A team of Marian Helpers concluded a retreat behind prison walls using the Hearts Afire series by Fr Michael Gaitley from the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.
It’s a story of the Holocaust, but the great film, Schindler’s List, based on a book by Catholic writer, Thomas Keneally, begins and ends with two powerful scenes that take place in a Catholic church during Mass. The two scenes are like bookends framing Oskar Schindler’s soul. As the film begins, Schindler is in Church during Mass, but oblivious to the Sacrifice unfolding before him. The Mass is little more than an opportunity to evade Nazi spies so he could strike deals, settle bargains, and receive payment.
But as the film ends, Schindler is there in church again, but this time he is alone, on his knees, riveted to the Sacrifice of the Mass. He looks at his watch and weeps with the sudden realization that he could have traded it to save another life. In between these two scenes, Oskar Schindler’s soul had been transfigured by works of mercy in a merciless world.
In a few months, at the start of Advent, Pope Francis will focus the heart and soul of the Church on the Year of Mercy. Over the last three years, These Stone Walls has featured a number of posts on the theme of Divine Mercy. I hope to explain below exactly what that is and how it caught us up in its wonderful light. But there is another side to it, a side that requires something from us. It’s a straightforward truth in one of the Beatitudes of the Gospel of Saint Matthew (5:7) “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
I live in a place where mercy has been rather hard to find, but now that I think of it, so do you. We live in a hard time, in a culture of death. We are measured by our response to it.
Father Michael Gaitley’s powerful book, You Did It to Me: A Practical Guide to Mercy in Action (Marian Press 2014) begins with a dire portent from the Gospel of Matthew about the nature and effect, not only of works of mercy, but of the self-sabotage of our souls by their absence from our lives:
“You Did It to Me.’ ‘You Did Not Do It to Me.’ One day, one great and terrible day, one of these two sentences will be for each of us either heaven or hell. They’ll ring in our ears for all eternity either as a blessing or a curse. They’ll lead us to either praise, glory, and honor or to horror, regret, and everlasting despair.” (p. 15)
Father Gaitley is referring here to what he calls “one of the most important passages in all of Sacred Scripture,” the Gospel of Matthew 25:31-46. It is so important, he says, because it tells us exactly what to expect at the end of time. It is from this very Gospel passage that the Church defines Her authoritative teaching about the Corporal Works of Mercy. One of those verses, Matthew 25:36, is “I was in prison, and you came to me.” It’s reiterated in the Letter to the Hebrews (13:3), “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them…”
Not everyone has the constitution to visit a prison. The very idea makes most people nervous the first time around. But some people have come to a point in their lives at which all judgment of others gives way to the grace that transforms hearts and souls, so venturing into prison seems the naturally merciful thing to do. The team of Evangelical athletes I wrote about here last week in “At Play in the Field of the Lord,” had a powerful impact behind these stone walls. It echoes still whenever I run into any of the prisoner ballplayers who took part in that very special day.
But by no means have these Evangelicals cornered the market on mercy by fulfilling the Gospel of Saint Matthew (25:36), “When I was in prison, you came to me.” Others have also moved this sometimes immovable captive audience in prison by boldly coming here with a revolutionary message.
There is a small team of devoted Catholic men in New Hampshire whose presence behind prison walls is a little more subtle than the Saints Prison Ministry baseball team, but with an impact that has been no less of a Grand Slam. I’ve written about these good men before so you might feel as though you already know them.
Nate Cashman, Jean Fafard, David Kemmis, Jim Preisendorfer, and Father Wilfred Deschamps have now concluded the last of a series of Catholic retreats in this prison under the direction and sponsorship of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The venerable and quite wonderful Marian Helper magazine (Spring 2014) captured a photo of them, along with Marian missionary Eric Mahl, standing in front of this prison during phase one of the Hearts Afire parish based retreat series that the Marians so generously made available in this prison.
