Approximately 60 Catholics participated in the “Hearts Afire” program at St. Peter Parish in Kenosha to consecrate themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Based on the book, “33 Days to Morning Glory: A Do-it-yourself Retreat in Preparation for Marian Consecration,” written by Marian Fr. Michael Gaitley, the parish-based program was one of a few pilot programs in the country. IMG_8675Rosemary Moenssen, a member of St. Peter Parish, Kenosha, places a rose in a vase before Mary, during a Hearts Afire session at her parish. During the 33-day program, about 60 people consecrated themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. (Submitted photo courtesy St. Peter Parish, Kenosha)

The retreat program prescribes 33 days of spiritual reading and prayerful pondering, broken down so that participants spend seven days each on the Marian consecration teachings of St. Louis de Montfort, St. Maximillian Kolbe, Blessed Mother Teresa, and Blessed John Paul II. The final five days are for review before reciting the Prayer of Consecration.

Designed to set hearts on fire with the love of God and neighbor, and to inspire works of mercy in families, parishes and communities, Marian Fr. Angelo Casimiro, associate pastor of St. Peter, was excited to witness the changes in the lives of the participants.

“We had the participants making their consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 26,” he said. “People were really excited coming into this program and I saw so many people drawing closer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, reaching out in fellowship and developing new friendships as they studied and got together each week.”

St. Peter selected as pilot parish

About half of the participants were from St. Peter Parish, a fourth from Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish, Kenosha, and the remainder from other Racine and Kenosha county parishes. St. Peter was chosen as one of the pilot churches after Fr. Casimiro, a former graphic artist, co-designed the book cover for Fr. Gaitely’s book.

“I know Fr. Michael as we were in formation with the Marians in Washington, D.C., at the same time, and after I designed the covers for both of the books he has written, I found out about the Hearts Afire parish-based program,” Fr. Casimiro explained. “I inquired about the program and was happy to be picked to be one of the pilot locations for this.”

Group setting is more fulfilling

While the retreat can be done on an individual basis, Kathy Uhl, 69, member of St. Peter, believes the group setting is more fulfilling.

“I have talked to a few who did it from home, but missed the interaction with other people,” she said. “When you participate as a group you get the benefit of feedback and a greater understanding of the program.”

Each day, participants were to read a section of the book, say a prayer and write in their workbook. Once a week, the group met at St. Peter where they held small group discussions, and watched a teaching video hosted by Fr. Gaitley.

“The program was so inspirational and gave me an overwhelming closeness to Mary,” said Uhl, brushing back tears. “It’s hard to put into words, but it was not only spiritual, but helped me to understand Mary, the Holy Spirit and Jesus better. It really gets me so choked up any time I talk about it.”

Because she had been away from the church for a few years, Uhl was looking for ways to grow closer to the faith she embraced as a child and young adult; Hearts Afire has given her a new perspective.

“I am not just memorizing and learning prayers and songs anymore,” she said. “I feel that Mary is really watching over us, and I am able to give to her my worries. I ask her to please watch over my children and grandchildren and I feel much more peaceful – an inner peace, actually, and I can sit and be quiet and know that she is there.”

When St. Peter member Rosemary Moenssen heard about Hearts Afire, she was surprised to learn she was chosen to be a small group leader. While she had participated in the St. Louis de Montfort Marian Consecration, she was surprised at the difference between the two programs.

“This one, for me, was so up to date and more meaningful to me than the original one,” she said. “It was painless and very uplifting.”

For couple, program is life-changing

Moenssen, 72, felt her relationship with the Blessed Mother was not as close as it should be. With nothing to lean on but her Catholic elementary school education, where she was taught she shouldn’t be as close to Mary as to Jesus, she kept Mary at a distance.

“But through Hearts Afire, I learned we can do both,” she said. “My relationship and my faith have strengthened. My husband, Don, went with me. I can also see changes in him, and it makes me so happy. I was so surprised that he wanted to go, and now he has agreed to pray a decade of the rosary with me every night. The program is truly life changing.”

Compelled to attend a retreat, Bill Soens, a member of Holy Cross Parish, Bristol, noticed the ad for Hearts Afire after attending Sunday Mass at St. Peter Parish.

“I didn’t know anything about Consecration to the Blessed Mother, but I felt that there was something missing in my life,” he said. “My mom passed away, but always had a great devotion to Mary; my sisters and my brother have a devotion to Mary, but somehow it never clicked with me.”

Commitment is similar to marriage

Longing for something missing in his life, Soens, 56, went through a lengthy “dark night of the soul” after his wife filed for divorce, his dad and sister developed cancer, his best friend died in an accident, the country was attacked on 9/11 and he lost his job at Abbott Laboratories. 

“I felt such a dry spell in my faith, so I signed up and then found out I was going to be a small group leader,” he said. “I wasn’t sure about doing this as I wanted to help myself, but the coolest thing was that sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit and sometimes by helping others, you end up helping yourself.”

Through the program, Soens learned to pray and trust in the providence of Mary, but when it came time for the consecration ceremony, he had cold feet about the commitment, which he described as similar to that of a marriage.

“I wasn’t married in the church and that is why I think my marriage failed,” he said. “I gently tried to push us toward having our marriage blessed, but I felt like the Lord was telling me back then that I was either going to walk with him or walk with her because I couldn’t continue living the way I was living. With this consecration, I felt as if I was committing myself to this woman and giving her total control, letting her do all in my life. It’s like telling a man that he not only has to listen to his wife’s directions, but let her drive the car, too!”

Mary offers ‘motherly embrace’

Through consecration to Mary, one becomes closer to Jesus, explained Soens. He learned throughout the 33 days that the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are joined in a motherly embrace as the fully human Mary carried the fully human and fully Divine Christ.

“Do you realize how important it is that women are made to embrace life and hold life and men are the makers of life?” asked Soens. “Men will yell and run; women are the embracers, the ones with the tender touch to love. You run to Mom when you fall and scrape your knees and she embraces us! Mary and women have that; men don’t.”

Soens is anxious to see where this new path takes him.

“I haven’t grown wings or anything, but feel good about being consecrated to Mary,” he said. “I woke up this morning and thanked God that I could open my eyes and get out of bed. The best thing is that I can still pray to Jesus, but I also have Mary, a mom, in my life again.”