Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Retreat 2000
Saint Thomas Aquinas Seminary - September 27-30 AD 2000
 Conference III - Devotion to Jesus & Mary
Ave Maria!


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    Before we get into the topic at hand -- the devotion that Catholics ought to have toward Jesus and Mary—it would be wise to review the terminology the Church uses for such things.  Sometimes we give people (non-Catholics, especially) the idea that we hold outlandish beliefs—simply because we are not careful about our own terminology, or because we let others use improper terminology when talking about our beliefs.

    The first terms are the words "worship" and "adoration."  In everyday English these words are a bit ambiguous, and are sometimes used in relatively trivial ways.  Sometimes they refer to the relationship with a "significant other";  a husband, a wife, or a child, as in "he worships her," or even "he worships the ground she walks on."  Some people "adore apple pie."

    I would suggest that the words "worship" and "adoration," at least in the context of our relationship to God and the saints, ought to be reserved only for God.  We can say that "we worship God," or that "we worship" or "we adore" any of the members of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, or Holy Ghost.  We can "worship" or "adore" the Blessed Sacrament, for it is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.  We ought not to say that "we worship Mary," or that "we adore St. Joseph (even though colloquially we might consider him "adorable"), and we absolutely never "adore" or "worship" statues.  Worship, adoration, and the Greek equivalent "latria" pertain in this context to God alone.  In my diagram, they relate only to the divine Persons represented by the triangular shape at the top of the page.

    When we speak about created beings like men and angels, we ought to use a word like "veneration" for the honor which we pay to them, or the respect we have for them.  The theologians use the Greek word "dulia."  Even in the case of the Blessed Virgin, our respect takes the form of "veneration," or perhaps even "greatest veneration" ("hyperdulia").   Likewise, when we pay respect to some material object of our Faith, like a relic, or a crucifix, or a scapular, the appropriate terms are words like "venerate" or "revere."

    Certainly we can "pray" to God, and we can "pray" to His creatures who are in a position to help us, His angels and His saints.  Words like "praise," "honor," "glorify," and "pay tribute to," are a bit more neutral and might be applied to creatures as well as to their Creator.  Some of this, of course is custom or a matter of linguistic usage, and the words we use may change over time -- but the heart of what I am saying is that we should never give the impression that we consider one of God's creatures on the same plane as we consider Him.  We don't want to appear to be breaking the First Commandment.

    We also ought to consider the titles that the Church uses in reference to the Blessed Virgin.  I am thinking particularly of three:  "Mother of God,"  "Mediatrix,"  and "co-Redemptrix."  These are all appropriate and fitting titles for our Lady, but they ought to mean what the Church means in using them.

    Mary is the "Mother of God," in that, at a certain time in history, she gave physical substance to the body of Jesus Christ, and that she carried that divine Infant in her womb as mothers do, gave birth to Him, and raised Him to manhood.  Jesus Christ is inseparably God and man, so the Mother of Jesus Christ is the Mother of God as well as man.  When we use this title, however, we are not saying in any way that Mary existed before God in eternity.

    Mary is the "Mediatrix," but that does not mean that she displaces her Son as Mediator between God and man.  The phrase "to Jesus through Mary" is a good one that ought to be part of our thinking.  It may not be a glamorous analogy, but if we are the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, and He is our Head, then Mary is, so to speak, the "Neck" of the Mystical Body.

    Likewise, Mary is the "co-Redemptrix," but that doesn't mean that Mary redeemed us without Jesus.  It means, more correctly, that she was an instrument in God's plan of Redemption, a physical co-operator, and one who made a gift of what was hers by right of motherhood, and who suffered greatly with her Son in the anguish of His Crucifixion.

    Two more definitions before we get to the matter at hand:  "Redemption" and "Salvation."  We know that the sin of Adam left all of mankind somehow cut off from God, unable to do anything meritorious in His eyes—the illustration in the Catechism is that the "gates of Heaven were shut by original sin."  By His sacrifice on the Cross, our Lord "opened the gates of Heaven."  That is to say that He "redeemed" mankind;  that every person on earth is now radically capable of entering Heaven and enjoying eternal life;  all men are redeemed.

