By KATHRYN BYRNE, Special Contributor | Published April 7, 2005
Does having a devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, detract from our union with the Lord? It’s a question that many have asked, Catholic and Protestant alike. During the Second World War, the dark years of Nazi occupation in Poland, a factory worker in this war-torn country, Karol Wojtyla, grappled with this very question. Little did this young man know that he would one day serve as the future Pope John Paul II. Nor did he know that the answer to his question would have an impact on the world.
The pope spoke frankly of that time of his life in his book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”: “At first, it seemed to me that I should distance myself a bit from the Marian devotion of my childhood, in order to focus more on Christ.”
It was through the writings of St. Louis de Montfort that he found what he was seeking. “… I came to understand that true devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric, indeed, it is very profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, and the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption.”
Pope Paul VI’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, had obviously not yet been written. Yet its words echo the sentiments of young Wojtyla’s enlightened discovery, “The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no wise obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows His power.” Pope John Paul referred to this document often in his writings, and kept this focus to the forefront in most of his own writings and homilies about Mary during his pontificate.
When he was first chosen as pope in 1978, he borrowed from de Montfort’s writings in choosing as his motto for his papacy, “Totus Tuus,” meaning “Totally Yours.” As his love for Mary grew, his love for Jesus grew, and he enthusiastically shared this with the world.
An event which greatly impacted his relationship with his heavenly Mother was the assassination attempt on his life on May 13, 1981. The fact that it took place on the anniversary of the first apparition of Mary at Fatima was not lost to him. He requested reading material on Fatima while still recovering in the hospital, and credited his survival to “a motherly hand which guided the bullet’s path.”
Many recall his subsequent visit to his attacker, Mehmet Ali Agca. In the drudges of a prison cell, the pope was carrying out the basic message of Fatima and of Christ Himself—a continuous call to conversion, repentance and peace. The press crowded in, unsuccessfully attempting to pick up on his private conversation with the man. Yet his public declaration of forgiveness had to touch the most hardened of hearts.
Nineteen years later, as he neared his 80th birthday, he made a final pilgrimage to Fatima, and revealed the infamous “third secret” of Fatima—a prophetic vision by the children of a “Bishop dressed in white” being shot down. Yet sharing the secret, one which has raised much speculation through the years, was peripheral to the main mission of his visit. He went to express “… thanksgiving to Mary for what she communicated to the Church through those children, and for the protection she gave me during my pontificate.”
The pope’s love for the Mother of God was quite evident in many of his homilies, talks and apostolic writings. His encyclical of March 25, 1987, Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer), which marked the beginning of a Marian Year, bears special attention. In it he again emphasizes his enlightened discovery as a youngster in Poland—the Christ-centered nature of true devotion to Mary.
“If [those who are still on the journey of faith] lift their eyes to her from their earthly existence, they do so because the Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren.” (Rom 8:29)
This encyclical takes us, Christ’s people, on the same journey of faith that Mary took, and encourages us to look toward her not only as a shining example, which indeed she is, but to also see in her a Mother’s heart beating with tears, utmost concern, and deep love for us, her children.
Recalling the statement of the angel to the young Jewish girl, that she is “full of grace,” the pope encourages us to grasp these words as belonging to all of us. “It is a spiritual blessing which is meant for all people and which bears in itself fullness and universality … It flows from that love which, in the Holy Spirit, unites the consubstantial Son to the Father. At the same time, it is a blessing poured out through Jesus Christ upon human history until the end: upon all people.”
What a wonderful gift this is to us as members of Christ’s Body. The special intimacy Mary has with the Holy Spirit, the strength of which conceived the Incarnate Christ Child, is one meant for all of us. By the powerful love of the Holy Spirit, we, too, can experience Jesus within us, and we too can present Him to the world. Our role is to cooperate by saying “yes” as she did. In doing so, we can joyfully sing along with her, “God Who is mighty has done great things for me, holy is His name.”
While announcing a Year of the Rosary to begin in October 2002, Pope John Paul surprised and delighted the world with his Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary). In this apostolic letter, he announced five new mysteries of the rosary to be added to the fifteen which have been in existence for hundreds of years, increasing this beautiful prayer’s Christocentric nature even more.
It is obvious with this beautiful letter that the pope’s love for Mary and the rosary remained fervently alive in him throughout his pontificate. He continuously saw Mary as constantly pointing him, and the Church, to Jesus Christ.
“In the spiritual journey of the Rosary,” he states, “based on the constant contemplation—in Mary’s company—of the face of Christ, this demanding ideal of being conformed to him is pursued through an association which could be described in terms of friendship. We are thereby enabled to enter naturally into Christ’s life and as it were to share his deepest feelings.”
In praying the rosary, the pope assures us that we entrust ourselves to her maternal care, and receive continuous graces through her powerful prayers for us. “She who is both the Mother of Christ and a member of the Church, … is at the same time the Mother of the Church. As such, she continually brings to birth children for the mystical Body of her Son. She does so through her intercession, imploring upon them the inexhaustible outpouring of the Spirit.”
Thus, as Pope John Paul II well knew, in uniting ourselves to the Mother, we are drawn into deeper union with the Son. Pope John Paul’s focus on Mary, and on the Christocentric nature of devotion to her, is a wonderful legacy that he left to the universal Church.
Kathryn Byrne, a parishioner of St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Snellville, and a member of the parish staff, has written and reflected on the role of Mary in prayer and spirituality.