4.00pm - By PAUL VALLELY

The scene was the kind of thing that gives Roman Catholicism a bad name. Hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world congregated in front of St Peter's in Rome yesterday in one of the biggest crowds the Vatican has seen.

They were there to celebrate the canonisation of the controversial Capuchin friar Padre Pio, who when he was alive was regarded by the church authorities as a fake but has now been rehabilitated in an extraordinary reversal.

The heat was so sweltering that Italian civil protection squads had to sprinkle water through hoses on the assembled masses. But the crowds were not to be deterred by mere weather. After all, they were there in honour of a man who, they believe, miraculously bore the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side.

More than that, they say he had wrestled with the Devil in his monastery cell. He had supernatural foresight into the sins of visitors. He had the gift of "bi-location" – appearing, despite never leaving his monastery in southern Italy, in Genoa, Rome, Uruguay and even Milwaukee. And he could mend a broken window with a wave of his hand. He acquired a huge popular following.

Cheers and applause went up throughout the massive crowd when Pope John Paul II, wearing gold and white vestments, and looking exceedingly frail, proclaimed: "We include the Blessed Pio of Pietrelcina in the annals of saints and we establish that throughout the whole Church he be devotedly honoured among the saints."

In his lifetime Padre Pio, who died in 1968, was silenced by the Vatican during long investigations into 23 claims that he had faked miracles and had sex with women parishioners in the confessional box. Many in the church hierarchy doubted his stigmata were real, suggesting that he had "provoked" them with nitric acid and used eau-de-cologne to create the "odour of sanctity" his followers said surrounded him.

Reports to the Pope, in Latin, accused the monk – who frequently scourged himself with a metal-tipped whip – of "copulating with women twice a week". The modernising Pope John XXIII was said to have authorised the bugging of his confessional to check on him.

The founder of Rome's Catholic university hospital concluded Padre Pio was "an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people's credulity". The Vatican, deeply suspicious, banned him from saying Mass in public.

Scarcely three decades on, Padre Pio has been made a saint. The transformation is almost entirely down to one man, the present Pope, who early in his priesthood once journeyed from Poland to have his confession heard by Padre Pio. Later, when John Paul II was auxiliary bishop of Cracow, he asked the monk to pray for a female friend who had throat cancer. The woman, Wanda Polawska, was declared "inexplicably" cured 11 days later and was in Rome yesterday for the canonisation ceremony.

Once such a U-turn would have taken Rome several centuries. But the present Pope, who has created 457 saints – more than all the popes of the previous four centuries put together – introduced a "fast-track" procedure through which Padre Pio has been propelled at record speed. Its avowed aim is to show to an increasingly secularised age that being holy in the modern world is still possible. But the procedure also has a notable bias to figures who endorse John Paul II's conservative spirituality.

The devout ordinary pilgrims at the ceremony in Rome detected no such political agenda today. They were full of anecdotes about miraculous cures and help that had come to them after praying to the bearded stigmatic who, they pronounced "has never refused a request".

And they were only too delighted to buy the Padre Pio cigarette lighters, key-rings, mugs, T-shirts and life-sized statues on sale everywhere, which are symbols of the transformation of the little town of San Giovanni Rotondo where Padre Pio's monastery is sited. The pilgrim boomtown now has a multimillion-euro economy with 8 million visitors a year – more than Lourdes, and second only to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

There are many in the Catholic Church who retain profound doubts about Padre Pio and the hysterical devotion to him that all too often borders on superstition. They question in particular the prudence of the speed with which he has now been made a saint.

But there was little evidence of that in Italy yesterday where little cards bearing Padre Pio's portrait were everywhere: on taxi dashboards, by shop tills, on hospital wards, and in thousands of other public and private places.

They have even been found, apparently, in the wallets of arrested members of the Mafia. The Mob, at any rate, knows a winner when it sees one.