FEATURE | Searching for meaning: Strange times at the Padre Pio prayer group

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The alter at the Padre Pio prayer group in St Saviour's Dominican Church, Limerick

”Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

WE ARE living in strange and uncertain times. Many of us, particularly since the days of lockdowns, have started to look inward and question our very existence – as well as some of those bigger, more unfathomable questions about God and the meaning of life.

Rather than looking outward with indifference and apathy, it feels like we have reached the dawn of a more spiritual age. One where people are sitting more comfortably now with themselves and with the big mysteries, even when answers aren’t within our grasp.

With all that’s been going on in the world in the last three years, it would in fairness seem remiss of us not to look for a light that will show us the way in dark places.

Many are weary of the consumerist rat-race. We want to return to nature, to prayer and meditation. We want a simpler and more honest existence. We are all searching for something, if we’re honest with ourselves. Many of us in all the wrong places.

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Of course society has become hardened and cynical. That’s a cliché at this stage. Most would have you believe that we already possess all the answers.

Truth is, sometimes the questions alone are fuel enough. That’s where the beauty lies, in the quest, the search for wisdom.

With faith comes doubt. As faith is at the core of human nature, I will often seek proof and reassurance to hearten myself that I’ve backed the right pony. There’s no harm in hedging your bets, right?

And after all the doom and gloom of recent times, partnered with my own questioning, I was quite moved a few weeks ago by a story of two local women (published on this very site) who claimed to have seen an apparition of Padre Pio at St Saviour’s Dominican Church on Glentworth Street.

A bright light, which some believe to be an apparition of Padre Pio, photographed during a Mass in St Saviour’s Church in September 2018, with Southill man Will Stokes in the foreground.

I was sceptical, sure, but God knows (no pun intended), we could all use a miracle about now. Something to lift our broken spirits and lead us back towards the path of understanding.

So, if anything, it was the questions in my mind raised by this alleged apparition, along with a healthy dose of curiosity, that roused me to put my money where my mouth is and get myself to church – or, rather, the Padre Pio prayer group meeting.

Seeing, as they say, is believing, so off I went.

With the story already having appeared on the pages of every local and national newspaper, as well as being preached about on RTÉ Radio 1 by Joe Duffy, I wasn’t the only lost soul in search of answers and a little corroboration on one of those big perplexing life questions.

The Saturday afternoon service was wall to wall sinners in search of solace, answers, and, if truth be told, a miracle. Present company included.

On the way into the church, I met 92-year-old Nelly Cosgrave. It was Nelly, along with her friend Mary Tynan, who claimed to have witnessed the vision of the much-loved Capuchin friar during a service to mark the 54th anniversary of his death last month.

Weeks later, the Ballybrown woman was still trying wracking her brain to figure out why the venerated Italian priest chose her.

She has her own thoughts on why he appeared at all.

92 year-old Nelly Cosgrave from Ballybrown with a glove worn by St Padre Pio. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

“There is so much hurt, pain, and poverty in the world right now. People need hope and something to believe in,” Nelly tells me.

“I am still flabbergasted by what I saw. At first I though I was seeing things.

“I saw a shimmering light out of the corner of my eye and I turned to look. I was just awestruck. Padre Pio was all ablaze, wearing his brown Capuchin robe with a white cord and was walking down the steps of the altar towards his picture.

“I nudged my friend Mary but she had already seen him,” she explains.

The prayer group, which meets twice a month in the Dominican Church, gives people an opportunity to receive blessings from Padre Pio’s mitten – a holy relic said to have healing powers. Hundreds of people flock to the church on his feast days when visions of the monk are said to be most common.

The miraculous glove is held by prayer group leader Philip Scanlon, who believes that Padre Pio couldn’t have picked a better person than Nelly to appear to.

“Nelly has been saying the rosary since she was six. She goes to mass every day. The fact that these two ladies saw him is just beautiful,” he opines.

Philip Scanlon with one of St Padre Pio’s mittens. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

Taking my seat up the front of the church, I certainly don’t feel worthy of any miracles or apparitions. Answers, really, are all I seek.

Pray, hope and don’t worry. That’s the theme of these twice monthly meetings in the city church. Sounds like solid advice to me. Prayer, after all, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, is nothing more than “a longing of the soul, a daily admission of one’s weakness”.

And, as Fr Bernardino Maria Soukup said from the altar that afternoon, “worry is useless”.

“God is merciful and will hear your prayers,” he tells the congregation.

