Pope Francis Resets Marian Devotion on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima
Published on Catholic Online. Permission to republish is granted
On the centennial of the Apparition of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, to the children of Fatima, Pope Francis spoke from a pastors heart to hundreds of thousands who had gathered.
Francis has a deep love for Mary, the Mother of the Lord. He is a champion of popular piety as a strength for the faithful and a vehicle for a genuine renewal of devotion for the whole Church.
However, after affirming that, along with them, he was there as a pilgrim, he used the opportunity to reset Marian Piety for Catholic Christians.
In his characteristically plain spoken manner, he juxtaposed two approaches to Marian Piety. He cautioned against one. Then, he revealed the better way, the evangelical way, of practicing Marian Piety in a way which helps one draw closer to Jesus Christ.
The Pope asked the faithful:
Pilgrims with Mary … But which Mary? A teacher of the spiritual life, the first to follow Jesus on the narrow way of the cross by giving us an example? Or a Lady unapproachable and impossible to imitate? A woman blessed because she believed always and everywhere in Gods words? Or a plaster statue from whom we beg favors at little cost?
The Virgin Mary of the Gospel, venerated by the Church at prayer? Or a Mary of our own making: one who restrains the arm of a vengeful God? One sweeter than Jesus the ruthless judge? One more merciful than the Lamb slain for us?
With a pastors heart, he steered the faithful away from a misguided response to some of the messages of Marian apparitions. He cautioned them against some of the more apocalyptic approaches to the messages, which leads to fear and alarm. He explained that they are loving calls to repentance, renewed faith and missionary activity.
It is evident here that we should not surrender to catastrophes and visions that present Our Lady as sweeter and more merciful than God the Father and Jesus Christ. Great injustice is done to Gods grace… whenever we say that sins are punished by his judgment, without first saying – as the Gospel clearly does – that they are forgiven by his mercy!
Mercy has to be put before judgment and, in any case, Gods judgment will always be rendered in the light of his mercy. Obviously, Gods mercy does not deny justice, for Jesus took upon himself the consequences of our sin, together with its due punishment. He did not deny sin, but redeemed it on the cross. That is why we are freed from our sins and we put aside all fear and dread, as unbefitting those who are loved . Thus, there is no faith based on fear, on chasing secrets and visions, but based on the gospel and love
This was Pope Francis at his best. A pastor in the Chair of Peter.
When I read the accounts on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, I was drawn back to my own return to the Catholic Christian faith and rediscovery of the gift of Mary as the Mother of the Lord, the Mother of the Church and my Mother.
My Journey Home to the Catholic Church
I am what is often called a revert to the Catholic Church. I did not become a Catholic after having been a member of another Christian community. Though I was raised as a Catholic, I fell away from the practice of the ancient faith when my family stopped participating in the sacraments and living the faith as a central part of our life together.
We became what could be called cultural Catholics.
The Catholic Christian faith and the Savior had little to do with our life.
My teenage years were spent searching for meaning in life. My hunger for the truth finally led me home to the Lord – and His Church. However, the route was a circuitous one.
Among the places which it led to was my personal reading of the fathers (early leaders) of the first centuries of the undivided Christian Church. In those ancient Christian writings I discovered how the early Christians really viewed their participation in the Church as integral to their belonging to Jesus Christ.
I discovered how the early church worshiped. How they understood Christianity not as some sort of add on to life, but a new way of life, now lived in Jesus Christ. A Way lived with one another, in Jesus Christ. That all happened y living in His Body, the Church, of which we are all members by Baptism. (1 Cor. 12)
In other words, the Church was not some-thing, but Some-One.
The Church is Relational
After intensely questioning many of the teachings of the Catholic Church, in my questioning journey home to the Catholic Church, including the teaching concerning even the role of Mary, I came to understand that the pronouncement of the early Church Council of Ephesus (431 AD) that Mary is Theotokos, Greek for Mother or Bearer of God.
It was a profoundly Christological declaration. In other words, it speaks about Jesus Christ, and not really about Mary.
It was an effort to correct the growing heresies in the early Church which threatened to undermine the core proclamation of the Gospel about who Jesus really is. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word Made Flesh, Jesus the Christ, was truly both God and Man. The Incarnation was – and is – central to the Christian claim.
The One whom Mary bore was and is, truly God and truly man.
I studied the historic background of the proclamation at that Council and came to understand what was at stake. When I read this simple proclamation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church years later, What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ.( CCC #487) It all began to make sense.
