VATICAN CITY -- The body of Italy's beloved saint Padre Pio went on display last Thursday (April 24) at his shrine in southern Italy; over the coming months, more than 1 million people are expected to see it.
Pilgrims file past a casket with walls of bullet-proof glass, where Pio lies with his face covered by a life-like silicone mask, produced by a British firm that supplies wax museums.
The spectacle may strike observers outside of traditionally Catholic societies as strange, or downright ghoulish. And even in his homeland, some of Pio's devotees have protested the exhumation and display, denouncing them as contrary to the saint's wishes and the "simplicity and humility" that he exemplified in life.
Yet the exhibition of a holy person's mortal remains for public veneration is part of an ancient Christian practice. "We do not worship, we do not adore ... but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are," wrote St. Jerome, a doctor of the church who died in the 5th century.
The concept of relics, which originally referred to holy corpses, expanded to encompass body parts and objects associated with the deceased.
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The great medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century that "God fittingly does honor to such relics by performing miracles in their presence." Apologists for this belief have traditionally cited a passage from the Old Testament, in which contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha bring a dead man back to life.
No doubt some of those who visit Pio's body this year, the 40th anniversary of his death, will do so in the hope of a miraculous cure owing to the mystic friar's intervention.
But rather than encourage such hopes, those behind the display are instead emphasizing its value as an inspiring religious symbol.
A spokesman for the relevant church authorities told the Reuters news agency that they had decided to show Pio's body "in the hope that it might favor the spiritual growth of his devotees and the conversion of whoever might come (here) in the next months, even if only out of curiosity, and go home renewed, just as often happened when Padre Pio was still alive."