ROME – Forty years after his death, the body of St. Padre Pio was exhumed in secret just before midnight on Sun Mar 2.

The body was found to be “well-preserved”, said the local bishop who supervised the ceremony.

“From the beginning, one could see his beard clearly. The top part of the skull is partly like a skeleton; the jaw is perfect; the rest of the body is well-preserved,” Bishop Domenico D’Ambrosio stated afterwards.

“One can see very well the knees, the hands, the half-gloves, the nails. If Padre Pio permits me to say so, it is as if he had been given a manicure,” the bishop of San Giovanni Rotondo added.

“One could also see his feet, because Capuchins are buried without socks. There is no sign of the stigmata because, as is known, they disappeared at the moment of his death,” he said.

The exhumation ceremony took place in front of a commission composed of doctors, religious men, relatives of the saint and the two persons whose miraculous cure led to his beatification – a woman from Salerno, Consiglia De Martino, and a local boy, Matteo Pio Colella.

The ceremony was planned to take place in secret, around midnight, to avoid thousands of Padre Pio devotees flocking to the event, but somehow the news leaked out and hundreds of faithful gathered outside the church.

A rather emotional Bishop D’Ambrosio told them after the exhumation: “We have opened the tomb of St. Pio.” He explained how the saint had been buried in a tomb dug into the rock, one metre deep, in three coffins: the first of wood, the second of zinc and the third glass-covered.

He personally verified that the seals were intact, and authorized their breaking. When they reached the glass-covered coffin they could not see so well because of condensation on the glass.

Later they could see better when “we carried the remains of St. Pio to the room prepared for the recognition”.

The aim of the late-night, secret exhumation was also to avoid protests from devotees who considered it a “profanation” to disturb the final resting place of the greatest miracle worker of the 20th century.

They had sought a court injunction to block the Sunday exhumation, but to no avail.

St. Padre Pio’s remains are now being treated in a way which will ensure their preservation for future generations, as the humidity risked damaging them.

The remains will be placed in the crypt of the Church of Our Lady of Grace, and from Apr 24 until Sep 27 the faithful will be able to venerate them. Pope Benedict is expected to attend in mid-June. The Universe