My study of early Church history also revealed the presence of Marian piety and devotion in the very early centuries of the Church. It was expressed in the frescoes found in the catacombs and espoused with the anointing of the Holy Spirit in the reflections of the early church fathers on the significance of her role in salvation history – as well as her continued role in the life of the Church through her both example and prayer.
As my knowledge of the lives of the saints increased, I had to decide whether all their writings about Mary reflected bad theology? Or, perhaps, I had missed something.
Fortunately, I arrived at the proper conclusion.
Mother of the Lord, My Mother
But, even after all that, Mary was still to me the Mother of the Lord. She was not yet MY Mother. The progression continued as I prayerfully reflected on the last hours of the earthly ministry of Jesus as recounted in the fourth Gospel, the one written by the beloved disciple John. Its meaning began to unfold and become personal for me.
John records: When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, Woman, behold your son. Then he said to the disciple, Behold your mother. (John 19: 26-27).
Throughout the Christian Tradition great theologians, mystics, popes and saints have viewed John as representing you and me in that great exchange of love between Jesus and John. He spoke from the second tree, the Cross on Calvary. The last gift Jesus gave us, before giving every drop of His Sacred Blood to set us free from sin, was His mother.
She is the mother of His family, the Church. All who are baptized are now incorporated into Christ and become members of that family. We live our lives in His Body, the Church. (1 Cor. 12) The Head and the Body are eternally joined in a communion of love.
St. Augustine – and countless Saints both East and West – wrote of the whole Christ, meaning both head and body. (cf. Colosians 1:15 -23, Ephesians 4:15,16). That is the Church.
Everything Jesus has – He has given to His Church. That includes His Mother. She is the Mother of His Mystical Body, His Church. We are members of that family which He has formed, called the Church.
As the years unfolded, I found that many of the members of the communion of saints to which we are all joined, were profoundly Marian. My favorite saints, like Francis of Assissi, Bernard of Clairvaux, the early church fathers, St Jose Maria Escriva all the way up to my champion, Saint John Paul II, all had a deep love and devotion to Mary as Mother.
Finally, the grace was given to me to see the beauty of this last gift given by Jesus from the cross. I received her as my own mother. This little Virgin from Nazareth – whose yes brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven, went from being the mother and a mother to – my mother.
And, rather than distance me from Jesus, my intimate communion with Him grew deeper and deeper.
The Catholic Catechism reminds us of the evangelical nature of what is taught about Mary in these words:
What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ. God sent forth his Son, but to prepare a body for him, he wanted the free co-operation of a creature. For this, from all eternity God chose for the mother of his Son a daughter of Israel, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee, a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary (Lk. 1:26,27). (CCC#487, 488)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also explains:
Called in the Gospels the mother of Jesus, Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as the mother of my Lord. In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly Mother of God. (Theotokos), (CCC, 495,496; Council of Ephesus, 431 AD).
The word in Greek is Theotokos, which means bearer or mother of God. The term was used as part of the popular piety of the early first millennium church. It is used throughout the Eastern Church Liturgy, both Orthodox and Catholic.
This title was a response to early threats to orthodoxy. It was a defense of authentic Christian teaching. A pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., insisted, If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the Theotokos (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema.
The Council’s insistence on the title was to preserve the teaching of the Church that Jesus was both Divine and human. The two natures were united in His One Person. Not only was that teaching under an assault then, it is under an assault now.
Failing to get it right has extraordinary implications. Again, the reason that the early Church Council pronounced this doctrine was Christological – meaning that it had to do with Jesus Christ.
One of the threats in the fourth century came from an interpretation of the teachings of a Bishop of Constantinople named Nestorius. Some of his followers insisted on calling Mary only the Mother of the Christ.
The Council insisted on the use of the title (in the Greek) Theotokos, (Mother of God or God-bearer) to reaffirm the central truth of what truly occurred in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This has profound implications for you and for me.
Mary as Model
The rejection of the truth revealed in this title led to a diminution in the understanding of the role of Mary. It impeded some Christians from grasping the meaning of her Yes to God’s Will. She is a model of who we are becoming – as we cooperate with grace! (See, the exposition on grace in the Catholic Catechism, CCC 1996-2003).
This minimizing of Mary is a privation, a lack, and can lead to a reduced understanding of the call to every Christian to live our lives for Jesus Christ – just as Mary did. It can undermine our mission to bring the world to the new world, recreated in her Son, the Church.
