By Chris Sparks (Aug 15, 2014)
The third World Apostolic Congress on Mercy (WACOM) is being held from Aug. 15-19 in Bogota, Colombia, bringing together apostles and friends of the Divine Mercy from around the world. We’ll be sharing insights, images, and news from the Congress as it’s happening, so stay tuned for more, and keep the Congress in prayer!
Bogota is beautiful in the way only a city on a hill (or a mountain!) can be beautiful. The light is different here where the mountains bury their heads in the clouds, where heaven feels close enough to touch. There’s a reason why Scripture is full of stories of people going up to the mountains to get closer to God, a reason we’re discovering, I think, at this WACOM each day. Everything seems brighter, more radiant. It’s a daily surprise.
The lines to get into the Congress site — the gymnasium of the Colegio Agustiniano Ciudad Salitre, a school for children in grades K-11 — are long and cheerful, full of people waving their country’s flag, singing hymns, and breaking out into prayer. Most of the crowd speaks Spanish (hardly surprising in this first WACOM held in Latin America), and so there’s an easy sense of community being formed. Just near by the contingent from the Marian Helpers Center and the Marian Fathers’ apostolates, we meet pilgrims from Aruba, Brazil, and — of course! — Colombia.
An enterprising pair of street vendors see an opportunity and show up offering to sell “Agua! Agua!” (Water! Water!) to potentially thirsty pilgrims. Eventually, one of them discovers the religious purpose of the event and begins advertising his water as “good for blessing!”
As we wend our way into the gymnasium, we’re greeted by the cardinals, bishops, and other dignitaries occupying chairs on the main stage leading the Congress in morning prayer, a regular part of the Liturgy of the Hours. They’re seated behind an absolute explosion of roses and other flowers surrounding an image of Divine Mercy and statues of Our Lady of Fatima and St. Therese of Lisieux (also known, very appropriately, as the “Little Flower”).
A reflection is offered by Bishop Domenico Cancian, F.A.M., a member of the Congregation of the Sons of Merciful Love and bishop of the diocese of Città di Castello in Italy. Observing that the Congress was opening providentially on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, Bishop Cancian said, “She will never cease taking us by the hand and leading us to the love and mercy of her Son!”
Other gems: “We learn mercy both by receiving and giving mercy.”
Citing Pope Francis as the source, Bishop Cancian says, “Being apostles of mercy is the core of the Church’s activity.”
“Our mission: to go throughout the world to announce love.”
Cardinal Ruben Salazar, the archbishop of Bogota, welcomed the Congress to his archdiocese “on behalf of the pilgrim Church in Colombia.” He’ll be speaking tomorrow on the importance of the Congress and Divine Mercy for healing and reconciliation in Colombia.
Next, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, president of the Congress, offers a “conference” on “The Divine Mercy, Our Mission.” He took an interesting approach to his theme, talking about the costs of mercy and how it often demands that we recognize that simply avoiding telling truths that might cause pain or discomfort isn’t being merciful. Rather, mercy requires truth and justice. You cannot have one without the other, as God Himself demonstrates time and again throughout the Scriptures and all of salvation history. He pointed to the example of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (see Jn 4) as a model of telling the truth with love, in a truly merciful way.
“Jesus has walked a long way; He is thirsty,” said the Cardinal. “She is thirsty, as well, for forgiveness. Jesus talks to her. That’s the way into her heart. He treats her without bias. She thirsts for profound love, profound happiness.” Jesus is honest with the woman, telling her the sad truth of her life, and yet He does so with such love that she becomes a witness to Him, leading her entire town to believe in this Man who had told her everything she had ever done.
Cardinal Schoenborn also highlighted the cost of mercy in the parable of the prodigal son (see Lk 15:11-32), pointing out that when the prodigal son returned to his father and was restored to his place as a son, his elder brother lost half of the inheritance that was originally meant for him. For his younger brother now had the same rights that he had had before: a right to half the property of their father upon the father’s death. Just so, said the cardinal, does mercy and forgiveness place demands upon us all.
He cited the testimony of the Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza from the first WACOM in Rome. Immaculee lost her entire family in the genocide, herself only surviving through the courageous, self-sacrificing mercy of a Protestant pastor. When Immaculee went back to Rwanda and visited the prison where the man who had killed her family was being held, she was offered the option by the guards to take some sort of revenge on the murderer. She chose instead to forgive him.
Father Dante Aguero, MIC, shares some thoughts on Cardinal Schoenborn’s talk and the importance of WACOM.
Claudia Koll, a well-known Italian actress, offered the testimony of her reversion to the Catholic faith. Claudia explained that she had been raised Catholic, but for many years, lived rebelliously, doing whatever she wanted, living only for success. in 2000, during the Great Jubilee of the Lord’s Incarnation, she was invited by a friend to go and make the devotional act of passing through the Holy Door, opened by St. Pope John Paul II.
“My life started changing after I entered that Holy Door,” said Claudia. “I have a very deep relationship with St. John Paul II because he opened and closed that door.”
Two key events happened after making that jubilee devotion.
First, Claudia realized that, though she was acting out love and all its related emotions on the screen, something very different was going on in her heart. “I knew I did not know how to love. I had even waived building up a family because of my work. I began to understand and ask myself if I was happy.”
Secondly, she had a brush with real evil through transcendental meditation and related practices. “One day, I started to live paranormal phenomena,” recounted Claudia. “A sheet of paper wafted from my floor up to my table.”
