A Congress Journal

The following is a journal kept by Michele "Chelie" Billingsley, of Sterling, Va., who, along with thousands of pilgrims from around the world, attended the World Apostolic Congress on Mercy in Rome, Italy, on April 2-6.

Last fall I noticed in Marian Helper magazine that there would be a World Congress on Mercy held in Rome in 2008. I'd been saying The Divine Mercy Chaplet for two-and-a-half years, and studying the life and writings of St. Faustina. I mentioned the conference to my husband, never really thinking I would be able to go, and his response was, "You are going!" My parents promised to drive to Virginia from North Carolina to watch the kids, so that I could take this spiritual pilgrimage. My beautiful neighbor, Suzie Gauthier, said that she would love to join me. I proposed to my priest, Fr. Bryan Belli (who is Italian and has been to Rome countless times), that he come, too. It was an easy sell.

Day 1, Tuesday
Suzie and I arrive at Washington Dulles Airport hours prior to our flight. Our priest, however, did not arrive until our plane was boarding! This was an incredible beginning to our journey. Come, Holy Spirit! We arrived in Rome early in the morning.

Father led us to visit St. Paul of the Cross. What a surprise. He said Mass for us in the residence where St. Paul spent the last six months of his life uniting his suffering with Jesus'. We also had the opportunity to see the relic room. This room is filled with hundreds of sacred relics from many, many saints. I want to learn more about St. Gemma. ... I thought to myself, I am in over my head. ... I am not worthy to be here. It was quite something. We walked around outside in a peaceful courtyard, while nuns prayed the Rosary. I regained my composure. God led me here for a reason.

Day 2, Wednesday
Morning Mass with Pope Benedict XVI. This was a celebration of the third anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. We assumed that we'd have to arrive very early to get a good spot. Little did we know that the front row sections were all reserved for members of the Congress. We arrived and were ushered through the crowd to the perfect seats. I could not believe it! Saint Faustina and Pope John Paul II planted the seeds, and now Pope Benedict is watering them. This worldwide Divine Mercy movement is the fruit. We sang the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy and some people joined in. The weather was absolutely delightful. As Pope Benedict arrived, pilgrims from many different nations shouted, "Papa, Papa!" and my heart almost burst.

Afterward we visited John Paul's grave, located around the corner from the tomb of St. Peter in the lower level of the Basilica. He requested to be buried in the earth. Guards allowed us to reach down and touch our rosaries to the sacred ground. Also, we wrote down prayer intentions on slips of paper and left them at the tomb (I prayed for my family members who are sick). There were hundreds of people visiting this soon-to-be saint. I cannot believe it has been three years since he died.

Later that day, we stepped into the Church of the Sacred Steps. These are marble steps Jesus climbed while with Pilate, brought here by St. Helena (Emperor Constantine's mother). We visited St. Alfonso Church to pray for a fellow parishioner. This church houses the original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Absolutely stunning. We were having a difficult time finding an empty cab, so we prayed to Our Lady and within seconds, one pulled over to us.

We stopped into a beautiful little church, The Immaculate Conception. I fell in love with a very unique statue of Jesus falling during the Passion. You can kneel right in front of it, look into His eyes, and put your hand on top of His. Powerful. We learned about Blessed John Duns Scotus, and began a novena of prayer to him.

In the evening we set out for Tres Puppazzi (Three Puppets), Fr. Belli's favorite restaurant. There we met Fr. Matthew Mauriello, who is the president of the U.S. Mercy Congress, his good friend Brendan, a very Spirit-filled man, who was Chief Financial Officer of the World Congress, and Brendan's sister and brother-in-law, who were newlyweds. We all sat together outside and enjoyed an Italian feast and good conversation. We proceeded to run into these beautiful people day after day. What a blessing. Actually, we wound up eating at the same restaurants - without planning this - four days in a row. Father Matt says, "Coincidence is a coward's way of saying Providence."

Day 3, Thursday
Lectures at St. John Lateran.

When the Mother of Mercy appeared to the three children [in Fatima, Portugal] to teach them how to properly pray the Rosary, she added, "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy."

Saint Faustina was told by Jesus to simply believe and trust in His mercy - and she will receive it.

Bishop Martin of Nigeria sang Morning Praises to our heavenly Mother and Father. Beautiful. Spirit-filled. He doesn't just say "good morning," he sings it.

Christ's love is greater than sin and stronger than death. Always ready to meet the prodigal son.

The Eucharist is Jesus present among us.

A mystic meeting of The Divine Mercy is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

God searches for sinners as lost sheep.

Day 4, Friday
After lectures and Mass, we sat outside for lunch in the bright sunshine. It was so lovely. Father ordered what we refer to as the Gladiator Special (mystery meats galore). We had to laugh. He will eat anything! We had an important discussion about being a capital "C" Catholic, and listening when the Holy Spirit nudges you to do something.

