Conference Taps into Moral and Spiritual Courage

As Ed Miller looks back on eight years of organizing New York's annual Divine Mercy Conference together with his wife, Ellen, he credits the consistently impressive array of conference speakers with drawing a crowd of Divine Mercy devotees again and again.

This year's conference, which took place on Saturday, March 2, at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, once again offered its participants a program of inspiring talks along with Eucharistic adoration, confession, a book store, a question-and-answer panel, and Holy Mass. Father Joseph Roesch, MIC, the Marians' vicar general in Rome, served as master of ceremonies, and the crowd was welcomed by Fr. Trevor Nicholls, president of Cardinal Spellman High School.

While each year's roster of speakers includes fresh names, there are some presenters who excite registrants not by their novelty but by their reliability. One of these, Msgr. James Lisante of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Massapequa Park, N.Y., has been a mainstay of the conference since its inception.

"He's our most popular speaker," Miller said. "He's articulate and entertaining."

Faustina's 'Awesome Example'
This year, Fr. Lisante focused his remarks on the person of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, whose revelations in the 1930s sparked the modern Divine Mercy movement, which reiterates the Gospel message that Christ came to save rather than condemn.

Specifically, Fr. Lisante geared his talk on what Faustina's life can teach 21st-century American Catholics. Although most of the nearly 1,000 attendees were laypeople hailing from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, Fr. Lisante asserted that the cloistered Polish nun who died in 1938 at the age of 33 was "an awesome example of what we are supposed to be."

Father Lisante urged the audience to model themselves off of St. Faustina, known as the "secretary" and "apostle of Divine Mercy." To do so, he said, means standing ready to speak the truth, no matter how often they are rejected for it.

This theme - the need for moral and spiritual courage - was woven into the fabric of the day.

The Priest That Didn't Look Back
The day opened with a tribute to Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, in appreciation for his support of the Divine Mercy conferences. Father Groeschel's order, the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, co-sponsors the conference with the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

Father Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, the Marians' provincial superior of the United States and Argentina, presented a tribute plaque to the CFR's community servant, Fr. Mariusz Koch, CFR. Father Groeschel's health prohibited him from attending the conference.

During the tribute, Joe Campo, co-founder with Fr. Groeschel of the St. Francis House for young men in Brooklyn, told the story of his first meeting with the Franciscan more than 20 years ago. At that fateful meeting, Campo confided to Fr. Groeschel that he was feeling called to place everything he had at the service of the Lord and the poor.

"Father Benedict said, 'Don't look back,'" Campo recalled. "He gave me the courage not to look back."

Years later, when Campo sat beside Fr. Groeschel's hospital bed after the priest had suffered a serious car accident, Fr. Groeschel again urged Campo to have courage. "He was [possibly] dying," Campo marveled at the memory, "and he was telling me to have courage!"

A brief video, played after Campo's remarks, revealed the source of the priest's own courage. Although Fr. Groeschel was not present at this year's conference, his words and his wisdom were.

"Love the poor," urged Fr. Groeschel at the conclusion of the video, "and your life will be filled with sunlight, and you will not be frightened at the hour of death."

God Doesn't Hold Back
If love for the poor lies at the root of Fr. Groeschel's strength, faith in a God who keeps His promises lies at the root of Johnnette Benkovic's.

The well-known Catholic evangelist opened her talk with the words St. Paul wrote centuries ago to the church in Ephesus: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens" (Eph 1:3).

In other words, said Benkovic, "There is not a single spiritual blessing in the heavens that God holds back from us."

Having found herself more than once in deep need of grace, Benkovic speaks from experience.

"Faith," she explained, "exists in the intellect but requires an act of the will."

After losing her only son to a car accident in 2004, Benkovic had to pick herself up and move forward without any special feeling of grace or awareness of God's presence. Nine years later, she was able to say with confidence to hundreds of strangers, "I don't know what suffering of heart has come here with you today, but I know one thing ... God has a grace for you."

Say 'Yes' to Our Lady
Benkovic's testimony seemed especially appropriate in the context of addressing a Church that had for two days been, as Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC, expressed it, "popeless, but not hopeless."

Throughout this Year of Faith - Benedict XVI's "parting gift" - and especially during these days of papal transition, Fr. Calloway entreated his listeners to draw closer than ever to the Mediatrix of all graces: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"You love Benedict [XVI]," said Father Calloway. "You're going to love the next Holy Father. Do you love Our Lady?"

If anyone can answer an unequivocal, resounding "Yes!" to that question, surely Fr. Calloway can. As he spoke about the wonders of the Blessed Mother, Fr. Calloway's intense love for her shone through every word. "A mother is the heart of every home," he said. "It's [Mary's] role to circulate the life-blood of grace to all the members [of Christ's mystical body]."

Father Calloway urged conference attendees to remain "safe and secure under [Our Lady's] mantle." He particularly called priests to nurture "a special relationship with Our Lady."

The effect of Father Calloway's words on the crowd was immediately evident after his talk, when a long line formed at the table where he signed copies of his new book, Under the Mantle: Marian Thoughts From a 21st Century Priest (Marian Press).

"God wants us to praise Our Lady, to love Our Lady," Fr. Calloway said. "What it means to be a Christian is to echo Mary's fiat." (See Luke 1)

Other conference speakers included:

• Chris Bell, co-founder with Fr. Groeschel of the Good Counsel home for pregnant women. He passed along Fr. Groeschel's message to the conference: "Pray for my conversion";
• Father Bernard Murphy, CFR, whose witness on mercy-in-action can best be summarized in his own words: "Show it; you'll receive it"; and
• Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, whose expert presentation on end-of-life issues continued the conference's tradition of including at least one talk explicitly about the sanctity of human life.

The Mater Ecclesiae College Choir provided sacred music, and Marty Rotella once again lent his talents to the event, singing original songs of praise during the breaks, leading the faithful in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3 p.m., and providing music for the Holy Mass.

To conclude his talk, Msgr. Lisante issued a special Lenten challenge to his listeners. "Go home ... and be more kind, more forgiving than you've ever been. Divine Mercy is not some amorphous concept. ... It is real, and it is lived one by one."

No doubt, those who received that challenge on Saturday morning received as well the graces necessary to meet it with renewed zeal and strength.

Said Stephanie Ossendorf of Hudson, N.Y., just before the start of the Vigil Mass that closed the conference, "It's not over yet, and I'm looking forward to next year."

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