The Church is His Body on earth and a seed of the Kingdom which is to come. The Church, of which we are members through baptism, continues His redemptive mission until he returns.
We can also miss the insight it brings to our personal calling. Every Christian is called to bear Jesus for the world as Mary did. We are invited into the relationship that she had with her Son. We can become God-bearers and bring Him to all those whom we encounter in our few short days under the sun.
In addition, we should remember this – Jesus called her Mother. She was always there as His Mother.
Mary, always with Jesus
Mary was at the Incarnation, Birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of God Incarnate. She was there throughout the often-called hidden years in Nazareth. In the life of Jesus Christ every word and every act was redemptive, revealing the mystery of heaven touching earth – and the deeper purpose of our lives.
Mary was present in moments whose impact is timeless.
She was there on the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. She was there as the first evangelist and disciple who gave the first Christian testimony to her cousin, Elizabeth. She won the first convert in utero in the person of John the Baptist. This event, called the Visitation, is recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke l: 39-45).
This followed the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:6-38). Her response was to the Angel was not a onetime reaction. It was a life of surrender. Her Fiat (Latin, let it be done) provides a pattern of life for us, if we choose to make it our own.
It issued forth in a song of praise, her Magnificat. Mary humbled herself. She confronted her fears and entered a new way of living. All in a continued response to a gift initiated by a loving God. We are called to respond the same way to His calling in our own life.
God is not an add on to our life. He is its source and its summit. There is a way that all men and women are invited into – not just once, but daily. The Way of Jesus. Mary walked in this way with extraordinary humility. She shows us love surrendered to Love Incarnate.
Justin Martyr and the early Christians found in her yes, the undoing of the no given by the first woman Eve. They called Mary the Second Eve, the mother of the new creation. In her womb, she carried the One Scripture calls the New Adam. Jesus was born from her as the first born of a new race of men and women who find a new birth through His life, death and Resurrection.
Bearing the Lord
Jesus resides within and lives through all who respond to His invitation. Just as Mary did. Her free choice is an invitation to explore our own histories and write them anew in Jesus Christ by exercising our own freedom to choose the more excellent way. (1 Cor. 13)
When we allow the Savior Jesus Christ, to be, in a sense, incarnated within us, we become God Bearers. We become the tent and the ark in which God takes up His residence. Jesus comes to dwell through us, in an age desperately in need His salvation and presence.
Jesus said – Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. (John 14:23)
The Holy Spirit
In the Annunciation the Spirit of God hovered over Mary. This is connected, through its symbolic language, to the creation account when the Spirit hovered over the waters (Gen 1:2). It also calls to mind the creation of Adam, the first man, who was fashioned out of clay. The Lord breathed the breath of life into him and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7).
The encounter recalls the cloud of glory which covered the mountain when God gave Moses the Law on Sinai (Exodus 24). The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting (Ex 40), and no one could enter because the glory of God filled the tabernacle. Mary is a living tabernacle, an Ark of the New Covenant, a dwelling place of God Incarnate, a new temple of the Word Incarnate.
Such images were freely used by the early Christian fathers.
Such uses did not in any way deflect from the centrality of Jesus Christ. Quite to the contrary. They only deepened the mystery and opened the early Church up to a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ.
The Christian Vocation
Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) once wrote:
What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the Godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for we no longer know Christ according to the flesh, but he dwells in us spiritually and the Father takes up his abode with him, the Gospel tells us. In this way, the child Jesus is born in each one of us. (Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity)
The Catholic Catechism tells us:
Since the Virgin Mary’s role in the mystery of Christ and the Spirit has been treated; it is fitting now to consider her place in the mystery of the Church. The Virgin Mary is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and of the redeemer. She is clearly the mother of the members of Christ since she has by her charity joined in bringing about the birth of believers in the Church, who are members of its head. Mary, Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church (CCC 963).
We have a Mother in this eternal family called the Church. Mary, the Mother of the Lord Jesus. The pastoral admonitions of Pope Francis to the faithful who gathered to commemorate the centenary of the Apparitions at Fatima need to be heard by the faithful around the world.
Mary points us to Jesus Christ, the One Savior of the World. True Marian Piety is always Christological – it leads us into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.
Deacon Keith A. Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. He is also a human rights constitutional lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties. He has long been active at the intersection of faith and culture. Deacon Fournier is also a Senior Contributing writer for THE STREAM, the Editor in Chief of Catholic Online and a columnist for the Catholic News Agency.