Father Richard Heilman calls himself a “country priest.” If his self-assessment is accurate, more’s the glory owed to God for doing great things through the simple and the humble. For this is one country priest on a city-size mission. He’s out to move men into spiritually reclaiming a culture that has all but surrendered to the forces of “secular barrenness.”
To win this battle, Father Heilman founded the Knights of Divine Mercy in his small parish communities of Pine Bluff and Mount Horeb, Wis., in the Diocese of Madison. The Knights is a movement of Catholic men who explore masculine spirituality and are submissive to God’s will, committed to growing in heroic virtue, empowered by prayer and the sacraments and engaged in bringing back souls to the faith.
The Knights of Divine Mercy is open to all men 18 and older. The group meets monthly on first Fridays for prayer before the Eucharist, confession, a teaching lesson from a priest and a social. More than 80 of the original group were knighted in a ceremony on Divine Mercy Sunday in April, 2007. Father Heilman knighted them with an authentic Scottish Claymore while stating their Latin slogan, Deo Submissus, in Deo Potens (“The one who has submitted to God is powerful in God”).
Citing 2 Timothy 3:5, Father Heilman says that, “in the last days, they’ll make a pretense out of religion; they’ll deny its power.”
The place to start acting with God’s power, he adds, is with men.
“We’ve been spiritual sissies, and it’s time for us to become warriors again,” he says. “We need to get grafted back on the vine because once you’re tethered to the transcendent, you’re tethered to truth. But once you’re disconnected from the divine, you become disconnected from the truth and you’re left in the narcissistic wasteland of moral relativism.”
He equips his “warriors” with a camouflaged “battle pack” filled with spiritual weaponry such Catholic devotional materials, a steel-beaded rosary, holy water, blessed salt, a scapular and six Miraculous Medals to hand out in their “search-and-rescue” efforts to win souls.
Father Heilman discovered firsthand the power of the spirit in his own community of Pine Bluff. When a “gentleman’s club” opened in 2005, the priest worried that it would become “Porn Bluff.” He organized a “prayer mile” and invited parishioners to walk the mile in prayer and tie a white ribbon on the cross in the parish cemetery. Almost 700 ribbons were tied to the cross. Six months later the strip club was gone — and today the site is a family-friendly diner where the Knights socialize after meetings.
“You cannot get rid of these strip clubs,” says Father Heilman. “They are more protected under the First Amendment than babies in the womb. So we asked the Lord to consecrate the ground back to him.” That’s where the seeds were planted for the Knights of the Divine Mercy.Strength Happens
Madison Bishop Robert Morlino is a strong supporter of the Knights movement, and even requested “battle packs” for the 35 seminarians in the diocese. He says the Knights are responding to a growing need to answer the unique spiritual demands of men in general, and particularly husbands and fathers.
“Husbands and fathers of deep faith make for stronger families and parishes,” says the bishop. “Holy fatherhood emphasizes many particular virtues, including sacrifice, courage, patience and gentleness. It is through a man’s religious sensibility that he usually finds the strength to embrace and exercise these virtues in daily life.
“The domestic church of the family is the essential foundation to not only our Catholic Church, but to a just society,” adds Bishop Morlino. “Much of the violence in our modern society can be traced to the effects of absent or delinquent fathers who fail to serve as role models to their children. This is where the Knights of Divine Mercy come to the rescue.”
Many Catholic men have been “quite uninspired and unmotivated” by the spirituality that has been offered over the past few decades, says Father Heilman. He compares the era to the 40 years the Israelites wandered he desert.
“We’ve felt the barrenness of the desert, waiting for the fruits of the Vatican Council. There’s a lot being written lately about how women have had to hold up the fort because the men have fled from the kind of Church and liturgy that we’ve proposed in the last 40 years,” he says. “Now we have such heroic bishops and so many others who courageously say it’s time we retrieve the supernatural in our faith and call men to that. We want men to become ignited again.”Triumph Over Torpor
At age 66, Bob Winter was greatly touched when knighted with the sword and is happy to finally “get something good” in the way of male spirituality.
“A lot of times you get in a group of men and all they’re talking about is football. It’s nice to be part of a group of men who talk about the Church and what needs to be done in our families and in our world,” he says. “I believe the Holy Spirit will enlighten us as we go along.”
Winter’s son-in-law, Brad Gross, 33, was excited about the group in no small part because he already had a strong devotion to the Divine Mercy.
“I’ve noticed a difference in my depth of understanding about how God’s mercy works in our lives and how we can be better facilitators of his mercy,” he says. “I definitely believe the Knights are being empowered to be leaders in their families and society. Many of the men are sharing profound experiences and they’re seeing conversions just through using the sacramentals and handing out Miraculous Medals.”
Father Heilman stresses that Knights of Divine Mercy chapters need to be under the leadership of a priest because it is a spiritual movement centered on the Eucharist.
A second chapter is forming in the eastern part of the diocese this fall, and he hopes the movement will continue to spread. He is scheduled to appear on EWTN’s “Life on the Rock” on Nov. 1.
Bishop Morlino says he hopes the movement will grow as more men see that such fraternal and religious relationships can fulfill them in their authentic masculine roles in the family, church and society at large.
“I leave it to the Holy Spirit to ultimately determine the breadth of growth for the Knights of Divine Mercy,” he says. “And the Holy Spirit knows of my hopes and confidence for the Knights in my loving prayer for them.”
Barb Ernster writes from