Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Mystery of Mary

“Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Beloved disciple was entrusted to her [Mary], and with him the whole community of disciples (cf. John 19:26). Between Ascension and Pentecost, she is with and in the Church in prayer (cf. Acts 1:14).

“Mother of God and Mother of the Church, Mary exercises this motherhood until the end of history.

“We entrust to her every passing phase of our personal and ecclesial life, not least that of our final transit.”
—Pope Benedict XVI, March 14, 2012 (three weeks ago), Catechesis, Wednesday General Audience

“What is the proper love of God? One should love God with an exceedingly great and powerful love until one’s soul is bound up in the love of God, continuously pre-occupied with it like one who is lovesick… Even more than this should the love of God constantly pre-occupy the hearts of those who love Him. Thus He has commanded us: ‘With all your heart and with all your soul’ (Deuteronomy 6:5). Solomon spoke of this allegorically when he said: ‘For I am sick with love’ (Canticle of Canticles 2:5). The entire Canticle is an allegory concerning this matter.”
—Maimonedes, Mishneh Torah, hilkhotteshuvah 10:3 (cited in “Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in Its Historical Context,” by Arthur Green, Association for Jewish Studies Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (April, 2002), pp. 1-52)

A Special Mass at the Altar of Our Lady of the Column in St. Peter’s Basilica

This morning, I asked Father Jan Ligeza, the Polish priest I mentioned in yesterday’s email, if he would be willing to celebrate Mass in the basilica at the altar beneath a very special image of Mary, which is known as the Altar of Our Lady of the Column.

We went to the St. Peter’s Basilica sacristy just after 7 a.m. We found many priests there preparing to go into the basilica and celebrate Mass at different altars. By chance we ran into Bishop Josef Clemens, 64, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (for many years the personal secretary of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict VXI), and also Father Mark Withoos, an official for the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, who each morning celebrates Mass according to the traditional form at the Altar of the Transfiguration. (For a moment I weighed asking Father Mark whether he thought Rome would receive a response from Bishop Bernard Fellay of the Society of St. Pius X by April 15, but then kept my silence.)

Father Ligeza, after vesting, walked out of the sacristy toward the main area of the basilica, accompanied by an altar server. (Photo below)

A Unique Painting

There is only one painting in the main body of St. Peter’s Basilica, and only one fresco in the entire vast church.

All the other, splendid images in St. Peter’s are mosaics, not paintings.

(Mosaics in churches are often preferable to paintings, because, being made of stone, they can last for centuries, or millennia, without fading, or flaking. Note: there are two oil-on-canvass paintings of angels in the chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament, off to the right of the main nave as one walks into the church).

The one, unique fresco is of… Mary.

Dating from 1581, it depicts Mary with her son, Jesus, as a child. This is what it looks like:

But this fresco is a very special Madonna and Child.

It is an image so highly regarded by Pope John Paul II, so significant to him, that, after the attempt on his life on May 13, 1981, he asked for a copy of this very painting, along with a portion of his own coat-of-arms — the part which reads “Totus Tuus” (“Entirely thine”) — to be prepared (as a mosiac) for installation high above St. Peter’s Square, making it the only image of Mary, and indeed, the only image at all, in the entire piazza. It was installed at the end of 1981, on December 7, in time for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 of that year.

Here is what it looks like today (Note: the second photo is by Ed O’Keeffe):

Mary, Mother of the Church

The original image is painted, not on canvass, but on marble — in fact, on the curved marble of a column which once stood in the Constantinian basilica.

A portion of the column, with the image on it, was moved to its present location in the back of the church more than 400 years ago, in 1607, when the new basilica was constructed.

It now stands above an altar in the very far left hand corner at the back of the basilica, where it is also entitled “Mater Ecclesiae” — “Mother of the Church.” It received this name after the Second Vatican Council, when Paul VI honored Mary with the title “Mater Ecclesiae.”

This chapel at the back left-hand corner of the basilica is a peaceful spot. It is usually blocked off from general tourist traffic, but over the years it has become my favorite place in the entire basilica. I will try to touch on just one of the reasons below.

On November 21, 1964, at the end of the third session of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI proclaimed solemnly that Mary was Mater Ecclesiae, Mother of Christ and also of his mystical Body (the Church).

Below the altar, in a 4th century Christian sarcophagus with the images of Christ and the Apostles, lie the remains of Popes Leo II, III, IV, gathered by Pope Paschal II (1099-1118).

I asked Father Ligeza if he would be willing to celebrate Mass at this altar, and he agreed.

Here is a photograph of the moment of consecration this morning:

Pope Benedict XVI also knows of this image; he gave a copy of it to Oscott College as a gift on September 19, 2010, during his papal visit to Scotland and England. (The Holy Father also presented other mosaics of Our Lady during his visit to the UK, one of them being to St Mary’s Twickenham.)

