FOND DU LAC — They’ve lived in an RV full time for almost three years, visiting state after state and parish after parish almost every weekend, traveling 80,000 United States miles to encourage Catholics to become holy families through music, stories and prayer.
For Michael John Poirier, his wife, Mary, their three children and dog, this life is their ministry.
Through the Holy Family Apostolate, the nonprofit corporation that Michael and Mary founded in 1995, a year after they married, the Poiriers visit churches where Mary shares her testimony about the forgiveness and healing she sought after having three abortions, and where Michael shares his conversion story, plays the guitar and sings prayers and songs, many from his 13 CDs.
“We do a family ministry,” said Mary, 46, who met Michael when she was working as a preschool director at a church in Arizona, and while he was doing a concert in the Phoenix area. “We travel as a family. It’s hard, it’s fun, it’s spontaneous, but the reason we travel as a family is so we can be together.”
Mary said the music is a tool; the focus of the ministry is the conversion of the heart of each person.
“We just want to be able to help families, encourage families, be taught by families, bring families to the Eucharist,” she said. “Our main focus is to help families, to provide them with materials – whether through music, testimony – to lead them to or back to the sacraments, Eucharist, reconciliation, vows of marriage, to be true to those vows.”
Looking, but not acting Catholic
Michael and Mary grew up in Catholic households, but had similar experiences of “going through the motions” of being Catholic. Michael knows from experience that it’s possible to look Catholic and not live the faith because he did just that until he was 25 years old.
He remembers his parents taking him, the seventh of 12 children, and his siblings to Mass each Sunday and praying the rosary together during Lent.
“I just focused on looking Catholic and looking reverent and that’s what I thought we were supposed to do,” he recalled.
At age 25, Michael got involved in the church out of pure boredom, something he now describes as part of God’s plan.
“I think he made me that way, he made me restless in the pew because he had work, he had a ministry he wanted me to be involved with and I didn’t understand that then,” Michael said.
He joined the choir, became a lector, and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, got involved in a youth group, and a young adult group, and he taught first Communion class to children in northern California.
He asked his father if the Eucharist that he was teaching the first communicants about was supposed to mean something, only to have him reply, “‘If you don’t know what the Eucharist is at this point in your life, all I can tell you is to pray and ask God,’ and I said, ‘OK, I’ll pray OK’ – that spark of humility made the difference, the whole difference right there and that little miracle is available to every single person in this room in case you’re doubting or in case you haven’t figured out what church is,” Michael said during a March presentation at Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac. “… that little spark of humility, just enough for me to say maybe my opinion isn’t exactly correct, maybe I really don’t get the full picture. That was the miracle.”
Miracle was life-changing
At that time, he went to church asking God what the Eucharist was, judging everyone at Mass, expecting Mass to be empty and then blaming the church when it was. But something happened; he started to judge less, and during the words of consecration, a tear dripped down his cheek.
“I wiped it away, I thought well I didn’t feel any emotion, I wasn’t crying … I just kind of dismissed it until the next week,” Michael said, adding that it happened again. He thought it was an eye infection, but when it continued to happen, he paid closer attention to the priest’s words and actions. A picture of the Last Supper popped into his head, not a vision, but an image of the Last Supper being played out in Mass.
At 49, Michael still can’t explain what he calls the miracle that changed his life.
“It’s a matter of life and death and people might think that’s overdramatic, but the stories that I’ve heard confirm that it is a matter of life and death for someone to just be a cultural Catholic versus someone being a Catholic from the center of their heart, and that can only happen by letting the Eucharist be that bloodless heart transplant when you receive the Eucharist every Sunday,” he said.
This concept has been a focus of the Poirier family’s ministry.
“It’s impossible for you to live out your marriage vows or your priestly vows unless you begin to mean the prayers you pray,” Michael explained. “So, don’t be surprised when scandals happen and don’t be surprised when marriages break up … if you receive the Eucharist, but you’re closed to the graces, how can you survive? You’ll starve to death.”
