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 Rosary, Bronx, New York, on the occasion of their patronal feast, October 6, 2019.
“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 epitome of the whole Gospel.”
Blessed John Henry Newman, in one of his sermons on the titles of Our Lady in the Litany of Loreto, had this to say about the Rosary devotion:
Our glorious Queen, since her Assumption on high, has been the minister of numberless services to the elect people of God upon earth, and to His Holy Church. This title of “Help of Christians” relates to those services of which the Divine Office, while recording and referring to the occasion on which it was given her, recounts five, connecting them more or less with the Rosary.
The first was on the first institution of the devotion of the Rosary by St. Dominic, when, with the aid of the Blessed Virgin, he succeeded in arresting and overthrowing the formidable heresy of the Albigenses in the South of France.
The second was the great victory gained by the Christian fleet over the powerful
Turkish Sultan, in answer to the intercession of Pope St. Pius V, and the prayers
of the associations of the Rosary all over the Christian world. . . .
The third was, in the words of the Divine Office, “the glorious victory won at Vienna, under the guardianship of the Blessed Virgin, over the most savage Sultan of the Turks, who was trampling on the necks of the Christians; in perpetual memory of which benefit Pope Innocent XI. . . . dedicated the Sunday in the Octave of her Nativity as the feast of her august Name.”
The fourth instance of her aid was the victory over the innumerable force of the same Turks in Hungary on the Feast of St. Mary ad Nives, in answer to the solemn supplication of the confraternities of the Rosary.
And the fifth was her restoration of the Pope’s temporal power, at the beginning of this century [19th], after Napoleon the First, Emperor of the French, had taken it from the Holy See; on which occasion Pope Pius VII. set apart May 24, the day of this mercy, as the Feast of the Help of Christians, for a perpetual thanksgiving.4
If you paid close attention to this list of Marian victories wrought through the Holy Rosary, you should have noticed that three of the five have to do with Islam.
In fact, a little bit more background on the third “victory” of Our Lady noted might prove very interesting. There Cardinal Newman is alluding to the liturgical commemoration of the Holy Name of Mary, which had been dropped from the calendar after Vatican II but was reinserted by Pope John Paul II into the Missale Romanum of 2002. The feast was established by Pope Innocent XI in 1683 in thanksgiving for the deliverance of Vienna, obtained through the intercession of Our Lady, when the city was besieged by the Turks in 1683. An army of 550,000 invaders had reached the city walls and was threatening all of Europe. Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, came with a much smaller army to assist the besieged city during the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, and made preparations for a great battle – the first part of which was engaging in a vigil of prayer and fasting on the night of September 11. Yes, you heard right, September 11. After receiving Holy Communion with his troops on the morning of the 12th, he cried out: “Let us march with confidence under the protection of Heaven and with the aid of the Most Holy Virgin!” Inexplicably, the Muslim Turks were struck with a sudden panic and fled in chaos.
An old adage teaches us that “history repeats itself.” And the ancient Roman statesman and orator Cicero is often credited with warning us that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” Once again, we are facing a crisis with the Islamic world, but this time around what is regrettably the former Christian West is weak, a largely dissipated anti-culture, barely able to reproduce itself. Will peace between Islam and the West be achieved only because it is the peace of the grave, so that we or our grandchildren will simply wake up some day living under sharia? Is this inevitable? Is there any possible solution? I believe there is a solution, and it will come through taking seriously some insights of Archbishop Fulton Sheen – amazingly prescient since written in his 1952 book, The World’s First Love, wherein we discover a chapter, entitled, “Mary and the Moslems.”5
Very objectively, the Archbishop presents the historical record:
The Christian European West barely escaped destruction at the hands of the Muslims. At one point they were stopped near Tours and at another point, later on in time, outside the gates of Vienna. The Church throughout northern Africa was practically destroyed by Muslim power, and at the present hour, the Moslems are beginning to rise again.
He goes on, and don’t forget he is writing in 1952:
At the present time, the hatred of the Muslim countries against the West is becoming a hatred against Christianity itself. Although the statesmen have not yet taken it into account, there is still grave danger that the temporal power of Islam may return, and with it, the menace that it may shake off a West which has ceased to be Christian, and affirm itself as a great anti-Christian world power. Muslim writers say, “When the locust swarms darken countries, they bear on their wings these Arabic words: We are God’s host, each of us has ninety-nine eggs, and if we had a hundred, we should lay waste the world, with all that is in it.”
He then asks: “How shall we prevent the hatching of the hundredth egg?” Through the conversion of Muslims to Christianity – not through the direct teachings of Christianity, but through a summoning of the Muslims to a veneration of the Mother of God.
Finally, the Archbishop launches into a detailed analysis of Islamic respect, even devotion, for the Mother of Jesus, highlighting the fact that the Koran teaches the doctrines of her Immaculate Conception and perpetual virginity. Most surprising to most non-Muslims is that the Koran actually has more verses about Our Lady than the New Testament! We even possess a writing of Mohammed, addressed to his daughter Fatima, in which he says to her after her death: “Thou shalt be the most blessed of all women in Paradise, after Mary.” And Fatima herself says, “I surpass all women, except Mary.” Which leads us to Archbishop Sheen’s connecting of the dots between Islam and Our Lady of Fatima:
. . . the Muslims occupied Portugal for centuries. At the time when they were finally driven out, the last Muslim chief had a beautiful daughter by the name of Fatima. A Catholic boy fell in love with her, and for him she not only stayed behind when the Muslims left, but even embraced the Faith. The young husband was so much in love with her that he changed the name of the town where he lived to Fatima. Thus, the very place where Our Lady appeared in 1917 bears a historical connection to Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed.
The final evidence of the relationship of Fatima to the Muslims is the enthusiastic reception which the Muslims in Africa, India, and elsewhere gave to the pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Muslims attended the church services in honor of Our Lady, they allowed religious processions and even prayers before their mosques; and in Mozambique, the Muslims who were unconverted, began to be Christian as soon as the statue of Our Lady of Fatima was erected.
It seems that Sheen’s analysis may have been on-target for, most interestingly, as recently as 2007, Australian Muslims built a mosque and dedicated it to Our Lady!6
Archbishop Sheen concludes by noting that missionaries to the Muslims will see more successes when they preach Our Lady of Fatima, for Mary brings Christ to people before Christ Himself is born. In this endeavor, it is best to start with what the Muslims already accept. Because there is an existing devotion to Mary, missionaries need to build upon this devotion, with the understanding that Our Lady will carry the Muslims to her divine Son. She never accepts devotion merely for herself, but always leads her devotees to her Son. Just as those who lose Marian devotion lose belief in Christ’s divinity, so also those who strengthen their devotion to her, in time acquire the correct belief concerning her Son.
I would add one more element to the goal of Muslim conversions: We Christians – and the nations we inhabit – must be vibrant witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When the United States is perceived – and often is – the international promoter and purveyor of abortion, pornography, illicit sexual lifestyles, family disintegration and conspicuous consumption, it is no wonder that honest and dishonest Muslims alike can point an accusing finger at us as “The Great Satan.” If we hope for peace and reconciliation, let alone conversions, we Christians must live and look like true disciples of Jesus Christ. And the best way we can do that is by being true children of Mary – the perfect disciple.
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).
The instrument, indeed the “weapon,” which has most often brought victory is the Holy Rosary. 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.”
Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Victory, pray for us!
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.
4“Auxilium Christianorum” (May 29), PVD, pp. 174-175.
6John Samaha, “Mary, Fatima and Islam,” The Catholic Response, May/June 2010, p. 34.
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