By Jay Nies
A week before the 100th anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s first apparition to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, about 60 pilgrims gathered in Laurie to learn about what she promised and do what she suggested.
They prayed the Rosary together in reparation for the many sins of humanity against Mary’s Immaculate Heart and the Sacred Heart of her Son, Jesus.
Then, nearly every pilgrim in St. Patrick Church came forth to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
“Mary calls us to receive the sacraments regularly, reminding us that the gift her Son came to give is salvation through the forgiveness of our sins,” said Deacon Patrick O’Toole of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.
“We will not be forced to accept this gift,” he added. “We must freely choose it.”
Deacon O’Toole, director of the Villa Maria Catholic Life Center in Springfield, led this month’s Second Saturday pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Mary, Mother of the Church.
Deacon O’Toole regularly speaks at conferences, parish missions and retreats throughout the Midwest.
His teaching, preaching and faith-sharing have inspired countless numbers to deepen their walk with the Lord.
“We’re talking a lot about Mary these days,” said Deacon O’Toole, “because she has appeared so many times to so many people. But she’s always saying the same thing, and it’s consistent with what we’ve known for 2,000 years.”
It’s a message about how to get to heaven and lead as many people there as possible.
“It begins with obedience, it’s lived through prayer, and that prayer leads us to sacrifice for our own good and for the good of those we love,” he said.
Prayer, fasting and self-denial — “it’s such a simple process,’” Deacon O’Toole noted. “Now, that’s not to say that it’s by any means easy, but it is simple, and the message is pretty much the same no matter who’s giving it.”
Our Lady’s reminders find validation in the Sacred Scriptures, from the very beginning.
“In Genesis, God commands us to be fruitful and multiply, to keep holy the Sabbath, to make a suitable sacrifice,” Deacon O’Toole noted. “So prayer, fasting and self-denial run their course through everything, right up to and through the teachings of Jesus.
“It’s the antidote to everything Satan is trying to sell to us,” the deacon continued. “It’s simple, but we have an enemy trying to make it seem hard. He’s trying to steal as much as he can before his time runs out.”
Call to prayer, repentance
The entire Church has been noting the centennial of Our Lady of Fatima.
On May 13, 1917, following several visits by angels, the Blessed Mother began appearing monthly to three shepherd children in Portugal.
The apparitions, accompanied by signs and wonders, continued until Oct. 13, 1917, coinciding with the apocalyptic terror of World War I, and later were declared worthy of belief by the Church.
The Blessed Mother urged the children to pray the Rosary daily, offer up acts of self-denial in reparation for the sins and indifference of the world, and to maintain special devotion to her Immaculate Heart.
“Repenting from our sins opens us up to God and transforms our lives and the lives of those around us, most especially those whom God has entrusted to our care, who see the witness of our daily lives,” Deacon O’Toole noted.
“The Book of Revelation tells us we have to distance ourselves from the culture,” he said. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed and perhaps experienced within your own families, we all share in the consequences of the sinful choices of our culture.”
Sin is everywhere, but God has created a way for justice to be served “without me having to pay the consequences,” Deacon O’Toole stated.
“I must confess my sins and make reparation for them by amending my life so I can make the most of His grace,” he said. “I must come to the Lord in humility and repentance so that I may receive the gift that Jesus gave His life for.”
At the end of Deacon O’Toole’s morning talk, Father John Schmitz, pastor of the Laurie and Versailles parishes and spiritual director of the National Shrine of Mary, Mother of the Church, made himself available for reconciliation, along with priests from three neighboring parishes.
“This is an awesome gift given to us in Christ in the Church,” said Fr. Schmitz. “It is here that we meet Christ and receive His forgiveness and are filled with the grace that allows us to go forth and sin no more.”
Trusting and believing
The church sanctuary overflowed with reminders of Easter and the Blessed Mother as the pilgrims sang “Our Lady of Fatima” at the beginning of Mass.
Sunlight filtered through a radiant blue sky and the intense green of the shuffling leaves outside.
Fr. Schmitz suggested to the people that their presence on this pilgrimage was likely more God’s doing than their own.
“Because it is actually God Who plans for us to be here, we always tend to walk away with more than we anticipate to receive,” the priest noted.
He asserted that the prayerful, willing and open hearts of the three children at Fatima allowed them to receive the message of Christ through the Blessed Mother — “their mother, our mother, the mother of Our Lord and Savior.”
“They were willing to believe God could allow Mary to appear to them, that God would speak to them through Mary,” he said. “And their hearts grew stronger, and they were able to endure much ridicule, many challenges, because they had been filled with that unique gift of God’s love and the love of our Blessed Mother.”
Fr. Schmitz noted that it’s often a struggle to maintain such childlike openness and wonder into adulthood.
“But today you come to relax and open that heart and mind and soul again,” he said. “You’ve come to say to God, ‘How can I know You even more today? Touch my heart and my mind and my soul today to trust to and to believe.’
“We are challenged at times to accept so many wondrous things!” the priest said. “Let us rejoice all that the Lord has given to us and the gifts of our Blessed Mother, as we honor her today and ask for her intercession for all we need.”
He urged the pilgrims, who came from many places, to get to know each other, “to support each other and learn about each other’s journey and hopes.”
“Our blessed mother showers her care constantly upon us and directs us to her son and her savior, which is our bother and savior,” he said.
After the pilgrimage Deacon O’Toole said he was impressed to visit St. Patrick Church and the National Shrine of Mary, Mother of the Church, located on the parish grounds.
He was particularly amazed to see the names of so many mothers engraved on the Mother’s Wall of Life, and the relics of many saints reserved for veneration in the church.
He was also pleased at the pilgrims’ openness and attentiveness.
One pilgrim told him at lunch that the message convinced him to go to confession and “open up some doors I had not opened up in a long time.”
“It was God, not me, Who was speaking to you today,” Deacon O’Toole told the man. “He just had me up in front of the crowd today.”
Nonetheless, he was moved by the man’s experience.
“Every now and then, someone says something that makes you believe that was the reason you’re here today,” he said.
Additional pilgrimages to the shrine will be held on: June 3, July 1, (9 a.m. Mass and Rosary only), Aug. 5, Sept. 2 and Oct. 7.
Advance registration is necessary to plan for the number of pilgrims. Call Rose Vanderbeck at (573) 374-MARY (6279).