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Priest's life is devoted to healing by prayer

At his services, those anointed by him are sometimes overcome by the Holy Spirit. And there have been stories of recoveries from serious illnesses.

Barely touched by the priest, they fell back into the arms of "catchers," who lowered them with care to the red carpet.

They lay there, arms stretched out at their sides, "resting in the spirit."

Others, clutching rosaries in their hands, stepped around the still bodies to await their blessings and anointing from the black-clad Roman Catholic priest.

That was the scene last Saturday, as the Rev. Peter M. Rookey, a member of the Order of Servants of Mary, conducted a healing service at St. Mary's Parish, a Polish National Catholic Church, which is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.

The scene at St. Mary's on Pinellas Point Drive had already been repeated in several Tampa Bay Roman Catholic parishes. Last week Rookey, 83, made exhausting rounds to overflowing churches in St. Pete Beach, Seffner, Largo, Tampa and St. Petersburg. While the services are Catholic in nature, anyone can attend.

Longtime members at St. John Vianney, where 1,300 people attended Rookey's healing Mass Jan. 24, have become accustomed to his services during which people are overcome by the Holy Spirit.

"The first time that Father Rookey ever came to St. John's, where we have mostly wealthy, retired people . . . I wish you could have seen their faces, the startled looks as they found themselves on the floor," said Susan Dwyer, a parishioner at St. John's who was asked with her husband, John, to host Rookey's visits.

Mrs. Dwyer said ushers had been warned that people would be "slain by the spirit," an expression that Father Rookey's literature explains as "not fainting," but similar to letting in "the sun of the Holy Spirit."

Added Mrs. Dwyer, "The first person who went down, somebody yelled, "Call the ambulance, quick. ... These very dignified, elderly people were falling on the floor. ... It sure was an education to the people of my parish."

Despite the skepticism of a modern world, Mrs. Dwyer and her husband are true believers in the power of Rookey's prayers.

During that first Mass at St. John's nine years ago, she said, a woman's sight was restored.

Two years ago, another noticeable healing occurred, Mrs. Dwyer said, for a young man who had been brought to the church in a wheelchair, his body contorted with cerebral palsy.

His father, who did not want to participate in the service, waited in the parking lot for his wife and son. He went into the church when the congregation started to leave after the three-hour service.

"He looked at the wheelchair and he saw nobody. He had walked right by his son, not even recognizing him," Mrs. Dwyer recalled. "The father just started to cry and started to yell. The boy said, "Dad, you don't have to yell. I'm not deaf anymore, either.' "

A woman who attended Rookey's healing service at St. Catherine of Siena in Largo last week said her doctor found no sign of cancer in her throat when he examined her the day after seeing the priest, said Mrs. Dwyer, who with her husband has been hosting Rookey's Tampa Bay visits for almost a decade.

Those were a couple of the stories those who packed St. Mary's heard on Saturday. Though Rookey likes to hear such testimonies, he is quick to remind the faithful that they owe him nothing.

To God be the glory, he tells them.

A native of Superior, Wis., Rookey was ordained in 1941 at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica in Chicago and began his healing ministry in 1948 in Ireland. Today his International Compassion Ministry is based in Olympia Fields, Ill. The priest, who was blinded in an accident as a child and healed, credits the power of prayer for the restoration of his sight.

His Masses and healing services attract thousands wherever he travels. In Mexico, services that start at 11 in the morning rarely conclude before 6 in the evening, Rookey said.

"They're all seeking peace and healing," he said of those who attend his services. "We all are looking for that, especially peace. Actually, that's the greatest gift, to have the peace of Christ. You can face anything, even serious sickness and pain."

Physical healing, "is at best just temporary," he said, explaining that as long as humans are alive, they are prone to ill health. The great healing comes with death and eternal union with God.

"So the really important thing is the inner healing," he said.

What about those who are not healed as a result of his prayers?

"Some of us are called to offer ourselves as victim souls for others or for ourselves," Rookey said. "The best example, of course, is Jesus himself. He had no sin. . . . The greater the saints, the more they suffered. . . . I tell people with problems, addictions, drugs, gambling, lust, as long as we are struggling to overcome whatever is bothering us, the Lord rewards us. In fact, we have to struggle until we die. It's in our struggle that we become great persons."

As part of his spiritual preparation for the healing services, Rookey fasts, eating only after his day is complete. For decades, the priest said, he has made it a habit to eat only one late evening meal.

"I just would feel very uncomfortable praying with people on a full tummy," said Rookey, who had had only coffee before Saturday's evening service.

It began with the Rosary, recited in English and Polish by the congregation, who used their own prayer beads or those donated by St. Mary's. The anticipation was tangible as those gathered realized that they soon would be able to approach Rookey for healing.

"Have you all been prayed for?" Mrs. Dwyer asked repeatedly, as she walked from pew to pew, guiding eager worshipers to the altar, where Rookey prayed and anointed their foreheads with oil.

Quite a few responded to his touch by falling to the ground.

First to be ministered to were a man and a woman in wheelchairs. The elderly woman, despite coaxing and assistance, was unable to stand after Rookey's prayers. But Maximo Moorings resident Joe Stock, accompanied by his wife, Mary, stood and slowly walked down the aisle, pushing his wheelchair before him. The congregation cheered.

Reached Tuesday by telephone, he was still basking from the effects of the service.

"I haven't been dizzy when I do some walking around the house. My legs are still a little weak, but that's probably because I haven't been using them," said Stock, 44, who has been in a wheelchair since 1995 and recently injured his neck in a car accident.

"I've got diabetes and multiple sclerosis, all these little things. I was hoping he could help out with some of these. . . . He may have not healed the diabetes or multiple sclerosis, but I believe he healed my attitude. I'm a lot more calm and more understanding," said Stock, who said he felt "a kind of warm and peaceful feeling" after Rookey's anointing.

"I just think that the Holy Spirit helped me."