We sang the Chaplet at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Basilica (where the Meridian line crosses) along with hundreds of people from the Congress. Delegates from around the world were represented (especially the Philippines; even China). Very moving. Lots of tears. Each day the singing grew more and more beautiful. I realized that I don't listen to enough inspirational music. I will change that when I get home.

We Metro'd home to our B & B to rest. We decided we were up for walking to Father's place, which was a religious institution not far from the Vatican. We estimated it would take 20 minutes. We were wrong! Father waited for us for 45 minutes. Thank you, Father. But, we now knew our way around Rome. This was a good thing, because it would come in handy later ...

I exchanged some currency to buy some art. I received exactly HALF the value of my dollars in Euros. The value of the dollar was not something I had time to get upset about. My husband had asked me to buy some art, and I was not coming home empty handed.

Father Belli remembered a fantastic pizzeria along the river. I had the most delicious gorgonzola pizza. Memorable.

We were blown away by a musical presentation of the Passion, sponsored by the Congress, at Piazza Navona. Many tourists were also in attendance. It was performed by the Cenacolo Community, a special group of reformed addicts, led by Mother Elvira (the Mother Teresa of drug addicts). This was a first-class production. The acting and singing were dramatic. I looked around at people watching, and they were silent. Jesus ascended into the sky. Torches aflame lowered down to the Apostles to represent Pentecost. We could hardly believe our eyes. I was moved to tears.

Afterward, Mother Elvira urged everyone (there were hundreds of us) to enter St. Agnes Church for Eucharistic Adoration until midnight. I never thought I'd want to go to Adoration after a long day of running around, but there was nowhere else I would rather be. It was so moving. There were candles lit along the floor in front of the altar, the choir was singing, people were praying, some were lying prostrate. It was the most intimate scene - a true glimpse into Heaven. A priest heard my confession along the side of the church (I had to first find an English-speaking priest). Of all my memories of the Divine Mercy Congress, this ranks as my favorite.

Father Belli asked us if we were up for meeting at St. Peter's for 7 a.m. Mass. Come, Holy Spirit!

Day 5, Saturday
Father Belli offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at a side altar of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Peter's Basilica. This was very emotional for me because, through divine intervention, we were at the tomb of St. Jude. Saint Jude is a special friend of mine. My mother-in-law prayed for years for my husband to find a "devoted Catholic woman," and when I first met her, she knew instantly that I was the answer to her prayer. So, in return, we have a lovely St. Jude statue and garden in our yard, and I always turn to St. Jude when I need his help. Thank you, St. Jude, for leading us to your tomb.

Father taught us to reflect on the Pieta. "Rest in Mary's arms. She is God's vessel of grace. Allow this to become a very part of your identity."

We'd all been looking forward to hearing from Immaculee Ilibagiza of Rwanda, the Tutsi woman who escaped the Hutu death squad in the 90s. She wrote the bestseller, Left to Tell. I chose this book, as I am hosting the May neighborhood book club. How wonderful it will be for Suzie and I to have heard her speak.

Rwanda is a Catholic country. She explained the Virgin Mary's apparitions in Rwanda, which began in 1981. Mary appeared and said, "Do you know what can happen if this person dies?" She said it three times (a Jewish tradition, which means the Mother really means it). Apparently people were praying for the leader of Rwanda to die. In fact, he was not a good man, but he was keeping the country from civil war. Once he was assassinated, all hell broke loose. She spoke of her father, a holy man and leader in the community, who urged her to hide in a neighboring Hutu minister's home until the war was over. Along with seven other Tutsi women, she hid in a 3-foot by 4-foot bathroom for 91 days, with very little food or water.

She told us that fear and hatred began to consume her until she learned to fervently pray the Rosary (around 27 times) and the Divine Mercy Chaplet (around 40 times) from dawn until dusk. The minister provided her with a Bible, and she began to study. She was in communion with the Holy Spirit, even in the midst of the terror. She learned how to love her enemy and forgive them for the horrors they committed.

She completely surrendered herself to Christ. She kept praying for the killers. When it was all over, she learned that nearly all of her family members and friends were dead. The God of Mercy that she met in that bathroom assured her that she would not be alone. God was her Father, and Mary was her Mother. She went to the prison to forgive a man who killed one of her brothers. This act astonished those around her. They learned from her example.

She wrote her book, and within two weeks it was a New York Times bestseller. She never really thought anyone would want to hear her story ... it is now printed in 15 languages, and has sold millions and millions of copies around the world. Immaculee works for the United Nations, and has since married and had two children.

Cardinal Dziwisz from Poland addressed the Congress. He showed us the Vilnius image [of The Divine Mercy] and explained that we would receive graces even by looking at it. We need to spread The Divine Mercy message throughout the world. Every earthly inhabitant will be filled with hope. Convey to the world this fire of mercy. This will result in world peace and happiness. He invited us all to come to Poland. Sounds good to me. I'd love to attend the World Congress on Mercy every year.

