As a member of the General Definitory, I had the privilege of attending the canonical recognition ceremony for the remains of St. Pio of Pietralcina. The ceremony took place on Sunday, March 2nd, in the crypt of Santa Maria delle Grazie, around the tomb of St. Pio. A small group of people—friars, ecclesiastical dignitaries, relatives of St. Pio and the two people who were miraculously cured through his intercession—were on hand to witness the ceremony. Everything was carried out in an atmosphere of utmost dignity and solemnity.
The actual recognition process began a few days previously, when five eyewitnesses of Pio's burial were called to examine the tomb for any signs of tampering. All agreed that the tomb was in essentially the same condition as on the day of the burial. After that, the blocks of green and red marble (altogether weighing over 3000 lbs. or 1500 kg.) and the white sand that covered the tomb were removed, leaving only four concrete slabs covering it.
The second phase of the ceremony, which began at 10 o'clock p.m. with the reading of documents authorizing the exhumation and the Recognition Process: a Rescript from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, the Decree of His Excellency Domenico Umberto D'Ambrosio, Archbishop of Manfredonia-Vieste-San Giovanni Rotondo, and the Authorization of the civil authorities. This was followed by a reading of the transcript from the first phase of the recognition process. It seems that, even after death, you still have to follow the rules!
With the formalities out of the way, Archbishop Domenico Umberto D'Ambrosio led the assembly in a celebration of the Office of Readings, taken from the Common of Pastors. The second reading of the Office was from the letter of Pio, written at the request of his superiors, in which he described the beginnings of his stigmata. After the Liturgy of the Hours, the Archbishop gave a brief reflection on the meaning of the evening's events, calling it an act of "affectionate, gentle, respectful devotion." The underlying reason for the exhumation, explained the Archbishop, was the "responsibility of guaranteeing, by means of appropriate procedures, the lasting preservation of our saint's body in order to allow future generations to venerate and safeguard his relics."
Next, the Notary read the official account by the city officials of San Giovanni Rotondo regarding the burial of Pio of Pietralcina on September 26, 1968. Then the concrete slabs covering the tomb were removed, and the casket was lifted out. Before opening the casket, the Archbishop along with the Promoter of Justice and the Notary inspected the seals that had been applied to the tomb when it was closed almost forty years ago, making sure that they had not been broken. Satisfied that the seals were intact, they were removed with a small hammer and chisel, and the outer cover of the casket was removed. Next, the inner cover, make of zinc, was cut away, exposing a glass plate covering the body of the saint. There was a buzz of anticipation as the zinc cover was removed, and the assembly strained to get a glimpse inside the casket. This was followed by palpable disappointment since condensation on the glass covering made it impossible to see inside the casket.
At this point, the casket was moved to a specially-equipped room where a team of specialists will spend the next forty days working to preserve the mortal remains of St. Pio. Inside the room, a four-member tribunal and a team of doctors inspected the body after the glass covering was removed. The Archbishop later informed the assembly that the upper portion of St. Pio's body was partially skeletonized, but that the lower portion was relatively well preserved. Excessive humidity inside the casket, possibly caused by the fresh plaster on the walls of the tomb, had unfortunately contributed to the decomposition of his remains.
The ceremony concluded with an address by the General Minister, Mauro Jöhri, and a reading of the transcript of the evening's events. Around April 24, after the specialists have finished treating the remains, the body of St. Pio will be exhibited for public devotion for a few months.
Many of you are probably questioning the need for such an elaborate ceremony, and maybe even question the reasons for the exhumation itself. Those questions certainly occurred to me. I think, however, that the historical experience of the Church with regard to its saints can provide at least a partial explanation. Centuries ago, it was not uncommon for cities to fight over the bodies of saintly people. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, was buried in a secret location for fear that his body would be stolen by the people of Perugia. While most of the remains of St. Catherine of Siena are buried in her hometown, her head somehow found its way to Rome. The list of such "separations" is quite long. It would have been natural for the Vatican to develop procedures for handling the relics of saints in order to prevent disagreements over them or desecrations of their graves.
The Church has also struggled with determining the authenticity of certain saints. Not long ago, for instance, researchers determined that St. Christopher, whose statue once adorned the dashboard of every Catholic-owned car in America, was only a pious legend. Today, it is hard to imagine how the transformation from legend to real person could have happened. Then again, try looking through your parents' photographs and see how many of the people in them you can name! Now imagine someone looking at those photographs 200 years from now. In its 2000-year history—wracked with wars, earthquakes, fires, plagues, etc.—it is understandable that accurate records for all the Church's saints are hard to find. Perhaps to prevent future generations from having similar doubts about the authenticity of today's saints, the Church has developed a "recognition" process. Because the tomb and the remains of St. Pio were inspected by people who were present at the time of his death, and a signed document attesting to the inspection now resides in the Vatican's files, future generations will have the assurance that the relics are authentic. Thus our brother Pio can continue to inspire people for many years to come with the example of his faithfulness and devotion.