The tumult began on Sunday, when the pope officially named a new bishop in nearby Manfredonia as overseer of St. Pio's sanctuary. Monks in San Giovanni took to the altar of the sanctuary compound's Santa Maria delle Grazie church to denounce Vatican "persecution." Pilgrims and members of the congregation shouted, "Viva Padre Pio!"
On Monday, bells tolled, plazas were blocked, boys whistled in derision and, eventually, the police arrived in this southeast Italian town to keep order....Here in San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio spent most of his life, a kind of religious bazaar presents a dizzying variety of products. Shops offer not only statues and votive candles bearing Pio's likeness, but also Pio olive oil, pens, change purses, nail clippers and lemon-flavored liquor.
...A large new sanctuary to house his remains is under construction. It will be able to accommodate 10,000 devotees. Architectural critics have likened the low dome design and bare arches to a sports hall or airline terminal. Two years ago, about $4 million set aside for the new church disappeared in the hands of a corrupt contractor, according to press reports.
Seven million pilgrims visit San Giovanni annually, more than any other Catholic shrine in Italy outside the Vatican. In the space of a few years, the number of hotels in the area has grown from 36 to 140. A town of 27,000 inhabitants, San Giovanni boasts 132 cafes and 110 restaurants.
Any downgrading of Pio's status worries residents. "They're trying to take him away from us," said Maria Grazia Cipriani, a devotee standing among protesters. "They want to bring him down, alienate the people from him."
Vatican officials tried to ease concerns of the friars that they were being dispossessed. "The Capuchin fathers will continue to look after the sanctuary," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters. "The archbishop, however, has the right and duty of overseeing pastoral activities."
Just what those activities are remained to be outlined in "instructions" to be issued later, he added. In anonymous comments, Vatican officials wondered aloud to reporters in Rome why the Capuchins, sworn to poverty, are concerned about the disposition of money in San Giovanni.