Marian Helper Michele “Chelie” Billingsley, of Sterling, Va., was one of several thousand pilgrims from around the world who attended the World Apostolic Congress on Mercy in Rome, Italy, on April 2-6. The following interview with Chelie was conducted by Mary Flannery, senior designer and associate editor for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.
Mary Flannery: So, how was the Congress?
Chelie Billingsley: It was incredible. It was so moving, it was more than I could even take in.
CB: Yeah, and one of the funny things that I kept saying to my priest, “My cup runneth over.” And then he would say, “Come on and get a bigger cup! Let’s go!” And then it was on to the next thing. There were so many things to do.
MF: So it wasn’t what you expected; it was more than you expected?
CB: It was much deeper. It was more of a spiritual pilgrimage than I thought it would be. And a lot of that was because of Fr. [Bryan] Belli. Because he knew the ins and outs of where to go. And we would have Mass, just my friend Susie and I and Father, in these beautiful chapels and side altars, and things that we could never do on our own.
The conference itself blew me away, just being around thousands of believers like that who’ve been touched by the Divine Mercy message. It’s amazing just to think that we’re just a fraction of the people who’ve been touched who were able to go.
MF: You told me a little bit before you left about what you were hoping to get out of it — to come back with some tools to get the Divine Mercy message more “on fire” in the parish.
MF: So, did you get what you went for?
CB: I did. And, you know, it’s interesting because I didn’t necessarily get it from the conference itself. It’s not like I came home with materials. However, just networking with all these other people from different countries is how I’m filled with ideas.
MF: Isn’t that great!
CB: Yeah. This one priest, Fr. Levi from Nigeria, he was telling me how he spread Divine Mercy in his parish in 2000. He said, once a month they do Divine Mercy and they pull it into a Mass, and they also pray over petitions from everybody in the Church.
And they go from parish to parish, and blessing them. That’s the first thing I want to get going here in northern Virginia because there are churches all over the place, but I feel disconnected from other churches. So this would be a great way to see who else is praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet and we can kind of feel like you’re part of a bigger movement. That was one on the greatest things I got out of going to this conference. Because sitting here, you know, in my little bubble of the world here, I didn’t realize how many people are affected. Then you go and see thousands and thousands and you want to come back and really share that and find out how many of us are doing that same thing and you don’t even realize they’re right next door.
MF: Yeah. If you can connect yourselves, make like a necklace.
MF: I heard from another Congress attendee that the high point of the five-day Congress was being able to talk with people from all over who have been touched by The Divine Mercy.
CB: There’s no doubt. The solidarity of all the different countries, too, was interesting. For example, the Philippines had a huge contingent. I don’t know how many hundreds of people came. But they were so joyful. I was thinking, “This is one of the poorest countries around.” They have nothing but God and they show up, joyful as can be. They’re all in matching outfits … someone’s carrying Blessed Mother on their shoulder, they’re singing. Oh my gosh! Those things just blew me away.
MF: (Laughing) You’re making me wish I was there!
CB: I wish you were. Well, they’re saying that next year it might be here in D.C. [Editor’s note: Plans are being firmed up for the U.S. Congress on Mercy in the fall of 2009 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, D.C.]
MF: Right. They’re going to do regional congresses … and then in different parts of the world. And there will be breakouts on an even smaller level, in particular dioceses across the country. And did you hear the news that there will be another Congress, at least two more, World Congresses?
CB: Yes, and Dziwisz [Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz. Archbishop of Kraków, Poland] did invite everyone. He said he would have it in Poland, and everyone just about came out of their chair, they were so excited!
MF: And then they’re talking about the third one being in Lithuania, in Vilnius.
CB: Oh, wow! Wow.
MF: So, what surprised you the most?
CB: Honestly, one of the things surprised me the most was on Wednesday when they were going to have Mass with Pope Benedict, celebrating Pope John Paul’s third anniversary, right? We were all thinking, “Oh my gosh, we’ll have to get there two hours before it starts just to get a decent spot.” I never dreamed we would show up — we have our World Congress on Mercy lanyard — and they escorted us right to the front section, we have seats. A perfect view of the Pope. He drove right by. I was six feet from him. And I knew right there and then, this is a major priority for Pope Benedict because he made this whole group a priority. That was a shock to me. I mean, I never dreamt that we would be treated that way. That made a big statement. Everybody that signed up for the Congress had special seating. And I was just amazed.
