On True Marian Piety
Delivered to the October 1999 Convocation of the Council
October is the month dedicated to our Blessed Virgin Mother under her title as "Lady of the Rosary" or "Queen of the Holy Rosary." Quite fittingly, the month begins with this feast of our Queen and closes with the feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday; thereby demonstrating the unbreakable bond between Jesus and Mary, Son and Mother, King and Queen.
Some time ago a woman was trying to describe another priest to me, and she used the adjective "Marian." "He is a Marian priest," she said. And I guess that adjective bothered me a bit because I have never been able to understand how any priest could fail to be "Marian." Priests, after all, are supposed to be "other Christs," who take the place of our Lord in bringing His truth and His Sacraments to His people, and in offering His Holy Sacrifice. Clearly, no one could be "another Christ" unless he had significant devotion to our Lord's Blessed Mother. Some priests may show this devotion more externally than others, and some may have it as a rather private affair -- but no man will be a priest for very long, or be a very good priest without Mary.
Apart from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, there is no heart to which a priest can appeal and expect greater understanding than the Immaculate Heart of Mary. With the exception of His human soul, everything human in Jesus Christ came exclusively from Mary. When we speak of Mary as Mediatrix of All Graces, we are speaking precisely of her priestly role as mediator between her Son and redeemed mankind.
As men, we priests may have some difficulty with piety that seems too feminine. Some of the aspirations of the saints -- particularly in the writings of holy women -- seem impossible for us to adopt as our own. Surely, we love God, but we still find it difficult (if not downright repugnant) to think of ourselves as brides and lovers of the Man Jesus Christ -- none of us is looking for a husband! But Mary fits nicely into a relationship with which we ought to feel comfortable, for no real man is ashamed to love his mother. And, if we love our Mother, we will have no trouble loving her Son; or, for that matter, her other sons and daughters.
In Mary every priest must see an exemplar, a model, a confidant, and a comrade -- for her life was one of humility and self sacrifice; a life of joy in the presence of Her Son; and a life also of sorrows at the knowledge that many would reject the love of Christ. Most to the point: Mary's life was defined in terms of bringing Jesus Christ into the world and of standing at the foot of His Cross to offer Him up in sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Now didn't I just describe the chief function of a priest? -- bringing Jesus Christ into the worldd, and offering Him up in sacrifice? When people debate the possibility of ordaining women, it invariably comes up that Jesus Christ ordained only men, even though in His own Mother he had the most perfect woman He could ever want to ordain. There is, of course, truth in this argument -- but I think it misses an important point -- for Mary's role was priestly. Obviously, she was not a son of Aaron, a member of the levitical priesthood of the Old Law, although what St. Luke tells us about the lineage of St. John the Baptist suggests that she was of the priestly family -- her cousin Elizabeth was the wife of a priest, and Jews strongly tended to marry within their own tribes.1 And we know that her Son did not ordain her to the priesthood of the New Law.
Does that mean that her role in life was not priestly? I think not. In the Old Testament we read of men who were priests, long before the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Three of them are mentioned every day in the Canon of the Mass: Abel the Just, Abraham, and Melchisedech. Abel was the first to offer an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord; Abraham was prepared to offer up his son in sacrifice; and Melchisedech is that king and priest whom St. Paul compares with Christ Himself, who offered a sacrifice of bread and wine.2 These men were forerunners of the Old Testament priesthood of Aaron, and ultimately of the Christian priesthood. I think it is proper to view Mary in a similar way, as a forerunner of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
One of the very few things held over from the disciplines of the Mosaic law by the Apostles was the prohibition against the drinking of blood.3 Actually, the prohibition predates Moses, having been given by God in the very brief statement of His law and covenant to Noe after the flood waters subsided.4 To this day, Jewish cooking often seems rather dry to non-Jews because it is cooked "well-done," so as to have no blood dripping from it. And the Apostles maintained this discipline, making it, at the Council of Jerusalem, one of the few things binding on gentile converts.
Yet, we hear directly from the mouth of our Savior:
...unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.5
Which should, immediately prompt the question: How could a Jew, or a Christian for that matter, drink the blood of Christ if the drinking of blood was strictly prohibited?
