(Not your normal bill of fare, this)
Back in August, I wrote about the many miracles that surrounded my Mother’s death in 1996. But, I never mentioned the related miracles that occurred in New Zealand … until now.
In 1994 or 1995, Mom was on oxygen 24/7 and had wasted away to 75 pounds. An undiagnosed spore had destroyed her lungs and was killing her. We were all praying for a miracle.
So when I was asked to organize a “healing Mass” in Auckland, New Zealand, by a miracle-worker named Father Peter Mary Rookey, I said ‘yes’! But only after I’d done a fair bit of homework to ensure his bonafides, as old reporters are wont to do.
My research included reading Man of Miracles, the book respected British journalist Heather Parsons wrote about “the famous healing priest from Chicago”, who himself had miraculously regained his sight as a young child.
Heather had “embedded” herself in Fr Rookey’s healing ministry, following him across Ireland, and chronicling what she called “miracles of biblical proportion”.
“From the altar, the church is a sea of humanity. The sick – in wheelchairs, on stretchers, carried or supported by others – push forward in their thousands to reach the silver-haired priest. Arms held out, Father Peter Mary Rookey OSM (Order of Servants of Mary) stops and blesses each one, laying his hands on their heads, calling on the power of Jesus to heal all their ills. And as he prays, miracles happen. The blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb say the name of Jesus and those in wheelchairs stand and walk.”
Obviously, a secular journalist writing about miracles impressed me. But what impressed me most was the old Servite priest’s humility, a quality always tied to holiness, and something that I hadn’t seen much of in my newspaper career.
As a journalist in Texas, Singapore and Washington, D.C. (1980-1988), I’d interviewed my share of big shots – senators, rock stars, sports legends, and even a billionaire. To a man, they had Frank Sinatra-sized egos and let you know they had done it “their way”.
None of that impressed me. Big egos and material success were as common as rain. But the consistent reports of Fr. Rookey’s humility, and his obedience, struck a chord of authenticity with me.
Once, long ago, he didn’t even blink when the Superior of his Order told him to end his healing ministry. Just like that. Almost anyone’s ego would have argued, “What about all the people who need miracles?” But Fr. Rookey closed up shop without a peep. Then decades later, when a new Superior told him to restart his healing ministry, he did so with the vigor of youth. After all, he didn’t work the miracles, God did. He was only the instrument.
Looking for a Miracle
And I needed a miracle for Mom. Not even the Centers for Disease Control could diagnose the spore that was filling her lungs with fluid and phlegm, and covering them with something described as “being like an orange peel.”
It’s hard to impress ex-reporters, but Fr. Rookey won me over from the get-go.
When the 70-something priest landed in Auckland, at the end of a brutal international schedule, he didn’t want to eat or sleep or shower. He just wanted to celebrate Holy Mass. I hastily arranged for my small parish church to be opened, and the “famous healing priest” quietly said Mass in an almost empty church.
Unbeknownst to me, late that night, a distraught family with a dying child somehow discovered where the jet-lagged priest was staying. They begged him to accompany them to Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital. He did so, praying for the healing of the dying child and for the family, which had been so damaged by the awful ordeal. Then, the soft-spoken priest went quietly back to his quarters, never bothering to tell me, his “minder”, about his act of mercy.
Fr. Rookey was the first to tell you that God answers every prayer for a miracle, but not everyone gets the miracle they request. God’s ways are above our ways.
In this this particular case, the poor child died. But during Father’s time praying with them, and in the following days, the family had been healed — their pain and rage miraculously replaced by peace and faith.
Mom’s Healing Mass
The venue for the Healing Mass was to be Sacred Heart Church in the Auckland suburb of Ponsonby. This was the beautiful parish church of Monsignor Paul Cronin, who was also the Spiritual Director of the Eucharistic Convention (an annual Catholic event that I have been blessed to be involved with since 1994).
Organizing the event had been complicated and stressful, with more than the usual number of difficulties that always plague any work of this sort. But, finally, everything was done.
As we approached Sacred Heart the night of the Healing Mass, I was more than a little anxious. I remembered Heather Parsons’ stories. And the Americans who had accompanied Fr. Rookey warned that literally thousands of people attended his Healing Masses in the States.
I calmed myself by thinking, “Look, this is little ol’ New Zealand, a secular, liberal, unassuming former British colony at the bottom of the world. It won’t happen like that here, mate.”
I expected a few hundred people would attend the evening event, and that was if it didn’t rain. But by 5 p.m., 200-300 people had braved heavy rain and were already inside the Church praying.
By the time the rosary started at 7 pm — Fr. Rookey had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother, and he always asked that the rosary be said before healing services — Sacred Heart church was almost full, with perhaps 500 people jamming into the pews. A handful of local priests anointed people with holy oils at the front of the church.
By the time Holy Mass started at 7.30 pm, probably more than 1,000 people were sardined into every nook and cranny in the hot and humid church.
After Mass, the Healing Service began. And it was like nothing this former Protestant had ever seen.
Crutches and Wheelchairs
Just as Heather Parsons had written in her book, for what seemed like hours, long lines of people slowly pushed forward. The blind. The lame. The sick. The old. The frail. The scared. The weeping. Usually supported by a loved one, or with canes or crutches or in wheelchairs. All wanting a miracle, either for themselves, for someone with them, or for someone for whom they were “standing in”.
Someone like my chronically ill Mom in Oklahoma, for whom I was standing in.
