'Witnesses to Faith'

They came by bus and by car. They carried with them picnic baskets, lawn chairs, baby strollers, and rosary beads. They came to give thanks to God and to celebrate a common culture lived through Jesus Christ.

An estimated 5,000 pilgrims ascended Eden Hill in Stockbridge, Mass., Saturday, Aug. 17, to join Marian priests and brothers in celebrating the ninth annual Encuentro Latino.

The weather was perfect.

Encuentro Latino means "Latin Encounter," and Latino culture is synonymous with love of God, family, and neighbor. The annual celebration includes live music, fresh food, children's games, personal testimony, opportunities for confession, Eucharistic Adoration, and a Rosary procession, all leading to Holy Mass.

"This is a day like no other," said Luisa Flores, a Puerto Rican native who settled in New Jersey. "Once a year, we gather here and celebrate God and beg Him for mercy on our families, ourselves, and the whole world."

She, like many of the pilgrims, said Divine Mercy, particularly the revelations of Faustina, drives her faith life and has lead to many friends and family members returning to the Catholic Church.

"Jesus says to St. Faustina that He loves us and will forgive us, no matter how we have lived our lives before," she said, "and I needed to hear that."

"Faith brings us here, our faith in the Lord," said Maria Sanchez of Worcester, Mass. "In Jesus alone, we encounter peace and forgiveness."

Hector Reyes of Miami, Fla., agrees. He said the message of Divine Mercy and love for Our Lady give people courage to bring their special needs before God.

"They will encounter Divine Mercy and the Virgin Mary here today," he said. "They will receive healing. There are going to be healings here today." Most will be spiritual healings - "the most important healings."

"The biggest lesson we learn from a gathering like this," he said, "is to be merciful to people. When we are merciful, we open up the doors of our hearts to the Holy Spirit."

"I come here today to especially pray for my grandchildren," said Maria Toso of Hartford, Conn. "I pray that they are raised in a spiritual home and that they come to know God. I worry so much about the children today in this world."

Fidel Valiente came in a bus group from Immaculate Conception Parish in Somerville, N.J. Why take a three-and-a-half-hour bus trip all the way up to the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in western Massachusetts?

Because, he says, he feels God's presence here on the grounds, in the Shrine, and in the many pilgrims whose love for God knows no bounds.

"We've been coming here since Encuentro Latino first began," he said. "Each year I give thanks to the Lord for everything He has given me during the year and to share our faith with friends we met here throughout the years. Five years ago when I came here I was single. Now I am married and we have a daughter, and I thank God for them."

Alejandra Rivera of Queens, N.Y., said she attends the annual event because of how Divine Mercy has impacted her life, particularly during a period two years ago when she suffered grave illness.

"I took my sufferings to the Divine Mercy, and I felt Jesus as a presence in my life," she said. "I pray the Divine Mercy chaplet every day. I feel the support of God and the strength to bear the trials in my life with courage."

Victoria Dehesa, originally from Colombia, but who now lives in Stowe, Mass., was among the first people years ago who urged the Marians to host such a day.

"I said, 'Please do something for the Spanish-speaking people,'" she recalls. She explained that many immigrants from Spanish-speaking nations can feel isolated when they settle in the United States. Shared faith in the Risen Christ is the best way for Hispanics to connect with each other and the larger community of Catholics in the nation.

"Look at all these people here," she said. "The Marians are uniting us to come here, welcoming us, and this is so important to all of us - to feel welcome and to be invited to the larger family of our faith."

She noted now that the Church has its first Holy Father from Latin America - a man whose love for the common people is so indicative of the culture - barriers are breaking down that have traditionally separated Catholics who come from different cultures.

"We all share a faith that is so beautiful," Victoria said.

Father Ken Dos Santos, MIC, the shrine rector, walked the grounds passing out water bottles to the many volunteers, and he marveled at the faith of the pilgrims.

"The Shrine is a spiritual home for so many people," he said, standing outside the Eucharistic Adoration tent. "That's why we are here: to welcome our spiritual brothers and sisters and to help them come to know God and how He seeks to work in our lives, to bring hope and healing to us through the sacraments of the Church."

Many who made the journey commented on the Eucharistic aspect of the Encuentro. At a beautiful Mass celebrated at Eden Hill's Mother of Mercy Outdoor Shrine, pilgrims shared the elevated emotions that accompany a divine encounter.??

"Yes, we have fun, especially the children, and [the adults] enjoy themselves because we are with each other," said Luis Fernandez of New York City. "But we come for Mass and Holy Communion. Why? That is where Jesus is."

In his homily, principle celebrant Fr. Dante Aguero, MIC, speaking in Spanish, drew from Pope Francis' encyclical letter Lumen Fidei (or Light of Faith), when he said "There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light."

"Considering the times we live," said Fr. Dante, "the Holy Father asks us with urgency to bring the light of the faith, probably because these are dark times. We have in our hands the power to let the gift of the faith shine."

He warned that people who eschew the light of the Word of God run the dire risk of falling into idolatry, self-absorption, and unhappiness.

"He lacks hope," Fr. Dante said. "He puts himself in the center of reality and settles down depending on his needs. Those idols do not invite to sail offshore; they limit men within their own self. Any idolater doesn't really know how to love, because love leads to encounter, and idolatry to confinement."

Father Dante continued, "Recovering the luminous dimension of faith is to enter into the hearts of each, and from there, reach the hearts of all. Because it is in the heart where all the dimensions of men are intertwined. The truth of God is in the heart of each one, that's why we need to find ourselves with God in there. Speak, pray, do everything, always with the heart.

"Such is the love of God for us that Jesus Christ gives His own life in every Holy Mass," Fr. Dante said. "Let's go to the Eucharist, and our love will grow. When our love grows, we will be hungry for the Eucharist."

In the morning, as pilgrims began gathering on Eden Hill, Fr. Dante shared some thoughts about this special day:

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