June 21, 2009 / 12:35 PM / in 8 years

Pope urges town to honour mystic monk's faith

Pope Benedict XVI leads a mass during a visit to Padre Pio at Santa Maria delle Grazie in San Giovanni Rotondo, southern Italy, June 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Rossi

SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy (Reuters) - Pope Benedict paid homage to the remains of popular saint Padre Pio in southern Italy on Sunday and warned townspeople to keep their focus on God rather than the pilgrim trade.

One of the Catholic Church’s most beloved saints, Padre Pio was said to have had the stigmata -- the bleeding wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion on his hands and feet. But he has also been dogged by accusations of fraud, which the Church rejects.

The Capuchin monk lived most of his life in a monastery in the southern town of San Giovanni Rotondo until his death 41 years ago. His exhumed body was put on display there last year and attracts 7 million pilgrims each year.

After praying before the saint’s remains, Pope Benedict hailed Padre Pio before tens of thousands gathered under overcast skies as a “simple man of humble origins” who used all his spiritual gifts to serve God.

But his main message appeared directed to those he called the “heirs” of the monk’s legacy -- the friars, Padre Pio prayer group members and town faithful -- as he warned they ran the risk of losing sight of their principal duty.

“Many of you, religious and secular, are so taken up by the thousand tasks required by service to pilgrims, or the sick in the hospitals, that you run the risk of neglecting the thing that is really needed: listening to Christ to fulfil the will of God,” Pope Benedict, wearing green vestments, said.

San Giovanni Rotondo’s economy revolves around the cult of the saint, with hotels and restaurants catering almost wholly to the pilgrim trade.

A poll in 2006 by Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana found that more Italian Catholics prayed to Padre Pio than to any other figure, including the Virgin Mary or Jesus. His picture is stuck to the dashboards of many taxis and cars throughout Italy.

There are about 3,000 “Padre Pio Prayer Groups” globally with a membership of 3 million. Pope John Paul II made him a saint in 2002.

Among the stories that surround the monk, who died at the age of 81, is that he wrestled with the devil one night in his monastery cell and emerged bloodied and bruised.

A book last year suggested he was a self-harming man who might have used carbolic acid to cause his wounds. Church officials have denied he was a fake.

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