MF: So it was very well run?
CB: Yes. It was very well run. You showed up, you knew where to go. They treated us very, very well. They had beautiful presentations in the Piazza Navonna, three nights. They would have Adoration in St. Agnes Church until midnight, and I remember looking at the schedule and thinking, “Well, I’ll never last, I’ll never make it till midnight.” But honestly, at midnight, we were the last ones there because you just hated to leave. It was so beautiful there. And singing, they had choirs singing and candles lit and people laying prostrate in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It was something that I’d never experienced before and I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
MF: Had you been to Rome before?
CB: Yes. I’ve been to Rome before, three years ago for my tenth wedding anniversary. But my husband and I, we went to the Vatican, we lucked out, there was Mass there. But we didn’t know how to get around like with Fr. Belli. We must have seen 20 churches. Just amazing.
MF: Did you go to the Church of the Holy Spirit?
MF: I went there. A year ago Christmas I was in Rome for an eight-hour layover, not very long at all. I was with a girl who had studied in Rome for years and so she knew her way around. It makes such a difference. We went into the Church of the Holy Spirit for Christmas Mass. At the time, I didn’t know much about St. Faustina and The Divine Mercy. I’d seen the image before, but, like with most people, it was just this thing that Catholics do, you know? And I’m regretting it now because apparently the image that is hanging in that Church is the one that John Paul II dedicated for veneration in Rome. I have a vague memory of it off to the right and a little altar with the image. And everyone coming back from Communion would kneel down in front of it briefly. I guess I’ll just have to go back.
CB: The Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, have you heard of that?
CB: You know, Saints Constantine and Helen? They had dirt from Jerusalem brought over to Rome and they built the Church on top of it so they say it’s the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and it’s got relics, it’s got thorns from Jesus’ crown of thorns, one of the nails that went trough his hand, and it’s got part of the cross.
MF: Wow. Oh my goodness. That’s got to be powerful.
CB: It was. It was almost too much for me. At first I felt unworthy like this is holier than me, but after a few days I was, by the grace of God, I was able to just soak it all up.
MF: I have a tough question for you. It may not even be answerable. What was your favorite part?
CB: (Pause) Um. I think my favorite part was hearing Immaculee [Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide]. That was my favorite part. It is hard to answer that. I wrote down a list of favorites here, and I’m looking at it. That and Adoration at St. Agnes honestly, that was so powerful. But Immaculee — hearing a testimony of mercy from someone who could be a living saint, this woman. Her face glowed! She spoke for an hour and we were all on the edge of our seats. I was looking around people to my left and my right. Everyone’s mouth was just hanging open. And we couldn’t believe the story of this journey that took her from fear to hate to love and forgiveness and it’s just … Ugh!
MF: (Relays story about Immaculee’s documentaries)
CB: I have not cried that much over the last week than I have in years! It was so emotional.
Another sweet thing that I will never forget as long as I live was, after we were seated outdoors for the Mass with the Pope. He was walking in, this was the procession, I could hear all these people yelling, “Papa! Papa!” And I almost lost it then. It was such an intimate, tender thing and they’re just calling to him — people from all different walks of life — Papa! Papa! Then I realized this is where I am. This is real. I’m actually in the presence of His Holiness, surrounded by believers. It was just a great way to kick it off.
MF: A little taste of heaven.
CB: It was a little taste of heaven. That’s a great way to say it. It was a real taste. I’ll never forget that.
There were children, on Sunday, the last day, that went to the Mass with Cardinal Schönborn. The Pope leans out his residence window and recited the Regina Caeli. We’re trying to — we’re a herd of people — trying to get out the door. We’re runnin’ out there and runnin’ out there, and we missed him. We could hear his voice, but we couldn’t see him. So he was already gone by the time we managed to get out. And the Cenacolo group, you know the reformed drug addicts — an incredible group — they’re, let’s say, a hundred of them standing there and they start chanting, “Benedicto,” and they’ve got the drums, and they’re like “bum, bum, bum, bum, Benedicto!” And then suddenly everyone is yelling, “Benedicto!” And we all have our hands up. We were just hoping he might come back out. He didn’t, but it was so cute. It was, again, a great way to end it. It was so hard to say goodbye to everybody.
