Some years ago, I couldn’t answer the question Jesus posed to His disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?” I didn’t know.

I was kneeling in Our Lady of Fatima Church, where I had always been a parishioner, praying desperately for help. I was never so desperate.

Some weeks before, I had begun having panic attacks. When the first one struck, I didn’t know what was happening to me. Out of nowhere, my heart began to race wildly, pounding in my chest. I felt scared to death and I didn’t know why. The fight or flight reflex had been triggered in me and I had no one to fight, so I began to flee. I had to get up and walk, to pace back and forth. My heart wouldn’t stop pounding. Not wanting to alarm my wife, I took myself to the emergency room of the Old Parkwood Hospital.

On the way there, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, that I had to get out of the car to do so, which I did. I caught my breath to some degree and got back in the car with the windows wide open and drove with a death grip on the steering wheel.

I was white as a sheet when I arrived and my heart still pounding, so they took me right into the exam room, and after a physical exam, an EKG and blood work, I was pronounced healthy as a horse, but they couldn’t explain why I was still having anxiety attacks. Only years later did the pieces fit together that I had genetically obtained the condition known as panic disorder. Very little about it was known then; now, there are books and books on the subject. After reading several of them years later, I understood why my grandfather never left the house the last ten years of his life.

The doctor assured me that it would pass and gave me a prescription for Valium. But it didn’t pass, and two ten milligram Valium tablets would only give me two hours of sleep. I stopped taking the Valium because it wasn’t solving the problem and I was worried that it would take me down the bleak and terrifying road of addiction. I still have the prescription bottle with one pill left.

The panic attacks didn’t stop and they became more frequent and more violent. My back muscles would spasm because they were so violent. Often, I’d wake in the middle of the night because of them and go outside and pace up and down the driveway or around and around my cellar. My wife became more and more fearful of what was happening to me.

In the weeks that followed, I had taken myself to the ER again and after that to a cardiologist, convinced that the doctors had missed an underlying medical condition, but each time I was pronounced perfectly healthy. The cardiologist suggested I see a psychiatrist, the thought of which, especially back then, made me worse. I thought I was going mad and began to sink into depression.

I feared I wouldn’t be able to keep working to support my young and growing family. I envisioned myself in Taunton State Hospital, my wife and children coming to visit their failed husband and father there. I knew the place because I had spent summers when I was a boy filling vending machines there with my dad, who worked for a vending machine company back then. I knew what the people looked like there and the inside of all the buildings. The thought scared the life out of me.

All the things that used to give me pleasure and joy no longer did. Family and friends made me feel worse because I couldn’t interact with them happily any more. And nature, whose beauty always, always, mesmerized me, left me completely cold.

The worse of it all was that I felt that I was separating from reality. It was out there, but I wasn’t a part of it. I was inside a hole and I couldn’t get out.

So, I went to Our Lady of Fatima Church to plead with God to cure me, to stop the panic attacks. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was at the end of my rope.

But God wasn’t answering me or even listening to me, or so it seemed. The tabernacle appeared cold and empty. I stood up, shook my fist at the tabernacle and began walking out, muttering, “If you’re there, you don’t care. You don’t care.” I’ve never been so low in my life. Then I understood how people could take their own lives. I knew I couldn’t do it but I understood how people could.

As I passed the last few pews on the Blessed Virgin’s side of the church (the other side had the Sacred Heart), I noticed a blue card on a pew — the only piece of paper on any of the pews. I went over, picked it up and read the heading: “The 54-day Rosary.” I thought, “Oh, give me a break!” and yet I put the card in my pocket because I had hit rock bottom and needed a way up; I needed hope.

When I got home, I read it. It explained how the devotion began. In Naples, Italy, in 1884, a young girl, Fortuna Agrelli, had been suffering greatly for over a year. She and her relatives began a novena of Rosaries to the Queen of the Most Holy
Rosary. The Virgin appeared to her with the Christ Child in her lap. She told the girl that she would grant her request and added, “Whoever desires to obtain favors from me should make three novenas of the prayers of the
Rosary, and three novenas in thanksgiving.” So, three novenas petitioning (27 days) and three novenas thanking (27 more days, totaling 54).

I thought this was fiction, but I had to do something. I hadn’t said the Rosary much before, so saying it daily was new to me.

What I gratefully discovered very soon was that I had peace whenever I said the Rosary. At that time I didn’t reflect much on the mysteries of the Rosary. I let the beads slip through my fingers as I prayed the Our Father’s, Hail Mary’s, and Glory Be’s, contentedly. I remember thinking to myself then that I would remain sane as long as God would let me say the Rosary.

I was getting better, it seemed, with every Rosary (and I said many in a day), but I wasn’t cured. The panic attacks still came and the anxiety was still within me. My body felt like a tuning fork, the tension vibrating within me to the strains of some far-off evil music.

When the 54th day came of these six novenas, I went to Mass, and the two psalm antiphons that day were: “I have found David my servant,” and “The Lord has freed me from all my fears.”

I felt deliriously happy throughout the Mass and I practically floated home, not even noticing that I had no panic attacks that day. And there were none the next day or the day after that.

You can feel panic attacks coming on. They’re like a train in the distance coming toward you, getting louder and getting worse. In those early days after the 54-day novena, I could sense an attack coming on, but I had the strongest feeling of the Blessed Mother’s presence beside me, preventing them from arriving.

Forty-three years later, I can say that I’ve never had another panic attack. And I’m as certain of this as I am of anything: the Blessed Mother, through the power of her Most Holy Rosary, cured me.

You know, I think the Lord wasn’t answering my prayers to Him directly because he wanted me to come to Him through Mary, so that I would truly know that she was my Mother and that he wanted me to spread the word to others that she is our Mother, that she is the best of Mothers — tenderly caring for all her children and seeking always to bring them to her Son, Jesus. I know that to be true also because my panic attacks began on September 8, when we celebrate the birthday of the Blessed Mother. Looking back, I realize that in a powerful way she was born in me that day, and what a great gift I received from the suffering that began that day, for it led me to grace, in a way that only suffering can.

I’m convinced that there is no better way to come to Jesus than through Mary. This message is most clearly evident in the Scriptures, first and foremost by Jesus’ being conceived in Mary’s womb and by the changing of water to wine at the wedding of Cana, at Mary’s request, and by Jesus’ giving her to the Apostle John and John to her from the cross. John signifies all of us. Jesus gave Mary to us and us to Mary as a very, very great gift of consolation and strength from suffering and, as I’ve said, the surest way to His heart.

Now, the 54-day Rosary Novena is not necessarily the cure for every ailment or sorrow that we face on earth, but I know that the rosary brings Mary to answer our needs in a most powerful way, because wherever her tender Mother’s heart is, there is her divine Son resting on her breast, the Son who, especially at His Mother’s request, can do all things.

So, really, for me, it is through Mary that I can say of Jesus with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”