Well, if we look at the prohibition from a slightly different perspective it might help. Undeniably, it was one of those dietary laws with the added benefit of keeping God's people healthy -- like not eating pork. But, in the eternal scheme of things, the prohibition of blood had another effect -- it set off the drinking of our Lord's precious blood in Holy Communion as a truly unique event. No other blood could be drunk, save that of our Lord.
It is my theory that Christ ordained no women to His priesthood in order to place the priestly actions of His blessed Mother in a similar position of exclusivity: Just as no God-fearing person would drink blood other than the life-giving blood of Jesus Christ; no woman other than Mary would be able to say those words that are so proper to her and so correct when she says them: "This is my body" (because It was her body); no other woman would be allowed to offer the sacrificial gift that was so truly hers.
Thus, Mary is truly the "Mother of Priests." And if ever we are tempted to take our priesthood lightly, we ought to try to put ourselves in her place. If, on some days, offering Mass has no great appeal to us, or even seems burdensome, we have only to reflect for a few moments on the life of Mary. Look and see how easy we have things by comparison:
Mary "knew not what manner of greeting this might be" from the Angel -- we have the luxury of being prepared with years of study.
We wear fine linen and silk, offering Mass in nicely appointed churches and chapels -- Mary wore the robes of poverty, and there was not even any room for her in the inn when she brought Christ into the world.
We bring Christ into the world by picking up a little wafer of bread and whispering a few words over it -- Mary brought Him into the world from the substance of her own body, and raised Him to manhood with the labors of a mother: the cooking and cleaning, the sewing and weaving, not to mention the apprehension and the worrying.
Most of us offer Christ in the re-presentation of the sacrifice on the Cross with great detachment; under sterile conditions, if you will; often we come away without having felt great emotion -- Mary offered her Son on the Cross with her whole soul, in the heat and the sweat of the day, surrounded by other dying men; with all the emotion that only a mother who has lost her only son can feel.
It is hard to imagine anyone being Christ-like without being "Marian." And we need to communicate this to our people -- by our preaching as well as our own good example, for this certainly applies to all of us; lay people as well as priests. If we think of the priest as taking the place of Christ at the altar, then we can think of everyone else in the church taking that Marian role as co-offerers of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. No one attending Holy Mass ought to think of himself as just an observer -- instead we unite ourselves with Jesus and Mary in offering the one and only pleasing gift to God the Father.
Then too, there are no better role models proposed for our imitation than Jesus and Mary. What better way could there be to holiness than trying to style one's own behavior after the Son of God and His holy Mother. Faith, hope, charity, humility, chastity, fortitude, piety ... they are all there in infinite perfection for us to imitate.
If you have a few minutes, someday soon, take a look at the lessons at Matins on the feast of the Holy Family. They all speak to imitating the virtues of our Lord or Lady. The first nocturn is from the epistle to the Colossians, and the third is one of St. Bernard of Clairvaux' beautiful sermons. But the gem, I think, is the second nocturn, written by the saintly Pope Leo XIII. He adds, of course, St. Joseph, and gives a beautiful discourse on the imitation of the virtues of Jesus and Mary.
There are several sources of Marian piety available to us and to our parishioners. Probably the most important of these is to join Jesus and Mary frequently in the offering of Mass -- daily whenever possible, and always with attention and devotion (not just mere physical presence). Frequent Confession and Communion are, of course, a corollary to attending Mass. In Mass and Holy Communion we are privileged to share a little bit of what Mary experienced in being with her Son and even bearing Him within her self. And, we ought to make an effort to consciously meditate on the feelings that they must have shared on Calvary.
Second only to Mass and the Sacraments is a life of prayer -- and that is not always easy for busyyy people who have to make their way in the world. Some of it is a matter of prioritization; if we have time for football games and soap operas, it is hard to honestly say we have no time for prayer and spiritual reading. But, after honestly arranging such priorities, we will still find that the most convenient and fruitful prayer can be made with our Lady's Rosary. Its decades of "Hail Marys" are like the Psalms prayed in monasteries and convents. The meditations on its mysteries form our Scriptural lessons even when it is impossible or inconvenient to read the Gospels. Together, the prayers and the mysteries, repeated and meditated over the years of our lives, give us a deep understanding of the lives of Jesus and Mary -- helping us to form a bond of kindred love with them.
