In recent weeks, there have been several constants in the preaching of the new Pope, Francis. God’s mercy, the centrality of Christ, forgiveness. But also, the protection of Mary, and the danger of the devil…
Pope Francis went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major on the evening of May 4, the first Saturday of May, to pray the Rosary and to take official possession of the basilica. It was his second visit to the church; the first time was at 8 a.m. on March 14, the morning after his election, to pray before an icon of the Virgin known as the Salus Populi Romani (“Protectress of the Roman People”).
That same morning, Francis gave a homily in the chapel of the Domus Santa Marta, where he is living. In his homily, as has become common in these first weeks, he mentioned the devil, referring to him as a “hater” who wishes ill to men and women, and who must be resisted by faith in Jesus, the Word of God, and by humility and meekness.
“We think of Jesus in His Passion. His Prophet says: ‘As a sheep going to the slaughter.’ He does not cry out, not at all: humility. Humility and meekness. These are the weapons that the prince and spirit of this world does not tolerate, for his proposals are proposals for worldly power, proposals of vanity, proposals for ill-gotten riches.”
The coincidence of these two statements — one in the evening, a prayer to Mary; the other, in the morning, an admonition against the “prince of this world” — underlined a key theme of this pontificate: that the battle against evil, against the devil, is won with and through Mary, the daughter of Israel who is called “full of grace.”
And this explains a great deal about where this “Franciscan” pontificate is, and may be heading. It is a “Franciscan” pontificate, oriented toward simplicity and poverty, an “Ignatian” pontificate oriented toward self-examination and spiritual preparation, but also a “Marian” pontificate, oriented toward that purity and total submission to the will of God that Mary represents — in opposition to that “demonic” spirituality which says “I will not serve” and, in its desire to become God, embraces hatred, oppression, cruelty, passions of all sorts — evil.
On May 4, at 6 in the evening, Pope Francis visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major and prayed five decades of the Rosary, the Joyful Mysteries. The Pope’s remarks were a powerful presentation of his Marian spirituality.
“Mary is a mother, a mother who takes care above all of the health of her children and knows how to heal them with her great and tender love,” Pope Francis said. “What does this mean? My thoughts go, above all, to three aspects: she helps us in our growth, she helps us to face life, she teaches us to be free.”
In speaking about the concern of Mary that people “grow well,” the Pope noted that this is not just a matter of material well-being, but also of deepening and strengthening character. “A mother takes care that her children’s growth is not stunted, that they grow strong and capable of taking responsibilities upon themselves, that they take on commitments in life and lean towards great ideals,” Francis said.
Only the highest of ideals, always high ideals, no matter what… This is the Pope’s recipe for raising children. No spoiling of children.
“And then,” the Pope continued, “a mother thinks of the health of her children, teaching them to face the difficulties of life.”
And here the Pope stressed realism, courage, and prudence — the virtues. Children need to be taught the virtues, the Pope said. “One does not educate, one does not look after someone’s health, by avoiding problems, as if life were a highway without obstacles,” Francis said. “A mother helps her children to look to the problems in life with realism, not to lose oneself in them but to tackle them with courage… A life without challenges does not exist, and a boy or a girl who does not know how to face challenges and put himself or herself on the line, has no backbone!”
And then the Pope took up the question of freedom — perhaps the central question of our time. What is true freedom? How can we have this freedom? How can we lose it? “But what does freedom mean?” Francis asked. “Certainly not doing all that one wants, letting oneself be dominated by passions, passing from one experience to the next without discernment, following the trends of the moment… Freedom is given to us so that we make good choices in life! As a good mother, Mary teaches us to be, like she is, capable of making important decisions with the same full freedom with which she answered ‘yes’ to God’s plan for her life” (Luke 1:38).
The Pope is quite clear. We may choose to be dominated by passions, or to seek to dominate our passions. We may choose to fight the plan of God for our lives, to run from it, or, like Mary, we may choose to say “yes” to it, to embrace it. And then Pope Francis spoke beautiful words about Mary — words of an eloquence reminiscent of his predecessor, Benedict XVI — words worth meditating on. “The whole existence of Mary is a hymn to life, a hymn to love and to life,” Pope Francis said.
As he left the basilica after the Rosary, Pope Francis spoke a few words to the faithful present there. And he asked them to say “three Hail Marys” for him. “I pray for you, but I ask you to pray for me, because I am in need of your prayers. Three Hail Marys for me.”
Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló, archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, gave an interview to Vatican Radio about the evening Rosary. In his remarks, the cardinal revealed that Pope Francis has entrusted his entire pontificate to the Virgin Mary, placing it “at the feet of the Madonna.” On the first morning of his pontificate, “Pope Francis wished to come to the Basilica not only to thank the Madonna, but also — as he told me personally — to make an act of entrustment, to place his pontificate at the feet of the Madonna,” the cardinal said. “He came to ask for the protection and help of the Madonna, being a very Marian Pope.”
This “very Marian Pope” has asked one thing of us: that we say three Hail Marys each day for him, “because I am in need of your prayers. Three Hail Marys for me…”