Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City on August 7, 2019.
Like untold numbers of Catholics around the world, we gather here at Holy Innocents Church every Wednesday to pray to Our Lady under her title of “Mother of Perpetual Help” and to venerate her icon. Pious legends attribute that icon to St. Luke the Evangelist; the first written account of the work’s existence, however, comes from the fifteenth century. Regardless of its provenance, the icon offers powerful lessons as we see the Christ Child turn to His holy Mother for comfort before the instruments of the Passion He would endure, while Mary looks resolutely at us as she directs our glance to her Divine Son. Mary’s consolation of her Son is not denied to the members of her Son’s Mystical Body, His Church. Hence, our confidence in the Virgin Mother’s gracious intercession. Such thoughts, we must admit, can cause some outside the Church to think that we Catholics have replaced Christ with Mary, especially given the exuberance of some of the prayers. So, let’s do a mini-refresher course in Mariology this evening.
“Do Catholics worship Mary and the other saints?” Catholics are often insulted by this question and frequently refuse to answer it on that account. A non-response, however, is not helpful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is an extremely important question – the answer to which determines whether or not one is a Christian.
The relationship between Catholics and Mary mystifies so many non-Catholic Christians, and we are equally mystified by their strange silence about her – a silence which is awkward and uncomfortable, a silence which is usually broken only once a year at Christmastime because ancient carols force believers to acknowledge and sing of the Virgin who became the Mother of the Messiah. Of course, not all non-Catholic Christians fall into this category: Eastern Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God is very strong; many Anglicans and Lutherans share our convictions about the Blessed Virgin, and one of the best books on the rosary was written by a Methodist minister.1 By and large, though, Protestants have not followed the example of John the Beloved Disciple by making room in their homes for the Mother of Our Lord (cf. Jn 19:27).
Catholics need to become better spokespersons for Marian devotion, both in their understanding of its scriptural basis and in their articulation of the same. In many circumstances, an honest dialogue brings to light that the problem of many non-Catholics with Mary is not so much Mary herself as the way she is presented. Such people need to be challenged forthrightly and charitably to think about the Virgin of Nazareth and to reflect on their usual silence (if not also their not-so-unusual hostility) in her regard. Our goal should not be to rouse their sensibilities to the heights of Marian devotion, but to raise their consciousness to an appreciation of the role of the Blessed Virgin in her Son’s work of salvation.
The teaching of the Scriptures and the Church is clear: Jesus Christ is the sole Mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Tm 2:5). No other person in Heaven or on earth can take His place. The role of Mary or any other saint is to lead the believer to Christ. This subordinate form of mediation derives its meaning and effectiveness from the Lord Himself and is not something the saints possess on their own.
Where, then, does Mary fit into the picture?
Catholics look on Mary, above all, as a model and guide. By her “yes” to the will of the Father at the Annunciation, Mary became the first and best Christian ever to live. Her life is a testimony to the wonderful things that can happen when the human person cooperates with the divine plan. In agreeing to be the human vessel which brought the Messiah into the world, the Blessed Mother played an essential part in Christ’s salvific mission. She manifested Christian humility and obedience when she responded to God’s will: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Her faith in God and her response to His will mark Mary as the first human being to accept Christ, body and soul. as she welcomed Him into her very self. The Church ever since echoes the words of Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth. as she proclaims: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). Indeed, we count it our special privilege and obligation to fulfill Our Lady’s prophetic utterance in her canticle of praise, the Magnificat: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 2:48).
Beyond that, we see the beginning and end of the Lord’s public ministry recorded by St. John as uniquely revelatory of the role and mission of Mary in the life of the Christian. The “woman” who launches her divine Son on His mission of miraculous works in chapter 2 is the “woman” given to the Beloved Disciple and his spiritual heirs as our “mother” in chapter 19. Her intercession at Cana on behalf of the beleaguered newly-weds is extended on Calvary to all her Son’s brothers and sisters in the Church.
