By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Devotion to Mary is often thought of as being a woman’s thing, said organizers of an event honoring the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions. But, testimonies from a bishop, a priest and two lay men at St. Mary Parish in Iowa City on July 13 showed otherwise.
“They also have a special affection for Our Mother,” said Meliza Wise, one of the event’s organizers.
The event, Men’s Devotion to Mary, was the third of six monthly Fatima events occurring in the Iowa City Deanery this year. The events take place on the 13th of the month from May through October, as did the apparitions to the three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.
Men, women, children and a group of diocesan seminarians filled the church for the evening program. The congregation listened with rapt attention as the four men expressed the ways in which Mary has touched their lives.
After the congregation prayed the rosary, Bishop Thomas Zinkula stepped forward to greet the crowd — or so they thought. Unbeknownst to the organizers, he, too, had a story to tell.
He spoke of his parents’ devotion to Mary through praying the rosary and how, as a child, he tried to hide the joy he found in praying the rosary with them. He didn’t want to give his parents the satisfaction, he joked. “In all seriousness, praying the rosary as a family touched my heart.” When he got older he began to pray the rosary on his own, as well, often while walking along the creek and pastures of the family farm. “Those were some special memories, just being out there on the farm, with nature, praying the rosary.”
He then took the congregation to India, recounting his time spent there on sabbatical. One day, while praying the rosary along a canal, he slipped and was taken in by the heavy current. “I couldn’t get out; I had nothing to hold on to.” In a place where the canal narrowed, a man — unknown to the future bishop — helped him to safety. “Maybe Mary intercessed in that situation so I could be your bishop,” he suggested with a lighthearted smile.
The next speaker was Father Jeffry Belger, who serves at St. Mary’s, the Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa and as part-time vocations director for the Diocese of Davenport. He spoke of a strange experience he had at the YMCA – his place of employment in young adulthood — while his then-girlfriend was away on retreat. After singing and praying about the relationship in an empty gym, he began to sense the essence of fresh-cut roses coming from the gym closet. He was confused. “The only smell that comes from that closet is sweat!” he recalled thinking. Upon his girlfriend’s return, she informed him that she, too, had smelled roses on that date and time and that the phenomenon has often been associated with the presence of Mary. That fragrance was accompanied, on her part, with a strong belief that her boyfriend had a calling to the priesthood. “Then came the ‘let’s just be friends,”’ speech, Fr. Belger said. Although it wasn’t what he wanted to hear at the time, the future priest eventually came to realize his call to a vocation to the priesthood. He continues to feel the “great joy” of Mary’s intercession in his life. In addition, “Mary, to me, has been a great comfort in times of distress.” He finished his testimony by singing a song of praise.
Next, University of Iowa graduate student Jacob Poliskey, a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City, shared his devotion to the Blessed Mother. He was introduced by his wife of one year, Ellen, who carried the couple’s infant son, Gabriel, in her arms. “I don’t know Jacob’s favorite food, because he says he likes everything I makes,” she quipped, “but I know his favorite prayer is the rosary!”
Jacob said he prays 20 decades a day – a streak he has maintained for about five years now. For him, it’s a generational devotion – his grandmother prays 45 decades daily – and also a “childlike” devotion. “(Mary) has all these wonderful titles, but she’s my mama! That’s what I call her.” He noted that the rosary helps him feel closer to God. “Jesus is in every word I say,” he said.
He encouraged the congregation to make the rosary a priority. “I’ve got a 3-month-old,” he said with a laugh. “If I can do it, you can do it!”
Dean Jesse, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, spoke last. He grew up in the Missouri Synod Lutheran church and went to Mass with his wife, Maggie, for 30 years before he made the decision to convert. While coming into full communion with the church was meaningful for Dean, he said it also had a powerful effect on his wife. “She began to see (the faith) through new eyes. It refreshed her appreciation for Our Mother,” he said. Dean enjoys praying the rosary with Maggie, his “best friend.” As for his own devotion, he finds solace in the idea that Mary is willing to pray for those who ask. “It is comforting to know that someone is speaking on our behalf.”
After the testimonies, the congregation headed to the lower-level hall to enjoy refreshments and reflect on the testimonies. Mila Grady, a St. Wenceslaus parishioner, said she loved the uniqueness of each man’s experience. “Everyone’s story touched me,” she said. Mary “brings us closer to her son; that’s her main role. People showed that in different ways tonight.”
Ann Elsbecker, a member of the Coralville parish, has attended all of the Fatima events so far, including the May Crowning at St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City and Stations of the Cross at St. Wenceslaus. She said the Fatima events have helped her to “understand what Mary’s trying to tell us: to be faithful.”
About the Fatima events
The idea to host six Fatima events, each on the 13th of the month, began with a small group at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville. Then pastor Father Stephen Page suggested making it a deanery-wide effort, with parishes rotating hosting duties. Admission to the events is a free-will donation to Mary’s Meals; one of the organizers, Meliza Wise, said guests have donated $700 through the first three events.