The Rosary can be prayed anywhere at any time, with little or no equipment (that's why God gave us ten fingers!); in the light or in the dark, indoors or out, in solitude or on a busy street car, in the air or under water. It will help us to develop the patience to endure periods of waiting and inactivity by putting them to good and prayerful use. If you start out each morning with one decade prayed at home, you will almost always find occasions throughout the day to recite a decade or two more at a time: the commute to work, for example, or the time spent on line at the supermarket, or during that evening walk your doctor has been telling you to take, or while doing the dishes after supper. Certainly, priests in the confessional should see those uneven lulls between penitents as an opportunity -- and if they are conscientious and arrive early for Mass to see that everything is in order, there will often be another opportunity as we wait for the appointed time. But even if you only said one decade a day, that would still work out to 73 Rosaries a year -- and frankly, it is hard to believe that anyone is so pressed for time as to not manage more than a decade a day.
I would also recommend to you the wearing of the Brown Scapular -- Mary's "uniform" if you will. The act of putting it on each morning is a helpful reminder of our association with the Blessed Virgin, and with the need for chastity and prayer in our lives. Both the Rosary and the Scapular are richly indulgenced by the Church, and the Blessed Virgin is said to have promised many benefits to those who make proper use of these two sacramentals. Let me suggest a few things to make these devotions more fruitful among your people:
* Make a point of publicly blessing and distributing these sacramentals. The Scapular feast comes on July 16th, and that of the Rosary on the First Sunday of October (or the 7th of that month); you may wish to pick a few other days around the year. Don't just make the sign of the Cross over a closed bag of Rosaries or Scapulars -- put them out nicely, and use the official prayers approved by the Church (and I am not talking about the "short forms" either -- those are for use when somebody catches you "off guard," out on the street).
* Invest your people in the Scapular if they have not been invested. Until recently, I thought that everyone was invested after First Holy Communion, as I had been. I've found out differently: a number of people born outside of the country or who received First Communion in recent years have insisted to me that they were never enrolled.
* Be familiar with, and speak about the obligations and privileges of wearing the Scapular or saying the Rosary. The obligations of the scapular, for example, are more than just the wearing of two pieces of brown cloth. Be familiar with what the Church has to say about the promises made to St. Simon Stock, and those contained in the Sabbatine Privilege -- such things should neither be overstated nor understated.
Don't be reluctant to speak to your people about the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Mary is the one for Christians to go to in times of stress or persecution.
The October feast of the Rosary was established by Pope St. Pius V to commemorate the naval victory of Christian forces over the Moslems who were invading Western lands and enslaving Christians who lived around the Mediterranean -- the battle of Lepanto on Sunday, October 7th 1571. The victory is attributed to fine soldiering and sailing under the leadership of Don Juan of Austria -- no one should disparage their training and their sacrifices -- but these men fought under the protection of the Blessed Virgin -- and they fought with the knowledge that Christendom, under Pope Saint Pius, was praying the Rosary on their behalf. The second nocturn of the feast also mentions victories earlier in the Albigensian Crusade and later in 1716 when the Moslems were kept from invading Vienna. In all three cases victory was attributed to Christians praying the Rosary.
We hear a similar story on the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary. On September 12th, 1683, the great General John Sobieski commanding Christian troops under the patronage of Our Lady, managed to drive the invading Moslem troops out of Vienna, Austria. In gratitude, Pope Innocent XI, extended the feast of Mary's Name to the entire Church (The feast originated in sixteenth century Spain). The date was additionally auspicious, as it was the 470th anniversary of the victory of Christian troops over the Albigensian heretics in southern France -- everyone knows the relationship of that crusade to St. Dominic and the Rosary. And the Byzantine churches celebrate the protection of Constantinople in October of 911, in the feast they call "Holy Protection," or "pocrov."-- it is said that in response to the prayers of the faithful, Mary lowered her veil to cover the city and keep it safe from Mohammedan invasion.
