A staggering 30,000 people showed up at St John’s Cathedral on Monday to see the relics of St Anthony for themselves, according to the Diocese of Limerick.
Put in context, that amounts to the biggest religious gathering the city has seen - albeit spread throughout the day - since Pope John Paul II drew over ten times that crowd to Greenpark in 1979.
The late pontiff is apparently being fast-tracked into the ranks of the sainthood but it is the 13th century Franciscan friar St Anthony who holds the record for the quickest canonisation. Perhaps the medieval Church knew they had a star on their hands and today St Anthony is said to watch over everybody from fishermen to couples looking to have a baby.
Most commonly known as the patron saint of those seeking the return of lost things, the faithful who gathered in St John’s also told our reporter Anne Sheridan that they turned to St Anthony for the return of a lost love, a frustrated hope, a better future.
The Franciscan order had a presence in Limerick from 1279 until they left their friary on Henry Street five years ago. Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy said he was delighted to host the relics in the cathedral instead.
As the faithful queued outside in the rain to get a chance to venerate the relics, Bishop Leahy said “it was an edifying, humbling and comforting reminder to us that people’s faith is still so precious and strong”.
It certainly made a change from regular services at the cavernous cathedral where the pews can be sparsely populated.
It would be trite to conclude that the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy has seen people turn away from the material and re-embrace the spiritual. Scenes of devotion such as those at St John’s are all too rare and it is unlikely that Limerick will return to the days it was viewed, often disparagingly, as Ireland’s most Catholic city. The truth is, as ever, more complex. Census figures show people in Limerick are the most likely of the major cities to describe themselves as Catholic - but also the most likely to be from a single-parent family or divorced.
Yes the Church has been damaged by the scandals but its priests continue to play vital roles with the poor and the sick in our communities and, as we saw this week, faith brings real meaning to people’s lives.