Photo: Fr. Mark Baron, MIC
With stories to tell, Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, and Fr. Mark Baron, MIC, have returned from World Youth Day '08, which was held in Sydney, Australia, from July 15-20. Last week, the two sat down to discuss their trip.
You both seem to still be really bowled over by the whole six-day event.
Father Seraphim: I am. Think, what would prompt 150,000 young people from outside of Australia to travel so far and at such a cost? Can you imagine? And another 100,000 attended from Australia itself. What does that say about the youth? They were so enthusiastic. The theme was a constant begging for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Father Mark: There was a freedom there that was not of this world. There was a union. People were united to God through the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. The fruits of the Holy Spirit were manifested. It overwhelmed the city. The theme was about being renewed in the Holy Spirit and going out and witnessing. So there was a sense of some Pentecostal event taking place. It was as if God were saying, through the Holy Father, "I want a new Pentecost on this earth." You really felt the Holy Spirit stirring it up.
What was one of your most memorable, behind-the-scenes moments there?
Father Seraphim: Actually, it took place on a city bus. This young man from Malaysia invited me to sit. There was just this joy on his face. He immediately said, "You know, the greatest thing on earth must be to be able to change bread and wine into the Real Body of Christ." I had assumed he was Catholic, but as we got to talking, he wasn't. And he says to me, "I'm going to start from the bottom, and I'm going to get there." What he was saying was that he wants to become a Catholic priest so he can do the greatest thing on earth. I told him how God needs to be first in his life, and he said, very seriously, "You know, that's going to be pretty hard for me because of the distractions of TV, the Internet, and a lot of that stuff — it really takes up a lot of my time." I was really struck by this because he really caught on to what would be required of him. He was under no illusions about it. Also, another memorable event was on the last day. We were with some of the sisters from the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy [St. Faustina's order]. At one point, the sisters processed through the streets with a large image of The Divine Mercy. It was amazing. People were stopping and touching the image. Cars were honking and motorists were waving enthusiastically. That was a big uplift for the sisters.
Among the many things you did during World Youth Day, you both manned a Divine Mercy booth. What was that like?
Father Seraphim: People from so many different countries all over the world came up to us and said, "Oh, you're the Marians, the ones spreading Divine Mercy. We see you on EWTN. Thank you for what you do. Many, many people. And many of them were young kids — kids from Africa, Singapore, everywhere.
Father Mark: I met so many people who told me they pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy every day. Most of the people I met seemed to have known about Divine Mercy and St. Faustina.
Father Seraphim: We handed out thousands of leaflets and pins with The Divine Mercy image. The kids were so happy to receive them. So many people told us how touched they've been by the message of Divine Mercy.
After spending so much time with so many young people from all around the world, what important role can the message of Divine Mercy play for the youth in this day and age?
Father Mark: The message says, He won't reject you, and that's a powerful thing to hear at any age, but particularly for the youth, some of whom are so messed up with the pollution of the culture. So many people think they've sinned to such a point that God couldn't love them. But Jesus tells us, through St. Faustina, that the greatest sinner has the greatest right to His mercy. This is why Jesus came to St. Faustina — because He knows we're broken. He says, Let Me in. Let Me into your heart, and let Me help transform it.
Father Seraphim: I'm in touch with Sr. Mary Ann Follmar, who for years taught mystical theology at Providence College. She's read the writings of practically all the Catholic mystics. She told me that, in her estimation, none of them can hold a candle to St. Faustina. She says how St. Faustina's Diary exhibits the entire path that a soul passes — from first encountering the Lord, to the heights of mysticism. So in her Diary you can see the whole process of a soul growing in holiness. It's expressed in simple language, and it provides concrete examples of each stage from St. Faustina's own experience. In her theology classes, Sr. Follmar has used the Diary as though a manual. Among the many passages she likes to quote for students are the "Conversations" of Jesus with souls on different spiritual levels (see 1485-1490). She says her young students, some of whom get mixed up with drugs, alcohol, sex, and materialism, are touched by those words. The message of Divine Mercy is one that really draws them. They see that God is yearning for them far more earnestly than they are for Him.
He's calling to all people, particularly those who experience rejection. That's a powerful thing for youth, in particular.
Father Seraphim: Yes, and it's important for the youth to consider that Jesus suffered rejection beyond any imaginable degree. On the cross, He says, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Mt 27:46). It was a point of utter abandonment — a point that He wants us to call to mind every day at three in the afternoon, which He named "The Hour of Great Mercy." He experienced, in the human nature He assumed out of love for us, the pain of rejection. That's why every rejected person, by clinging to Jesus, can obtain release from the effects of rejection, thanks to His coming back from the dead. The Bible scholar Derek Prince says how for most people who have some deep, interior problem, the source is at some point a moment in their life when they were rejected — sometime at conception, or birth, in their childhood years, by peers in school, in later relationships. All along the way there can be moments of rejection that have a deep, hurtful effect on people in their personal development. But Jesus suffered it, too, beyond every imaginable degree. He knows what we're going through. It's interesting how Plato, who couldn't have known about the 10 Commandments, says that when a law has been broken the only way to repair it is through suffering. This suffering is a part of life because we are broken. It's like when an iron object cracks, sometimes the only way to mend it is to melt it and recast it all over again. That intense heat and pressure is like suffering. And through this suffering, we allow God to re-form us. Jesus tells St. Faustina that she can unite her sufferings with His — that hers then carry the value of His. And of course, what is the value? It is for the redemption of souls. That's the most important thing. Jesus came to call sinners so that no one would be lost. People need to reflect on these things. Instead, in our culture, for many it's this "bread and circuses" mentality: Keep them happy and distracted with entertainment. Do not let them think about the deep meaning of life, of what we're going through, and what's ahead of us. These things have to be brought to the fore for people to reflect on. Interestingly, Huston Smith, in his book The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, talks about Christianity and addresses how it came to be that Christianity was able to transform a pagan world. Huston says it was because the lives of Christians had been transformed and they seemed to have found the secret of living. In particular, three intolerable burdens had suddenly and dramatically been lifted from their shoulders: fear, even the fear of death; guilt; and the cramping confines of the ego, selfishness. They could see how Christ gave people a joy that shone through their behavior. This is what attracted people. Even the martyrs would be led to the lions singing. Today, we have so many people who have turned away, and they have to be shown once again the joy of union with Christ. When I looked at all the faces of the people at World Youth Day, I saw it. I saw that joy — beaming joy.
Father Mark: I can only imagine all those young people who attended World Youth Day returning to their homes and sharing that joy. There seems to be a wisdom in this younger generation. While there are definitely a lot of kids who are caught up in the pollution of the culture, God — through Our Lady — is raising up a very strong group to stand up, to go to Calvary, because that's where we're going, but that's also where Divine Mercy flows.
Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, serves as "Father Joseph, MIC," the director of the Association of Marian Helpers. Father Mark Baron, MIC, is superior of the house at the Marians' residence in Washington, D.C.
Read Fr. Mark's dispatches from World Youth Day '08.