The Marians of the Immaculate Conception have introduced a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle or study groups this coming Lent who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. By means of introduction to this parish renewal program, its author, Robert Stackpole, STD, sat down to share his thoughts on the series. Robert, a columnist for this website, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, a lay apostolate of the Marians.
Robert, what do you hope people take away from this series?
During the election year 2008 in the United States, it became clear to me — especially from the phenomenon called "Obamamania"— that there were many people today, especially young people and younger adults, who are yearning and hoping for some way to make a better world. Perhaps their aspirations are a bit naive and idealistic to start with, but who can doubt their good intentions? What I wanted to show in this series is that there really is a way for each one of us to make a profound difference in this world, but it does not come primarily from party politics. It comes from surrendering your heart, and indeed your whole life, more and more to Jesus Christ. It is His merciful love — poured out upon us especially in prayer and in the Eucharist and received by us through repentance and faith — that can transform our whole lives, reorder our priorities, remake our relationships, and fashion us into the kind of disciples of His mercy that He has always longed for us to be. When people come to Him to be thoroughly "mercified" like that, then they are equipped to reach out to others and truly begin to make a better world.
This program is intended for prayer groups and cenacles. You have had a lot of experience with parish cenacles and prayer groups. For those who have no such experience, can you explain the spiritual benefits of joining or starting a parish cenacle or study group?
No one can be a true disciple of Jesus Christ as an isolated individual. The "Lone-Ranger Catholic" is a contradiction in terms. That's why, from the very beginning, Jesus called his disciples into communion with one another: first, His inner circle of 12 apostles, and through their witness, the whole universal "Body of Christ" of which we are all to be members. Within that Body, we not only need to go to Mass together, we also need to be upheld by each other by intercessory prayer, friendship, mutual challenge, and personal encouragement. As St. Paul wrote to the Colossians (3:16): " Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God," and again, "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). One way we can do this is to meet together in small groups where we can feel free to share with each other our struggles in trying to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the midst of this broken world, and where we can learn together from the Scriptures and the saints about how to let His merciful love flow into our hearts and through us out to others more and more. It's not always easy, and as individuals, we do not necessarily have all the answers. But parish cenacles and study groups are a way to strengthen each other and refresh each other along the way.
How did this series come about?
The Divine Mercy Apostolates of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. have wanted to produce such a series for many years, but somehow, the time did not seem right — until now. It was through my association with the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society in Oakland, Calif., under the leadership of Thelma Orias, and through my friendship with Kathleen Ervin, who had worked for some years at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass., that we first conceived of the form and content of this particular series. If our readers find this one helpful, I have no doubt that we will want to produce more in the future.
What were some of the great insights you learned through working on this project?
One of the things that I was frequently reminded of is something that the Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy never tire of repeating: Divine Mercy is not just another "devotion." It is meant to be a whole way of life! That is why, in this series, you will not find much discussion of the familiar elements of the Divine Mercy devotion (namely, the Image of The Divine Mercy, the Feast of Mercy, and the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, etc.). It's not that these things are unimportant, but we have discussed them in so many of our publications already, and in so many of our "Divine Mercy Q&A" columns, that there is no reason to repeat all that here. The danger is that we might lose sight of the forest because of all the trees, if you know what I mean. In other words, we might lose sight of the fact that all those wonderful devotional helps are meant by our Lord to be "means" for us, not "ends" in themselves. The "end" or "goal" of all devotional practices is really to make us true disciples of the merciful Jesus in every aspect of our lives. So, for those who already know about the wonderful Image, Feast, and Chaplet, that is terrific, but here is a way to go deeper — to find Divine Mercy in the very heart of Catholic spirituality and to discover a whole way of life.
As a doctor of sacred theology, why have you dedicated your life to spreading the message of Divine Mercy? What is it about this message that's so important for the world at this time?
It seems to me that the contemporary world is always teetering on the brink of utter hopelessness. That's why the great Mercy Pope, John Paul II, entitled his famous book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." Sadly, I believe "Obamamania" will die out soon enough, and the old cynicism and despair will be back to haunt us. Mankind is desperately searching for meaning and for hope, and as John Paul II once said, "Where, if not in The Divine Mercy, can the world find refuge, and the light of hope? Believers understand that perfectly" (Homily at the Beatification of Sister Faustina). After all, everything else has been tried and found wanting: fascism, communism, secularism, humanism, atheism, free-market capitalism, consumerism, materialism, hedonism, pantheism. We've been there, done that, collected the T-shirts, and still we find little in the way of hope for the world, or peace of heart. I do not think that "religion" is the answer, either (that has been tried and found lacking, too, in ages past). When I say "religion" — quote, unquote — I mean the shallow, cultural "Churchianity," as Billy Graham called it. The true answer is not in wrapping ourselves in excessive "religiosity," but in a deeply personal conversion of each one of us to the personal love of Jesus Christ. As He said to St. Faustina: "Tell aching mankind to snuggle close to My merciful Heart, and I will fill it with peace" (Diary of St. Faustina, 1074). That's the only answer worth dedicating one's life to, it seems to me. It's the answer — with all its ramifications — that is so very important for the world to hear at this time. And that's why I wanted to devote my life to spreading the knowledge of it. I couldn't ask for a more rewarding mission to be part of, and I always count it as one of the most blessed days of my life when Fr. Goerge Kosicki, CSB, and Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, on Eden Hill, in Stockbridge, many years ago, invited me to take part in it.
Any chance this program will be available in book or pamphlet form?
We will be very interested to get feedback from our readers on this. If they think it would be great to have this in booklet form for use in parishes, I have no doubt we will make it happen.
View the 14-part series.