“He never gets tired of hearing from us and confession is stronger than exorcism.

“Let go. Those who feel broken and unforgiven are closest to God.”

This marks the call to confession. As the sacrament gets underway, Philip Scanlon takes to the pulpit to pray with us before the blessing with the holy Padre Pio relic begins.

Something particularly striking happens then. Philip, a Limerick man born and bred, begins to say the Our Father and Hail Mary in ancient Aramaic. He recites it with real conviction, as if it was his native tongue.

I ask Philip about this later. He explains: “The funny thing is that I left school when I was 14 and can barely speak English, but I had no problem learning that language. It has to be Padre Pio.”

Another puzzle for me to muddle over later.

This is something of a growing pattern now because the more I poke, the more questions I’m left with. I’m not getting too many answers either, but I’m hoping as the blessings begin that all will be revealed. Who knows, maybe the man himself will make an appearance. Though that isn’t the purpose of my visit to the prayer service. As I’ve said, I’m just a sinner in search of answers.

The elderly, infirm, and children with special needs are first invited to make their way to the top of the church to be blessed over with Padre Pio’s mitten. The air fills with a sense of hope and trepidation.

A young man receiving a blessing from Philip Scanlon. Photo: Alan Jacques.

You get the impression, for some of those worried and nervy looking individuals queuing round the church for a blessing, that this is last chance saloon. You can see the desperation etched onto their brows as they hold out for a miracle.

Everyone has a different reason for being here. Be that a miraculous cure or spiritual enlightenment.

One man I speak to, a regular visitor to the prayer meetings, is just out of hospital after dialysis.

“Padre Pio never lets me down,” he insists as he awaits his turn.

Not long into the blessings, things take an interesting twist.

A woman who had been sitting in the pew in front of me goes down like a log while she’s being blessed over with the holy glove.

The whole church gasps as she falls. People in the front rows are genuinely concerned about the her wellbeing.

The prayer group urges people to move back and let her be.

“The Holy Spirit is working on her,” Philip explains.

He and his team appear completely unphased by the excitement, continuing on with their blessings as the woman lies cold on the floor nearby.

A woman receives a blessing from Padre Pio’s mitten. Photo: Alan Jacques.

Philip tells me later that he has often seen people stay down for as long as 10 or 15 minutes.

“It is like when you are having an operation, the doctors put you out. It is the same with the Lord. He puts you out to spiritually heal you,” he says.

Thankfully, after about five long minutes, the woman gets up. She looks dazed and disorientated as though she had just been KO’d by an invisible right hook. She sits down on the front pew for a couple of moments before making her way to the exit and back to her daily toils.

A little while later, another woman hits the floor to more gasps. Again she is left to the Holy Spirit.

This lady isn’t down as long as the first, but when she gets up she is sobbing after the experience and appears totally stunned.

I start to feel apprehensive as my turn starts to draw close.

To be honest, I’m just hoping I stay on my feet – which, as it turned out, was easier said than done.

Thankfully I did manage to stay upright while being worked over by Padre Pio’s mitten. But let me tell you, it took a bit of work.

Throughout the blessing I felt as though I was pushing back against something that was trying to floor me. I even had to dig my heels in to ensure I didn’t fall backwards.

That aside, the blessing itself was an experience that left me feeling a warm and comforting sense of hope and tranquility.

I let go and gave in to the experience.

Thinking about it later, the cynic in me thought that maybe the combination of the blessing itself, Philip’s petition for the health and wellbeing of my family and I, and his act of asking the Holy Spirit to help me find the answers I sought was enough to make me feel this way.

It’s not often we hear another person express out loud such well wishes for us for no other reason than kindness. It ‘s enough, in its own right, to make you feel all huggy and fuzzy inside.

But that’s the cynic in me.

I left Philip feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. I felt punch-drunk and disoriented. I felt serene and calm inside. I felt as though, physically and emotionally, I had just come out of surgery.

I barely remember getting home if I’m honest. I was completely out of sorts and could barely muster the energy to speak. I had to go and lie down for the evening after the blessing.

I told Philip later that evening about my experience.

“Mercy, you got hit with the Holy Spirit,” he exclaimed.

“You probably fought it not to go down. You’ll be grand in the morning. Full of energy.”

I do feel more energetic the next day. Still, the experience nags at me for days afterwards.

In one sense, it was exactly what I hoped it would be. It left me with more questions. More questions to continue searching for answers to.

There’s a quote I like that goes: “Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to seek those answers that continues to give meaning to life.”

Amen to that!