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Padre Pio and the Belfast chaplain who became one of his closest friends

In his fascinating new book author Colm Keane describes the devotion of three Ulster people to the famous saint said to have the gifts of prophecy, bilocation and performing miracles, but who is probably best known for having the stigmata on his hands and feet which he was banned from showing in public for most of his life

In late 1943, a young Belfast-born chaplain by the name of Fr P Hamilton Pollock met Padre Pio. Attached to the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, he had ended up with Bomber Command near the town of Foggia, just seven miles from San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio was based. From there the Allies consolidated their advance up through Italy on their way to Rome.

One day, an RAF medical officer happened to mention to Fr Pollock that the stigmatic Padre Pio, who bore the "five wounds of Christ", was living nearby. The following week, on a duty-call to San Giovanni, he decided to visit the local church to pray. On entering, he noticed that one other person was inside and deep in contemplation. "His cowled head was inclined forward, his hands buried deep in the loose sleeves of his habit," he later recalled in 'Wings On The Cross', his autobiographical account of the war.

Quietly walking up the church, Fr Pollock approached the robed figure to ask where he might find Padre Pio. He tapped him on the shoulder. Deep in concentration, the bowed figure didn't respond. On tapping again, there was still no reply. A third time he tapped and this time the figure slowly looked up, his concentration broken but his eyes still blank. It was clear to Fr Pollock that he was in the presence of someone who was "not of this earth ... very far removed from this world". He instantly knew it was Padre Pio.

Over the next two and a half decades, Fr Pollock became one of Padre Pio's closest personal friends and visited him on many occasions. He also brought news of the future saint back to Northern Ireland, encouraging others to travel to see him. Many were driven by their intense spiritual convictions. More arrived with a simple mission: to restore their health or the health of their loved ones. All believed him to be a saint. Time would prove them right.

The extraordinary story of Padre Pio began on Friday, September 20, 1918. On that day, he sat in the choir loft of the friary chapel at San Giovanni Rotondo saying prayers of thanksgiving after Mass. It was between nine and ten o'clock in the morning. He was alone. The normal darkness of the chapel seemed even duskier in the early autumn light. Everything was deathly quiet. He was, he later said, overcome by a sense of peacefulness "similar to a deep sleep".

Mayhem suddenly broke loose. The crucifix in the choir loft transformed itself into an "exalted being" whose hands, feet and side dripped blood. The friar was terrified. Beams of light and shafts of flame burst forth from the being, wounding him in the hands and feet. "What I felt at that moment is indescribable," Padre Pio later recalled. "I thought I would die." The being then disappeared, not a word having been said, leaving Padre Pio lying on the floor, his hands and feet oozing blood. A wound in his side, which had appeared at an earlier date, was also bleeding. The wounds - and the pain - would remain with Padre Pio for the next 50 years.

Soon, there were rumblings about miracles and cures. A blind man was said to have recovered his sight after being blessed by Padre Pio. A soldier's gangrenous foot was healed even though doctors declared it to be untreatable. The lame cast off their crutches and walked. Tumours disappeared from those with cancer.

Strange, sweet perfumes emanated from the blood of his wounds. He appeared at the bedsides of the sick in their homes while simultaneously being witnessed by his colleagues back at the friary. Those attending his confessions were shocked when he read their souls, recounting sins only they could have known.

People flocked to the friary at San Giovanni to get a glimpse of this extraordinary man. They crammed into his Masses, queued for interminable hours to attend his confessions, and waited by doors or in corridors to receive his blessing or to touch his robes. Women, in particular, were drawn to him, arriving each morning to seek his absolution at confession or to beg his intercession over family concerns.

Among those who visited was the Donegal-based former wartime spymaster John McCaffery, who had headed up the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Bern during the Second World War. Born in Scotland to Donegal parents, he had recruited resistance fighters in occupied countries, organised sabotage campaigns and collected intelligence in a country that became the hub of Europe's covert operations during the war.

Like Fr Hamilton Pollock, he too became a personal friend of Padre Pio. They would talk together, share jokes; at times even sit in the same stall together in the choir-loft of the church. McCaffery was soon given the privilege of entering the monastery on his own and without special permission. He was also afforded the honour of serving at Padre Pio's Masses on seven occasions.

McCaffery believed he received a cure through Padre Pio's intercession. Since his wartime exploits, he had suffered serious heart trouble, involving palpitations, head pain and a partial stroke. During a Mass in San Giovanni, he concentrated hard and mentally begged Padre Pio to help him avoid another stroke, which he feared to be imminent.

After the Mass, Padre Pio spontaneously held McCaffery's head in his hands and pressed it against the wound in his side. He did the same again on two further occasions. At other times, he spontaneously placed his wounded right hand against McCaffery's heart. No heart trouble was ever experienced again by McCaffery.

By a strange quirk of fate, a near-neighbour of McCaffery's also became devoted to Padre Pio. Named Nicolas Tindal (right), he was well-known as one of the organisers of The Great Escape during the Second World War. Following the war, he worked his way back to Ireland and settled in Co Donegal. His wartime escapade would later be immortalised in the 1963 blockbuster movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen.

In the early 1950s, Tindal and his wife travelled to San Giovanni, where he planned to have his confession heard by Padre Pio. "They drove all the way from Donegal," his son Charles Tindal told me. "In those days it was quite a journey, but my father had been a pilot in the RAF and he wasn't worried about doing something like that. He was well able to do it."

Knowing that Padre Pio couldn't speak English and he couldn't speak Italian, Tindal took the precaution of meticulously writing out his confession in Italian. He hoped to read, or refer to, the document in the confessional at San Giovanni. It was a reasonable masterplan but, unfortunately, the plan didn't work. "He never had his confession heard by Padre Pio," his son recalled. "He was simply told, 'Because you can't speak Italian, Padre Pio can't hear your confession'. They then drove all the way back through Europe and home to Donegal. I'm sure he eventually made the confession with someone else. Unfortunately it wasn't with Padre Pio."

On September 23, 1968, at the age of 81, Padre Pio died in the arms of his fellow friars at the monastery in San Giovanni. He was weak and unwell by that stage of his life. Since 1967, the stigmata had already started fading. The first to go were those on the feet, followed by the wound on the side. Next the stigmata on the hands began to fade and by summer only dried crusts and a pink redness remained. Padre Pio was beginning his journey home to heaven, and he knew it.

On the evening of September 22, Padre Pio reported seeing "two mothers", most likely referring to the two women who had dominated his life and who he had loved dearly: the Blessed Virgin Mary and his own late mother, Mamma Peppa. A friar heard his last confession and he renewed his priestly vows. Then, at 2.30 on the morning of September 23, he uttered his last words, "Jesus, Mary, Jesus, Mary", closed his eyes, took his last breath and died.

The challenge, he had once said, was not death but eternal salvation. Holiness meant "living humbly, being disinterested, prudent, just, patient, kind, chaste, meek, diligent, carrying out one's duties for no other reason than that of pleasing God and receiving from Him alone the reward one deserves". Even by those exacting standards, Padre Pio was far away, in the company of the two mothers he had hoped to meet in heaven.

  • Padre Pio: Irish Encounters with the Saint, by Colm Keane, is published by Capel Island Press and is priced £15

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