Sometimes the fight has been against an external threat like the Moslems in Spain, and France, and Jerusalem, and on the waters of the Mediterranean. Sometimes the fight has been internal like the Albigensians. Sometimes the troops are highly organized, as they were at Vienna -- sometimes they have been little more than Catholic men standing on the roofs of their churches to protect them as they had to do here in this country against the "Know-Nothing" movement of the 1850s. Sometimes the resistance can be nothing more than an underground movement as it was in many Communist persecutions, or in the early days of the Church by the Jews and then the Romans; sometimes it appeals to public opinion rather than to force, as did Popes Pius VII and Pius IX when troops entered the Holy City of Rome. Never can we allow the true Faith to be taken from us. Our Lord tells us that there are times when "one who has no sword [must] sell his coat to buy one."6
The proportion between Mary's protection and the effort men must make for themselves is an interesting question. It is unreasonable (perhaps sinful) to expect God and His saints to do for us what we can do for ourselves. St. John Capistran was a leader in another battle like those I have described. Dr. Pius Parsch, the Benedictine liturgical scholar (whom I have always perceived as a bit liberal) had this to say:
Today's saint inspires us to be soldiers of Christ. With St. John Capistran as our leader, we resolve anew to subdue the enemies of God. At his time they were called Turks, today they have other names, but hell is always the ultimate driving force. Liturgy is a work of peace, but only inasmuch as it makes the Church Militant an army of God ready to do battle.7
Over the centuries Our Lady has always been a powerful protectress of Christians who were being persecuted by the enemies of Christ. We would be foolish to think that modern civilization has made that protection unnecessary. With frightful regularity we see that nations and unions of nations can still do the work of the devil. Certainly we are in as much need today for protection against the ungodly, at home and abroad. This month of October -- the month of our Queen of the Rosary and Christ the King -- is a good time to take up those tools of Marian piety and ask help in restoring our once Christian families and society.
Now, before we conclude, I would like you to consider one more thing about Marian devotion -- one that seems to have become a problem in our modern world -- an opportunity for priests to do a great deal of good through their example and their preaching.
God and His blessed Mother cannot be served with falsehoods -- but a great deal of what passes for Marian (and other) devotion today is at best falsehood or delusion. I am referring, of course, to claimed mystical phenomena like apparitions and voices (or locutions). And at least indirectly I am referring to Pentecostalism.
We all know that God is all powerful -- that if He chooses, He can communicate, directly or through His saints, with those on earth. Over the centuries He seems to have done this on some occasions. But we also know that God does this rarely. Public revelation, we are sure, closed with the death of the last Apostle -- we are assured of this by Pope St. Pius X, the First Vatican Council, and the Council of Trent.8
Ludwig Ott states it this way:
The clear teaching of Holy Writ and Tradition is that after Christ, and the Apostles who proclaimed the message of Christ, no further revelation will be made. Christ was the fulfillment of the Law of the Old Testament (Mt. 5, 17; 2, 21 et seq) and the absolute teacher of humanity (Mt. 23, 10: "One is your master, Christ"; cf. Mt. 28, 20). The Apostles saw in Christ: "the coming of the fullness of time" (Gal. 4,4) and regarded as their task, the preservation, integral and unfalsified, of the heritage of Faith entrusted to them by Christ (1 Tim. 6, 16; 6, 20; 2 Tim 1, 14; 2, 2; 3, 14). The Fathers indignantly repudiated the claim of the heretics to possess secret doctrines or new Revelations of the Holy Ghost. St. Irenaeus (Adv. haer III 1; IV 35, 8), and Tertullian (De praesc. 21) stress, against the Gnostics, that the full truth of revelation is contained in the doctrine of the Apostles which is preserved unfalsified through the uninterrupted succession of the bishops.9
While God might choose to make some useful private revelation after the time of the Apostles, we are sure that we already possess all that is necessary for our salvation.
The real problem with any of this is that there in an inherent danger in casually accepting the word of someone who claims to have had such a private revelation. Why do I say "danger"? The answer is that one cannot be sure of the source of a private revelation. Perhaps it came from God, but then again it may have come from the imagination or bad digestion or mental illness -- it may have even come from the devil. The Father of Lies is capable of appearing as an angel of light, and possesses and intellect much more powerful than our own.
