Padre Pio was a stigmatic and mystic, and he is arguably Ireland's favourite saint. From the first appearance in 1918 of the stigmata, or 'five wounds of Christ', many powers have been attributed to him. Among them are the gift of prophecy, bilocation and the ability to read people's minds. Perhaps more importantly he is said to have brought about numerous miracles both before and after his death in 1968.
In my new book, Padre Pio: The Scent of Roses, I chronicle 60 Irish miracles ascribed to the saint. I also talk to people who met him. In these extracts, exclusive to the Belfast Telegraph, three contributors to the book describe their experiences of this complex and intriguing man who was canonised in 2002.
'I was deteriorating ... I wasn't responding'
Charlene, from Co Londonderry, tells of her revival from a brain tumour, thanks to Padre Pio. The event dates back to 2003. She says:
On the day before my 11th birthday, I felt unwell. I was sick and had a sore head. I'd been out playing, but I came in and told mummy and daddy how I felt. I had a lie-down and I ended up sleeping for a few hours. When I woke up, I felt just as bad. The left-hand side of my face had dropped. I couldn't open my left eye and my speech was quite slurred. I also had a very bad headache.
My parents took me for a check-up. After examining me, the doctors thought it might be a case of Bell's palsy, which is a form of facial paralysis. Although they were letting me go home, mummy knew there wasn't something right, so she asked them to send me to the hospital, which they did.
At this stage, I was deteriorating. I was spaced out and I wasn't interacting. Whenever someone asked me a question, it was taking me about 10 minutes to answer. The doctor did some tests and I wasn't responding.
She noticed that my symptoms were on my left side, so she put a pen on my left side and said: "Charlene, can you lift that pen?" I reached across with my right hand to lift it. She knew then that it had something to do with my brain. They kept me in the hospital that night. On the next day – my 11th birthday – I can remember some things that happened. I can particularly remember the doctor coming in and taking my mummy and daddy away. They came back about 30 minutes later. I noticed that their faces were blotchy and there were tears in their eyes. I knew something was wrong.
They told me I had a brain tumour. As I was just 11, I didn't know what a brain tumour was and I was asking them about it. The tumour was the size of a man's fist and was in the middle of my brain. The doctors told my family to prepare for the worst. They even thought I might die that night.
Then, because the hospital didn't have the facilities to care for me, I was driven by ambulance in the middle of the night to the children's hospital in Belfast.
After a day or two, a brain surgeon came in to see me. He sat down beside my bed. He said he had taken my files home the night before. He believed he had something to offer me that others couldn't offer.
Apparently, nobody else felt that they could take my case on because of the severity of what was wrong. I had only a 20% chance of survival. However, he said he would do the surgery.
Two nights before the operation, a man came in with the mitt of Padre Pio. My mummy and daddy had arranged for him to see me. I was lying in my bed and my family were around me. The man told me to lift my head up, as I was very weak at the time. I felt really tired and closed my eyes. Everyone then started saying the Rosary and prayed to Padre Pio to intercede for me.
While my eyes were still closed, I could feel this pressure at the top of my head. I wasn't sure what was causing it, but I thought it was the man pushing on my head. I didn't open my eyes, but I felt this pushing and pushing. There were tears coming out of my eyes and I felt a sensation coming over my body, right down to my stomach.
The whole thing lasted only about five minutes and then the man left. I said to mummy, "Why was that man pushing so hard against my head?" She said, "Charlene, he wasn't. He was with us at the bottom of the bed; there was no-one at the top of the bed."
All we could think of was that the pressure I felt had something to do with Padre Pio.
Two days later, I had my operation. They had to open up my skull and the operation lasted eight-and-a-half hours. It was hard on me, but it was even harder on my family who didn't know what was going on.
We later heard that they had removed most of the tumour. Only a very small fraction was left behind. They then analysed what they had taken out and it was benign.
They first told my mummy and daddy that it was benign and it was they who told me. We were all so relieved. It also hadn't spread through my body.
They also told us that what was left of the tumour would never change. They said it would never get smaller, but it would either stay the same or, God forbid, it might grow. However, contrary to what they said, the tumour has actually shrunk over time.
The doctors were astounded at how well everything had gone. They couldn't believe it. From the first night I entered hospital, they thought I wouldn't survive. After the operation, I even got home early. They expected me to be in hospital for a month at least; however, I was home six days later. So I really believe what happened was a miracle.
I'm fine now and every day I wake up and I am so thankful. I also am devoted to Padre Pio. I have no doubt he interceded for me and looked after me. I believe I am here now because of the power of prayer and through his intercession. As a result, I love him dearly and regard him as a very good friend."
'How my dad had his hands blessed by man who became a saint'
John Coyle, from Co Down, recollects his father's early visit to San Giovanni Rotondo to see Padre Pio. He says:
My dad Sean, who was born in 1917, and his sister Gabrielle, who was older than him, travelled to San Giovanni in the mid-1950s. My dad had studied the piano from a very early age and was a full-time musician. He was a concert pianist of some repute and used to give recitals and performances in Belfast.
My dad and his sister got the ferry to England and worked their way down to Dover. They eventually got the train from France to Italy and then made their way from Rome to Foggia and on to San Giovanni. It would have been a tough trip.
When they got to San Giovanni, they stayed in the only hotel that was there at the time. Dad's musical ability soon came to people's attention. At dinner, one day, he was given a piano-keyed accordion and was asked to play a couple of tunes. He did this and it seems they liked it. Afterwards, every time he would come into the restaurant the Italian owners would say: "The musical maestro!"
