STOCKBRIDGE -- The Most Rev. Martin D. Holley credits, in part, Divine Mercy Sunday for him becoming the auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Washington D.C.
Nine years ago, the late Pope John Paul II named Holley to the religious post shortly after the Florida priest said he had his own "personal experience" with Jesus' message of divine mercy.
During the Mercy Sunday celebration at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, Holley recalled how a painting of Jesus seemed to shine brighter on the eve of Mercy Sunday in March 2004. While the parish priest of St. Therese of Lisieux Church in Pensacola, Fla., celebrated Mass, he noticed the sun through the stained glass windows acted as a spotlight on the altar and the portrait.
"After a moment, it seemed as if the words in the Sacramentary were lifted off the page ... and the rays from the heart of the portrait of the Divine Mercy were glistening ever so bright," Holley told the thousands gathered on Eden Hill.
Holley doubts being elevated to bishop two months following the illuminating event in May 2004 was a coincidence.
"While I had already been promoting [the message of] divine mercy, my devotion would intensify because, now as bishop, the Lord was calling me to ... extend his mercy to others," he said.
Holley's homily highlighted the area's largest outdoor Catholic Mass before an unofficial estimate of 17,000 people who made the pilgrimage for the annual Divine Mercy Sunday celebration held by the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception (MIC). Divine Mercy Sunday is an international Catholic feast day observed on the Sunday after Easter, promoting Jesus' message that he's merciful to everyone and that people should trust in his mercy and lead a compassionate life.
Since the shrine opened in 1961, the local order of Marians have seen their Mercy Sunday observance grow from a Sunday-only event of a few thousand people to a three-day weekend celebration averaging between 15,000 and 20,000 on the final day.
"It's beautiful to see all the different cultures," said the shrine's rector, Rev. Kenneth Dos Santos, MIC.
Costa Rica native Nellie Arias was among the shrine's many first-time visitors on Sunday who was moved by the experience, especially the outdoor life-like Stations of the Cross. The newly installed bronze statues depicting Jesus' path to crucifixion on Good Friday are along a winding path on a grassy knoll across from the shrine.
"I'm very impressed; it's very real and a nice inspiration," said the Norwalk Conn. resident.
The shrine also has a follower in Pope Francis, according to the Rev. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, the Marians provincial superior. A year ago, Chwalek met and had a conversation with Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, before his election last month as the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
"He told me, ‘Divine Mercy is very important for us and the world,' " Chwalek recalled. "So when [Bergoglio] became the pope, the Marians were very happy."
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