Time of Mercy
To understand the history of the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy, it’s best to consider the time in which we live. Specifically, according to St. John Paul II, now is the time of mercy.
So let’s start there.
In this time of mercy, in this moment in the life of the Church, God is giving great and extraordinary grace. Why? Because we need it: “Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20).
And so what’s the most important grace in this time of great grace? It’s that the Lord is making it, in a certain sense, easier than ever before to become great saints. Really? Easier than ever?
Well, consider this: In this time of mercy, God has raised up certain holy men and women who are helping the Church to delve more deeply into the riches of his Word. As instruments of Sacred Tradition, these saints are teaching us what has been hidden from the wise and the learned but revealed to the childlike (see Lk 10:21). Specifically, through prophet-saints such as Thérèse of Lisieux and Faustina Kowalska, God is showing us that his mercy and goodness are much greater than we imagine. As the Lord himself put it to St. Faustina: “My daughter, do you think you have written enough about My mercy? What you have written is but a drop in the ocean” (1273).
Thankfully, Faustina kept writing, and in the process, she provided the world with both a deeper appreciation for the goodness and mercy of God as well as a blueprint that makes holiness relatively “easy” to achieve today. How so? Well, consider three points: First, holiness is our response to accepting God’s radical love for us: “We love, because God first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). Second, in this time of mercy, the prophetic witness of these modern saints provides deep insight into the tenderness of God’s mercy. Third, our discovery of God’s mercy — our experience of it — through saintly witness makes it easier to understand, accept, and trust Divine Mercy and then to share that mercy with others, a process that we can rightly and confidently define as “holiness.”
In short, it’s easier than ever to become a saint, because the saints of the time of mercy help us more than ever to believe in God’s love for us, which is the foundation of our own sanctity.
In light of the previous section, it’s not surprising to learn that the prophetic saints who reveal the great tenderness and mercy of God in our time are the true founders of the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy. Indeed, they provide its fundamental inspiration and core spirituality. The main ones are as follows: Saints John Paul II, Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina Kowalska, Mother Teresa, and Maximilian Kolbe. (To read more about these major patrons, and also the minor ones, click here.)
Now, the spiritualities of the saints sometimes take on concrete and communal forms, such as religious congregations or ecclesial movements. And so, while the true founders of the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy are the aforementioned saints, there are also founders of the Marian Missionaries as an institution. Three such institutional founders, Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, Eric Mahl, and Mark Middendorf, have relevant stories to share that provide the main history of the institutional founding of the Marian Missionaries. That history will be of use to those who seek to embrace the spirituality of its saint-founders.
Father Mike’s Story
It was Pentecost Sunday in the year of the Holy Spirit, 1998. I’d gone to Rome on a pilgrimage to celebrate with the largest gathering of the “new ecclesial movements” in the history of the Catholic Church.
These movements, according to Pope John Paul II, are “among the most significant fruits” of a new springtime foretold by the Second Vatican Council. Specifically, they’re a response to the “universal call to holiness” made by the Council and offered to laypeople, an invitation to follow Christ more radically (without having to join a seminary or enter a convent). They’re groups like Focolare, Opus Dei, or the Neocatechumenal Way.
Now, when I flew to Rome for the big celebration, I wasn’t part of an ecclesial movement. Rather, I was just a poor college student who’d seen a poster in my dorm advertising a pilgrimage to Italy that was ridiculously cheap. A bunch of my friends were going, so I thought to myself, “Why not?”
I thank God I went. Here’s why.
The highlight of the trip was the Pentecost Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square. On the way there, I was informed that I and several others in our pilgrimage group had “won the lottery.” In other words, we’d been chosen to sit right near the main altar for Pentecost Sunday Mass with the Pope.
Now, of course, I was blown away. Pope John Paul II was my hero, and I couldn’t have been more excited — or so I thought.
After our arrival at the Square, my excitement grew as Swiss Guards ushered us past a massive crowd and right up to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. As we ascended those steps and filed into our section, one can well imagine my shock as I discovered that my seat was actually the closest one to the altar!
So, there I was on Pentecost Sunday morning in the Year of the Holy Spirit sitting right next to the main altar for a huge outdoor Mass with Pope John Paul II.
The day was sunny and clear. The Pope wore a blazing red chasuble with gold and flames. In his homily, he recalled the “unforgettable, festive gathering” of the previous evening where, in that same Square, “we experienced the atmosphere of Pentecost.” That powerful atmosphere returned as the Holy Father concluded his words with a prayerful cry to the Holy Spirit: “Veni, Sante Spiritus! … Veni, Sancte Spiritus! … Veni, Sancte Spiritus!”
With that prayer, the Holy Spirit seemed to come down.
