Face to face with living saints

Canon Brian McCluskey shares his fascinating story

Are there many or any persons in these islands – or elsewhere on the planet for that matter – who enjoy the privilege of having personally met and prayed with three canonised saints?
That is  a question  I kept asking myself  when I was penning this piece  about Canon Brian McCluskey, retired priest of  Clogher and much loved assistant to Fr Eddie O’Donnell in my own parish of St Brigid’s in south Belfast.
Canon McCluskey (78) a native of Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan is a modest and unassuming pastor who like so many priests eschewed publicity while toiling quietly and heroically in the Lord’s vineyard in particularly trying circumstances. 

He has met three canonised saints, including St Padre Pio and St John XXIII whom he visited while studying for the priesthood in Rome in the Fifties. 
And by  the time Fr McCluskey  concelebrated Mass with another future saint, St John Paul II, on the occasion of his Silver Jubilee in 1985 he had  already experienced at first hand some of the horrors of the Troubles  while serving  in the cross-Border parish of Clones which includes  part of  Fermanagh.

He has been a cancer survivor for nine years and declining health forced him to ‘retire’ to Belfast in 2004 to be close to on-going cancer treatment in the company of Maire, his sister. 
However, Fr Brian does not ‘do’ retirement and remains in active ministry – for which successive parish priests in St Brigid’s, not to mention their parishioners, are deeply grateful. 
Since he moved to Belfast he has “helped out” in St Brigid’s first while his old friend Msgr Ambrose Macaulay was parish priest – they were ordained together on the same day in the Basilica of St John Lateran, Rome in 1960 – and continued to do so when Fr O’Donnell took over the reins almost four years ago.
Fr McCluskey: “I feel privileged to be able to give service to St Brigid’s. I couldn’t live unless I am saying public Mass.”

He is an ardent fan of his fellow Inniskeen native, the poet Patrick Kavanagh whom he knew,   lauding his “search for God, not in Heaven but ‘In the bits and pieces of every day…’”
Kavanagh, he says “loved the things of Earth and their Creator” regarding nature as “a second Bible revealing God”.
Both his parents were teachers, his father a school principal. He is the youngest of a family of eight, three boys and five girls, six of whom joined the religious life devoting more than 350 years’ service as priests or nuns.
One brother, Fr Peter, is an Oblate priest and another, Fr Gerard is a Kiltegan missionary. Two sisters became St Louis nuns, Sr Ethna, who died in September and Sr Nuala. A third sister, Sr Aileen, is a Mercy nun.

Brian McCluskey was a 19-year-old seminarian at the Irish College in Rome when, shortly after Easter  1955, he  followed the well-worn path to the small church of Santa Maria della Grazie, in  San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy to attend Mass celebrated  by Padre Pio.
For decades there had been a massive cult around Padre Pio, a Capuchin friar and mystic who had received the stigmata, “the wounds of our Lord”, as Pope Paul VI put it in 1971, three years after his death. He was canonised by John Paul II in 2002.
Brian had queued for hours with two fellow Irish seminarians making it to the front seat and was invited to serve Mass for Padre Pio.
“I felt satisfied to be asked to serve Mass. I was in the right spot at the right time.”

On greeting Padre Pio he kissed the hands which bore the stigmata.
“I saw the stigmata, the wounds in both his palms and accompanied him to the sacristy afterwards where he put on the mittens to protect them”.
Fr McCluskey still has the cutting from The Irish Press of February 3, 1959 which reported on one of the most memorable experiences of his life.
It recorded that on the previous day, Candlemas Day, he as sacristan of the Irish College had the honour of presenting a special candle to John XXIII, sitting on his throne, on behalf of the college at a “solemn ceremony” in the Vatican Palace Hall of Consistories.
He recalls that the liturgy lasted about five or six minutes and it was “a very big occasion, frightening, one of the biggest occasions in my life”.

Although he was “overawed by it” he was deeply touched by Pope John who was “very relaxed, gentle, smiling and made me feel very comfortable”.
Three months earlier along with Ambrose Macaulay he was in the crowd at St Peter’s Square when the white smoke bellowed from the Sistine Chapel.
He  recalls the pair of them  getting a lift on a lorry back to St John Lateran near the Irish  College where resourceful street vendors were already selling pictures of the new Pope having speedily superimposed Cardinal Roncalli’s head on a picture of  Pope St Pius X who  resembled John’s portly build.
Fr McCluskey has a particular devotion to Pope St John XXIII stemming from the impression that Papa Roncalli made on him as a young seminarian and priest.

This is  underlined  by the fact that he decided to put Pope John’s picture on a little memorial card marking his ordination  54 years ago – something he had forgotten about until it dropped out of an old book  recently.
Fr McCluskey describes Pope John’s Vatican II as a “very brave move” which was “a bombshell to everybody” and as a young priest he “wasn’t aware that the Church was in need of a shake-up”.
His meeting with Pope St John Paul II was a particularly joyous occasion and very relaxed. He was with five other colleagues from the ordination class of 1960, including Fr Macaulay who con-celebrated Mass with the Holy Father in his private chapel.

Afterwards the future saint invited them to join him for half an hour of conversation in the adjoining papal library in the Apostolic Palace.
Canon McCluskey has observed seven papacies and he describes Pope Francis as “a gift of our time for the Church who has the right word for every occasion and who can reach out to people of all religions and none unlike any Pope in our lifetime”.

Dark shadows

The Troubles cast a shadow over much of Canon McCluskey’s ministry and two particularly dark moments stand out. In 1973 while a curate in Clones he  was called very early one morning by the RUC to attend to a young IRA member, Tony Ahern (17) from Cork   who was killed when a landmine he was transporting exploded prematurely. He died instantly from horrific multiple injuries.
 Fr McCluskey was parish priest in of Roslea, for 17 years from the mid-Eighties, a parish divided by the border.
In 1994 he anointed Caroline Moreland, a 34 year old mother of three from Belfast who had been shot in the back of the head by the IRA and dumped half a mile from his home just inside the border.
The IRA said she was an informer.
Almost 20 years later he says: “She is always in my mind.”

At the time he told the Belfast Telegraph: “It was a dreadful scene, an horrific sight. No one has the right to take a life. No political cause can justify taking life.”
He contrasts such horrors with “the explosion of joy” he experienced when Pope John Paul II’s plane flew over Phoenix Park in 1979.
Before the final blessing at every Mass he has celebrated over the past 54 years Fr Brian has recited the Prayer for Strength attributed to Pope St John XXIII.
It begins: “Every day I need Thee Lord! But this day especially, I need some extra strength, to face whatever is to come.”
Continuing it concludes with the words: “And so, dear Lord, hold Thou my trembling hand…”
One senses it’s a prayer that has sustained Canon McCluskey – and countless others – to no end in a devoted ministry that thankfully continues to help build God’s Kingdom in one part of Belfast.