“Have you put the seatbelt on St Anthony?” inquires Brother Joe Fenton anxiously, as our car departs Galway Cathedral.
It’s 8am on Wednesday, and this is day seven of the Irish tour of the relics of St Anthony of Padua.
The saint, in the form of a large gold wooden reliquary depicting a body from the torso up, is already in the back seat.
The relics themselves, a piece of skin and a piece of petrified flesh, have been detached and are in their sealed phials in a suitcase in the boot.
Three friars are travelling to Dublin for the next stop on the tour – St Mary’s of the Angels church. Brother Fenton, who is based in Fairview, is the driver for the week.
The other friars, Brother Mario Conte and Brother Julio Garcia, have come from Padua to escort the relics. “We are in a way St Anthony’s travelling companions,” as Brother Conte puts it.
Canon Peter Rabbitte, the parish priest of Galway Cathedral, has just waved us off. He looks worn out, as well he might.
An estimated 30,000 people went to the cathedral the previous day to attend two Masses in St Anthony’s name and to venerate the relics over a period of several hours.
“The car is only rented for the week,” Brother Fenton explains. “It’s a Ford Galaxy 2012, and they cost about €30,000. Make sure you put that in. I wouldn’t like people thinking our friars drive round in this all the time.”
“We needed the space, as you can see,” Brother Conte says, indicating the boot. In addition to the relics in their little grey suitcase, and the friars’ own luggage, they are also carrying several large bags full of petitions to the saint, gathered along the way from the public.
Praying for jobs
So far, including Galway, the relics have been to Dublin, Wexford, Cork and Limerick, and at every location, people have written petitions. The petitions are written messages, sealed inside envelopes.
“They’re all addressed to St Anthony, so we usually don’t read them,” Brother Conte explains.
He has, however, read enough of them to know the key things that people are praying to the saint for.
“They pray for their own health, and for the health of others. For continued faith. And in the last few years, very many people have been praying for jobs.”
All the petitions will be carefully sorted, boxed and sent to Padua, where they will be placed beside the tomb of the saint.
They will remain there for some months, until the volume of new petitions received means that room has to be made, and the older ones will be burned.
At every stop along the way in Ireland, thousands of people have turned out to venerate the relics. Are the friars surprised at the reaction?
“Yes and no,” Brother Conte replies.
‘A lot of friends’
“When we were preparing to come here, we were told by the Irish friars that the church in Ireland has changed a lot in the last few years, and they didn’t know if people would come out . . . But I have not been surprised that so many people have turned out, because I know St Anthony has a lot of friends in Ireland.”
The current reliquary is made of wood for a reason, says Brother Conte. “The reliquary used to be bronze,” he explains, “and the relics were sealed inside it. You couldn’t detach them, as you can now.
“So now, the wooden St Anthony is sent ahead by courier, and I take the relics on board the plane with me in a small box. The bronze St Anthony weighed 80kg, and because the relics were sealed into it, the whole thing had to come with me on the plane. We had to buy a separate ticket for St Anthony, because he was too big to go into the overhead locker.”
The friars may be tired from long days and early starts, but they still demonstrate a robust sense of humour.
As we approach the city, Brother Garcia asks Brother Fenton to stop at a service station, so he can use the bathroom. He gets out of the car in his distinctive long brown habit and vanishes into a service station. Less than a minute later, he’s back.
“I was told it was out of order,” he explains.
Brother Fenton slaps his hand on the steering wheel and laughs.
“No, I know what happened. They took one look at you in that habit and probably thought you were a member of al-Qaeda,” he says, and the others howl until they’re almost crying, as we drive into Dublin and the second-last stop of their Irish tour.