And I didn’t want him to leave.
In fact, I didn’t want that Mass to end — and neither did those around me.
I say that because, after the final blessing, as the Pope passed our section, we suddenly erupted with an extremely loud chant.
Hearing such a ruckus, the Pope stopped, turned in our direction, and reached out his hand.
With that, everybody went crazy. Except for me.
I was in shock, because at that moment, it seemed that the Pope was looking right at me and that his outstretched hand was almost pointing to me.
In response, I put my hand on my heart, as if to ask, “Me?” (See rotating photo above.)
To my utter amazement, the Pope then made a gesture with his finger, beckoning us, beckoning me, to follow him!
Of course, everyone went wild — but I just stood there in shock.
Looking back, I think I know why.
In that moment on Pentecost Sunday, I believe the Holy Spirit was inviting me to join an ecclesial movement not yet born, an ecclesial movement inspired by St. John Paul II himself, an ecclesial movement called the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy.
But was it really inspired by the Pope?
Yes. However, as we learned in the last section, it actually has several saintly founders. And one thing they all have in common is that each one powerfully testifies that God is love and mercy itself.
Now, I for one, really needed to hear their testimony.
I say that because, from the time I was a little kid, I’ve had a very difficult time believing that I am lovable — not only to others but also to God. This difficulty persisted even after I’d entered the seminary. In fact, in some ways, it got worse. For instance, for my first several years in seminary formation, I painfully struggled with scrupulosity, rigidity, and a fear-based spirituality that often made me depressed. I harbored a false image of God as a harsh task-master whose love I had to earn, and as a result, I was very hard both on myself and on others.
Thanks be to God, during my 30-day Ignatian Retreat, which was part of my seminary formation, the Lord had amazing mercy on me. He manifested himself to me in an extremely personal, gentle, and tender way. In fact, his gentleness seemed too good to be true, especially because it was so different in tone from what I’d experienced from so many of the fervent Catholics I knew. Perhaps knowing this, during each one of my subsequent eight-day Ignatian retreats over the years, the Lord continued to manifest an incredible tenderness toward me. While those retreats brought tremendous healing to my broken soul, the image of such a tender God that I encountered during those days of prayer was still hard for me to accept. Why? Because I’d not really befriended anyone else who seemed to have experienced the Lord in that way. Of course, two of my favorite saints, Thérèse of Lisieux and Faustina Kowalska, had surely experienced the Lord in that way. However, I only knew them through their writings and not “in the flesh.” But I needed such an in-the-flesh witness. I needed to meet someone else who had “seen the Lord” as I had, someone who could give me the courage to accept such a tender image of God and to more confidently bear witness to him as love and mercy itself.
Well, the Lord sent me such a person in a guy named Eric Mahl. Now, because it’s my task to write the text for this website — and because I know he would prefer not to write about himself — with Eric’s permission, I’ll share his story in what follows.
Most people are impressed that Eric Mahl played professional football, that he gave it all up, and that he chose to live on the streets with the homeless — and that really is impressive. But why did he do it? The answer is actually what most impresses me about Eric’s story.
I suggest he did it because he had a profound experience of the incredible tenderness of the Lord’s merciful love, which is greater than anything in this world.
Now, Eric has never fully shared with me his experience of encountering the Lord’s tender mercy — and he doesn’t need to. I say that because, shortly after meeting him, I knew that he had “seen the Lord” as I had, and that made all the difference.
Let me explain.
After he had left the NFL but before he chose to live on the streets with the homeless, Eric spent three years doing manual labor as a member of a monastic community in Texas. At the end of those three years, he heard the following words in his heart while praying:
I want you to bring Divine Mercy to the poor. Now go to the National Shrine of Divine Mercy and present yourself to Fr. Joseph.
Shortly after hearing those words, with the blessing of his superior, Eric came out to our Shrine in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and asked for “Fr. Joseph.”
“Oh, you mean Fr. Michael,” someone told him.
“No, I mean Fr. Joseph,” Eric replied.
“Look, Fr. Michael is ‘Fr. Joseph.’ It’s the honorary title for the job he does at the office.”
With that clarification, Eric came to my office and told me his story of what he felt the Lord had spoken to his heart. I was ashamed to tell him that although we were the National Shrine of Divine Mercy, we didn’t have an outreach to the poor — but I knew some communities that did. After recommending those communities to him, I gave him a blessing, and he left.
Eric visited the communities I recommended, but they weren’t a good fit. So, to be faithful to his call, he went back to Cleveland near where he was from and chose to live on the streets with the homeless.
Later, I said, “Oh, you want to help the poor.”
Eric responded, “No. I want to love them.”
