Monk to become saint tomorrow
By Frances D'Emilio
VATICAN CITY A mystic monk who won adulation from rank-and-file Roman Catholics but scorn from the Vatican during his lifetime will be made a saint tomorrow by Pope John Paul II, a longtime admirer who once sought the priest out as his confessor.
The honor for Padre Pio, an Italian Capuchin who died in 1968, fits into the pontiff's quest for models of unquestioning belief and obedience in recent, faith-testing times.
Hundreds of thousands of followers of Pio are expected to flock to St. Peter's Square tomorrow for the canonization of the monk whose palms bled inexplicably for decades.
Doubted and rejected by many in the Vatican for much of his life, and accused by detractors of fraudulently causing the bleeding to emulate the crucified Christ, Padre Pio persisted in his life's labor of prayer while his popularity among lay Catholics grew vastly.
Italian celebrity magazines sold briskly when Pio was on the cover instead of a photo of a sexy star.
His reputation spread abroad. While a simple priest, Karol Wojytla journeyed from Poland to Puglia, in southeastern Italy, to be confessed by Padre Pio. As pontiff, John Paul prayed at Pio's underground tomb at the monk's sanctuary, San Giovanni Rotondo, which now rivals Lourdes, France, as a pilgrimage site.
For John Paul, "here is somebody who demonstrates the possibility of sanctity, when the forces of industrialization, modern life, modern agnosticism and totalitarianism have seemed to eclipse that possibility," said historian R. Scott Appleby, who directs a center studying American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.
In May 1999, the pope beatified Pio, the last formal step toward sainthood. After that, one miracle was needed to ensure canonization, and believers had only to wait eight months.
A little boy, the son of a doctor who works in a hospital that Pio founded in San Giovanni Rotondo, awoke from a coma brought on by meningitis. Doctors consulted by the Vatican concluded that Matteo Pio Colella's recovery had no scientific explanation.
"The doctors gave him up as a lost cause. I entrusted him to Pio," said Matteo's mother, Maria Lucia Ippolito.
A Capuchin priest who formally argued the cause of sainthood at the Vatican, the Rev. Forio Tessari, said it was Padre Pio's uncomplaining life of pain that impressed John Paul, who is 82 and struggling to continue in the papacy.
Some of Pio's silence was imposed by Vatican officials wary about his mysticism.
Born Francesco Forgione in 1887 in a small town near Naples, he had a vision when he was 15, entered religious life and took the name "Pio," which means pious in Italian. In 1910, hours after celebrating his first Mass, Padre Pio reported pain in his feet and hands, a foreshadowing of the bleeding he was to report a few years later.
Pio was considered the first priest in centuries to bear the signs of the stigmata, the wounds that Christ suffered in his hands, feet and side at crucifixion. In the 1920s, the Vatican expressed doubts about Pio's bleeding and
ordered him to stop celebrating Mass in public, a ban that would last a decade.
Pio would hear confessions, for hours, to the point of exhaustion, gratefully taking the candies that the faithful would offer him to moisten his parched throat. Two friars once bugged his confessional to see if he was a fake. Pio emerged unscathed.
Skeptics in the Vatican were eventually won over, Tessari said.