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Retreat Gives Men New Start with an Eye Toward Mercy

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By Tanya Connor

He beamed as he talked about making a special consecration to Jesus through Mary. And he hasn't even had the opportunity to be baptized; his family looked down on the Church because of negative media portrayals of it, he said.

Now things are changing for Joseph Brooks, thanks in part to a former NFL football player who once lived among the homeless and who's been reaching out to the incarcerated.

"I wanted the opportunity to learn about God a long time ago," Mr. Brooks told The Catholic Free Press. "This is my opportunity."

The opportunity came in the form of a six-week retreat coordinated by Eric Mahl, who played football for the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets in 2005.

At the end of the retreat, Mr. Brooks and other prisoners at Worcester County Jail and House of Correction made the consecration by saying a special prayer entrusting themselves to Mary, asking for her help to love Jesus and others.

Mr. Mahl, who prepared the prisoners for the consecration, has his own story. After playing for the Jets he worked in sales, but felt called to give God everything, he said. So he got rid of his possessions, gave his money to the poor, and joined Carmelite hermits in Texas.

In his third year there he felt called to go to the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge and present his desire to bring the Divine Mercy message to the poor. Father Michael E. Gaitley, director of the Marian Helpers Center at the shrine, heard his request.

After a few days Mr. Mahl returned to Cleveland and lived among the homeless. There he shared the Divine Mercy message that: "God loves us — all of us. And, he wants us to recognize that his mercy is greater than our sins, so that we will call upon him with trust, receive his mercy, and let it flow through us to others. Thus, all will come to share his joy."

That message, simplified on the website, is taken from apparitions of Jesus to St. Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s, recorded in her 600-page diary.

Mr. Mahl said Jesus told Sister Faustina that those who live in the greatest misery are the first priority.

In 2013 he returned to the Shrine, run by the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, who are the authentic promoters of Divine Mercy. Mr. Mahl is a lay member of the Marians. His primary focus is still taking the Divine Mercy message to the poor and rejected.

So he's taken part of a parish-based program developed by Father Gaitley and his evangelization team beyond the parishes. He said he brought the first part, which uses Father Gaitley's book "33 Days to Morning Glory: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat In Preparation for Marian Consecration," to a prison in New Hampshire, the first prison where it was used.

On the way home, he felt the desire to get the program to every prison in the country, he said. So he called Sister Kathy Bernadette Wiinikka, who ministers at Worcester County Jail and House of Correction.

"I said 'yes' right away," said Sister Kathy, a member of the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, whose ministry is primarily to prisoners. Then she had to find a time and space for the retreat. She said Phillip Trimby, who teaches and prays with prisoners, offered to let Mr. Mahl lead the six-week retreat for two of his groups.

"I was ecstatic, because Mary is so misunderstood, even by Catholics," Mr. Trimby said.

The Marian Helpers donated a book and workbook in English or Spanish for each participant. Between the weekly sessions, the participants were to pray, read the book and answer questions in the workbook, which some did together when out of their cells, Mr. Trimby said.

He said between 23 and 37 prisoners each week attended the retreat at the jail, where they are awaiting trial or sentencing, and three to seven participated at the House of Correction, where they are serving sentences.

Mr. Trimby, Sister Kathy, Mr. Mahl and Lewis Brooks, who is living at the Shrine and discerning a vocation with the Marians, each facilitated one of the small groups during the retreat.

"The beauty of the consecration is that St. Louis de Montfort says it's the quickest, easiest and surest way to become a saint," Mr. Mahl said. Father Gaitley's book offers an updated version of St. Louis de Montfort's 17th century consecration, drawing on wisdom from St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Teresa of Kolkata and Blessed John Paul II, he said.

The "essence" of the consecration comes from some of Christ's words from the cross, when He spoke to His mother and John the beloved disciple, who represents all Christians, Mr. Mahl said.

The first group of prisoners made the consecration in mid-February. The leaders said 37 were invited to pray the consecration prayer in unison.

"It made me feel like I could go to Mary as my mother and ask her to hold me, so I'm not weak in front of God," Joseph Brooks said. "I never saw myself going to God myself. ... I felt overwhelming love, just knowing about her. It's an amazing feeling, like I'm alive."

He says the consecration prayer daily and said that God has answered a couple of his prayers already.

"I want to continue this journey," he said. "I'm a new creation."

Angel Ramos said the consecration was "kind of scary" at first but now he is looking forward to passing on what he learned to his nieces and nephews. He learned that being respectful and having God in one's heart should be one's first priority.

"I was here in the beginning, went home and came back on the last day," said Juan Gualdarrama. "So I was excited" to be able to say the consecration and get the certificate. "It was not even excitement; it was like a joy inside of me."

What does he hope to do now?

"Work for the Lord," he replied. "I got a little boy that wants to go to church — he's 7-years-old. And we pray together."

Sister Kathy said one prisoner wrote to his fiancée about the retreat when it started, and the next day her prayer group gave her the same book. They plan to renew the consecration together after he's released, she said.

"The joy on his face when he shared this was really beautiful," she said.

She said another prisoner asked for the consecration certificate before being released, so he could sign it on his own.

"He was bringing it home to his mother, and, because of this, his family is united," she said. Before, they were divided because of his incarceration, she said.

Divine Mercy retreat ongoing in Auburn parish

People interested in making the retreat "33 Days to Morning Glory," the same one the prisoners made, can do so at St. Joseph Parish in Auburn. Some people have already made it there and others are in the process of doing so. Holy Cross Parish in Templeton also held the retreat, a participant reported.

Mary Wood, retreat coordinator at St. Joseph's, who is a member of the spiritual life committee, said the committee presented the idea and it was accepted. She and Lisa Wass, director of religious education, said they did a pilot program with seven parishioners to see what it was like.

The retreat uses the book and accompanying DVDs by Father Michael E. Gaitley, a Marian of the Immaculate Conception at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge.

"He's very popular, very charismatic, you can't help but fall in love with him," Mrs. Wood said. "Everybody enjoys listening to the DVDs."

She said that after St. Joseph's did the pilot program last April, she and a few other people went to day-long retreats Father Gaitley gave in Methuen and Laconia, N.H.

St. Joseph's is currently holding the retreat for 35 people, six of whom are not parishioners, and six people are on a waiting list for the next session, Mrs. Wass said. Mrs. Wood said they had such a good turnout that they decided to hold it again.

All are welcome to the Mass at which the current participants will make their consecration, she said. It is to be held at 6:30 p.m. March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, in the parish center (formerly St. Edmund Center), 68 Central St.

The retreat for new participants will be held at 9 a.m. and again at 6:30 p.m. on six consecutive Tuesdays, beginning April 22, at the parish center. Those wishing to register are to contact Mrs. Wass at 508-832-6683 by April 6.

The cost is $29.95 for each participant. It covers the participants' packet, which contains the book, workbook, consecration certificate and other prayers, a rosary and a Miraculous Medal. (For other parishes that want to do this, the retreat coordinator's packet, which includes the DVDs, costs $49.95, Mrs. Wood said.)

Participants are to make the consecration at the end of the 4 p.m. Mass for the Feast of the Visitation May 31 in St. Joseph's Church. All are welcome.

Mrs. Wood said she and three other people have completed "Consoling the Heart of Jesus," the second part of this parish-based program by Father Gaitley. They made the consecration for it Feb. 1 at the Divine Mercy Shrine.
Reprinted with permission from the Catholic Free Press, Worcester, Mass.

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