The body of mystic monk Padre Pio, one of the world's most popular saints, has been exhumed in preparation for public veneration. Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome the body of the Capuchin friar will go on display next month to mark the 40th anniversary of his death.

About seven million people each year visit Saint Padre Pio's tomb in San Giovanni Rotondo, in the southern Italian region of Apulia. The friar, born Francesco Forgione, died at age 81 in 1968, and this year marks the 40th anniversary of his death. He is to be put on public display in a glass covered coffin.

In preparation for the veneration by pilgrims, the body of the saint, who is credited with more than 1,000 miraculous cures, was exhumed during a three-hour service Sunday that ended after midnight. A large crowd of pilgrims who learned of the exhumation had gathered outside the sanctuary in prayer.

Among them was this lady who said it was a very emotional moment for her. She said it represented something she could not express in words.

The monk's body will be on display for several months, starting April 24.

Padre Pio was said to have had the stigmata - the wounds of Christ's crucifixion - on his hands and feet.

Followers believe he exuded the odour of sanctity - a sweet flower odor - and that he could appear in two locations at the same time - the gift of bilocation. They also believe he healed the sick and could prophesy the future.

Following the late-night exhumation, Monsignor Domenico D'Ambrosio said the Capuchin friar's body had been removed from his tomb to check on its state and to carry out all the necessary work to guarantee the best conditions for its conservation. His body, which was buried under marble in a crypt, was found to be in fair condition and some parts intact.

Monsignor d'Ambrosio said the top part of the skull is partly skeletal, but the chin is perfect and the rest of the body is well preserved. The knees, hands, mittens and nails are clearly visible. He added that it looked like Padre Pio had just had a manicure.

A spokesman for the monastery at San Giovanni Rotondo said he believed morticians would be able to conserve the face of the bearded monk well enough for it to be recognizable.

Spokesman Stefano Campanella said experts hope to recompose the monk in the best possible way using particular conservation techniques.

Padre Pio was declared a saint by the late Pope John Paul II in 2002. His face and name are well-known in Italy and abroad and his image is often seen displayed in piazzas and private homes.

This lady, who says she met the monk, said the news that he will be publicly displayed is wonderful. God is great she said and this is his gift.

Although Padre Pio was dogged with accusations in life and after his death that he was a fraud, church officials have repeatedly denied this. Now, many hope that during these anniversary celebrations Pope Benedict too will go and see the saint.