And then the voice began to whisper in her ear, claiming to be the spirit of a great actress of former days. It all seemed harmless until one day, when Claudia was speaking on the phone with her agent, she heard the voice saying that she hadn’t hated her agent and encouraging her to hate them.
“And I answered the voice, ‘I am made to love.’ And I knew I did not know how to love,” Claudia continued. “That voice revealed, ‘I am death, and I am come to kill you.'”
Claudia reacted with all the deeply buried instincts of a fallen away Catholic. “I prayed the Our Father and I grabbed a cross I had at home, and I screamed, ‘God, help me.’ And when I screamed with all my strength, God liberated me.”
“I give honor to Jesus Christ.”
The next speaker was Sr. Ifunanya Ugwoha, NES, from Nigeria, who offered a theological reflection on Mary’s role as mediatrix and “Mater misericordiae,” or “Mother of Mercy.” She cited the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, discussing its teaching on Mary’s titles and intercessory role in the life of the Church.
Sister Ugwoha explained that intercession is often understood to mean an act of intervening on behalf of another, but it’s much more than that. An intercessor, she said, is “One who decides to mediate on behalf of others who cannot.”
So Mary is a model for Christians at prayer, interceding for those who do not have faith in Jesus Christ, the Divine Mercy. Sister Ugwoha ended her talk by holding up a rosary and exhorting the Congress to pray it daily, saying, “This is the weapon of the Catholics. Let us entrust ourselves to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Many times each day, ask our mother to be our advocate.” She closed by leading the Congress in singing a Hail Mary.
Next up is Martin Hoegger, a Protestant pastor from Lausanne, Switzerland, a leader in the ecumenical movement within the Reformed Church. In his initial remarks, he focused on the Congress opening on the feast of the Assumption. Pastor Hoegger acknowledged that many Protestants have a very different pereception of Mary from Catholics. “However,” he said, “I discovered I love Mary.” This provoked strong applause. “Especially when she tells the servants ‘Do whatever He tells you.'”
Pastor Hoegger focused his remarks on the ancient spiritual practice of lectio divina, or “divine reading,” a classic method of reading and praying the Scriptures that has formed the basis of Christian spirituality for centuries.
He gave the Congress the theory behind the way of praying, preparing them for the break out sessions to be held on Saturday when they’d get a chance to give lectio a try.
Mary, he said, offers us a model for practicing lectio. “She lived with His Word [during all the time in Nazareth] in this way, and that is the reason for me to love Mary.”
It’s always quite a sight to see bishops concelebrating a Mass, let alone cardinals, but add in row upon row of priests as well, and the Mass at WACOM becomes a living icon of the universal Church gathered to worship the Merciful Lord.
Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, from the archdiocese of Lipa in the Phillipines, served as lead celebrant and gave the homily. He focused, of course, on the Assumption, saying, “It is providential, indeed, it is God’s will that we celebrate the Assumption of God’s blessed mother” on the first day of WACOM. He pointed out that one of her oldest titles, given in the ancient Latin hymn “Salve Regina,” is “Mater Misericordiae,” or “Mother of Mercy.” The mercy referred to here is Jesus Himself.
“Mary is the Mother of Jesus, the One Who is God’s total gift to us and our total gift to God.”
“No words today can describe her who was lifted up to heaven, glorious with her Son, the Divine Mercy,” said Archbishop Arguelles. He ended by praying, “Help us, continue to lead us to deeper union with Christ. Let us be a sign of God”s merciful love for all humanity.”
Well, it was quite an afternoon. The Congress dispersed across the city in buses, going to visit different parishes and seeing the works of mercy they perform in their communities. The bus yours truly embarked on headed south to the parish of Nuestra Senora del Lucero, or Our Lady, the Morning Star.
Man, the difference a drive across town can make.
The Congress is taking place in a more developed section of town, which wouldn’t be out of place in any of a number of American or European cities. The Congress organizers had clearly decided to take to heart Pope Francis’ call to go to the peripheries, to the margins of life. They sent the participants far afield.
Picture to yourself: Roads that have collapsed into dirt, or were never paved in the first place. People who are very neatly dressed walking amidst extensive graffiti. The parish we visited had walls, padlocked gates, and broken glass embedded in the tops of the walls. The pilgrims scooted off the bus and did a quick march down the street to the parish. Inside, there was some beautiful religious art, including images of certain local devotions such as the devotion to the Divino Nino. We were greeted by the “Sisters of St. John the Evangelist,” a group dedicated to works of mercy in the parish. Some parishioners danced for us; we were shown a Powerpoint presentation of the life and ministries of the parish; then a number of parishioners stood and gave their testimonies to the power of God’s mercy working in their lives.
After a brief visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, it was time for photos! Everyone wanted to be in a picture, and the “Juanistas” wanted some shots of food being distributed — a live demonstration of one of the main works of mercy performed at the parish.
Then we motored over to the center of town, were dropped off next to the residence of the president of Colombia, and walked over to the Bogota cathedral. Again: a study in contrasts.
We were greeted by performances by some of the youth of the archdiocese: a concert, some skits, and a lot of clowns wandering around. Some pilgrims stayed in the courtyard; others walked in and took a look at the classically Spanish cathedral, containing an array of gorgeous religious art and beautifully appointed altars. Well worth a visit; well done for God.
So, after a full day, it’s time (mercifully!) to shut down for the night and get ready for the morning. There’s much, much more to come.