Mercy & Mary Lenten Retreat: ‘God is giving us this time of mercy’

Bishop Stika, Father Michael Gaitley lead two-day event for hundreds from the diocese and beyond                    

By Bill Brewer

God spoke to Susan Akers, Laura Jones and Jenni Preuett on the feast of St. Joseph.

They hoped He could, but they weren’t sure He would. The message they heard, however, was unmistakable.

As soon as Bishop Richard F. Stika, celebrating Mass March 19 on the seventh anniversary of his episcopal ordination and installation, announced that the chalice he used during the consecration belonged to Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen and he also was wearing Bishop Sheen’s cincture, the three friends from the Diocese of Nashville were nearly brought to tears.

The parishioners of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Murfreesboro were drawn to Knoxville for the Mercy & Mary Lenten Retreat featuring Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, March 18-19 at Knoxville Catholic High School. Looking for inspiration from the retreat, the trio found that and more.

Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, delivers remarks during the Diocese of Knoxville’s Mercy & Mary Lenten Retreat March 18-19 at Knoxville Catholic High School. Father Gaitley celebrated Mass on Friday and concelebrated Mass on Saturday with Bishop Richard F. Stika and led several discussions on Divine Mercy and Marian consecration.

The women, who are faculty members at Diocese of Nashville schools, have been leading a novena at St. Rose of Lima seeking the intercession of Venerable Bishop Sheen for Mrs. Akers’ 27-year-old niece, Kelly, who was recently diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. The diagnosis was made less than a year after she was married. The novena to Venerable Fulton Sheen actually began at Kelly’s home parish in Jackson, Tenn.

Susan Brindle of Lewisburg, Tenn., and Sonyia Brake of Newport, Del., who possesses the Bishop Sheen relics and travel around the country with them for display and use at Catholic liturgical celebrations and events, made the chalice and cincture available to Bishop Stika at the retreat. Mrs. Akers, Mrs. Jones, and Mrs. Preuett, who were unaware of the presence of Bishop Sheen’s chalice and cincture until near the end of Bishop Stika’s anniversary Mass, returned to Murfreesboro full of hope that their prayers of mercy for Kelly were heard.

Prayers of mercy were abundant during the two-day retreat led by Bishop Stika and Father Gaitley, a member of the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception and author of the Marian Press books Consoling the Heart of Jesus, 33 Days to Morning Glory, The ‘One Thing’ is Three, You Did It To Me, The Second Greatest Story Ever Told, Divine Mercy Image Explained, and Divine Mercy Explained. Father Gaitley also often appears on EWTN.

Bishop Stika recalled his episcopal ordination and installation at the Knoxville Convention Center, noting that he specifically chose the feast of St. Joseph and the motto, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

“But you can also say, ‘Joseph, I trust in you.’ Who trusted in Joseph? Our Holy Mother trusted in Joseph. To have the Blessed Mother trust in you, what an extraordinary thing,” Bishop Stika said during his homily.

“And Jesus trusted in Joseph. Mary, as only a mother can do, nurtured Jesus. And Joseph taught Jesus how to be a man. Joseph had a tenderness of heart; he trusted in God. And we honor St. Joseph today,” the bishop continued.

During his homily, Bishop Stika asked for prayers for the persecuted Church and martyred Christians throughout the world, especially the Missionaries of Charity who were recently killed in Yemen. He also asked prayers for Pope Francis on his third anniversary since becoming pope.

“We pray that through the blood of the martyrs the Church may grow,” Bishop Stika said.

Mass was celebrated for about 450 people attending the retreat.

The retreat began March 18 with the Stations of the Cross led by Deacon David Lucheon of All Saints Church in Knoxville. Father Gaitley then delivered the first of four discussions and celebrated Mass. The March 19 Mass was concelebrated by Cardinal Justin Rigali, Father Julius Abuh of St. Therese Parish in Clinton and St. Joseph Parish in Norris, Father Hoan Dinh of Divine Mercy Parish in Knoxville, Father Bill Gahagan, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Helenwood, and Father Gaitley.

Jenni Preuett, Laura Jones, and Susan Akers with Father Michael Gaitley

Father Gaitley’s first talk centered on Poland and how this small European country of predominantly Catholics has a number of times been at the heart of conflict between Christianity and evil. It was the birthplace of St. Faustina Kowalska, who inspired the Divine Mercy devotion, and St. John Paul II, whose papacy influenced the fall of communism in Poland and all of Eastern Europe.

Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Faustina on April 18, 1993, and he canonized her April 30, 2000, which was the Great Jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God and forgiveness of sins.

Pointing out how St. Faustina and St. John Paul II ushered in the Divine Mercy movement within the Catholic Church, Father Gaitley said laypeople have been driving the movement. He then noted that St. John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, the vigil Mass day for Divine Mercy Sunday.

“If that’s not providence, then I don’t know what is,” Father Gaitley said, adding that Catholics currently are living in a time of particular urgency, when divine mercy is needed as never before.

Father Gaitley and Bishop Stika spoke of the genocide taking place in the Middle East and other places around the world against Christians and people of other faiths.

“The 20th century was the bloodiest in history. There were more martyrs in the 20th century than all other centuries combined,” Father Gaitley said.

In his second talk, the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception priest continued with the Poland theme and discussed in detail the role of St. Maximilian Kolbe, “the great apostle of Marian consecration.”

“St. Maximilian Kolbe…the martyr of charity…the great apostle of Marian consecration. St. Kolbe was intense, but his was a beautiful intensity, the intensity of love. He wanted to give the greatest possible glory to God,” Father Gaitley said as he personified his divine mercy message through the powerful example of recent saints.

In doing so, he linked events that culminated in the Divine Mercy movement embraced by St. John Paul II, also pointing out that St. Maximilian Kolbe established a Catholic monastery in Nagasaki, Japan, a decade before the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The Polish priest built the monastery on the far side of a mountain overlooking Nagasaki against the advice of locals, who believed the monastery should have been built on the Nagasaki side. The mountainside closest to Nagasaki bore the brunt of the atomic bomb blast and the monastery was preserved and continues to serve God and the Church.

In the 1940s, St. Kolbe was imprisoned by the Nazis and sent to die at the notorious Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where he was killed by lethal injection in 1941 at age 47. He was a contemporary of St. Faustina.

Father Gaitley said that unbeknownst to many St. Mary is present in our day and time in a way that rivals any time in history, including when St. Faustina and St. Kolbe were leading souls to divine mercy.

Deacon David Lucheon of All Saints Church in Knoxville leads the Stations of the Cross during the Mercy & Mary Lenten Retreat in the gym at Knoxville Catholic High School on March 18. Each Station banner is a recreation of one of the 14 Stations of the Cross at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga.

“Right now we’re in another large push for Marian consecration in the USA – rivaling St. Kolbe’s time,” Father Gaitley said. “Mary is on the move in a very big way right now. Will we respond to the graces that God is offering us right now?”

Father Gaitley also spoke about the powerful witness of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her example of faith and devotion to God. He said everyone should embrace her example as we strive for divine mercy.

Unrest around the world, where refugees from war-torn areas are bleeding across borders into neighboring nations, where poverty-stricken immigrants are seeking better lives in other countries, and where terrorism is increasingly making the world a dangerous place, did not escape the attention of Bishop Stika or Father Gaitley.

But they called on Catholics and people of all faiths to strengthen their devotion to Mary and go to God in prayer.

“God is giving us this time of mercy,” Father Gaitley said. “If we cry out for mercy, God will have mercy, but we must do so. If we consecrate to divine mercy, we can save the world. I really believe that.”

Father Gaitley, with his impassioned presentations on mercy and Marian consecration, is in demand as a speaker and retreat leader in this Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has declared.

“We were extremely blessed to have Father Michael Gaitley as a guest of the diocese to offer us this Lenten “Mercy & Mary” retreat. Father Gaitley is one of the most sought-after Catholic speakers in the nation and is booked until almost the end of 2017. It’s not that he is an extraordinarily talented writer and gifted speaker, both of which are very true, but it is the subject which he speaks and writes on—Divine Mercy and Marian Consecration—that is so important at this particular time in the history of man,” said Paul Simoneau, diocesan vice chancellor and director of the Office of Justice and Peace.

“Pope Francis has made it explicitly clear that we are living in a ‘time of mercy’ that God has given us, which is why he declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy for us. What the future holds, we do not know, and there is much to be pessimistic about given the growing turmoil in the world and tensions in our own country. More than ever, the world, our country, our diocese needs saints, and that is why God’s mercy is so important, and why Father Gaitley’s message is so important.

