SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy – These days demonstrators rather than pilgrims fill the square in front of St. Padre Pio's monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo.

Drawing approximately 8 million pilgrims each year, this small town in southern Italy – where St. Padre Pio lived and now is buried – is second only to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico in its number of annual visitors.

Now, protestors are targeting the two most important institutions in St. Padre Pio's life: the Catholic Church and the Capuchin order to which he belonged.

The dispute began May 3 with the announcement that Archbishop Domenico Umberto D'Ambrosio – the newly installed archbishop of Manfredonia, whose diocese includes San Giovanni Rotondo – will have oversight of the shrine run by the Capuchin Friars.

“The friars were told the night before the announcement,” said Charles Abercrombie, an English-language editor of the Voice of Padre Pio, a journal of the Capuchin friars of San Giovanni Rotondo, on May 8 from his office near St. Padre Pio's monastery. “The superior of the friars said they were very offended.”

News agencies quoted a letter by Father Paulo Cuvino, the superior of the Capuchin province, which stated: “We feel like we're returning to the dark times that Padre Pio knew, with a decision that seems to us hostile and punitive.”

The “dark times” Father Cuvino was referring to were Vatican restrictions placed on the saint between 1923 and 1934, when St. Padre Pio's ministry was sharply curtailed. As alarms were investigated, he was forbidden from publicly saying Mass or hearing confessions.

Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls responded to the current controversy by stating: “As there have been news reports by the media about the administration of the shrine of San Giovanni Rotondo, I think it is appropriate to clarify that the Capuchin Fathers will continue to run the shrine.”

“The archbishop of the place, however, has the right and duty to watch over the pastoral activity that takes place there, as does every bishop in his diocese according to the general norms of canon law,” he added.

“The title of Holy See delegate for the works of Padre Pio is similar to that given by the supreme pontiffs to the delegates of other shrines,” Navarro-Valls said.

Lorna Cifaldi, who works for the English edition of the Voice of Padre Pio and lives in Manfredonia, said other shrines are under similar arrangements.

“It is the same way in Assisi,” she noted.

Still, Abercrombie said the situation was unsettled. “How much independence the friars will have,” he said, “no one knows.”

Many locals seemed unhappy. By May 4, protesters were already lining the streets of San Giovanni Rotondo. News reports said some carried a banner, which read, “We defend our Padre Pio.”

Though the monastery and church where St. Padre Pio is buried have been controlled by the Capuchins, the Vatican, through the Archdiocese of Manfredonia, already controls the House for the Relief of Suffering that St. Padre Pio founded.

The hospital houses a small museum and is the international headquarters of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups, which exist in parishes around the world.

“The Vatican has been in charge of the hospital for years,” said Charles Mandina, who lives near Los Angeles and served as a secretary and translator for St. Padre Pio during the 1960s. He also helped found hundreds of prayer groups in the United States.

Mandina said he was unaware of the specifics of the current developments. Neither the press office at the hospital nor the English office at the monastery would comment on the current situation.

Dispute Over Relics

While the latest controversy pitted the locals and even some Capuchins against the Vatican, the Capuchins themselves were the targets of protests as recently as April. That dispute centered on plans to move the saint's body from a church built during St. Padre Pio's lifetime to a new, much larger church being constructed nearby.

“There is a movement in San Giovanni behind a local poet to block the moving of [St. Padre Pio's] body,” Abercrombie explained.

Abercrombie said the plan is for St. Padre Pio's final resting place to be located in a crypt beneath the altar of the new church.

“The current tomb in the crypt of the other church is very dangerous because it is too small,” he said. He added that if St. Padre Pio's body were found to be incorrupt – many saints’ bodies have been found to be unexplainably preserved from decay – it would be placed under glass, where it could be viewed by pilgrims.

Abercrombie indicated that he thought the plans to move the body were sound.

According to reports in the Italian media, signatures have been gathered and a petition has been presented to the municipal authorities asking that the body not be moved.

The petition cites what it claims is St. Padre Pio's wish for a humble burial and his distaste for the new church, which was designed by noted architect Renzo Piano. So far, the city government has shown little interest in taking any action, according to published reports.

Abercrombie said both disputes have cooled for the time being, and the Washington Post reported May 8 that high-level talks are now under way between the Capuchins and the Vatican.

Though some saw the move by the Vatican as having a financial motive – the shrine takes in huge amounts of money each year – the charge was flatly denied by the papal nuncio.

“Money doesn't enter in this matter,” Msgr. Paolo Romeo told the Washington Post. “What interests us is the salvation of souls.”

Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.