Wave after wave of broken humanity flowed forward, and Fr. Rookey patiently and reverently prayed over each person while touching a cross to their foreheads that contained relics of the seven founders of his Servite Order.
Perhaps 25% of the time, the people being prayed over would drop to the ground, “Slain in the Spirit”, something not that uncommon in certain Protestant churches, but not something I had ever seen in a Catholic Church.
Even though I’d been warned what would happen, it scared the daylights out of me, spiritually and for practical reasons. As the organizer of the event, I was responsible for all these people, and they were falling like trees, with their heads bouncing off the pews or the floor. But, as Heather had experienced in Ireland, nobody was hurt.
It wasn’t long before the church began to resemble a battlefield, with bodies literally strewn everywhere.
I hope I can be forgiven, as a former cynical journalist, for thinking that most of the people who fell were either faking it for attention, or they just wanted so badly to be Slain in the Spirit and healed that they willed themselves to fall when Fr. Rookey prayed over them.
But when people that I personally knew, including one of my close relatives, went down like they’d been shot, and stayed down for a good 10 minutes, with a dazed, joyful smile on their faces, the truth and reality of what was happening hit me.
Like Biblical Times
The Spirit of God was upon us. Like in biblical times. There was simply no denying it.
Through it all, Fr. Rookey never slowed down or lost focus. He prayed fervently over every single person who came forward, just as if they were the only one in the world who needed his prayers.
After what seemed like an eternity, but which was probably two or three hours, the lines of the faithful were finally thinning out, and hundreds of people had left the church. Most of those still inside were praying quietly, in the pews or still “resting in the Spirit” on the floor.
About then, I decided it was time for me to stop being the “cynical former journalist/event organiser” and just get in line with the faithful.
Because, in truth, that was what the whole evening had been about. I had been selfish from the beginning. Sure, I had hoped that many people would be healed. But the main reason I had put so much effort into organizing the event was so that my chronically ill Mom back in Oklahoma would be miraculously healed.
So I lowered my eyes, started praying like I’d never prayed before, and slowly stepped forward. Fr. Rookey prayed over me, as he had done hundreds of times that night. He touched the crucifix to my head and then…
Undeterred, Fr. Rookey prayed all the harder, and literally pushed my forehead backwards. I either had to push back or drop to the ground. Reluctantly, I decided to do the latter. My mind was saying “you look like an idiot”, but my heart was praying, “please Lord, please, send your Spirit upon my Mom, and heal her.”
Then I waited a bit to see if anything would happen, if that warm sensation I’d read about would flow through my body. But it wasn’t to be. No miracles for me. Or at least, not in the way that I had expected.
To explain, I need to go back to earlier in the evening, when the local priests were anointing people with oil at the front of the church. A very holy priest that I knew, and who had been to Medjugorje many times, anointed me, making the sign of the cross on my forehead with holy oil. And when he did it, something happened. Something significant.
Now, I’ve been a writer most of my life. But I have never been able to explain what happened. I know that I felt oddly dizzy and nauseous; not in my head or stomach, but inside my chest. It was the oddest sensation. Although I was quite affected, I had to get on with the business of organizing the evening.
Maybe a week later, after the “dust had settled”, I hand-wrote a long letter to my Protestant Mom, trying to explain everything that had happened. I confessed that I’d organized the Healing Mass seeking a miracle for her. I explained in-depth all about Fr. Rookey’s remarkable ministry, and about what I’d personally seen and experienced that night.
After there’d been enough time for Mom to have received and read my emotional letter, I called her on the phone. My heart nearly broke when she said, “no”, she hadn’t received a miracle healing. At least not of her poor, ravaged lungs. But something important was about to happen during the phone call.
For some reason that I still don’t understand, just hearing that her baby boy had organized this Healing Mass for her, somehow touched Mom to the depths of her soul. When she tried to explain it on the phone, she could barely speak, gasping for air, and choking on her tears. We were both choking on our tears.
To this day, I don’t know what was healed inside Mom, but I think it was something that had been badly broken for a long time. I think that, maybe, this ‘healing’ helped her continue to carry her awful cross until she died in 1996, surrounded by angels and her family, as I wrote here.
Now, almost 20 years later, this former just-the-facts-ma’am journalist cannot, hand-on-heart, say conclusively that a single miracle happened during Fr. Rookey’s Healing Service and Holy Mass in New Zealand.
But what I can say is this.
I saw an old woman get out of her wheelchair and walk, and I can still see the look of joyful astonishment on the face of her daughter who was pushing her. I saw so many canes and crutches discarded that I lost count. I heard countless shrieks of joy. I swam in rivers of tears. I saw hundreds of people ‘Slain in the Spirit’. And I felt a peace in that church unlike anything I had ever experienced.
The old-journalist in me has always regretted not chasing down the people who seemed to be miraculously healed that night, and to get independent medical verification that their healings were ‘authentic’.
But, even if I had been able to do so, what would have been achieved? People who believe in miracles, don’t need official verification to believe. People who don’t believe in miracles would simply turn up their noses, just as they do when confronted with clinical evidence of the miracles at Lourdes.
And yet, on that night at Sacred Heart Church, I saw what I saw. I felt what I felt. I know what I know. And I believe in miracles. Even if the world thinks that odd.
(Editor’s note: Fr. Rookey went to God last year. Msgr. Cronin preceded him in 2010. I was enormously blessed to know these remarkable priests.)
(Editor’s note: The photo above, taken before the Healing Mass that night, is of Our Lady, Fr. Rookey, and yours truly. The ‘angel’ is Photo-shopped. Probably.)