It is believed to be the first time that an image of the Madonna so connected with St Peter’s Basilica has been given as a gift by the Pope

A St. Peter’s Square Without Mary

After the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in the early 1600s, the project of designing St. Peter’s Square was entrusted to Bernini, who worked hard on it from 1656 to 1657. The result is the marvel we see today.

Bernini himself explained that the two semi-ovals formed by the 284 pillars were intended to symbolize the arms of Mother Church embracing all mankind.

But the piazza had no image of Mary, no direct reference to Mary.

That missing element was supplied by John Paul II with his decision to install the mosaic of the Madonna and Child high above the Square.

Today, any visitor to Rome who wishes to see the Pope goes to St. Peter’s Square. The Sunday Angelus — a custom instituted by Pope John Paul II — and the Wednesday audiences, as well as the many liturgical celebrations throughout the year, draw millions each year. And all of them, today, can see the image of Mary high above them in the wall of the papal palace.

Just before blessing the mosaic in the Sqaure on December 8, 1981, Pope John Paul II spoke the following words: “Now I will bless the picture of Our Lady ‘Mother of the Church,’ with the desire that all those who come to St. Peter’s Square may raise their eyes to her, and address their own greetings and their own prayer to her in a spirit of filial trust.”

Pope Benedict, like his predecessor, has a profound Marian spirituality, which has deepened in recent years.

On December 8, 2005, following Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of the Feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, Benedict appeared at his study window to pray the Angelus.

Prior to the prayer, he referred to the Solemnity as “a day of intense spiritual joy,” calling to mind Dante’s depiction of Mary in the Paridiso of his Divine Comedy.

She appears in the 33rd Canto, the Pope recalled, “humbler and higher than all other creatures, fixed aim and goal of the eternal plan.” He added: “In contemplating the Virgin, how can we not reawaken in ourselves, her children, the aspiration to beauty, goodness and purity of heart?”

“Her celestial candor,” Benedict said, “attracts us towards God, helping us to overcome the temptation to a mediocre life — one made up of compromises with evil — and orienting us decisively towards authentic goodness, which is a source of joy.”

Benedict’s Marian Devotion

The Marian devotion of our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, was made clear in a 1984 interview with Vittorio Messori, published in English in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report by Ignatius Press.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, identified Our Lady as the “remedy” for the challenges and crises facing the Church and the world today.

Here is a brief excerpt from Messori’s book-interview:

To the crisis in the understanding of the Church, to the crisis of morality, to the crisis of woman, the Prefect has a remedy, among others, to propose “that has concretely shown its effectiveness throughout the centuries.” “A remedy whose reputation seems to be clouded today with some Catholics but one that is more than ever relevant.” It is the remedy that he designates with a short name: Mary.

Ratzinger is very aware that it is precisely Mariology which presents a facet of Christianity to which certain groups regain access only with difficulty, even though it was confirmed by the Second Vatican Council as the culmination of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. “By inserting the mystery of Mary into the mystery of the Church,” he says, “Vatican II made an important decision which should have given a new impetus to theological research. Instead, in the early post-conciliar period, there has been a sudden decline in this respect—almost a collapse, even though there are now signs of a new vitality.”

In 1968, eighteen years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in body and soul to heavenly glory, the then-professor Ratzinger observed as he recalled the event: “The fundamental orientation which guides our lives in only a few years has so changed that today we find it difficult to understand the enthusiasm and the joy that then reigned in so many parts of the Catholic Church…. Since then much has changed, and today that dogma which at that time so uplifted us instead escapes us. We ask ourselves whether with it we may not be placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of a reunion with our evangelical fellow Christians, whether it would not be much easier if this stone did not lie on the road, this stone which we ourselves had placed there in the so recent past. We also ask ourselves whether with such a dogma we may not threaten the orientation of Christian piety. Will it not be misdirected, instead of looking toward God the Father and toward the sole mediator, Jesus Christ, who as man is our brother and at the same time is so one with God that he is himself God?”

Yet, during the interview he told me, “If the place occupied by Mary has been essential to the equilibrium of the Faith, today it is urgent, as in few other epochs of the Church, to rediscover that place.”

Ratzinger’s testimony is also humanly important, having been arrived at along a personal path of rediscovery, of gradual deepening, almost in the sense of a full “conversion,” of the Marian mystery. In fact, he confides to me: “As a young theologian in the time before (and also during) the Council, I had, as many did then and still do today, some reservations in regard to certain ancient formulas, as, for example, that famous De Maria nunquam satis, ‘concerning Mary one can never say enough.’ It seemed exaggerated to me. So it was difficult for me later to understand the true meaning of another famous expression (current in the Church since the first centuries when—after a memorable dispute—the Council of Ephesus, in 431, had proclaimed Mary Theotokos, Mother of God). The declaration, namely, that designated the Virgin as ‘the conqueror of all heresies.’ Now—in this confused period where truly every type of heretical aberration seems to be pressing upon the doors of the authentic faith—now I understand that it was not a matter of pious exaggerations, but of truths that today are more valid than ever.”

