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According to a new, blockbuster look at recently released "secret Vatican files," the official Bishop Inquisitor in the first of three papal investigations of the great mystic and saint, Padre Pio, of Italy, seemed most impressed not with healings, bilocation, and the "reading of souls" for which the great Capuchin monk was best known; what seemed of the greatest conviction to Bishop Raffaello Carlo Rossi -- who in 1921 was asked to examine the 34-year-old monk in wake of a stir over stigmata -- was the fragrance that surrounded Pio -- popularly called the "odor of sanctity."

The reason the initially-skeptical inquisitor found it so impressive -- according to the files -- was that he himself experienced it and to such an extent and in such a way that it could not be an imagined or fabricated phenomenon.

"This very intense and pleasant fragrance, similar to the scent of the violet -- as it was well-described by the Bishop of Melfi -- is attested by everyone, and may the Most Eminent Fathers let me attest it, too," wrote Bishop Rossi. "I have smelled it, just as I have seen the 'stigmata.' And I can again assure the Most Eminent Fathers that I went to San Giovanni Rotundo with the resolute intention of conducting an absolutely objective inquiry, but also with a real personal unfavorable prejudice regarding what was said about Padre Pio. Today I am not a ... convert, an admirer of the Padre: certainly not; I feel complete indifference and I would say almost coldness, so much did I want to maintain a serene objectivity in writing my report. But, to clear my conscience, I have to say that, faced with some of the facts, I could not retain my personal unfavorable prejudice, even though I did not manifest anything on the outside. And one of these facts is the fragrance, which, I'll repeat, I have sensed, just like everyone else. The only one who does not notice it is Padre Pio.

"If he really, for whatever reason, used this fragrance on himself, the scent should be sensed more or less at all times," wrote the inquisitor. "But that is not the case: They say it is sensed at times, in waves, inside the cell and outside, when he walks by, in his spot in the choir, even from a distance."

Indeed, Bishop Rossi -- who interviewed St. Pio a number of times under oath -- examined the monk's cell and could find nothing that would cause such a scent. There was only plain soap -- and, noted the inquisitor, the scent remained with hair of Padre Pio's that had been cut two years before, as it also attached itself to the stigmatic blood and bandages.

It is all detailed in the new book, Padre Pio Under Investigation: the Secret Vatican Files -- which includes the never-before-seen interviews. The documents became available after a 2006 edict by Pope Benedict XVI to open records up to 1939 of the Vatican's Holy Office. They portray Pio as a soft humble man with a twinkle in his eyes and keen sense of humor -- not at all the austere, harsh priest some misperceived.

The examination was one of several as Pio led a life plagued at least three times by serious persecution -- the first initiated by a pre-eminent psychologist, Father Agostino Gemelli, who claimed to know Padre Pio (but, as it was learned, had only met Pio once, and for a few minutes), and the second by Archbishop Pasquale Gagliardi of Manfredonia (the diocese to which San Giovanni belonged; Archbishop Gagliardi was virtually forced to resign in 1929 and had waged a heated campaign to discredit the monk, who nonetheless rebuked anyone who criticized the bishop).

The documents likewise reveal new details about the stigmata -- that unlike St. Francis, Pio's were not as if one side of the hand had been pierced with a protrusion as outgrowths of flesh on the other; rather, the hand-palm wounds seemed flat on the surface and his foot stigmata sometimes faded to the appearance of buttons of more delicate, whiter skin that would later "flourish" with blood.  There was no shoulder wound (as widely rumored) but there was a side wound that was triangular and the color of "red wine."

They caused Pio enormous pain. And the mystic revealed to Bishop Rossi that the wounds began with a vision of Jesus -- Who told Pio they would serve to unite Pio to His Passion. Previously, it was only known that a "mysterious" person or angel had appeared to him during prayer in the choir loft at the onset of visible stigmata. The wounds never suppurated -- discharged pus -- nor did they scar ("cicatrization"), although the hand wounds did scab.

And so the revelations tumble forth from this book that is at least as powerful and fascinating as any written on the saint -- making what seemed like an old story totally fresh, a book that inspires and is hard to put down (compiled by Father Francesco Castelli, with a preface by the well-known Italian writer Vittorio Messori).

Padre Pio -- who was canonized in 2002 -- was himself baffled by all that swirled around him. The monk remarked at one point, "I am a mystery to myself."

[resources: Padre Pio Under Investigation: the Secret Vatican Files]

[see also: Vatican files: Padre Pio suffered 'fevers' of up to 118 degrees]

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[Further note: was Saint Francis, as commonly believed, the first to bear stigmata, wonder Messori in the introduction -- or can we read anything into that passage from Paul in Galations (6:17): "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus"?]

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