LIMERICK has seen the relics of St Therese and Don Bosco, but for many, seeing the relics of St Anthony of Padua in the city this week eclipsed them all.
From 8am this Monday, right up to 10pm, after mass with the Bishop of Limerick, some 30,000 people crammed into the 1,000 seater St John’s Cathedral to touch, kiss, pray and weep in front of the relics of St Anthony, one of Ireland’s most beloved saints.
“I would travel anywhere to see them,” said Ann Stokes, from Adare, who proved that patience is indeed a virtue, having been one of the first to queue - and first up at the altar to kiss the relics.
“It’s very important to me. I’m an awful big fan of St Anthony. He grants me anything I look for. I’m pure mad about him,” she said, producing from her pocket a St Anthony’s medal “that touched his tongue”.
The relics, which contain a small piece of his cheek and rib, were touring Ireland over eight days to mark the 750th anniversary of the discovery of St Anthony’s “uncorrupted remains”. While his tongue has also been preserved, it was not part of this tour, which has a tendency to raise a few eyebrows amongst the cynically religious masses, and a frenzied fervour in the faithful.
But to Ralph Prendergast, from Lifford Avenue, South Circular Road, it “meant everything” to be here.
“He’s a wonderful Saint, very generous and kind. I am a big fan, we all are,” he said.
Mary Windle, from Croom, added: “I found it very touching really, and the sermon was lovely from the Italian priest. I’m delighted I came”.
He may most commonly be known as the saint of lost things, whom you turn to when you lose your car keys for instance, but thousands here were turning to him for other, non-material things they had lost in their lives - a love, their ideals, talent, dreams and hopes for a better future.
While born in Lisbon in 1195, St Anthony, regarded as the Messenger of Hope and a friar of the Franciscan order, died in Padua, Italy, aged 35 in 1231, and it is from here that his remains have travelled to the far corners of the globe to give hope.
Mary Berkery, from Limerick city, said she had never prayed to St Anthony a great deal in the past, as “he wasn’t one of my favourite saints”, but after today she felt that she would.
“It’s very special and meaningful - increasing whatever little bit of faith we have in us, and building us up for the rest of our journey in life. We’ve all lost many things in life.”
Ann Punch, from Ballynanty, who was there with her daughter Mary, 25, and husband Gerard Punch, said: “It’s beautiful to be here. You would feel great. I have all his medals and his books, and I say his prayers every night.”
For Michael Brennan, from Adare, is was also an occasion not to be missed - and unlikely to be repeated again. “St Anthony is a great friend to people all over the world. He’s done many favours for the sick and the infirm. It’s a great honour for Limerick city and county to have his relics in St John’s this morning, and see such a large attendance present.”
Fr Austin McNamara, of St John’s Cathedral, said it was “wonderful” and “a great privilege” to have the relics in Limerick, “not just for St John’s Cathedral but for the Limerick diocese.”
Padua-based Franciscan Conventual friar, Fr Mario Conte, who is touring the world with the relics, told the Limerick Leader that the great crowds that gathered surpassed his expectations. “We didn’t expect so many people, but St Francis is loved all over the world and I know the Irish are very, very devoted people, and he is a dear friend of them. It is a very nice to be here, and it is lovely to watch people having this physical meeting with St Anthony.”
While only a small part of the relic is on display, he said that does not diminish its importance in the eyes of the people.
“It’s not important how big it is, what’s important is the connection.
“We all have something precious we love that belongs to someone else that are not with us any longer. I have my mother’s wedding ring and she died some years ago, but when I hold it I feel a connection.
“People when they come and see the relic of St Anthony and can touch it, they feel a connection with him. It’s like giving your hand to St Anthony and thanking him for something you have received,” said Fr Conte, who is the editor of the international edition of the Messenger of St Anthony magazine.
The Bishop of Limerick, Dr Brendan Leahy, said it was an “edifying, humbling and comforting reminder” to see that people’s faith “is still so precious and strong”, given the unprecedented numbers in attendance. “When we accepted the kind invitation from the Franciscans to welcome the relics to Limerick, we knew instantly the privilege this would be for the faithful. What we didn’t expect, however, was that they would turn out in the numbers they did. It was way beyond our expectations and a great lift for all involved in the Church.
“So many people reach out at a spiritual level to St. Anthony on a daily basis and this was their opportunity to have a tangible moment with the Saint. They came here to worship, to make petitions and, for many also, to simply say thanks.”
For the faithful and those struggling with their faith, the relics helped many find peace with whatever they had lost in their lives - and what they hope they might one day reclaim.