“Yes,” he continues, “it is necessary to go back to Mary if we want to return to that ‘truth about Jesus Christ,’ truth about the Church’ and the ‘truth about man’ that John Paul II proposed as a program to the whole of Christianity when, in 1979, he opened the Latin American episcopal conference in Puebla. The bishops responded to the Pope’s proposal by including in the first documents (the very ones that have been read only incompletely by some) their unanimous wish and concern: ‘Mary must be more than ever the pedagogy, in order to proclaim the Gospel to the men of today.’ Precisely in that continent where the traditional Marian piety of the people is in decline, the resultant void is being filled by political ideologies. It is a phenomenon that can be noted almost everywhere to a certain degree, confirming the importance of that piety which is no mere piety.”

Six Reasons For Not Forgetting

The Cardinal lists six points in which—albeit in a very concise and therefore necessarily incomplete way—he sees the importance of Mary with regard to the equilibrium and completeness of the Catholic Faith.

First point: “When one recognizes the place assigned to Mary by dogma and tradition, one is solidly rooted in authentic christology. (According to Vatican II: ‘Devoutly meditating on her and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church reverently penetrates more deeply into the great mystery of the Incarnation and becomes more and more like her spouse,’ Lumen Gentium, no. 65). It is, moreover in direct service to faith in Christ—not, therefore, primarily out of devotion to the Mother—that the Church has proclaimed her Marian dogmas: first that of her perpetual virginity and divine motherhood and then, after a long period of maturation and reflection, those of her Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption into heavenly glory. These dogmas protect the original faith in Christ as true God and true man: two natures in a single Person. They also secure the indispensable eschatological tension by pointing to Mary’s Assumption as the immortal destiny that awaits us all. And they also protect the faith—threatened today—in God the Creator, who (and this, among other things, is the meaning of the truth of the perpetual virginity of Mary, more than ever not understood today) can freely intervene also in matter. Finally, Mary, as the Council recalls: ‘having entered deeply into the history of salvation, … in a way unites in her person and reechoes the most important mysteries of the Faith'” (Lumen Gentium, no. 65).

This first point is followed by a second: “The Mariology of the Church comprises the right relationship, the necessary integration between Scripture and tradition. The four Marian dogmas have their clear foundation in sacred Scripture. But it is there like a seed that grows and bears fruit in the life of tradition just as it finds expression in the liturgy, in the perception of the believing people and in the reflection of theology guided by the Magisterium.”

Third point: “In her very person as a Jewish girl become the mother of the Messiah, Mary binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God, Israel and Christianity, synagogue and church. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old. In her, instead, we can live the unity of sacred Scripture in its entirety.”

Fourth point: “The correct Marian devotion guarantees to faith the coexistence of indispensable ‘reason’ with the equally indispensable ‘reasons of the heart,’ as Pascal would say. For the Church, man is neither mere reason nor mere feeling, he is the unity of these two dimensions. The head must reflect with lucidity, but the heart must be able to feel warmth: devotion to Mary (which ‘avoids every false exaggeration on the one hand, and excessive narrow-mindedness in the contemplation of the surpassing dignity of the Mother of God on the other,’ as the Council urges) thus assures the faith its full human dimension.”

Continuing his synthesis, Ratzinger lists a fifth point: “To use the very formulations of Vatican II, Mary is ‘figure,’ ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the aforementioned masculinized model that views her as an instrument for a program of social-political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.”

Here is the sixth and last point of this synthesis: “With her destiny, which is at one and the same time that of Virgin and of Mother, Mary continues to project a light upon that which the Creator intended for women in every age, ours included, or, better said, perhaps precisely in our time, in which—as we know—the very essence of femininity is threatened. Through her virginity and her motherhood, the mystery of woman receives a very lofty destiny from which she cannot be torn away. Mary undauntedly proclaims the Magnificat, but she is also the one who renders silence and seclusion fruitful. She is the one who does not fear to stand under the Cross, who is present at the birth of the Church. But she is also the one who, as the evangelist emphasizes more than once, ‘keeps and ponders in her heart’ that which transpires around her. As a creature of courage and of obedience she was and is still an example to which every Christian—man and woman—can and should look.”

“De Maria nunquam satis…”

“About Mary, one can never say enough.”

That is the reason that it seemed fitting to go to Mary’s chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica this morning, and then, this evening, to write, in this brief email, about how Pope John Paul II believed, and Pope Benedict XVI believes, that Mary can be a “remedy” for the crises of the Church and world today…

(to be continued…)

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