33 Days to Merciful Love: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat... Read more
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger opens the Holy Door at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany last Dec. 8, on the first day of the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. This month, when that door closes, he knows others will open.
For the sake of their family and their diocese, David and Alice Benamati of Cohoes, New York, consecrated themselves to the Divine Mercy on Nov. 13.
By Felix Carroll (Nov 18, 2016)
In a low-ceilinged, sneaker-scuffed gymnasium where generations of Catholic school children perennially performed Christmas pageants and played dodgeball, Fr. Brian Slezak dims the lights, switches on a projector, and takes his place on a fold-out chair, along with 50-plus of his parishioners.
On the screen, a young priest talks about how we're all called to become great saints.
"Saint Thérèse was known as the 'bold saint,'" the priest on the screen says. "She asked for bold things."
The Lord, he said, desires that we do the same.
That's welcome news for a crowd with some rather bold requests, including the radical reordering of hearts and minds within a 10,419-square-mile diocese planted in the number one "most post-Christian" region in the United States.
The greater Albany region of upstate New York holds that ignominious title, tied with San Francisco, based on a survey of Christian identity and practice that was released in 2015 by Barna Group, a polling firm that tracks the role of faith in America.
The leader of the Diocese of Albany, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, isn't about to dispute those findings — and he isn't about to fall into despair, either. Too much is at stake, and there are too many reasons to be bold.
This summer, he invited his entire diocese to consecrate themselves to the Divine Mercy by the close of the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, on Nov. 20. What that means is that those who took him up on his suggestion proclaimed their intentions to fight discouragement; be merciful in deed, word, and prayer; keep before their eyes their own weakness and sin, trusting that contrite hearts please the Lord; and declare their belief that the Lord can transform them into saints.
The tool with which to do so is the 33 Days to Merciful Love retreat program written by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, which incorporates the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
"There's hope. You can make a difference in your family, your communities, your country, the world," says Fr. Gaitley, the priest in the video. "How? By becoming saints, and it's not so difficult."
Not so difficult? As day turned to night on Tuesday, Oct. 11, Fr. Slezak welcomed his parishioners into the since-shuttered school of Holy Trinity Parish in the city of Cohoes to find out.
Not So Crazy
Alice Benamati left work early to be here. An hour's pay forfeited. She'll do so each Tuesday for the next four weeks until she stands in Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with hundreds from around the diocese, including Bishop Scharfenberger, to recite the prayer of consecration from 33 Days.
Self-effacing and clearly relishing the fact she successfully goaded her husband, David, into joining her, Alice shrugs, saying, "This is not one crazy church lady with the idea to get people to pray. This is coming from the top down."
That is to say, from the Holy Father (who has continually urged the faithful to prayerfully turn to Christ, who offers love, not scorn); from Bishop Scharfenberger (who trusts his diocese can flourish in faith from the tiny mustard seed of prayers and good works); and from her pastor, Fr. Slezak (who says, "If it has anything to do with Divine Mercy, there's no way it won't bear fruit").
That's why Alice is here — and because the spiritual decline of her own family painfully mirrors in microcosm that of the diocese itself. Of her six grown children, only one remains a regular churchgoer.
"Two come when I beg them to," she says. "Two are devout atheists, and one is agnostic. This — and we sacrificed long and hard to send them all to Catholic school."
It's an all-too-familiar story.
Due largely to declining Mass attendance, the Albany diocese has closed dozens of parishes in recent years. Holy Trinity itself is the only remaining Catholic parish in Cohoes. There used to be seven.
The steady slide toward "post-Christianity" is hardly unique to Albany; it's just that it's happening more rapidly here than in other parts of the country, the Barna survey indicates. In the greater Albany region, 66 percent of those surveyed have decoupled themselves from affiliation with the Christian faith. The national average is 44 percent. Two generations ago, this would have been unheard of in a nation built from the beachhead of European Christian settlers.
What's Missing Here?
As they will do each Tuesday evening leading up to their consecration, the Holy Trinity parishioners participating in the 33 Days retreat will break into small groups to pray and discuss their families, their faith, their diocese, the world, and their Christian responsibilities.
"We need to find out why people are leaving the faith in the first place," Doris Blais says to her fellow group members on that opening night.
To that point, Bishop Scharfenberger, who took over the 334,000-member diocese in 2014, has a theory that breaks from the boilerplate excuse of collective moral abandonment.