MF: It sounds wonderful! Did any part of it disappoint you?
CB: Gosh. No. Really the only thing that disappointed me was my small cup. Because I just, like I said, I grew every day. I tried to increase my cup every day because there was so much.
MF: Looking forward, what do you see for yourself, your parish for the Church as a whole?
CB: For myself it strengthened my faith. It’s like, I was hungry before I left and now I’m full. (Laugh) I’m full. I come back, and I’m full. So now I feel like I can feed other people around me. This was my faith. I know they can sense it. I could see it yesterday when I was talking to everybody. But, immediately, what I want to do is start that parish-wide Divine Mercy Chaplet, going from parish to parish, and also a program in the school. I got this idea from somebody else to just have parents or families sign up so that we’d have a novena of the Divine Mercy Chaplet said from the first day of school until the last. So everyone just takes a nine-day stretch, and you’d sign up. I heard that and I thought. “Oh, that’s so doable.” I can see that.
MF: How many children do you have?
CB: 225 in Our Lady of Hope School. My children go there. My children are 9 and 11.
I also bought tons of the Divine Mercy rosaries. This one that we found has half of the beads are red and half are pale, to represent the rays [on the image of The Divine Mercy]. And then the little medal, there’s a beautiful picture of Jesus, the Vilnius image, and the other side is St. Faustina. They’re beautiful, so I bought 15 of those. So I’ve been handing them out to people who I think would love them.
My daughter had the idea we should send the rosaries to friends and family along with the CD that comes out of Eden Hill, because when you sing the chaplet like that it just penetrates your heart, your mind, your soul. It’s different if you just hand someone the card with the instructions on how to say it. But if you actually send the CD, you can’t get it out of your head.
MF: I’ve heard so many stories of people really just being transformed by hearing it.
CB: Yes! There was a little girl that I used to — we say it every day after school and I invite the school kids and parents at pick-up. And I used to go into the aftercare program because they’re just sitting there doing homework and have snacks, and I’d say, “Hey, who wants to come sing the Divine Mercy?” And the little kids would follow. And there was one time I ran into a mother at soccer practice. She said, “My daughter told me that you’ve been bringing her in to say the Chaplet. I wanted you to know that every night when I go to put her down for bed she starts to sing it.” I said, “Really?” Because this little girl stopped going after a while. But she said — her name is Molly — and she said, “Yeah, Molly sings it every night before she goes to sleep.” I was just blown away. It affects you that way.
MF: What about your companions? You went with your pastor?
CB: He’s our Parochial Vicar. His name is Fr. Bryan Belli.
MF: And who else was with you?
CB: Another parishoner who is also my next-door neighbor, Suzanne Gauthier.
MF: So how was it for them?
CB: Oh they loved it. I know Suzie feels the same way I do. She just kept saying, “Chelie we’re part of a movement! We’re part of a movement. It’s gonna change the world!” She was really pumped up. And Fr. Belli, he loved it. He was so looking forward to it.
MF: And you said he’d spent some time in Rome?
CB: He’d been there a bunch of times, so he knew the ins and outs. And, boy, when you’re with a priest, doors just open left and right. And everyone’s yelling, “Padre,” and bringing you free drinks and whatever. They just treat you differently.
MF: Isn’t that great. I like that.
CB: It is great. Yeah.
MF: What would you want to say to other Marian Helpers? What would you want to tell them?
CB: Hmmm. I would want to, I would just want to express that this is a critical movement in our Church. And we have to explore Divine Mercy. We have to accept Jesus’ mercy and we have to be merciful to others. We’ve got to be instruments of change. We’ve got to go out and spread this message. This is our calling. We’re all called to do this. You know, we’re all benefiting from Jesus’ mercy. And we’ve just got to help in this movement.
CB: And that you are part of something really big and you don’t even realize it. This is bigger than we think. And that we all have these talents … we can’t just keep this to ourselves. We’ve got to get out there and get the word out.