore fingerless gloves he used to absorb blood from wounds on his hands. The mask was made by a London company which makes lifelike sculpted figures for museums.
A poll in 2006 by Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana found that more Italian Catholics prayed to Padre Pio than to any other figure, including the Virgin Mary or Jesus. His picture is stuck to the dashboards of many taxis and cars throughout Italy.
Eighty-year-old Assunta Antico attended the Mass sitting in a wheelchair and was covered with a shawl in the same deep brown that Padre Pio wore. "I had a stroke two years ago. I'm paralyzed and I want to walk again."
This town is home to a large hospital founded by the monk and many hotels and restaurants cater to the pilgrim trade.
As of Friday, the first of 750,000 people who have made reservations to see the body between now and December will file past the glass coffin at a rate of about 7,200 a day.
There are about 3,000 "Padre Pio Prayer Groups" in the world, with a membership of 3 million. Pope John Paul made him a saint in 2002 before one of the biggest Vatican crowds.
Among the stories that surround the monk, who died at the age of 81, is one that he wrestled with the devil one night in his monastery cell and emerged bloodied and bruised.
However, he was dogged by accusations of fraud. A book last year suggested he was a self-harming man who might have used carbolic acid to cause his wounds. Church officials have denied he was a fake.
Editing by Giles Elgood