In the past, the Church made a careful investigation of private revelations before any details about them were allowed to be published. Once the apparitions had ended (it makes no sense to draw conclusions while they are in progress) the seers and the people connected with them would be carefully interviewed. Two things were to be determined: 1) Was there any evidence of illness or insanity, of previous fraud or exaggeration, or an apparent motive of profit -- in other words, was the testimony humanly reliable? 2) Was there any hint of heresy in the material claimed to be revealed? Private revelation cannot contradict public revelation because truth cannot contradict truth -- so there must be no "fourth person of the Blessed Trinity," or stories about Mary's previous marriages, or whatever.
Such an investigation takes a while. For example, it took 12 years for the Bishop of Leiria to permit publication of the accounts of the children at Fatima -- and that may have been hasty, since the surviving seer continued to report new revelations for some years thereafter.
Once the Church had favorably completed any such investigation, all it really could say was that the revelations were "worthy of belief" with "human faith." In other words, the Church could say that the revelation did not pose a danger to the Faith, and that the people reporting it seemed to be reliable. To many of us who grew up in the era of Lourdes and Fatima, what I just said probably sounds a bit timid, so I defer to Pope Benedict XIV:
Although an assent of Catholic faith may not and can not be given to revelations thus approved, still, an assent of human faith, made according to the rules of prudence, is due them; for according to these rules such revelations are probable and worthy of credence." (Benedict XIV, De Serv. Dei Beatif.,1.II .c.32. n.11.)10
Note that the word "probable" has a technical sense in moral theology, closer to meaning "reasonable" or "allowable" than "likely."
What I am driving at here is that truth is not served, and consequently Christ and His Blessed Mother are not honored by those who go chasing after every report of apparitions (Marian and otherwise). This should be immediately obvious insofar as one report contradicts another -- Mary cannot be saying one thing in Medjugorge, while saying something contradictory at LaSallette or Bayside or wherever.
Since caution has been thrown to the winds in this connection, it rests with us priests to provide good example and sound advice in connection with practices and devotions that arise as the result of a private revelation. I will make some material including Adolphe Tanquerey's, The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology, available to you, either on paper or electronically as you choose. I think you will find it good reading, and particularly useful when someone comes to Confession claiming to have had a vision or a locution.
But let's end this on a positive note. Our Blessed Lady is the Mother of Priests. She has always been and always will be a faithful protector of those who seek her aid, and of those who strive to know and to teach her Son's truth. Be faithful to her in your Mass and in your prayers -- especially her Rosary -- be faithful to her in the care of the souls entrusted to you.
Finally, I would like you to hear a piece that has always been a favorite of mine -- written by Msgr. Ronald Knox, who from his youth knew something about those who feel it wrong to honor our Blessed Lady.
"They have said that we deify her; that is not because we exaggerate the eminence of God's Mother, but because they belittle the eminence of God. A creature miraculously preserved from sin by the indwelling power of the Holy Ghost -- that is to them a divine title, because that is all the claim their grudging theologies will concede, often enough, to our Lord Himself. They refuse to honor the God-bearing Woman because their Christ is only a God-bearing Man. We who know that God could (if He would) annihilate every existing creature without abating anything of His blessedness or His glory, are not afraid less the honor done to His creature of perfect Womanhood should prejudice the honor due to Him. Touchstone of truth in the ages of controversy, romance of the medieval world, she has not lost with the rise of new devotions, any fragment of her ancient glory. Other lights may glow and dim as the centuries pass, she cannot suffer change; and when a Catholic ceases to honor her, he ceases to be a Catholic."
--- Msgr. Ronald Knox,
The Belief of Catholics
1. Luke i: 5.
2. Hebrews vii.
3. Acts xv: 20.
4. Genesis ix: 1-17 (esp. 4).
5. John vi: 54-57.
6. Luke xxii: 36.
7. Pius Parsch, The Church's Year of Grace, March 28.
8. Pope Saint Pius X, 4 July 1907, Lamentabile sane; First Vatican Council, Session III, 24 April, 1870 Chapter II: Of Revelation; Council of Trent, Session IV, "On the canon of Scripture"
9. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals Of Catholic Dogma, page 7:
10. Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology (Tournai: Desclee), #1490.