We were an experiment of sorts, the first prisoners in the world to have been given such an opportunity. As this last phase of the Hearts Afire series got underway in April, I wrote “You Did It to Me: Wisdom and Works of Mercy,” Part One of this post. The earlier part of this retreat used a book by Fr Michael Gaitley, MIC entitled, The One Thing Is Three: How the Most Holy Trinity Explains Everything (Marian Press 2012)
For page after page in this book, I have closed it knowing that I just read the very thing I needed to have conveyed to me. An example is “The Sacrifice of the Mass” (Part 1) (Part 2) which was also the title of a very popular post on These Stone Walls that I wrote five years ago. At the time I wrote it, Mass was not available to me in this prison, and had not been for many years. My post reflects that deprivation.
I do not consider myself to be a theological lightweight. Besides undergraduate degrees in psychology and social work, I earned a Master of Divinity degree and a Pontifical teaching degree in theology, but I keep finding new clarity in Father Michael Gaitley’s retreat texts. He made theology come alive for me as he presented the powerful notion, in clear and compelling prose, that in the Mass, “Christ’s sacrifice becomes our sacrifice” (The One Thing Is Three, p. 264). Thus, “Our suffering and our work take on infinite power…”
“Because the sacrifice of Calvary is a sacrifice of infinite love, and that sacrifice, again, is our sacrifice… Jesus has placed his infinite love into our hands – literally into the hands of the priest at the altar and spiritually into the hands of the lay faithful who unite their own self-offering with the priest. It’s a love that can give infinite value to all our actions, especially our sufferings.” (p.265)
Self-offering? This gave an entirely new meaning to the notion of the Mass as a sacrifice for me. Yes, I’ve heard such reflections before, but it never before sank in with such clarity. It’s for this reason that I have adopted the perfect Communion prayer, one recorded by Saint Maria Faustina on the direct instruction of Christ (Diary of Saint Faustina, #475). It’s a prayer that Christ invites from us, and one of the most powerful prayers ever uttered. It is the prayer of Divine Mercy, and now I pray it every time I receive Christ in the Eucharist:
“Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ in atonement for our sins and the sins of the whole world. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
Robert Sturk, a Catholic prisoner who has traveled this road with us through this series of retreats, describes a similar impact, especially in his new appreciation of the Mass:
“The Hearts Afire programs have opened my eyes and mind to our Catholic faith, and for me, being a cradle Catholic just following along blindly, my eyes are now open to the beauty and power of the Mass… We all like ice cream, and for years I settled for just ice cream. Father Gaitley has shown us that the Mass is more like a banana split – it has far more in it than I ever saw on just the surface. I don’t just “go to Mass” now. The Mass unites my daily trials as a share in the Sacrifice of Christ.”
MERCY TO THE MAX
So why do we suffer? The retreat we just finished began on the evening of Divine Mercy Sunday. The day was no coincidence and besides, over the course of the Hearts Afire program, I no longer even believe in such a folly as coincidence.
That very day also marked the 5th anniversary of Pornchai Maximilian Moontri’s conversion to the Catholic faith. To get a sense of just how incredibly unlikely that event was, take a few minutes to read a chapter entitled “Pornchai Moontri” from Loved, Lost, Found, a book by Felix Carroll, Executive Editor of Marian Helper magazine. With Felix’s kind permission, that chapter, along with some truly remarkable photos, is now the centerpiece of Mercy to the Max, the new site about Pornchai and his powerful conversion story. I urge you to set aside a few minutes to read the chapter and share it with others: “Get to Know Pornchai Moontri.”
That site has become so important to us because, with the help of some wonderful people around the world who have come together for a singular purpose after reading These Stone Walls, a process is underway to file an extensive legal document that surveys Pornchai’s entire life story and seeks to restore the life that was once taken from him when he was removed from his native Thailand. It is a well documented account of human bondage and great suffering, and it is hoped that as the case proceeds we may one day soon be able to post that story. I tell you now that it will rock your world.
I think then you may understand with far greater clarity, as I now do, why God chooses certain people to look into the heart of darkness and defy it by handing ourselves over to Divine Mercy. That’s easy to say, and even easy to believe, until it’s time to pay that piper. I know of what I speak.
For years in prison, like Job on his dung heap, I lobbied God for my freedom, and cursed the corrupt forces that prevented it. I was angry with God for hearing my prayer, but not giving me what I hope for. I have written nice things on These Stone Walls about our lives being a tapestry that we can see only through all the dangling and disjointed threads, but I have not been so good at applying that notion to my prayer to restore my freedom. [See “A Stitch in Time: Threads of the Tapestry of God.”]
