The car sped through Belfast, past political slogans, past houses haunted by death, past the ghosts of the slain whose blood still cries out for vengeance, on it drove.
My memory shifted to some of those who had been killed in the decades of violence that were known simply as The Troubles. The man shot through a back window as he knelt with his wife praying their nightly Rosary; another kidnapped outside a church as he went to evening devotions, later to be tortured and killed; the policeman murdered as he left Sunday Mass with his family; the handicapped woman executed and dumped in a trash can. Evil has held sway on the streets of Belfast, more openly perhaps than in other cities. These thoughts flitted through my mind as the car drove ever upwards to the mountain that overlooks the city.
And, as it did so, an expression returned, from where I could not place, but somehow it seemed apt: May the Lord in His mercy be kind to Belfast.
The man I was going to see is a native of this city. He had lived all his days here. In his former life, he had witnessed many of its worst aspects. Now, he was seeing its citizens in an altogether different light.
Brendan Rogers is in his late seventies. Yet, he has the air of a younger man. Maybe that is because he is a man on a mission as a result of having been given a gift that brought with it a curious commission. This story started many miles from Belfast and involves a canonized saint, which is why I came to see him.
Rogers lives on a mountainside that overlooks Belfast. A panoramic view of that city lay below us as he came and shook my hand before quickly taking me to a building close by his home. Inside this nondescript building there is a chapel. It has the familiar pews and an altar, but it also has a statue that unnerves. The statue in question is that of Padre Pio. On first encounter it shocks because it is so lifelike. Many replicas of holy men and women are either banal, or sometimes even comical, but what I was looking at that day had a unique quality.
Saint Pio of Pietrelcina was born in 1887 and died in 1968. He was a Capuchin monk, a mystic and a stigmatic—and now a canonised saint. He was famous in his day but has become even more so since. Pilgrimages to his grave at San Giovanni Rotondo are as popular today as to the more famous Marian shrines. In the past, meeting this holy friar changed people’s lives; today, it seems, lives continue to be changed by his mysterious legacy.
In Rogers’ chapel the statue of Padre Pio depicts the friar vested at the altar, offering the chalice at the moment of consecration. It is the life-size proportions of the statue and its likeness to the saint that strike on first viewing; but it is the eyes of the statute as much as anything else that unsettle. It is as if they are looking right through you.
As do the eyes of Brendan Rogers; he has a steady gaze that invites confidences. Many have looked into those eyes because it is for healing and peace that people continue to come to this chapel, to call on Rogers and ask for prayers and a blessing. The blessing comes from something that he carries with him at all times. It is a piece of cloth that was once a bandage around Padre Pio’s heart. It is, of course, a first class relic but it is also something that has now taken over the life of its custodian, as well as taken on a life if its own.
Brendan Rogers was born Catholic, but he has not always lived his life according to his faith; far from it, in fact, as he is the first to admit. The return to the Church of this man, who was once a hard-nosed businessman living in a battered and bruised Belfast, is linked to a series of strange events—perhaps mystical occurrences—that eventually led him to San Giovanni Rotondo. There he was singled out by one of the custodian friars of that pilgrimage site and given this particular relic of Padre Pio. As this happened, he was also told that with this relic he would bless and heal many. Rogers has carried it with him ever since and, by all accounts, the fruits of his mission have been impressive.
What many do not know, however, is that on the day Rogers received this unusual gift of the relic he also received the Cross, because it was on that day, while he was at San Giovanni Rotondo, that news came to him that his daughter had been killed in a car accident.
Rogers does not and has never sought publicity for what he does. For this man of faith, the relic is not a ‘magic charm;’ it is part of an ancient and still current tradition within the Church of the on-going intercession of the communion of Saints and with it the veneration of relics pertaining to them. In regard to this particular relic, many are touched by it, some are healed when blessed by it, and some are not. This is something Rogers is keen to point out. He is also anxious to say that it is not he who confers any blessing and that no healing occurs through his efforts. Nevertheless, if someone wants a blessing with this relic then he will bestow it. And, needless to say, he does not seek any form of remuneration for doing this. In short, he is the keeper of the relic and is available to anyone who calls on him, and very many have called for Brendan Rogers, and continue to do so.
Near where Rogers lives is the largest hospital in Belfast. He is a frequent visitor there. In fact, not a week goes by when he is not called to attend there by relatives of patients, or even by the medical staff. To some of the staff there he is known simply as ‘the miracle man’. The stories he tells, at my prompting, of these visits to the hospital are indeed incredible. They are even more remarkable when one learns that those who have called upon him to bring the relic have not just been Catholics but Protestants too, and even Muslims and atheists have asked to be blessed. He tells of cures and miraculous recoveries when apparently all medical hope was lost. Rogers recounts these events in a matter of fact way, and is clear in pointing out the true source of any healing, namely the relic of the saintly friar from San Giovanni Rotondo and his continued intercession.
It is also clear that Padre Pio has left his mark upon this unassuming Belfast man. Maybe, it is stating the obvious to say the friar has changed Rogers’ life. His days are now almost exclusively taken up with going throughout Ireland and beyond with the saint’s relic, blessing anyone who asks. Some recover from their ailments and some do not, but he assures me that all find some sort of peace as a result. But there are odder things still, curious signs that the friar is with him in this mission.
Take the children’s ward of the aforesaid hospital in Belfast. One day Rogers was on that ward when he took out a prayer card to Padre Pio. One of the consultant doctors on the ward, an atheist, asked who the man in the picture was. When he was told who it was, the medic seemed incredulous. Thereafter, the doctor proceeded to call over some of the nursing staff to examine the picture on the prayer card. One of the nurses on seeing the image exclaimed: ‘It’s that man’. By this she meant, and all the staff there present understood, that the picture was the representation of a friar who visited the children’s ward every week and prayed with the children. This continued to be their belief even when it was pointed out that the image on the prayer card was that of a man who had been dead for nearly 50 years.
Some years back, an unexpected illness came into the life of Brendan Rogers. A man who had known good health all his life, he was suddenly struck by a mysterious and potentially deadly heart problem. He found himself a patient in the Belfast hospital where he had been a frequent visitor. The specialist consultant he saw turned out to be an Italian. Rogers asked the consultant if he knew of San Giovanni Rotondo. As it happened, not only had the doctor heard of it, he had been part of the medical team that had treated Padre Pio. Needless to say, Rogers went on to be successfully treated and soon made a full recovery. Those who know of Padre Pio also know he had a pronounced sense of humour; his Belfast acolyte, the man who has seen so many healings on account of the Italian saint’s intercession, sees a humorous side to this particular episode.
When we came back outside, I looked up to see that, high above the chapel, hewn into the rock face there is a grotto. It is of Calvary: a fitting tableau overlooking the streets below where so much warfare and bloodshed have raged and flowed for far too long. Then I noticed also, standing alongside the Crucified One, the figure of Padre Pio; it is as if the friar is bestowing a perpetual priestly blessing upon Belfast.
Rogers walked with me from the chapel back to the front of his home. And as he did so, there again, spread out in front of us, was a clear view of this city of sorrows.
Pausing, I turned to Rogers, saying, as much as asking: ‘You have stood here and prayed for Belfast?’
Initially surprised by my comment, he looked at me, and, then, by way of reply, simply smiled.
Then, for a time, we stood together silently gazing out over the city as the evening light began to fade.
May the Lord in His mercy be kind to Belfast.
(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on CWR on May 22, 2017.)
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