In the First Book of Kings, we come upon a charming scene:
So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right. Then she said, “I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me.” And the king said to her, “Make your request, my mother; for I will not refuse you.” (2:19-20)
Cardinal Newman waxes poetic as he describes this encounter between Solomon and his mother, immediately applying it to Jesus and Mary:
Let her “receive the king’s diadem upon her head,” as the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of all living, the Health of the weak, the Refuge of sinners, the Comforter of the afflicted. And “let the first amongst the king’s princes walk before her,” let angels and prophets, and apostles, and martyrs, and all saints, kiss the hem of her garment and rejoice under the shadow of her throne. Thus is it that King Solomon has risen up to meet his mother, and bowed himself unto her, and caused a seat to be set for the king’s mother, and she sits on his right hand. We should be prepared then, my brethren, to believe that the Mother of God is full of grace and glory, from the very fitness of such a dispensation.2
Interestingly, this practice is well ensconced not only in biblical tradition but in contemporary Jewish life as well. An Orthodox rabbi explains: “We Jews believe that if someone is suffering and we invoke his mother’s name in prayer, then God will be more merciful in granting your intercession for that person.” The rationale is simple: “The Church reveres and invokes the Blessed Mother because it inherited the Jewish custom of showing profound reverence for the spiritual role of the mother of a family.”3
With the stage thus set, we can move forward in our reflection. It is probably no exaggeration to suggest that when non-Catholics are asked to identify a specific form of prayer they associate with Catholics, it is the Rosary, which not infrequently even accompanies the Catholic into eternity as his hands are wrapped in the beads in his coffin. The Popes of every age have recommended this form of prayer, with Leo XIII penning eleven encyclicals on the Holy Rosary. Traditionally, the month of October is devoted in a special way to the recitation of the Rosary as the Church celebrates the memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7, originally called Our Lady of Victory because of the totally unexpected and stunning victory of the greatly outnumbered Christian forces over those of the Muslims at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto – a victory the Dominican, Pope St. Pius V, attributed to the fervent praying of the Rosary by all of Christendom.
The Rosary is a meditative form of prayer, combining elements of formulaic prayer (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be) and reflection on the mysteries of redemption. It was originally intended to be the poor and illiterate man’s Psalter as the 150 Hail Mary’s parallel the 150 psalms. Some non-Catholics condemn the praying of the Rosary by referring to Matthew 6:7, but Catholics do not see in the Rosary the “vain repetition of words” which those folks see because we are not seeking to “win a hearing by the sheer multiplication of words.” On the contrary, the stress is not on the words but on the attitude and atmosphere of prayer which is created, allowing the believer to become lost in reflection on the divine and enabling God to speak rather than oneself.
Sometimes one hears uninformed individuals attack the recitation of the Rosary as “Mariolatry”. What must be understood is that the Rosary is, at root, a Christological prayer far more than a Marian one. Catholics pray to Our Lady and with her for the grace to meditate on the mysteries of our salvation with the same fervor as did she (cf. Lk 2:51). Wisely and insightfully, Pope Paul VI in Marialis Cultus described the Rosary as “the compendium of the whole Gospel.”
As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught us, the Queen Mother continues to exercise her maternal mission on our behalf:
This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to Heaven, she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium, n. 62).
In 2002, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, in which he announced a “Year of the Rosary” for 2002-2003, what he deemed a fitting homage to the Blessed Virgin as he embarked on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his election as the Successor of Peter. He ended his letter with these touching words: “A prayer so easy and yet so rich truly deserves to be rediscovered by the Christian community. . . . Rediscover the Rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the Liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives. May this appeal of mine not go unheard!” From eternity, the late Holy Father renews that appeal. May it “not go unheard.”
If we keep the proper perspective, we will never forget – or give any other impression – that our only Savior is Jesus Christ, as the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help reminds us: Mary pointing to Jesus. Cardinal Newman recalls a wise counsel he once received: “I recollect one saying among others of my confessor, a Jesuit Father, one of the holiest, most prudent men I ever knew. He said that we could not love the Blessed Virgin too much, if we loved Our Lord a great deal more.”4 Our Lady would agree.
Dear Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
1J. Neville Ward, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.
2Discourse 18, “On the Fitness of the Glories of Mary.”
3Taylor Marshall, “My Canterbury Trail to Rome,” Coming Home Network Newsletter, September 2010, p. 7.
4Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching I, 21.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!