I have been blind, but through Divine Mercy my eyes have slowly opened to a cosmic truth. Had my hope been answered when I prayed for it, someone else’s hope might have been destroyed, and now that I see under just a corner of that veil, I know what I must do.
One of the things that struck me from having written of this retreat process in other posts (I’ll list some of them with links at the end of this one) is the large number of readers who have been moved to follow that lead and enter into this same process beginning with 33 Days to Morning Glory, the book that comprised Phase One. Even before the current retreat began, a reader wrote to me: “My, but you guys sure do get around. There is a great photograph of you and Pornchai on page 86 of Father Gaitley’s book, ‘You Did It to Me.’”
So when we got the book during the final weeks of the retreat in prison, we of course turned immediately to page 86, and there it was. The caption read, “Max (center left) making his Consecration to Jesus through Mary.” There was no mention of me at all, and that is as it should be, for I have learned through this retreat what I am certain is the most important lesson of my life as a priest.
I learned it from Felix Carroll’s chapter on Pornchai, and from Father Michael Gaitley’s two texts for this retreat. It’s a lesson that knocked me off the foundation upon which I once placed all my hopes and dreams as a man and as a priest. It’s a lesson so central to our spiritual lives as Catholics, and yet so elusive to so many of us, that I now wonder how I could not see it so clearly before. But I couldn’t. Like the disciples of Christ on the post-Resurrection road to Emmaus, the scales had not yet fallen from my eyes.
The lesson is this. We are not in this world to be served by God, and I am not special because I am a priest. I am not worthy of any pedestal others may try to fit me upon. The purpose of my life – of our lives – is to know, love, and serve God, and the emphasis of my life is now on the latter. How could any priest strive for otherwise?
Yes, I’ve always mouthed these words without reflecting on them too much, but then I also continued to pray incessantly for the things I want. I want freedom. I am innocent of the crimes for which it was taken from me. I want truth. I could not bring myself to tell the monstrous lie that would have granted my freedom at the expense of my priesthood. Some readers might not get that, but it’s true. Some readily took such deals, but I could not.
Was the reason because I so deeply valued priesthood? It’s just not that complicated, and if it were so, then I would once again present the sham that I am somehow worthy of a pedestal, the worst fate to befall any priest. I did not take the deal that would have freed me simply because I believed that in America, the justice system eventually gets it right. I also believed that God would not let this happen to me, and would in the end secure justice and truth. I had no idea that all those times I prayed the Lord to make me an instrument of peace that He might actually take me up on it.
Divine Mercy has put me in my place. I have learned – ever so slowly and painfully – that God’s plan for me might not be what I would choose for myself. I have to be open to the possibility that God’s plan serves God’s justice and God’s mercy, and it just might be more important than any petition I place before Him.
It’s a concern I hear often from readers who contact me. “What If I commit to something like Marian Consecration? Am I then opening myself up to a cross I’d rather not bear?” My response is the same conclusion of Saint Maximilian Kolbe that so inspired others. There is one freedom no one can ever take from you. It’s the freedom to choose the person you are going to be in any circumstance. Then the question of sufficient grace to bear any cross requires only one response: trust.
On August 14, the Church remembers Saint Maximilian Kolbe, one of the Patron Saints who inspired These Stone Walls, and the person who set both me and Pornchai Maximilian on a path toward Consecration – what Saint John Paul II more fittingly called “Entrustment.” The story of how Saint Maximilian came to be such a powerful presence in a prison cell in Concord, New Hampshire was told in a special post entitled “Suffering and St Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls.”
It’s an account both sad and hopeful – profoundly both – and I hope you will read it and share it to honor one of the great saints of the Twentieth Century. The politics of Heaven are very different from our own. Our Patron Saints are not paid lobbyists whose job it is to negotiate a deal for us in the Presence of God. And we do not choose them. They choose us. They choose us to emulate them for the greater glory of God. Only knowing this can I make any sense of St Maximilian who in prison sacrificed his life to save another, only to have his earthly life go up in smoke over the skies over Auschwitz. In the economy of Heaven, the grace that inspired is immense.