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By Philip Pullella
SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy (Reuters)

Pope Francis prayed on Saturday before the body of one of Catholicism’s most popular saints, Padre Pio, a mystic monk who is said to have wrestled with the Devil

It was Francis’ first visit as pope to this hill town in southern Italy that is a main stop along the country’s pilgrim route linking places where saints are buried.

 

A nun looks on as she waits for the arrival of Pope Francis in Pietrelcina
A nun looks on as she waits for the arrival of Pope Francis in Pietrelcina, Italy March 17 2018. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

 

The bearded Capuchin monk, who died in 1968 after spending most of his life here, is said by the Catholic Church to have had the “stigmata” – the bleeding wounds of Jesus on his hands and feet. He wore brown half-gloves to cover the wounds and absorb the blood from his palms.

 

Pope Francis celebrates a mass in San Giovanni Rotondo
Pope Francis celebrates a mass in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy March 17, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

Many people said Pio knew what they were about to confess. He is said to have told then-bishop Karol Wojytla of Poland in the mid-1960s that he would become pope. Wojtyla became Pope John Paul in 1978 and in 2002 declared Pio a saint.

Padre Pio’s biographers say he wrestled with the Devil regularly in his cell in a small monastery that is now the centrepiece of a sprawling complex receiving more than a million pilgrims a year.

 

Pope Francis shakes hands with 99-year-old Umberto Orlando during his pastoral visit in Pietrelcina
Pope Francis shakes hands with 99-year-old Umberto Orlando during his pastoral visit in Pietrelcina, Italy March 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

 

Francis made a reference to Pio’s battles with the Devil earlier on Saturday when he visited Pietrelcina, the village where Pio was born in 1887.

“His soul was greatly tormented,” Francis said in improvised remarks. “He felt assailed by the Devil.”

 

PILGRIM TRADE

According to monks, the last demonic tussle was in 1964, when they heard him calling from his cell at night.

They found him on the floor, his forehead split open. He told them “The Devil tried to scratch out my eyes.”

 

A nun reads the Bible as she waits for the arrival of Pope Francis in Pietrelcina
A nun reads the Bible as she waits for the arrival of Pope Francis in Pietrelcina, Italy March 17 2018. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

 

The next day, the Devil is said to have spoken through a possessed person, saying “I went to visit somebody. I took revenge.”

Pio’s body was exhumed in 2008 and partially reconstructed with a life-like silicone mask. It is preserved in a temperature-controlled glass coffin. Pilgrims toss money and notes to the saint over a wrought-iron fence.

 

Pope Francis celebrates a mass in San Giovanni Rotondo
Pope Francis celebrates a mass in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy March 17, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

Thousands of Padre Pio prayer groups exist around the world. One group came from Nashville in the United States.

Pio’s fame as a mystic grew in the first half of the 20th century and the town expanded with it, making the pilgrim trade the heart of its economy. Former grazing lands are now dotted with hotels.

Souvenir stalls sell everything from cheap Padre Pio key chains to life-size statues of the saint costing thousands of euros.

 

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

 

 

Pope Francis speaks to the faithful during his pastoral visit in Pietrelcina
Pope Francis speaks to the faithful during his pastoral visit in Pietrelcina, Italy March 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

 

Pope Francis prays inside the San Francesco chapel in Pietrelcina
Pope Francis prays inside the San Francesco chapel in Pietrelcina, Italy March 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

 

Pope Francis waves as he leaves the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo
Pope Francis waves as he leaves the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy March 17, 2018. Osservatore Romano/Handout via REUTERS

 

Pope Francis is welcomed by Archbishop Michele Castoro as he arrives in San Giovanni Rotondo
Pope Francis is welcomed by Archbishop Michele Castoro as he arrives in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy March 17, 2018. Osservatore Romano/Handout via REUTERS

 

A street vendor sells gadgets depicting Pope Francis before his arrival in Pietrelcina
A street vendor sells gadgets depicting Pope Francis before his arrival in Pietrelcina, Italy March 17 2018. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

 

Pope Francis arrives by helicopter in Pietrelcina
Pope Francis arrives by helicopter in Pietrelcina, Italy March 17 2018. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

 

Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he arrives in San Giovanni Rotondo
Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he arrives in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy March 17, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

Pope Francis celebrates a mass in San Giovanni Rotondo
Pope Francis celebrates a mass in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy March 17, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
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