Father and Suzie and I grabbed some lunch. I told Father that I have a fear that the more I grow in holiness, the more I'll be attacked by the Enemy. He explained that we are already at war. Why enter the battle with one arm tied behind my back? So, I will put on the "armor of God" and trust in Him.

We toured the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. We saw parts of the cross on which Jesus died, along with thorns from His crown, and a nail that pierced His hand. We visited the tomb of Antoinetta Meo, a very young girl that my children have studied in school and who could become the youngest non-martyred saint in history. Afterward, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I told Father that I was emotionally and physically drained ,and I wasn't sure if I had it in me to do anymore touring. I told him that my cup overfloweth. He said, "Get a bigger cup. Let's go!" I am so grateful that he challenges me.

Day 6, Sunday
Holy Mass with Cardinal Schönborn, Piazza San Pietro.

It is Sunday, alas, our final day of pilgrimage. Suzie and I are seated in the Congress-designated section, front and center in St. Peter's Basilica. The choir is singing, and it is a choir of angels as their voices echo off these sacred walls. We are surrounded by believers from every continent and it is a beautiful visual of the Body of Christ. My heart is full as I reflect on "Faith of Our Fathers." The most important things I will ever do is to pass my faith on to my children, and to make Christ's mercy known to friends and family. Thank You, God, for choosing me to be an Apostle of Mercy, and I pray for grace in abundance to carry out Your mission.

After Mass, we hurried outside to hear Pope Benedict recite the Regina Caeli. He then blessed all of our religious articles. Thankfully, we thought ahead and brought everything with us! We had bags and bags of religious articles to bring home to our friends and family, the school, Vacation Bible School kids, etc. (Father had taken us to Comandini, a discounted store where we could buy things in bulk.)

We visited Mary Major, where Fr. Belli said Mass for us and some Australians. We also toured the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Wow. It was enormous. Beautiful. Each church in Rome is spectacular in its own way.

Around the corner from St. Paul's is the Circus Maximus. Apparently, more Christians were martyred here than in the Coliseum. Father Belli read excerpts from a prayer book telling of Saints Felicity and Pertpetua, and how they entered the Circus not as though they were entering hell, but as in ecstasy because they knew they were entering heaven.

Our last evening together was spent enjoying every minute of a three-hour feast at Antiqua Roma. This restaurant is built upon 1,500-year-old catacombs of slaves. They claim to have written the first Italian cookbook, and they still use these ancient recipes. Tonight's special was a pasta called "Strangled Priest," which, of course, we ordered. It was delicious. The perfect ending to the perfect trip. Praise God.

Arrivederci Roma! Hello Sterling, Virginia.

Odds and Ends
A practical note to self: Always travel to the Eternal City with a priest!

We were up every morning by 7 a.m. and never went to bed before midnight/1 a.m.

We met so many beautiful people from so many different countries. I feel like I am a member of a large community of believers. It brings me strength.

Someone gave me the idea to begin a Divine Mercy Chaplet novena for the school year. Ask families to sign up to pray for nine days, and do it consecutively throughout the year. We'll start it in September.

Met Catherine and her husband, who was delivered from depression through the prayers of his uncle, Eddy Stones of Ireland. I e-mailed them and they sent me an inspirational prayer to end depression. I also looked up Eddy Stones on YouTube.

Finally found the Divine Mercy Chaplet rosaries - half-red beads, half-white, to represent the blood and water which gushed forth from Jesus' divine Heart. We bought them in bulk and decided we would distribute them to friends and family along with the Divine Mercy Chaplet CD from Eden Hill.

Suzie and I met Fr. Levi, a sweet, sweet priest from Nigeria. He gave us lots of great ideas of how to spread The Divine Mercy message when we return home.


Upon returning home, Fr. Belli, Suzie, and I said a novena to Our Lady of Lourdes to continue our conversion, for healing, and to revive the graces we received while at the Congress. We are also doing a 30-day challenge. We are praying for an hour a day and attending Adoration and extra Masses. It has been a blessing. I told Father that it hasn't been much of a "challenge." Since I've been back from Rome, I can't wait to visit Jesus every day.

I have passed out many rosaries and 100 Miraculous Medals to friends and family and schoolchildren. Everyone is excited to have a gift blessed by Pope Benedict.

I joined Our Lady of Hope School families to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict as he entered Catholic University, during his visit to Washington, D.C., I have to admit, it wasn't quite the same as being three feet from him in St. Peter's Square! It meant so much to me that our Pope would take the time to minister to his flock in America. We need him.

I am in the process of contacting all the churches in our Arlington Diocese to research what Divine Mercy cenacles are already in place.

I am directing our church's Vacation Bible School, which is the perfect opportunity to introduce The Divine Mercy Chaplet and message.

I pray for Fr. Matt.

Read an interview with Chelie following her return back home.

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