His bearded face can be seen everywhere in Italy – tucked into the frames of mirrors behind bars; taped on to taxi drivers’ dashboards; in beggars’ bowls.
Since his canonisation in 2002, he has been St Pius. But for his devotees – it is estimated there are 15 million worldwide – he will always be Padre Pio, an ill-educated Capuchin monk with supernatural powers who bore the marks of Christ’s crucifixion.
Yesterday, his global cult acquired a shrine of appropriate size and splendour, when a huge basilica designed by the Genoese architect Renzo Piano was consecrated on the mountainous promontory where Padre Pio lived his simple, though intensely controversial, life.
The new church of San Giovanni Rotondo can hold a congregation of 7,000, with space for more than 30,000 outside.
The €35m (£23m) cost of the building, which took 10 years to design and build, has been met entirely by contributions from the faithful.
Mr Piano said he had tried to arrange the vast spaces and surfaces in such a way that the gaze of visitors “can be lost between the sky, the sea and the earth”.
That theme was echoed by Pope John Paul in a message read to the congregation yesterday.
He said: “The limits of the cult to this humble son of St Francis have become the ends of the earth.”
San Giovanni Rotondo in Puglia has become the world’s second-most visited place of pilgrimage after Guadalupe in Mexico.
Last year, the number of visitors soared by more than a third after the Pope announced that pilgrims qualified for a total remission of their sins.
The cult of Padre Pio has generated a £35m tourist business in a once-poor area. It has also given rise to an ugly sprawl of cheap hotels and trinket shops that Mr Piano’s elegant, low-lying dome will do much to dignify.
Celebrated for his designs for the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Osaka airport, Mr Piano initially turned down entreaties from the Capuchin monks. Yesterday, he admitted to continued mixed feelings. “It’s a mixed-up world that surrounds Padre Pio,” he said.
“There is confusion between the sacred – himself and his miracles – and all the commercialisation that surrounds him.”
Many liberal Catholics, including the late Pope John XXIII, were sceptical of Padre Pio, and hostile to the traditional faith he represented. He was twice investigated by the Vatican in the 1930s and at one stage was banned from saying mass.
He was said to have received the stigmata – the five wounds of the crucifixion – in 1918, by which time he was in his early thirties. His followers claimed he had about him the “odour of sanctity”, a fragrance like roses.
Padre Pio has rarely been out of the news since his death in 1968. Last month, he was claimed to have interceded in the release of three Italians held hostage in Iraq. One of the men was at yesterday’s ceremony.
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