"We are in an age where secularism has become a religion unto itself," he says. "But we do need to acknowledge that the secular mentality wants to be humanitarian, wants to be inclusive, wants to be forgiving. But what's being lost in all of this is the integration between a life of good works and a life of prayer, which is oriented toward God, our Creator."
To that point, the Diocese of Albany maintains its long-held role as a powerful force of civic good in its emphasis on Catholic works of charity, much of that done in tandem with other denominations and government agencies. "But are we praising God as the Source of all that's good?" Bishop Scharfenberger asks. The question is rhetorical. The answer is, "Hardly."
And this is where Fr. Gaitley's program comes in.
The Jubilee Year Connection
As Divine Providence would have it, just as Pope Francis was inaugurating the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy last Dec. 8, Fr. Gaitley was finishing writing 33 Days to Merciful Love, a do-it-yourself retreat that — like his 2011 book on Marian consecration, 33 Days to Morning Glory — can be done alone or in a group.
Indeed, as the Holy Father was calling upon the faithful to rediscover the mercy of God as the Source of strength and hope, Fr. Gaitley was unearthing and unpacking profound insights from St. Thérèse into the love of Christ, who longs to pour out His mercy, especially on sinners; her discernment that sinners often close their hearts to the Lord's mercy, a rejection that causes Jesus great suffering; and how she asked Jesus to pour into her soul all the rejected mercy that others didn't want, so that she could distribute it through prayer to a broken world.
Since its release earlier this year, more than 100,000 people worldwide have made the consecration.
Father Gaitley wrote the book from his home at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a mere four miles from the border of the Diocese of Albany. When he got wind of Albany's "post-Christian" ranking, his Marian charism of going "where the need is greatest" kicked in.
He and Bishop Scharfenberger formed a close bond. Father Gaitley has made more than a dozen sorties into the diocese to speak about the consecration. The parishes were already well primed. In 2015, Bishop Scharfenberger had encouraged his diocese to make the consecration to Mary using 33 Days to Morning Glory.
"It was like a grace bomb was dropped on our diocese," says Bishop Scharfenberger.
By means of the consecration, which nearly 2 million people worldwide have made, Bishop Scharfenberger and many of his pastors witnessed a spiritual hunger that had hitherto remained hidden.
He isn't the only bishop to now turn his diocese's gaze to 33 Days to Merciful Love. Archbishop of Kansas City Joseph F. Naumann, too, has encouraged his flock to conclude the Jubilee Year by making the consecration.
It makes perfect sense to pastors such as Fr. Rendell Torres, who leads two parishes in the rural northern reaches of the Diocese of Albany. Like many clergy, he was struggling with what it might mean when the Holy Father concludes the Jubilee Year, which coincides with the closing of designated Holy Doors at basilicas, cathedrals, and shrines around the world.
"Does mercy 'close' with the end of the Jubilee Year? Obviously not," says Fr. Torres. "So the consecration to Divine Mercy is such that the doors of our hearts will now be opened. We can receive the mercy of God that others reject and then give it back to the world by being channels of His mercy through our actions and testimony to the mercy of God in our lives."
"To be consecrated means we become seeds planted in our diocese," Fr. Torres says. "I don't know how quickly the change will occur, but I do know we really need this now."
'I Wring My Hands'
Back at Holy Trinity Parish on the opening night, Fr. Slezak leads a closing prayer, which is punctuated by a round of applause.
A life-size image of Jesus, the Divine Mercy, is set front and center in the gymnasium. In the image, Jesus steps from the darkness — His right hand raised in blessing, His left hand opening His garment to expose His wounded Heart. To those who eschew Christianity in no small part due to the misperception that God is a wrathful judge, punitive to rule-breakers, it's worth noting that in this famous image, Jesus is not pointing fingers.
"You know," says Alice, making her way past the image and toward the exit, "I wring my hands on a daily basis: 'What else can I be doing?' There is nothing else I haven't already done. I'm reminded tonight that when you don't know what to do, when you feel hopeless, all you can do is to put it all into God's hands and say, 'You got to help me with this.'
"I think that's where we are as a diocese," she says. "That's where we are as families."
Father Slezak opens the door for her.
"Well," he says, "what I do know is that God is at work here. I know He is."