And that’s what Eric did. He loved them by becoming one of them for a whole year. At the end of the year, he felt the Lord tell him, “Go back to the National Shrine of Divine Mercy and present yourself to Fr. Joseph again.”
Eric obeyed, and just about 10 minutes before he showed up at my office again, I had been praying, asking the Lord to send me someone to help with something very dear to my heart. Let me explain.
I had just started a manufacturing operation for low-priced Divine Mercy Images. To make it work, I had to rely on volunteer labor, which fell through at the last minute. So, that morning, I was really worried because I had no help, and we’d already started marketing the images. Again, just 10 minutes after I asked the Lord to send me some help, my secretary rang me and said, “Eric Mahl is here to see you.”
I responded, “Send him in!”
When Eric came into my office, he said, “Fr. Gaitley, I know you’re very busy, and I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I just want to give you something that I got while I was living on the streets.”
As Eric spoke, I thought to myself, “Lord, is this the help you’re sending me? If so, give me a sign.”
Right after I made that prayer, Eric pulled out an old, tattered Divine Mercy Image. Well, that was my sign. I immediately told Eric I needed his help, and Eric agreed to stay on and make the Divine Mercy Images as a volunteer while I found a place for him at the Shrine residence where he lived and ate with my religious community.
So, Eric made images during the week, and then he would go visit the poor and the homeless on the weekends along with another young man named Lewis Brooks, who also started living at the Shrine and helped to make the Divine Mercy Images.
Now, Eric and Lewis’ ministry was not only to the homeless. It was also for me. Through their example and attitude, I came to accept more fully that what I’d experienced of the Lord — namely, his incredible goodness, gentleness, and mercy — was really true. It helped me to believe and trust more in the Lord’s love that I’d experienced during my retreats and about which I had written in my books. It helped convince me that the tenderness with which Jesus looks at us in the original, Vilnius Divine Mercy Image really is how the Lord looks at us, always, whenever we come to him with a contrite heart and trust in his mercy.
Now, one more experience helped to solidify this conviction, an experience that gets to the heart of the founding of the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy. I’ll share that experience now.
“We can’t talk about that. I need to tell you what happened.”
The evening before a business meeting at my office, Mark Middendorf, the founder and head of a large Catholic apostolate, had flown into town. When I handed out the agenda the next morning, his first response was that we couldn’t talk about it?
I looked at him closely. His eyes were all bloodshot, but I didn’t think he’d been drinking. He seemed serious and sincere.
“So, what happened?” I said, curious but also a little annoyed.
He proceeded to share with me an experience he’d had while praying in his room the night before. As he began, something about the way he spoke made me believe him completely, even though it was all coming from way out of left field.
He said that he had taken one of the Images of Divine Mercy I had given him the previous evening (the same ones Eric had been making) and brought it to his room. He continued, “I put it up on my nightstand, shined the light of my phone on it, turned on an audio presentation of the Gospel of John, and just kept staring at the Image all night long.” He then explained that, as he was staring at it, his heart started burning within him, and he felt that the Lord gave him the inspiration for the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy.
I asked him, “What’s that?”
I didn’t fully understand his response, but I was so convinced that the Lord touched his heart that I agreed to work with him to support it — whatever it was.
A year and a half later, Mark’s apostolate helped purchase a beautiful old inn in Lee, Massachusetts, just down the road from the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge. Less than two weeks later, that 10-bedroom building was full of fervent young men, including Eric Mahl and Lewis Brooks, who wanted to give a year or more to help the poor and the homeless in the region. Five years later, there’s now a second house for men, two houses for women, a restaurant, a farm, retreat house, and a community of about 30 people who intensely live the spirituality of the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy out of Stockbridge and Lee. (Eric and Lewis are now both married and help run the program.)
So, what is all this?
It’s a sign.
It’s a sign to a much larger group of Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy (M-1) in parishes throughout the world. It’s a sign to them, as they see those young people serving the lonely, sad, and suffering (as M-2 Guests and Helpers), that the goodness, tenderness, and compassion of God in Jesus Christ is something that’s worth sacrificing for. It’s a sign for them, as they see those young people filled with the joy of the Gospel, that Divine Mercy and Mary bring happiness and community. It’s a sign for them that the mission and spirituality of Sts. John Paul II, Faustina Kowalska, Mother Teresa, and Maximilian Kolbe are alive and well today.
But it’s also something more than a sign.
An Ecclesial Movement for the Time of Mercy
In the spirit of Vatican II, the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy is an ecclesial movement that aims to help bring vibrant, lasting, and widespread renewal to the Church through the powerful insights, teachings, and spirituality of the great Marian and Divine Mercy saints of our time.
Learn more about their spirituality here.
Learn more about their saintly patrons here.