By SUSYN AHERN, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 20, 2021
ATLANTA—Picture it: The Blessed Mother appears to two teens. She’s crying, bemoaning the un-Christian behavior of God’s people: their infighting, their disrespect for his creation, their turning away from him.
It could have happened last week, but this story is 175 years old.
This month, the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, who staff three parishes in metro Atlanta, celebrate the anniversary of the Marian apparition that led to the founding of their order.
It was Sept. 19, 1846, that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to two children in La Salette, France. She lamented the sinful ways of mankind and gave the pair a message for the world: reconcile broken relationships with God, self and others. Today, the 1,000 La Salette missionaries focus their work on the Eucharist and reconciliation, seeking to bring healing wherever they see brokenness.
“I think the goal of Mary’s ministry is to help people get reattached, reconciled,” said Father Brian Sheridan, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church, a La Salette parish in Smyrna. “To look for ways to build bridges rather than create chasms.”
Entrusted with a message
The religious community, which has been active in Atlanta for more than 50 years, operates around the world, with parishes and missions that stretch from Marietta to Myanmar. They carry out their mission—to bring God’s reconciling love to the world—in myriad ways with a special focus on ministering to the vulnerable.
“We draw from the apparition a great concern for those who are not right with themselves, with each other, with God,” said Father Ray Cadran, pastor of another La Salette parish, St. Ann Church in Marietta. “We work with people who feel far away from the goodness of themselves and the world around them.”
The first La Salette missionaries preached Mary’s message of reconciliation in French parishes. They shared sacraments with pilgrims who came to witness the apparition site and went on to start schools for local children, many of whom stayed on as seminarians.
“Mary didn’t come and sit down with the bishop or the local clergy,” Father Cadran said of the apparition. “She sat down with peasant children who didn’t have much education at all and entrusted to them a message for the wider world.
By choosing to share her message with children, Mary underscores their importance in the church, said Father Cyriac Mattathilanickal, pastor of St. Oliver Plunkett Church in Snellville.
“Young people today have a great role to play,” he said. “Mary is inviting them to go be the evangelizers of the church today, ambassadors of reconciliation.”
From the rural hills of France, the La Salette message spread around the world. Today the order operates missions in 27 countries and staffs 14 parishes in the United States. Father Mattathilanickal spent 12 years at the La Salette mission in the Philippines as a seminarian and priest. Mission work there, he said, was largely sacramental: priests would do seven funerals a week, 15 Masses each weekend. Baptisms numbered hundreds at a time.
“There, ministry was basic because people’s faith needed to be strengthened and empowered,” said the pastor, who came to America in 2001. “Here, it’s about revitalizing faith. Reconnecting.”
At Father Sheridan’s parish, ministry is bi- and even tri-lingual with parishioners from 60 countries. On a recent Saturday, the bilingual priest covered nearly 90 miles to be at the funerals of three Spanish speakers. At St. Thomas, he said, “we’re gaining a real appreciation for people who suffer and struggle and yet do it with dignity and a faith that is so outstandingly admirable.”
St. Ann’s backyard in East Cobb is known more for spoils than for struggle, but Father Cadran said it is areas like his where reconciliation comes to its strongest point.
“In a place like this, you might ask ‘Where is the brokenness?’ Oftentimes it’s in marriages, in confession, among refugees,” he said. “People come to this area broken, alone and afraid.
“For us, the apparition is not only a historical event. It’s motivation. It’s the reason we do the ministry we do.”