Family creates mini ‘holy hours’
The Poiriers have created online “Prayer Breaks,” one- to three-minute mini “holy hours.” For a small fee, people or parishes subscribe monthly to receive Prayer Breaks, small clips in the form of meditations, music and, eventually, maybe even videos that can be downloaded to phones, music players or burned to CD and shared.
The idea, born out of Michael’s desperation to provide for his family and to move away from collecting freewill offerings at adoration, started at the church level a few months ago in the form of bookmarks given to parishioners as they entered for Mass. The bookmark invites them to stay after Mass briefly to think about who and what they just received through the Eucharist. If people cannot stay, it points them to the Web site, www.prayerbreaks.com.
“Think of it. We’ve been 80,000 miles around the U.S. in a motor home, inviting 53,000 Catholics to mean the prayers they pray, to mean the vows they speak, and to mean the gestures they do when they come to Mass,” Michael said. “… If you face the truth, most of us are asleep – we’re going through the motions and that’s human nature. It doesn’t mean we’re evil, it just means it’s human nature. So, you can call Prayer Breaks a wake-up call.”
Michael said his family used to receive a large donation from a multimillionaire couple in Arizona, but he told them to stop because his family was trusting more in them than in God. Once they stopped other donations began to come in.
“If hearts are moved, then they’ll give and if they’re not, we’ll figure out something else, but I believe that we’re supposed to do this and the thing is that we’re not demanding anything of God and if we lose everything, we’re going to continue preaching the same message from a homeless shelter,” Michael said, explaining that God doesn’t need his family to have an RV, or for them to travel overseas. “… our mission really is to be a holy family.”
Drawn to military families
When the Poirier mission took them to Lourdes, France, in June, a military family at Michael’s holy hour presentation invited him to visit the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “There’s a great need in military families for evenings of reconciliation, evenings of renewal, evenings of healing,” Michael said in a follow-up phone call with your Catholic Herald. “… We feel, right now, drawn to include military families in a particular way in our outreach.”
Michael traveled to Germany to do presentations for the Military Council of Catholic Women’s conference, and for teens, parents and military families on base and at some parishes off base while Mary, Joseph, 14, John Paul, 10, and Therese, 4, stayed at home in Edmond, Okla. The family needed some time off the road – RV-schooling has stopped while the children attend St. Mary School in Guthrie, Okla.
The Poiriers are working to acquire a military contract that would allow their ministry on bases.
“After visiting (Ramstein) this October, I could see there was a great need for prayer, encouragement, healing and peace,” Michael said.
Don’t waste time ‘fitting in’
Through all of the Poirier family’s traveling, Michael said he’s taught his children the same advice he gives to the congregations they visit – they shouldn’t waste time fitting in with the mainstream culture.
“Just be your unique flavor as a family, as a Catholic family. Let your faith unfold and don’t be afraid of what God calls you as a family to do,” said Michael, adding that it probably won’t be to travel in an RV as his family does. “… but in your own neighborhoods, you become unique when you don’t follow the culture of the world and you do some things for your family or you refuse to gossip with neighbors or relatives – that sets you apart and it makes you weird but if you’re willing to endure that cross, you’re part of what God uses to change the world.”
Michael’s May 2007 diagnosis of malignant melanoma in his right eye has made his own advice even clearer to him, though his eyesight is deteriorating and he is expected to go blind in that eye.
“I still, at times, forget that I even have it,” said Michael, who will be declared cancer-free in less than six months if his lungs and liver stay clear.
Michael focuses on using his time to change the world as much as he can.
“I could get in a car accident tomorrow; nobody knows what time they have, but cancer – the people have, they’ve told me is a blessing because it makes them appreciate the time and live with more intention, like to do things to use your time to the best of your ability and I think that might be some of my intensity.”
Joe Elbow, executive director of Holy Family Apostolate, who brings his marketing and management background to the ministry, refers to Michael and Mary as regular people who visit the parishes.
“They are fully human and subject to the same types of pressure as a couple and parents as the rest of us,” he said in an e-mail interview with your Catholic Herald. “We are all trying to be better parents, better spouses, better citizens in the world and in all things, better children of God. Michael, Mary and their children live the creed as well as any family I know, and that takes a tremendous amount of effort along with constant attention.”