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Padre Pio to Be Canonized Today

Aired June 16, 2002 - 09:02   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: One of the most controversial figures of the Italian Catholic Church is now a saint. A quarter million people packed St. Peter's Square today for the canonization of Padre Pio. They mystic monk died in 1968 with a cult-like following among Italians because of his supposed supernatural powers. He also was said to bleed from the wounds of Christ.

The Vatican regarded Padre Pio with suspicion during his lifetime, even at times forbidding him from saying mass, but his popularity only grew and his canonization is a major event for Italian Catholics. Rome Bureau chief Alessio Vinci is live now with the details. Hi, Alessio.

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN ROME BUREAU CHIEF: Hi, Kyra. Well, we can judge the popularity of Padre Pio by just counting the number of people that, despite the sweltering heat here in Rome today, 90 degrees Celsius (sic) and above, flocked to St. Peter's Square and via Conciliazione and all the areas around St. Peter's today to witness firsthand the canonization process of Padre Pio, the Italian Cappucine friar who had dedicated most of his life to prayers, to the devotion of Jesus Christ, and a man who many people here like to remember him as a man who suffered for the good of other people.

But to his followers, Padre Pio was more than just a simple friar. He was a man capable of performing miracles, healing the sick people, a man with a gift of being in more than one place at once.

But what made him really popular and perhaps even one of the most controversial figures in the Italian Catholic Church was the fact that he bore the stigmata, the wounds, the Biblical wounds of Jesus Christ, and most of his followers really believe in his special powers.

And, indeed, when he was alive, he was born in 1886, I believe. He died in 1968, so very recently. Many thousands, hundreds of thousands of people every year flock to his convent seeking for his blessing and, of course, his confession. It is believed that Padre Pio had performed more than 1.2 million confessions throughout his 50 years at the convent in southern Italy in the little town village of San Giovanni Rotundo.

Now, ironically, the stigmata that made him very popular also made him one of the most suspicious persons as far as the Vatican was concerned. For many, many years, he was confined. The Vatican prohibited him from administering his mass church services in public. Eventually, Pope Paul VI rehabilitated him, and this pope, John Paul II, actually met Padre Pio in 1947 when the pope, when then he was just a priest in Poland, rehabilitated him and made him, beautified him in 1999, and today, again, in front of a crowd of 250,000 people at least, made him a saint.

Now to help us out here understand a little bit more about who Padre Pio is, is John Allen. He's the Vatican analyst for CNN. Welcome to you, John. I know it's very hot. We'll try to do this really quick. Now first of all, I mean, what made this man so popular first of all? I mean is this a miracle?

JOHN ALLEN, NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER: Well, yes, I think if you had to boil it down into one word, it would be the word compassion. I mean, his reputation, above all here in Italy, is this is a man who suffered. He suffered physically bearing the wounds of Christ. There are also legends about battles he had with the devil in his cell in the monastery in which he lived. He also suffered emotionally and spiritually. I mean, as you mentioned, I mean there were several decades in which a lot of people in powerful positions in the Catholic Church thought he was a fraud and said so publicly.

VINCI: Well, how in trouble was he during those years? I mean, explain to us what the Vatican did in order to try to stop him?

ALLEN: Well, depending on how you count, there was somewhere between 12 and 25 different Vatican investigations of this guy. Several popes sent doctors down here to try to ascertain whether or not the stigmata that is the wounds in the hands and the feet and in his side were real. Some of these doctors concluded he was using chemicals to keep the wounds fresh.

Some people also thought that he was guilty of misusing funds for the hospital they built in his little town of San Giovanni Rotundo. Probably the most scurrilous accusation was that he was sexually involved with some of his female devotees.

Now obviously all of those things now have been debunked by the Vatican. Certainly, the present pope doesn't believe them. He believes he was a holy...

(AUDIO GAP).

VINCI: ... the pope actually has a personal history with Padre Pio. He met him in 1947 in San Giovanni Rotundo.

ALLEN: Yes, correct. He actually went to confession with Padre Pio in 1947, and this is one of the rare times that a pope is canonizing someone he's actually met. This has only happened a couple of other times in church history, so that also adds something special.

And, Alessio, you were with me in the square this morning. You saw a strong, emotionally-involved John Paul II, and I think that speaks to the fact that this is a very special saint to the pope.

VINCI: Now, how difficult is it to become a saint for the Catholic Church?

ALLEN: Well, I mean, on one level, it's hard. You know, I mean, there are a billion Catholics in the world, and if you look at the whole 2,000 year history of the church, very few of the Catholics who have been around have been moved up to the ranks of a saint.

On the other hand, it's gotten a little easier under this pope. I mean, the numbers are -- John Paul has beatified 1,250 people, made 457 saints. That's more than all the previous popes combined. So clearly, this is a pope who believes in giving the world models of holiness.

VINCI: OK. If you can in maybe 30 seconds tell us what kind of a man he was, Padre Pio? I mean, he was a man who was devoted, very much devoted to Jesus Christ, but he was a man also very lonely, right? He was a very lonely man.

ALLEN: Yes, I mean he was a character, you know. He was a very deeply pious, faithful praying guy, but he was also irascible. He had a terrible temper, according to people who knew him and he could be very short with people if he didn't think they were serious, you know, and that's one of the great lessons. A saint does not have to be a perfect person.

VINCI: Now he's also so popular, he has a Web site after him, a television station?

ALLEN: More than one, my friend.

VINCI: Yes, there are several Web sites, a television in his hometown, what else?

ALLEN: Well, this guy's a global phenomenon. I mean, you know, there are thousands of prayer groups around the world devoted to Padre Pio. This is one of those cases in which (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the sense of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that this guy's a saint is strong.

VINCI: John, thank you very much for joining us here.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

VINCI: Kyra, back to you on this extraordinary day here I Rome, the pontification of Padre Pio, back to you.

PHILLIPS: Alessio Vinci, thank you so much.

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