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Photo: Dan Valenti
"It was 100 years ago this day that the Marian Congregation was renewed by the grace of God in a special way," said Fr. Michael Callea, MIC.
By Dan Valenti (Aug 31, 2009)
On the feast of St. John the Baptist, before a standing-room-only assembly, the Marians of the Immaculate Conception celebrated the 100th anniversary of what is known as the Congregation's "renovation."
The celebration took place on Saturday, Aug. 29, at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy on Eden Hill, Stockbridge, Mass. One hundred years prior, in 1909, Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz became a Marian by special decree of Pope Pius X and thereby begun the arduous effort of pulling the Congregation from the brink of extinction.
'A Feast of Joy'
"Today, the Church throughout the world remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist," Fr. Michael said in his greeting at the beginning of the Shrine's 2 p.m. Mass. "We celebrate this as a feast of joy, because St. John represents the victory of those who remain faithful to the truth, to the end, despite great struggles and no matter the cost."
Father Michael also told worshippers of the Marians' anniversary.
"It was 100 years ago this day that the Marian Congregation was renewed by the grace of God in a special way," he said. "The enemies of the Church had denied the Marians new members [by declaring novitiates illegal]. The Marian order had been suppressed [by the state]. We were down to one member. Blessed George revived the Congregation."
The story is the stuff of fiction. Let us visit.
July 20, 1909: the Last Living Marian
The date is July 20, 1909. The scene is the Marian Monastery of Mariampol, Lithuania.
Father Vincent Sekowski, MIC, Superior General of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, appears troubled. He is an old man, the last surviving member of the Congregation that was founded in 1673 by Blessed Stanislaus of Jesus and Mary Papczynski (1631-1701). The elderly priest writes a desperate letter to Pope Pius X. We read from Fr. Vincent's letter:
"From 1864 no new novices were permitted to enter the Congregation and, consequently, of all the Marians that had been, I am the only one left; the others have died."
Father Vincent asks permission for novices to secretly enter the Marians, specifying that the Congregation's white habits be replaced with diocesan black cassocks or secular garb so the secret police won't notice them. Second, he asks permission to wave canon law so he can immediately permit a parish priest to become a Marian without going through the novitiate.
The Pope approves both requests, and on Aug. 29, 1909, Fr. George Matulaitis-Matulewicz becomes a Marian. He completes the new Marian Constitutions in 1910 and directs a secret novitiate for the renovated Congregation. Three months later after Fr. Vincent's death on April 10, 1911, the revived Marians elect Fr. George as Superior General.
Today, we know him as Blessed George, Marian Renovator. Without this man, there would be no Marian Congregation, no Association of Marian Helpers, and the history of Divine Mercy would have been written differently.
Blessed George gave up everything to join a dying religious order. What kind of man takes this type of risk, to embrace a future that must have appeared as dreary as a funeral cortege? It takes someone who knows the world's accolades are silly toys. It takes one who measures success with humility learned from failure. It takes a man like Blessed George. It takes a man like St. John the Baptist.
Paying the Price for Living the Truth
Father Michael noted that such heroic sacrifice "comes at a price," illustrating the point with the courageous life and bloody death of John the Baptist, who baptized Christ and recognized Him as the Messiah.
"The blood of John the Baptist unites with the blood and sacrifice of all who suffer for the truth," Fr. Michael said. "This, in turn, becomes united with the blood of Jesus, shed for our salvation."
Father Michael also shared with pilgrims a special grace, noting that in honor of the Marians' centenary, Pope Benedict XVI had granted a plenary indulgence for the one day only for Catholic who celebrated Holy Mass that day in the presence of a Marian. The indulgence would be given to all who received Holy Communion, went to sacramental confession within 30 days, and said a prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father.
A Gospel of Courage, a Homily of Action
The Gospel told the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, ordered by King Herod after promising Salome to grant any wish after she danced for him. On her mother's instruction, Salome asked for the head of the Baptist to be delivered to her on a platter. The deed was so ordered by a reluctant Herod.
Father Michael noted in his homily that John the Baptist died for speaking the truth. He delivered a homily of action:
"What gave him the ability to be so heroic?" Fr. Michael asked. "The first was boldness fueled by his unshakable faith in God as the way of life, there for us to embrace. Second was John's personal integrity. He lived the message he preached. He prepared the world for Jesus, for what God was and would be."
Then Fr. Michael related this to everyone present: "What about us? We're all aware of our shortcomings. We know our limitations and incompleteness, and sometimes we hold back and say nothing, afraid to live according to the truth. However, if we wait until we have perfect faith, perfect insight, and perfect information, none of us would ever speak.
"So as much as possible, we need to live, speak, and act with as much [fearlessness] and integrity as John the Baptist and with a similar reflection as witnesses of God's truth," Fr. Michael continued. "Our goal is to see more clearly God's plan for our lives. That's the progress to which Jesus calls us. We have a call to witness to the truth. We have a call to live with courage and integrity based on God's truth. We need to make a choice on where we stand — with Christ or with the world."
The Renovation is Ongoing
Prior to Mass, Fr. Victor Incardona, MIC, offered this thought on the centennial of the Congregation's renovation: "This day is an incredible achievement of a blessed time in our history. As a result of Blessed George's actions, the Marians continue. We have new men responding to their vocations by joining us. The revitalization begun by Blessed George continues today. It is a continual process of new hope and new faith, brought to us by the new guys coming into the Congregation."
Brother Michael Opalacz, MIC, acolyte and lector during the Mass, summed up the day this way: "All praise to God on this very special day for our whole Congregation."