“We are all called to be saints, and Our Blessed Mother can best help us to become the saints of God’s mercy that we’re called to be,” Mr. Simoneau added.

The Mercy & Mary Lenten Retreat attracted people from around the diocese and also from outside East Tennessee. A group of 11 women trekked to the Diocese of Knoxville from Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, Ga.

For one of them, it wasn’t her first Diocese of Knoxville event.

“I came to the Eucharistic Congress several years ago,” said Bonnie Skiles, who found out about the Lenten retreat in an e-mail from the diocese. “I sent a text to all these ladies and said ‘who’s in?’ And they all said, ‘I’m in, I’m in, I’m in.”

All of them are fans of Father Gaitley and “followers of Jesus.”

“We love his books. His books are life-changing,” Ms. Skiles said.

They have formed a faith study group around the books of Father Gaitley and other Catholic authors and have felt the impact.

“We love Mary. We see her working in our lives. We see her working in our families. We see her helping us carry crosses. Our faith is growing; our community is growing,” said Tricia Gieseke.

Terri Thomas, who is the adult faith coordinator for Holy Trinity in Peachtree City, said each summer for the past five years the parish has been consecrated on the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And for the past three years the parish has been using Father Gaitley’s book 33 Days to Morning Glory to prepare for each consecration.

Ms. Thomas praised the book for its gentle, uplifting approach to Marian consecration, which has had a positive impact on their parish.

The 11 women credited the consecrations for helping other events at the church to flourish and said Mary “has set our parish on fire.”

“We’re on fire with our next mission and growing in the love of Jesus Christ and Mary. It’s beautiful, life-changing,” said Robin Mahon.

The bishop’s Mass and Lenten retreat also had a profound impact on Theresa Slaughter of St. Jude Parish in Chattanooga, who was given Father Gaitley’s book 33 Days to Morning Glory five years ago. She has followed him since.

“I was so deeply moved that I was in tears of joy and sorrow that all this wonderful grace was in our diocese,” Ms. Slaughter said, thanking Bishop Stika for making the retreat possible. “It was so beautiful.”

Like Ms. Slaughter, Emily Knoch of St. Jude Parish also was wowed by the retreat and Father Gaitley’s testimony and fervor. Unlike Ms. Slaughter, Mrs. Knoch hasn’t been a close follower of Father Gaitley – until now.

“I was very moved by his testimony and fervor,” Mrs. Knoch said. “He was able to touch so many people. He provided a lot of hope and he’s providing a great deal of ammunition in this time of evil.”

For Mary Jo and Charles Koory of Holy Spirit Parish in Soddy-Daisy, the Mercy & Mary Lenten Retreat was thought-provoking.

“I was very impressed. He really enlightened me,” Mr. Koory said.

Mrs. Koory found Father Gaitley’s insight into Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux and Faustina captivating, especially St. Thérèse’s “little way, which is the way for all of us.”

“Father Gaitley’s presentation was very humble. He’s looked deeply into some of these Catholic concepts,” Mrs. Koory said.

Father Gaitley was uplifted by the response to his talks, acknowledging that Catholics are big fans of mercy.

“People are excited about Divine Mercy. God’s mercy is so beautiful that when they hear it they have to spread it to others,” Father Gaitley said. “It’s good news at a time when there isn’t a lot of good news. Mercy is the Good News of the Gospel.”

At breaks during his discussions, Father Gaitley manned a table, where he signed his books for long lines of followers. Susan Akers, Laura Jones, and Jenni Preuett were among those who were thrilled to have his signature on their books and books for students at their schools.

Mrs. Jones said St. Rose of Lima Parish has given three of Father Gaitley’s taped presentations to rave reviews.

“He’s like a rock star to us,” she said.

To Mrs. Preuett, the entire retreat was a God thing.

“You very much felt the Holy Spirit during the weekend,” she said, still amazed that Bishop Stika was wearing the cincture and used the chalice of Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen.

As the parishioners at St. Rose of Lima and St. Mary Parish in Jackson continue to pray for healing for Kelly, the three close friends are comforted that Bishop Sheen was with them.

“I touched our rosary to the chalice, so now they (Kelly and St. Mary parish) will have a third-class relic to Bishop Sheen. God is so good. It is God’s intervention,” Mrs. Akers said. ■

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