Photo: Felix Carroll
Choose your favorite term: hooligan, ne'er-do-well, troublemaker, rebel.
Bart Lapus admits to having fit each of these descriptions. He'll add two more: black sheep of his family and lost sheep in God's Kingdom.
But he was a teen then, filled with self-loathing, shame, selfishness, and a desperate need to fit in. That was before he stepped into a church one sorrowful day, got down on his knees, and looked up and saw the image of The Divine Mercy staring at him, speaking to his heart, telling him how madly in love with him God is.
Bart, now 25, prefers altogether different terms to describe himself: at peace, a humble child of "Mama Mary," and eager to share with the world "God's second name: Mercy." With the grace of God, he may also soon add another new descriptive term for himself: Marian of the Immaculate Conception.
Bart is one of the Marians' first Filipino postulants. The Marians opened their new mission in the Philippines last June.
'Win Souls for the Lord'
"I am drawn to the Marians because of their devotion to Mama Mary and because they have been entrusted by the Church to spread the message of Divine Mercy," says Bart. "I want to help the Marians spread the message that Jesus is our hope. I want to help the Marians win souls for the Lord."
He's inspired to do all this because of the simple fact he was a soul in need of saving. From Mandalyong City, outside the Filipino capital of Manila, Bartolome M. Lapus was raised Catholic in a well-to-do family with a long lineage of priests and nuns. He had a devotion to Mary at an early age. He went to a Catholic high school.
But at the age of 14, he didn't so much lose his faith as he did mislay it. He began feeling the need for power and finding it through misbehaving. His peers rewarded him by voting him class president. All the while, he was racking up an impressive cache of frequent flier miles to the principal's office.
"My teachers saw me as their number one enemy," Bart says. "It was only through the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary that I wasn't expelled from school."
He soon fell in with a crowd in the slums of his neighborhood. They were gangsters, drop-outs, and alcoholics. Bart began adopting their behavior. By the time he was 19, he was failing his college courses and failing in most of his relationships.
"I knew I was still a good person inside, but I was finding too many ways to escape the pain I felt in my heart and the insecurity and lack of love in myself," he says. "I was the prodigal son, squandering my inheritance and trading it for passion, for myself only, to satisfy my needs. I had forgotten there was a God waiting for me at home, and that His name is Mercy."
"But," he says, "God was slowly revealing Himself to me."
'I Couldn't Control My Tears'
One Sunday, one of his sisters was heading to Mass. At that time, with his world crashing down upon him, Bart was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
"Can I come with you?" he asked he sister.
Startled, his sister welcomed him. He recalls stepping with her into the Divine Mercy Shrine in Mandalyong City.
"There's a huge Divine Mercy painting there," Bart says. "I felt the eyes of Jesus upon me, penetrating my soul. I tried to sit somewhere where I could avoid His eyes, but in the image, the eyes stare at you no matter where you stand. I knew I couldn't hide from Him, so I knelt in prayer. I started crying. I didn't want my sister to see me, but I couldn't control my tears."
Why the tears?
"I felt so ashamed of my sins," Bart says, "and I knew He was telling me He forgives me. Before, I knew there was a God, but I didn't know He cared for me. I felt His presence. I felt His mercy. I realized God's love is greater than my insecurities and my sins. I was His prodigal son, and He was embracing me."
Bart soon joined a charismatic prayer group where he drew deeper into a personal relationship with the Lord. He attended a "Life in the Spirit" seminar led by Don Quilao where Bart prayed for baptism in the Holy Spirit.
"I cried, cried, cried," he says. "After that, I was changed."
Crossing Paths with the Marians
Bart reconciled with his family, particularly his father. He began reading Scripture and praying the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy. He transferred to a different university where he aced his classes and graduated with a bachelor degree in psychology. He began yearning to become a priest.
He would tune in frequently to EWTN and to a local television station dedicated to Divine Mercy where he first learned about the Marians.
Last winter, Msgr. Josefino S. Ramirez, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Manila, offered Bart a job as his secretary. It was Msgr. Ramirez who invited the Marians to have a physical presence in the Philippines to help spread the message of The Divine Mercy and devotion to Mary Immaculate. While working for Msgr. Ramirez, Bart's path soon crossed that of the Marians.
"I had the privilege of meeting Bart for the first time in Manila last January," says Fr. Joe Roesch, MIC, who serves on the Marian General Council in Rome. "He is a faithful young man, and I pray that God will assist him in his discernment because I think he would make a fine priest."
Father Joe says that since their new mission began in the Philippines, the Marians have received many inquiries about vocations.
"There is hope for a promising future there," he says.
Bart will spend his postulancy in El Salvador City, where the Marians are playing a key role in the building and administration of the proposed interdiocesan Divine Mercy Shrine.
Incidentally, Bart recently returned to his old high school to tell his former teachers of his plans.
"They said, 'Oh, really? You want to be a priest? Praise the Lord!'" says Bart, the former troublemaker, the former lost sheep whom The Divine Mercy and Mama Mary have taken great care to guide home.
Learn more about the Marians' new mission in the Philippines.
Also, view Bart's photo gallery.