Surprising Mercy in the Bronx

The mother of an American hero.

An Irish religious sister, internationally renowned for her healing ministry.

The former vice-postulator for St. Faustina's cause for canonization.

These and other world-class speakers shared the many surprises of God's mercy with a crowd in excess of 1,000 people from as far away as Texas at the eleventh annual Divine Mercy Conference on April 16, held at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.

"How special it must be that we do this during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, truly acknowledging the message of God's mercy that comes to us through St. Faustina," said Msgr. Thomas Nydegger, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and lead celebrant and homilist for the day's Mass. "What a blessing it is for all of us to be together today."

Dr. Robert Stackpole, the emcee of the conference and director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, summed up this Jubilee Year's Bronx conference in one quick phrase: "The Divine Mercy is always surprising. It's more than you think and not what you necessarily expect." That "surprising" theme echoed Pope Francis' teaching about the God of surprises and his surprising decision to call for an extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

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Among the day's presenters was the internationally renowned speaker and author Sr. Briege McKenna, OSC, who shared that if she were to be stranded on an island, the book she'd want, besides the Bible, would be the Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, "because I read it every day. When I read it, I read all those promises from Jesus, promises He guarantees will be fulfilled. And yet we don't believe them! We take up promises that society's offering us. What's happened?"

The problem, said Sr. Briege, was that so many people had fallen away from prayer and the Sacraments, especially the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.

"Saint Faustina talked [in her Diary] about the hours she spent in prayer, hours in Mass, in Reconciliation," said Sr. Briege. If you do likewise, "your soul will grow in divine faith, and with faith comes all the graces of the Holy Spirit. He will help us know what is right" and to do it.

She also spoke of the vital importance of trust and allowing God access to every part of our lives, an exhortation that Dr. Stackpole reiterated.

"She [Sr. Briege] said that there may be a door in our hearts which says 'Private: No Entrance, nobody allowed in,'" said Dr. Stackpole. "That's the door that Jesus is knocking at today. So let's resolve today as we pray and as we ponder to let Jesus in that door, not tomorrow; not next week. Today."

The Vicar General of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, Fr. Joseph Roesch, MIC, also spotlighted the teachings of St. Faustina when he explained the current effort to ask the Holy See to declare St. Faustina a Doctor of the Church.

"The message of mercy must radiate to the world," said Fr. Joe, citing St. John Paul II's 2002 homily at the dedication of the International Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Krakow, Poland. And the message is being transmitted, now more than ever - through the papacies of St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis; through conferences like the Bronx Conference that are taking place around the world; through the lives and witness of Catholics such as those at the Bronx Conference, all helping take the spark that came of Poland (see Diary, 1732). and making it "more like a bonfire," in Fr. Joe's words. And it all got going through the message and devotion transmitted by St. Faustina Kowalska. (Visit here to learn more about why St. Faustina should be declared a Doctor of the Church and to sign the petition.)

And what exactly is mercy? Why is it so important for us to understand and to live? During the Q&A panel discussion, Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, the man who smuggled the Diary of St. Faustina out of Poland and documented her beatification and canonization miracles, summarized the heart and soul of the call to live Divine Mercy. "When we look into the Scriptures, we see three foremost commands from God. 'Be holy because I, your God, am holy,' and our Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount, 'Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.' And we say, 'How can we be holy as God and perfect as God, when the Scriptures themselves say no one but God is holy; no one but God is perfect?'"

Father Seraphim pointed to the passage in Luke's Gospel that's also the source of the motto for the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy: "Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36).

"So if you want to be holy as God is holy and perfect as God is perfect, we have to be merciful as God is merciful," he explained. "And how is that? That great convert and writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton defined mercy as 'loving the unlovable and pardoning the unpardonable,'" something that is possible for us only by the grace of God.

One striking witness to the real power of Divine Mercy was given by Barbara La Porte, who shared her testimony on the ninth anniversary of her son's death. Barbara is the mother of ROTC Cadet Matthew La Porte, who gave his life trying to save his classmates during the Virginia Tech shooting on April 16, 2007.

She described her son, and the day he died. She told of the many people who had helped her and her family through the aftermath of that day, including those at Virginia tech who'd successfully sought to have Matthew be officially recognized for his heroic attempts to protect his classmates and take down the shooter, even at the cost of his own life. And she shared the powerful role Divine Mercy had played in helping her to live mercy herself.

"I can only say that it was the grace of Divine Mercy that enabled me not to feel anger and to forgive the shooter," she explained. "I could not condemn the shooter because anything that I had read about hell from different saints that spoke of having witnessed hell, it just seemed like such a horrible place, and I couldn't imagine being there for an instant, let alone being condemned there for eternity. So I prayed that God would forgive both [the sins of the shooter and her son Matt], and I was at peace."

The date of the conference was providential for another reason besides being the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting. April 16 is also the feast of the holy homeless pilgrim St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783), the namesake and patron of the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR (1933-2014), who had been such a major supporter of and influence on the Bronx Conference from its inception.

"The heart and soul of this Divine Mercy Conference was given to us by our Lord through the ministry of Fr. Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal," said Dr. Stackpole. "Our Lord's will was ... to take him home, but we certainly miss him and we'll never forget him, and we trust that by his prayers and intercession now in the nearer presence of God, he has certainly not forgotten us."

Though Fr. Benedict is gone, another of the "Founding Fathers" of the Bronx Conference remains: Ed Miller, who has been organizing these conferences since the beginning. "This takes enormous work to put together and he's the hand that no one sees that pulls everything into where it should be, so I have great respect for him," said Msgr. James Lisante, a television host and author, as well as one of the speakers at the Bronx Conference. "There's such a need on the East Coast especially for a Divine Mercy conference like this because this is the biggest and the best. And it reaches so many people. When you pull a thousand people in the New York area on a busy weekend, that's a great accomplishment."

The conference participants gathered to receive some of the best formation in the Divine Mercy message and devotion available anywhere in the world, hearing other speakers such as the Very Rev. Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, provincial superior of the Marian Fathers in the United States and Argentina; Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC, director of the Marian Evangelization Team and spiritual director of the Holy Souls Sodality; and Fr. Pio Maria Hoffman, CFR.

Award-winning singer/songwriter Annie Karto shared her witness and several songs with the conference goers, and Marty and Jules Rotella led praise and worship throughout the conference, as well as providing music for the afternoon Mass. The Mass was served by St. Michael's Guard, a men's organization whose stated purpose is "to provide the highest level of discipline, reverence, and humility serving at the Lord's Holy Altar, with fervent study and practice of the rites of the Roman Catholic Church."

Confession and Eucharistic Adoration were available throughout the day to the conference-goers, who agreed that the day offered many special blessings.

"We need the spiritual help and need more Catholic teachings," said Joe Goe, a parishioner at St. Jean Vianney in West Haven, Connecticut, who has been attending the conference for about 5 years. "We need Divine Mercy. The whole world needs Jesus. There's no other way to be saved than through Jesus."

To those who couldn't make the conference, Joe said, "They're missing something great."

To order the Bronx Conference DVD (Product Code BDVD16; Price: $30 + $5.25 P&H within the continental United States), please call 1-800-462-7426.

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