Eventually, my dad received Holy Communion from Padre Pio. The occasion is recorded in a black-and-white photo. You can see dad in a heavy coat and wearing a scarf and a white shirt, with dark, neat hair and his mouth open, receiving the communion on his tongue. In the photo, Padre Pio is distributing it with his right hand and you can make out the mitten quite clearly.
Gabrielle is kneeling on dad's left. She is wearing a hat with a veil and is looking very devout. There is an extraordinary look of love on her face. However, the centrepiece of the photo is Padre Pio, who looks very peaceful and compassionate. We still have the photo to this day.
My dad also went to confession with Padre Pio. He was given a sheet with a list of misdemeanours or sins on it and he had to tick off what applied to him. This was apparently because Padre Pio didn't speak English, although he understood it. When he was in confession, the padre listened intently to him and then gave him a sort of a tap on the jaw. It was a light, gentle tap, probably implying: "You bold boy!" My aunt Gabrielle also went to confession with him. She said that he was harder on the women than on the men. In addition, dad had his hands blessed by Padre Pio. He really had a remarkable touch with his hands and they meant a lot to him. He was, after all, a concert pianist and he taught piano as well.
When I got older, I also developed devotion to Padre Pio. I then decided I should go to San Giovanni, probably to make the same journey my dad had made. I suppose I wanted the next generation to keep the connection between our family and Padre Pio. I wanted to maintain our link with his story and his mysticism and his intense holiness. But it was also partly for me.
Unfortunately, that time, I never saw Padre Pio's body. On the day I arrived, they had closed the place where he was to go on display, in order to do renovations. I also went back in 2011, for a second pilgrimage, and I didn't see the body then either because it was no longer on view; it had been reinterred in a sealed casket.
On that second trip, my brother Patrick was with me. He is also a concert pianist, just like my dad was. When we were there, in our hotel, some of the pilgrims we were with knew of his musical talent. They asked him if he would play the piano for them. That's what he did. He gave an impromptu recital in the lounge, to the delight of the pilgrims and hotel staff. It was reminiscent of what had happened with my father all those years before.
I was a bit disappointed that I never saw Padre Pio, but maybe he had a reason why that should have been. However, my dad's visit is still recalled in our family."
'Our son was critically ill, now he's back at work'
Pat, from Co Donegal, explains the role of Padre Pio in his son's rehabilitation from a brain injury. He was cared for at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. He says:
It all happened on October 26, 2003. That day, my son played Gaelic football for his team. He was 19. They won the match and went for a few beers afterwards. The whole town was out as it was a big event. They had won the league and were promoted and it was a big celebration. I was there, too, giving my cousin a hand behind the bar.
My son's drink spilled over and he decided to go home and get changed before they all went elsewhere. It was around 10 o'clock at night. I said, "I'll leave you home." He said, "No, no, stay where you are." It was a good, clear night, not too dark or anything. So off he went, on his own, to home, which was just over a bridge and a turn to the left.
He walked over the bridge and he either stopped to make or receive a phone call. A car was coming and it hit him. He was only about two steps from safety when he was knocked down. He got a bad laceration on the back of his leg, but the main thing was head injuries. His skull was fractured and he had swelling of the brain. He was unconscious. He was in a very bad way.
I was still in the bar, but I heard that somebody had been killed at the bridge. I walked over, not realising what had taken place. I didn't hear it was my son until I was nearly there. Having been told that somebody had been killed, I feared the worst. But I then heard he was alive and that gave me hope.
By the time I got there, my son was wrapped in tinfoil and was being put into the back of an ambulance. It was clear that things were bad. There was blood coming from his nose and his ears and wherever. His head was badly swollen. He was rushed to the local hospital and we followed by car. Once they got there, he was brought into intensive care. They immediately put him on a life-support machine and started to work on him. It was made clear to us that things were very serious and if there were any family members away, get them home.
My wife's mother was there and was very determined to get my son to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Eventually, they sent two ambulances and a team down from the Royal and took him to Belfast. He was still in a deep coma when he got there. We were again told he was critical and very sick.
His brain was still swelling badly. It wasn't coming down and it was getting worse if anything. They had to use drains. They were considering operating on him to remove a piece of the skull, which would let the brain swell freely. We were very worried about that.
I'm not sure who contacted Bill McLaughlin, the man who had the Padre Pio relic. He arrived about a week after the accident. I have no idea how Bill got to see my son. Although we were always there, Bill got in and out without anyone seeing him. We must have gone for tea or something. He phoned me afterwards to tell me he had been and gone. He said he had brought in the mitten and prayed. He also said, "Your son will be grand. He'll be fine. Don't worry."
Almost immediately, things improved. The swelling on my son's brain started to come down. His coma scale began to rise. The scale measures the level of coma a person is in. My son had been running at three, as deep into a coma as you can get. He started rising slowly. Initially, he didn't come up far, although he came up enough to be moved from intensive care to high dependency.
We could see the first signs that things were improving. He opened his eyes every now and again. He had finger movement. His body would start moving at certain times. We still didn't know what the outcome would be and we worried that he might never properly recover. It was also being stressed that it would all take time. The good news, however, was that with the swelling coming down, the operation never took place.
After two weeks in Belfast, where my son was cared for brilliantly, he was moved back to a hospital closer to home. He was still in a coma and it took four weeks, all told, for him to emerge from it. But he improved all the time. He is now absolutely grand. He is married, with a son. His mobility is fine, he can walk and talk and is back at work.
I attribute the turning point – the bringing down of the swelling – to Padre Pio.
That was critical. As regards the rest of it, my wife worked hard with him. But I will always believe that the day Bill came in and the swelling stopped was the defining moment. It was my son's turning point.
Something definitely happened and everything changed right after."
Padre Pio: The Scent of Roses, by Colm Keane, Capel Island Press, £15