Even though the Feast of the Epiphany is behind us, it’s helpful to learn of a little-known story about a department store in a suburban area that carried lawn ornaments in the form of statues of Christmas manger figures.
Shoppers could buy figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, and the Magi. The figures were bought separately, and people had a choice as to which figures they wanted. All Catholics know that among the magi figures in our Christmas scenes are typically two white men, and one black. This represents the teaching that Christ came to redeem people of all races and religions.
One year at this store, shoppers late in the season found a collection of magi – but they were all black, huddled together – there were no white magi available. What a surprise it must have been to both shoppers and the store personnel to find a group of lonely black magi standing all alone! They must have concluded that people in this neighborhood apparently felt comfortable having only one race of wise men represented in front of their homes.
This story shows that each of us wants a comfort level in our lives as to how we see others, and how we live out our faith. But we have to challenge ourselves.
Of the Magi, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. (CCC 528)
If you are like me, a mom who has raised children, you might have looked out among others in your parish and neighborhood and wondered whether our children have been deprived of knowing the customs and experiences of other peoples. If they did, maybe they would appreciate what they have!
What better guide do we have of understanding and learning about other cultures as the Catholic Church! The word catholic in fact, means universal. We might find ourselves shunning people of other races and religions, but Jesus Christ came to redeem all of us.
When a missionary priest takes to the pulpit at our Sunday Masses asking for donations, he may have spent much of his life sleeping on a straw mat, or helping his flock cope with poverty, natural disasters, or persecutions from other religions. These are experiences that spiritually join them to us.
How we could benefit from hearing from a member of a worldwide religious order.
I’ve asked Fr. Daniel Bowen, the vocation director of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, to provide insights into what it means to be a Catholic in other countries, as well in our own United States. His order is worldwide, and their friars here in the U.S. are based in Philadelphia.
To take one example, this order, also known as the Order of Mercy, has served in parishes in India for many years.
What is the biggest difference between life as a Catholic here in America, and in India?
That’s a tough question to answer. First of all, there is the very obvious difference in the standard of living. To put it simply, they get by with much less than we do. Secondly, Catholics in India take their faith rather seriously — and yet joyfully. That may be because in certain parts of India there is the constant threat of persecution, whether from Hindus or Muslims. Sometimes it’s very subtle, such as being careful of what you say in public. And other times it’s outright violent. As a result, the faith of Christians in countries such as India plays a crucial part in their lives, and yet they trust in the Lord through the difficulties.
I understand that the Mercedarian Friars will soon be serving in Puerto Rico and Florida. Tell me about that.
Sure. Our province has been asked to staff two parishes in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Order of Mercy — under another province — has been on the island for two hundred years, so it’s a case of one hand washing the other, so to speak. The other assignment is to two small rural parishes in the Jacksonville, FL diocese, and a chaplaincy to the state penitentiary and the state mental hospital. As you may know, the charism of the Order of Mercy is to redeem those whose faith is in danger. That’s why we minister to those in prison and hospitals. We also take a special fourth vow to give up our own selves for others whose faith is in danger.
I’ve heard that there has been some new energy in the Order of Mercy. Tell me more.
You’re right: We’ve done some serious soul-searching over the past few years and have started afresh, in a way. Like any religious order, we must be faithful to our original charism. And now, the Holy Spirit seems to be moving us in new directions. The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy was founded in 1218 in Spain by St. Peter Nolasco, and is an international community of priests and brothers who live a life of prayer and communal fraternity. In those days, St. Peter led a movement to rescue Christians whose faith was in danger after being captured by Muslim pirates. So today, we rescue those whose faith is in danger of being lost.
Not many people here in the U.S. know about the Order of Mercy. Tell me more.
The Mercedarians are well known in other parts of the world, such as Latin America and Spain. However, our origins here are fairly recent and that’s why we are largely unknown. Mercedarian Friars came from Italy to Ohio to minister to the newly-arrived Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. We are still there, and now serve in the dioceses of Cleveland, OH; Buffalo, NY; Philadelphia, PA; and St. Petersburg, FL. (See Diocese of Buffalo article, “Mercedarian Friars Celebrate 800th Year.”) There are presently 24 of our friars here in the U.S.
Didn’t your order start a marriage ministry recently?
Yes. In 2016 we started the St. Raymond Nonnatus Foundation for Freedom, Family and Faith. The goal of the group is to promote family life according to Catholic moral principles, under the patronage of St. Raymond Nonnatus, another Mercedarian saint. It ministers to the divorced and separated.
Where do you send your men to become formed as friars, and study to be brothers or priests?
We will no longer be sending men to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, but they will be going to Europe for most of their formation. They will initially live in Philadelphia as postulants learning Spanish, spend their novitiate in Spain, and then study at the University of Salamanca, in Spain. Friars headed for the priesthood will study theology in Rome.
Thank you, Fr. Daniel, for opening our minds to the universality of the Catholic Church!
For more information about the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, go to OrderofMercy.org.
Copyright 2019 Kevin J. Banet
About the author: Kevin J. Banet is a journalist and publicist, with more experience than he can count working for Catholic religious communities and non-profits. He worked for years for family-based organizations, and then really got his eyes opened when he got married and became the father of two children. He and his family live in the Chicago area. His website is VocationPromotion.com.