As the Year of Mercy came to a close, Pornchai Maxmilian Moontri and Father Gordon MacRae were invited on a very special spiritual journey beyond those stone walls.
Thirty-three years ago, when I was a much younger man, I did not always feel spiritually equipped for life as a parish priest. I often felt consumed by all the demands of ministry, and was in a parish back then that had been the undoing of several priests. When I was assigned there, I was to replace a young priest who was in the midst of leaving the priesthood. And just three years earlier, that priest was assigned there to replace another young priest who was leaving the priesthood. On the day of my arrival, the pastor was sent off for his second stint in treatment for alcoholism. The disillusioned young priest whom I was replacing stayed on for that first summer, but in many ways I was very much on my own.
A part of my assignment – and it was the toughest part – was to provide 24-hour-a-day pastoral care at a large regional medical center and trauma unit in addition to ministry in a parish of over 2,000 families. When a Catholic patient was in danger of death, I was called to comfort the afflicted, console families, and administer the Sacraments. More often than not, those calls came in the middle of the night.
Early in the morning of Easter Sunday, 1984, at about 3:00 AM, I awoke to the shrill sound of a ringing rectory telephone with my usual sense of alarm… “You’re wanted at the hospital,” came the dreaded voice on the other end. I dragged myself up, splashed some cold water in my face, gargled and snarled at my sleep deprived image in the mirror, then headed out the door.
When I arrived at the hospital, I was surprised to be steered toward the maternity ward. A nurse saw me coming and pulled me aside. “A teenage girl has delivered prematurely,” the nurse said, “and she insists on a baptism.” I asked how premature was the baby’s delivery, and the nurse shot back, “The ‘fetus’ is about four-and-a-half months.”
I was then led behind a curtain where a young woman of about 18 lay in a slightly inclined hospital bed, tears streaming down her face. Next to the bed was a portable incubator with the lid raised. I approached to see within it a tiny human being, less than six inches in length and weighing just a few ounces, but clearly a human being. I tried to talk to the girl, but she stopped me. “Please hurry,” she said through tears. “They said we have very little time.”
I took out the Sacramental oils and a vial of holy water. My voice trembled as I reached into the incubator and asked, “What name do you give to your child?” “Thérèse,” came the answer, delivered with resolve. “In honor of Saint Thérèse.” The young mother sobbed as I baptized her child. I had an overwhelming sense that this was the most important thing I have ever done, and perhaps ever will do. Then the distraught and exhausted girl asked me to leave quickly, “because my parents are coming,” she sobbed, “and they do not believe!”
It struck me on the short drive back to my parish that this brave girl obviously told her parents about her pregnancy, but for reasons I will never know, could not tell them about her faith. I found this to be profoundly sad, and it troubled me for years to come.
I was also struck by the name this girl had given her child as she commended her soul to God, “in honor of Saint Thérèse.” Of course, I knew of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux the great Doctor of the Church, but only minimally. I resolved to learn a little more, but never found time to get past the mere fact that she was the very young Carmelite author of “Story of a Soul.” I tried to read it, but comprehended none of it. Then I just casually dismissed her from my daily awareness.
A SHOWER OF ROSES
That was the first time Saint Thérèse entered, the story of my own soul, and the stay was brief. But she was not letting me set her aside so easily. A year later, she brought me into the presence of another teenage girl, 17-year-old Michelle, whose last days and eternal soul I handed over to the Heavenly company of Saint Thérèse. It’s a brief account – though haunting and mystical – told in an early post on These Stone Walls entitled, “A Shower of Roses.” Take a few minutes to read it if you haven’t already. But don’t forget to come back. This evolving story is important for me, and perhaps for you as well.
Saint Thérèse just knocked on the door of my soul for the third time, and it is time to leave that door open and comprehend her Story of a Soul. Back in October, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri and I both received letters from Eric Mahl, a friend and fellow Marian Missionary of Divine Mercy from the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I felt a chill of both anticipation and anxiety as I read Eric’s October 13, 2016 letter, especially his opening quote from Saint Paul before getting to the point:
“I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, wholly and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and, acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
My immediate reaction was, “Gee, thanks but no thanks, Eric.” Every time the Marians of the Immaculate Conception aim an invitation in our direction, it costs us something of ourselves. As though right on cue, the prison walls around us seem to close in tighter, and we lose something we were clinging to in this world. We end up in the heat of battle in spiritual warfare every time we stand at the starting point of a spiritual journey to which we are invited by the Marians. I described the first such invitation and the obstacles to grace thrown before us in a two-part post that the Marians republished as a news feature on their own site entitled, “Behold Your Son! Behold Your Mother!”
