By David Kilby | Correspondent
God never tires of showing mercy, more than 600 men were reminded at the 21st annual Catholic Men for Jesus Christ Conference held Feb. 24 in St. Gregory the Great Church, Hamilton Square.
Empowering participants with the theme, “Age of Mercy,” the conference’s speakers included expert evangelist Ralph Martin, Bob and Maureen Digan, known as the “Miracle Couple,” and youth minister Gez Ford. Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., celebrated Mass and preached a homily focusing on Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, inspired by the words of Pope Francis.
“We are in the season of Lent. What better time than this time of penance and grace to give some thought to mercy, to ask for mercy, to show mercy: at home, within your family; at work, with your co-workers; at Church, within your parish; in the neighborhood, with the community; in life, within all you experience,” the Bishop said.
“Present here for our annual Catholic Men for Jesus Christ Conference, we are about mercy because that is what the Lord Jesus is about,” he said.
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Bishop O’Connell noted how faithful can sometimes get in their own way when trying to show others mercy. “Sometimes you can’t show mercy to others until you show it to yourself.”
“Where is mercy needed? Where is mercy found? Go back to Jesus, the face of the Father’s mercy. And be his mirror,” he said in closing.
Call to Mission
In morning and afternoon talks, Martin spoke about mercy as a call to holiness and mercy as a call to mission, respectively. He mentioned how drastically society has moved away from God in recent years, and how St. Faustina’s message of mercy came at a significant time in history.
Sister Faustina (Maria Faustyna Kowalska) was a Polish nun and mystic who came from a poor family that struggled especially during WWI. She had only a limited education when she was accepted into the Convent of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at age 20. Before her death at age 33, St. Faustina had many visions of and conversations with Jesus, which she recorded in her diary. These messages of Christ’s mercy stirred a strong devotion to “Divine Mercy,” which continues today.
Addressing the lukewarmness that is common among men practicing the faith, Martin called the men to trust Jesus completely. “Sometimes we are unwilling to let go and let God,” Martin continued. “You got to put something into it. You don’t just drift into the kingdom of God. You have to make a choice.
“We need sober words of truth to wake us up from our slumber and deception,” he continued, adding, “This is the age of mercy … the time of evangelization,” referring to the time between the first and second coming of Christ.
“The response we need to make to mercy is giving our whole life to the Lord … If any of you haven’t written a blank check to Jesus, today’s the day,” Martin declared, and the crowd burst into applause. “There’s not going to be a better time sometime in the future.”
Following Martin’s morning talk, Bob and Maureen Digan shared their own miraculous story of God’s mercy. At the age of 15, Maureen was diagnosed with lymphedema, a cancer that causes severe swelling of the limbs. Eventually, her right leg would be amputated.
Through her teen and young adult years, Maureen appeared to be happy, but when alone, often in a hospital room, she would cry. After attending Catholic school for 12 years, she pushed God out of her life, recalling that her husband, Bob, “once a Marine, always a Marine,” would often give her the strength she needed to not give up hope.
Maureen’s faith was also tested with their son, Bobby, who suffered from seizures and paralysis and was also in and out of the hospital in the first years of his life. When he was five, he fell into a five-month coma, Maureen recalled.
As time went on, Maureen’s lymphedema also worsened and doctors advised that her left leg would eventually have to be amputated, as well.
Even as Maureen’s faith grew shakier, Bob’s faith remained strong through it all. He planned a pilgrimage to Poland for his family, where he hoped and prayed his son and wife would be healed. When they arrived in Poland on March 23, 1981 – Bobby’s eighth birthday – the Digans prayed for healing at Sister Faustina’s tomb.
Maureen’s prayer was to the point. “OK, I came this far. Sister Faustina, if you’re gonna do something do it now,” she said.
While nothing spectacular happened as they prayed, Maureen recalled that she felt something happening in her leg.
When the family returned to their hotel room, she soon noticed that the swelling in her left leg had gone away, and that Bobby was showing signs of energy like never before. Maureen said her first reaction was fear. All her life she had only known disappointment, and the reality of something good like this happening was foreign to her. It scared her. Maureen asked her husband what he thought, and he replied, “Honey, God did what we came here for. He healed your leg.”
Medical records were sent to five different doctors, and all of them indicated medicine had nothing to do with the healing, Maureen recalled. The swelling has never returned.
Maureen’s miraculous healing was used as evidence in 1993 to beatify Sister Faustina, and in 2000 the nun was canonized St. Maria Faustina Kowalska by St. John Paul II who referred to her as “the great apostle of Divine Mercy in our time.”
The Digans’ son, Bobby, also received some healing at St. Faustina’s tomb. For about 10 years he was partially healed, and during that time he competed in the Special Olympics, winning gold and silver medals.
“He’s now in heaven interceding for us,” Bob Digan said. In closing, Bob challenged the Catholic men to hang onto their faith no matter what happens.
In the last talk of the conference, Gez Ford, LifeTeen youth ministry for St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, reflected on how his testimony was “really a prodigal son story with my own father and eventually coming back to my father in heaven.” Then, during a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Ford said he met “the Mother” Mary, who led him to Jesus. “That led me to the heart of the Church,” he said.
Ford, who is also the co-founder of the Tabor House and Carmel House for those recovering from drug addiction, encouraged the men to nurture, foster, and sustain one another in drawing closer to the Lord. “Walking that journey is tough and we cannot do it as solitary figures,” he said, adding that the event where Jesus is to be encountered “has to happen every day of our lives.”
Among the participants throughout the Diocese who shared comments regarding the conference was George Anthony of St. Mary Parish, Middletown.
“This day is always about renewal,” said Anthony, who helps lead the program, “That Man Is You,” in his parish, and teaches in Mater Dei Prep. “The weight of life can often be overbearing. This day is a refresher course that reminds us there is purpose and peace. Anytime you immerse yourself in God’s presence you carry that peace and renewal with you. This day reminds us that we have purpose. We’re all in this together. We’re here to talk about God and that’s refreshing.”
John Lotz, of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Burlington, said the conference has helped him remain persistent in not losing the faith. “It’s a gentle reminder to pray every day, and set time aside every day or night for God,” he said.
Nick Flordeliza, also from St. Katharine Drexel Parish, said the story shared by Bob and Maureen showed how divine intervention is a real thing. “There really was a miracle there. It’s amazing what faith can do,” Flordeliza said.
George Rose, coordinator of CMfJC, said he hopes this conference helps the participants see that mercy is the solution for everything that ails us in our society.
“When do you ever get to meet the verified miracle for a saint?” he posed.
Adriano Parga of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, said the story of Maureen’s miracle impacted him the most. “It made me want to dive into Jesus’ arms and trust in him completely.”
Father Jeff Kegley, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Middletown, noted that more participants went to confession during the 2018 conference than have during previous CMfJC conferences. “The lines [were] continuous,” he said.
Adam Johnson, a seminarian attending St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and member of St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, said “Conferences like this really open up your eyes to how loving God and Jesus are. When we see how God works, it really opens our eyes to what we’re supposed to do.” He also mentioned that for some time he was paralyzed from the waist down after surviving an accident, so he especially related to the stories shared by the Digans.
Anthony Gentile, a parishioner in St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, and also a seminarian attending St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, reminded men that it’s “a masculine thing to have mercy, to sacrifice time, energy, and even finances to learn and spread the faith. So we need to appeal to that masculinity of the faith, especially in today’s age.”
Chris Vernon, parishioner of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, said the conference has re-energized him, and has helped him “be vigilant in my faith, as strong as I can, attending Confession more often. The big take-away from today is mercy.”