Road Warriors for Christ
In the wee hours of Aug. 4, in a small chapel in western Massachusetts near the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, a group of young men with bags packed stands to hear the Gospel reading during Mass. The reading couldn't be more fitting for the occasion.
Disciples in a boat, far offshore, being tossed on the waves, encounter Jesus walking on the water and telling them to take courage, to be not afraid. Peter, whose emotions often got the best of him, is invited to step out upon the water, which he does. All is well, at first. Then, a strong wind blows. Peter becomes terrified and starts sinking. He cries out to the Lord to save him. Jesus stretches out His hand and catches him.
"O you of little faith," Jesus admonishes, "why did you doubt?"
After proclaiming the Gospel reading from Matthew 14:22-36, Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, cautions in his homily that proverbial stiff winds may await these modern disciples sitting before him, possibly in the form of physical and spiritual hardship — possibly in the form of outright rejection by those whom they'll seek to serve.
"But the lesson in this Gospel is to keep our hearts fixed on Jesus," Fr. Michael says. "When we stay fixed on Jesus, He'll make miracles happen through us."
Men with a Mission
Upon the close of Mass, the young men pile into a 15-passenger van pulling a trailer loaded up with prayercards, Divine Mercy images, and books. Behind the wheel, a Marian Missionary named Eric Mahl points the van west, thereby embarking on the monthlong, cross-country Divine Mercy Tour 2014. They'll sleep on floors of rectories and churches and in the van itself. But really, they won't sleep much at all.
Yes, and miracles will happen.
Before the tour concluded on Sept. 5, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., they will have stopped in a dozen towns and cities to share the Divine Mercy message with parishes, the homeless, youth, and the infirm — even going door-to-door.
The men comprise the newly formed Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy, based at the National Shrine. A ministry of Lighthouse Catholic Media — with spiritual formation provided by the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, Mass. — the Marian Missionaries are a brotherhood of single men who give at least one year to God and Our Blessed Mother to grow in holiness and put the works of mercy into action. As director of the Marians' Office of Evangelization and Development, Fr. Michael is in charge of their formation.
It was Lighthouse's founder and president, Mark Middendorf, who first conceived of the Marian Missionaries. He was praying before a Divine Mercy image at the National Shrine at the time. Since then, several young men have joined the Missionaries. Five of them traveled on the tour, which also included Fr. Michael and Br. David Guza, OMV, who is working with the Marian Congregation. Father Chris Alar, MIC, who is the new director of the Association of Marian Helpers, joined in the first leg of the tour.
Suffering at the Very Heart
The town center in Woodstock, Ill., is so idyllic, such a picture-perfect example of old-time America, that Hollywood did most of its exterior filming there for the 1993 hit romantic comedy Groundhog Day.
On a beautiful, sunny Saturday, six days into the Divine Mercy Tour, members of the Missionaries lead a "Day of Mercy" with local parishioners, mostly from the Church of Holy Apostles in nearby McHenry. A group of them enters the town square, where a bluegrass band plays on the bandstand while vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables. In the square, a group of homeless people congregates around a bench. One of them is applying duct tape to a backpack filled with his every possession.
"How many times have I walked through here and not noticed them," parishioner Brian Truckenbrod marvels.
But when we keep our hearts fixed on the Lord, we suddenly notice the distress among our brethren — not just in the dramatic sense of homelessness, but in our families, neighbors, and friends. Indeed, the Divine Mercy Tour is geared toward opening the eyes of Catholic faithful, to inspire them to join together and live the message of Divine Mercy, specifically through works of mercy in their own communities.
Minutes later, Brian and others are passing out toiletries, food, and prayercards.
"The Missionaries are teaching us to step out from our comfort zones," says Brian Kelly, who helped organize the Divine Mercy Tour for Lighthouse Catholic Resources, an Illinois-based not-for-profit company that specializes in promoting the Catholic faith.
If not for the Divine Mercy Tour, Brian Truckenbrod and his fellow parishioners may never have had the eyes to see a homeless man named Craig, who often sleeps in the square, even in bitter winter weather.
Craig has dried blood on one of his ears. He lost his job as a house painter when nerve damage in his leg became unbearable. A lot of other misfortunes — many, admittedly, of his own doing — have befallen him, too, leading to his current state.
"I sometimes sit on that park bench over there, look up to our Maker, and say, 'You got any other curve balls to toss my way?'" he says. "But God works on His time, not ours."
He's been homeless since 2009. Some days, he doesn't eat. Most mornings, before dawn, he walks down to a local bar and bends down to the sidewalk to collect cigarette butts that haven't been burnt down to the filter.
"It's embarrassing," he says. "I don't want anyone seeing me doing that."
Still, he says, some of the kindest, solidly sensitive souls he's ever met have been fellow homeless and the people like these parishioners who come to their aid from time to time.
The End Goal
The group serving the homeless on this day is led by Marian Missionaries Eric Mahl of Ohio, Lewis Brooks of New Hampshire, and brothers Marcus and Adam Fluty of Kentucky. All four men are discerning a vocation.
In preparing the parishioners for a day serving the homeless, Eric, coordinator for the Marians' Evangelization and Outreach programs, explained the goal.
"Remember today, that whatever we have — whether it's a CD or a Divine Mercy prayercard, or it's food — it's more than just what we are giving them physically. The material things are a means to an end, and the end goal is for us to give ourselves to them. We want help to restore the dignity of every single person. We want to be a light in someone else's darkness, not so that we are seen, but so that people can see Christ."
Elsewhere on the Day of Mercy, a group of Marian Missionaries and parishioners, led by Fr. Chris, visits a nursing home. Father Michael leads a group into a neighborhood where they knock on doors to gather prayer intentions. A fourth group visits Catholic cemeteries and prays for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
Joining in the group that went door-to-door is Marian Missionary Rubin Mendoza of Nevada, a self-described "former gangbanger" who was led to a love of Jesus through Fr. Mike's Marian consecration program 33 Days to Morning Glory. He said he was disappointed on this day by the number of people who scoffed at the notion that there's a God who hears our prayers.
"But, at one door, a woman answered, and she couldn't believe we were there," he says. "She said she had just sat down to read the Bible to find some wisdom because of difficulties she was having in her family, and then she heard us knocking.
"See?" Rubin says. "We can't get discouraged. Our Blessed Mother provides us with many graces when we step forward with no fear and boldly speak of the love of Christ."
Now Is the Time
As is typical, the Day of Mercy concludes with praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, Eucharistic Adoration, Mass, and talks to both the youth and adults by Fr. Michael and — when available — Fr. Chris.
"According to St. John Paul II, the time we are living in is a time of unprecedented evil," Fr. Michael tells the adult group in McHenry. "But God wants to give unprecedented grace. God will not be outdone by the evil in our time."
Indeed, God will not be outdone in generosity when His children turn from sin, trust in Him, and spread His mercy to a broken world.
The Marian Missionaries pulled out of McHenry just after dawn the next morning. Next stop: Fargo, N.D., nine hours away.
"Pray for us," Eric says to parishioners who gathered for the send-off. "Pray for us, and we'll be praying for you."
And with that, they were off, due west, eyes fixed on the road, hearts fixed on the Lord.
UPDATE: The Marian Missionaries returned to Stockbridge on Sept. 10. They continue their work in the Northeast, ministering to the homeless, prisoners, the infirm, the elderly, and youth.
To learn more about the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy, visit marianmissionaries.org.