Of course, if you have been reading These Stone Walls all along, then you already know that the grace obtained through our acceptance of these invitations has been profound, mind-boggling really, and our lives have changed dramatically. And not only OUR lives. Hundreds of TSW readers have consecrated themselves to Jesus through Mary using Marian Father Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory Group Retreat after learning of it on These Stone Walls. One of the most recent was our friend, Father George David Byers, and Pornchai-Max and I were very happy about that. But back to this story. Eric Mahl’s recent letter to us continued:
“I wish to offer you an opportunity to thank God for all his mercies over the last year, over your entire life, and for all the mercies He is predestined to give you over the rest of your time here on Earth. You are the gift that God wants – give your life to Him! This offering will be a 33-Day do-it-yourself retreat book that will prepare you to offer yourself to God who is Love and Mercy Itself. I will be offering this opportunity to many of our brothers and sisters “behind the stone walls” all over the country. I think this united offering of ourselves will transform the world slowly through Merciful Love.”
Just one week after receiving Eric Mahl’s invitation, our world was turned upside down in the way I described in my Advent post, “Can Your Vision Pierce the Darkness?” Our lives became more difficult, more confined, more of a daily challenge, and we knew that our spiritual warfare had commenced its next round.
It was only after that difficult move occurred, and our newest sorrow was complete, that Pornchai and I accepted Eric Mahl’s invitation. We have learned that life is indeed difficult. At times it seems a burden that we do not think we can bear, but we do bear it. But there is another sure truth that we have also learned through Marian Consecration – called Marian Entrustment by Saint John Paul II: no matter how painful the cross we carry, grace will not be stifled or defeated. Grace is given a life of its own, and its power to transform defies all earthly burdens.
33 DAYS TO MERCIFUL LOVE
So we accepted, and when our copies of Father Gaitley’s newest book arrived, I was not at all surprised by its title or its substance. 33 Days to Merciful Love is a preparation for our total consecration to Divine Mercy, the culmination of a Hearts Afire program that really did set our hearts afire – even in the cold discouragement of prison.
The book arrived in early December, and its cover was simply stunning for me. It is Saint Thérèse with her arms full of roses presenting to us the Cross of Christ which she bore with a love that I once struggled to understand. In this retreat process, Father Gaitley presents a guided walk through something that I always knew I must encounter, but which has always eluded me. 33 Days to Merciful Love is a guided tour through the Story of a Soul by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux who now enters the story of my own soul for the third time in my priesthood.
Pornchai Moontri and I began this 33-Day journey on January 1, the Solemnity of the Mother of God. It is the same day that our friend Father Byers completed his Marian consecration. Our new journey concludes on February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. I’ll have more to say about this book-retreat and its message then.
In his introduction to 33 Days to Merciful Love, Father Gaitley explains that the word, “consecration” means to set something or someone apart for God. He writes that his encounter with Saint Thérèse “saved my priestly vocation and gave me hope.” He presents this book and retreat as a sequel to 33 Days to Morning Glory of which Father Byers wrote:
“As I now go through the 33 Days, I very much appreciate the presentation of Father Gaitley, so much so that I laugh with joy as I read along day by day, seeing that he has not only understood it all so very well, but can drag us all through the preparation with ease. I must say that I’m enjoying it tremendously!” (Father George David Byers, “33 Days of Laughing with Joy”).
I feel compelled to invite the readers of These Stone Walls who have entered into Marian Consecration using 33 Days to Morning Glory to now join Pornchai-Max and me in this Consecration to Divine Mercy. If you obtain 33 Days to Merciful Love from Marian Press, you could begin your own journey on March 20, the Feast of Saint Joseph, and it would then conclude on April 23, Divine Mercy Sunday.
Our prayer and offering for you is this: if there is a price to be paid in the spiritual warfare that precedes such a journey for you, as always seems to be the case for us when spiritual progress beckons us on, then Pornchai-Max Moontri and I wish to help bear it for you, or at least WITH you: If you choose to take part in the 33 days to Merciful Love concluding with your consecration to Divine Mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday, then let us know in a comment here or send it to me privately through TSW’s Contact form.
We will offer the cross of our imprisonment during each of those 33 Days as a share in the suffering of Christ in spiritual support of you. As Eric Mahl suggests, we could transform the world – beginning with a new chapter in the story of our souls.
The third time’s a charm, dear Thérèse!
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy Eric Mahl and Pornchai Maximilian Moontri both have a chapter in the wondrous Divine Mercy book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions by Felix Carroll.