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Mysteries and miracles or just mumbo-jumbo

This examination of the Italian mystic will unsetttle sceptics, says Colum Kenny

Padre Pio: The Irish Connection, Colm Keane, Mainstream Publishing, €16.99

I have not met anyone who claims that a miracle cured them. But the author of this book certainly has. Colm Keane is a hard-nosed journalist, whose career in RTE spanned three decades. He has written many other books, but none like this.

Keane has not so much found God, as found Padre Pio. In story after story, he quotes Irish people who prayed to or through the late Italian mystic, and who believe that their prayers were answered.

Cancer and other serious conditions disappeared, and a smell of roses filled the air.

Some people might be embarrassed even to be seen reading this book.

It is neither cool nor complex. But it is perplexing. Blood-stained relics of Padre Pio, whose hands and side and feet bore mysterious wounds like those of Christ, are rubbed on patients, who then recover.

The patients must be deluding themselves, critics will say. But family and friends are convinced by what they have witnessed.

Keane personally sought out his array of stories, and he is satisfied that the people who tell them are genuine. They include the mother of footballer Damien Duff and the mother of Minister for Education Mary Hanafin TD. One story-teller led him on to another, and the author deliberately avoided relying on central organisations to supply him with a list of approved names.

Keane's books before that on Padre Pio included one on the jobs crisis and three on his choice of hurling, Gaelic football and soccer's top sporstmen. Most were tied into RTE programmes. This one is different. But, already, he has been eagerly sought by radio stations the length and breadth of Ireland and his book has been quickly reprinted.

Padre Pio: The Irish Connection is not a work of art. It is a work of conviction and hope. And the conviction goes so deep that Keane now thinks that his research was actually guided by the late Padre Pio.

You either believe such a thing is possible or you do not.

Some of the stories are puzzling. Like the woman who brought home Italian documents about Padre Pio in order to translate them into English, only to find her home being attacked that night by armed raiders and her husband shot defending it. The assault happened at the same hour and on the same day as Padre Pio died. Hers is not the only tale that has a dark edge to it.

Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione, near Naples in 1887. Aged 16, he entered the Capuchin order, where he developed a reputation for intense devotion and fervent prayer. It is said that stigmata first appeared on his body two years after he became a resident at San Giovanni Rotondo. The stigmata reportedly remained with him for half a century, until shortly before he died. His presence attracted growing numbers of pilgrims, with Irish people among the first to come from abroad.

To most people, Padre Pio means little more than stickers on the back window of unsophisticated cars, showing a robed and physically unattractive man with a beard. But, quietly and without seeking great publicity, tens of thousands of his devotees meet every month in prayer groups. This is a hidden Ireland, far from the materialist world of the Celtic Tiger. Catholic church authorities have been wary of it at times.

Keane's book is written in an intense and hurried style. He has made himself a vehicle for human interest, although he carefully avoids the worst excesses of pious or credulous literature. He is laying out before the reader a series of tales that come stamped with the authority of his reputation and profession. That stamp guarantees that the people whom he quotes really exist, and are honest and sincere.

His book will not convince those who cannot or will not bring themselves to believe in divine intervention, but it may at least discomfort some who dismiss out of hand faith in miracles and wonder-workers. Assertions that such cures are "all-in-the mind", either delusional or psychosomatic, are sometimes no more scientific than are assertions to the contrary.

The book cries out for a TV documentary-maker to select a range of the strongest stories and to seek medical records or relevant medical opinion from before and after the reported cures. Sceptics might also contribute.

There is no better person to research and present any such documentary than Keane himself. His years of experience as a broadcaster and his earlier books on topics such as stress, nervous breakdown and death showed him to be both a thorough and a compassionate journalist.

If this book is a "big ask" of Keane's readers, in terms of credibility, it is also one that gives to Padre Pio the sort of attention that many of his Irish followers believe he deserves. They were happy when Padre Pio was recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church, in 2002, and they believe that he is still a force for good in the world today.