Pope to pay homage to venerated Italian saint

Vatican City (AFP) –


Pope Francis will pay homage to the beloved Italian saint Padre Pio in March, visiting the sites connected to a man reputed by believers to have been able to levitate.

The Argentine pontiff will make a quick trip on March 17 to Padre Pio's hometown of Pietrelcina near Naples before flying by helicopter to San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy, the Vatican said Tuesday.

Pio was revered during his lifetime (1887-1968) and his popularity has grown since his death, particularly in Italy, where mini-statues and pictures of the mystical Capuchin friar are ubiquitous.

The pope's visit will mark the 50th anniversary of Padre Pio's death.

Born Francesco Forgione, he lived most of his life in the Capuchin convent of San Giovanni Rotondo, which is now a sanctuary where his body is on display.

In a crowd-pleasing move last year, Francis had the remains of the saint -- a favourite among those looking for compassion and healing -- brought to Rome and carried through the streets to the Vatican.

Thousands turned out to glimpse the body of a man said by followers to have been able to read minds and miraculously appear in foreign lands while remaining at the same time in his friary.

- Exhumation -

Canonised under Pope John-Paul II, Pio's brand of popular, mystical Catholicism was less popular with the Vatican authorities when he was alive.

He regularly spoke of having both heavenly and diabolic visions, other clerics claimed to have witnessed him levitating in ecstasy and he was frequently associated with apparently miraculous recoveries among the seriously ill.

From the age of 31 until the end of his life, he regularly presented apparent signs of stigmata -- marks on the body corresponding to the wounds of Jesus during his crucifixion.

One sceptic wrote a book suggesting Pio maintained his wounds with acid while a prominent doctor theorised that he suffered from a rare form of haemophilia.

While Pio was regarded with suspicion by popes John XXIII and Paul VI, he was admired by Polish pope John Paul II, who confessed to the friar when he was a young priest.

Pio's legend was further enhanced after his death when, in 2008, his body was exhumed from his crypt to be put on display and was allegedly found to be in remarkably good condition.

There were, however, no signs of any stigmata and his skull had become exposed, which resulted in a silicon face mask being made for him.