    But even though all men are redeemed, not all will take advantage of their opportunity.  Some will hear the word of God and reject it, others will accept it for a while but will be distracted by earthly temptation, some will simply be to lazy to do what is required of them.  "Salvation," is successfully doing what is expected of one on earth, and ultimately persevering so as to be rewarded with Heaven at the end of life.

    I mention this distinction because our Lord has given His Church the basic means to facilitate our salvation.  He has given us Baptism, by which faith leads to Sanctifying Grace, and Confirmation by which we are strengthened in that Grace.  He has given us Sacramental Confession so that Grace can be restored if fall into sin.  He has given us Extreme Unction, either to heal us or to prepare us for eternity.  He has given us Holy Communion to aid us in our perseverance by being personally with us.

    Under normal circumstances, the Sacraments are the necessary means established by Christ for our salvation.  We are obligated to make use of them to the best of our ability.  It would be seriously wrong to unnecessarily substitute some form of prayer or good work for the reception of the Sacraments.  The Sacraments are not optional, because they are prescribed by Jesus Christ—we are not free to go to Him in prayer (or to His Blessed Mother) simply because we would prefer to avoid the Sacraments that are necessary and available to us.  The Mass and Sacraments are the primary devotions of Christians to our Lord.

    On that note, let us ask ourselves, "Just who is our Lord Jesus Christ and why should we have devotion for Him?"  The most obvious answer is that He is God, the Son of God, and the Person of the Trinity with whom we can best identify.  Artists have always had to represent the Father and the Holy Ghost symbolically, for the drawing of pure spirits represents a serious technical problem.  We know that God the Father is not really an old man, nor is the Holy Ghost a dove—we can identify more easily with the Second Person of the Trinity because He is pictured and can be imagined in a body like our own.  We can identify with Jesus Christ because He allowed Himself to be subjected to many of the limitations our bodies bring to us:  like us, He knew what it was to do physical work and earn His keep;  He felt the heat of summer and the cold of winter;  when they pierced Him, He bled.  Our Lord was like us in every aspect except sin.  When we got to Jesus, we go to someone whom we know understands the human condition, precisely because He was truly human.

    We know, too, that He was truly God.  That "He was begotten of the Father before all ages.... of one substance with the Father."[1]  That He was in the beginning with God, and that He was God, and that all things were made through Him.[2]  Understand that the Second Person of God existed from eternity, and did not come into being on March 25th at the Annunciation or nine months later on December 25th, those are only the dates of His incarnation and birth in human form.

    Our Lord is unique in all existence, for He actually straddles that line between Creator and creation.  Mary, of course, doesn't do that, but she comes awfully close!  Mary was conceived in the mind of God as the Mother of His Son, before He even began the process of creation.  When Adam and Eve sinned, as He foresaw that they would, God was already prepared to announce that He would send a Redeemer, the seed of a woman, as he told the devil:  "I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed, and she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel."[3]  That's why the Church feels free to borrow that text from Proverbs for the feast of her Immaculate Conception, as though it were Mary speaking of her conception in eternity:  "The Lord begot me, the firstborn of His ways.... When He established the heavens I was there ... when He set for the sea its limit ... when He fixed the foundations of the earth."[4]  Still, of course she is a created being.

    Yet she is also the spouse of her Creator:  "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee, and therefore the Holy to be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."  Of her own free will she chose to cooperate with God in the most intimate manner possible for a woman:  "Behold the handmaid of the Lord;  be it done to me according to thy word."[5]  But even still, she is a created being.

    Yet she is also the Mother of her Creator.  As we said just a few moments ago, everything material in Jesus Christ came from or through Mary.  Every chromosome, every cell, He was flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone.  And that didn't even stop with birth, for it was her cooking and her sewing that kept Him fed and clothed.  She may still be a created being, but she is the only one in all existence that God Himself can properly call "daughter," "wife," and "mother."

    We won't say much about Saint Joseph today, but his role in cooperation with Mary's divine motherhood clearly places him rather close to that line between Creator and creature, himself.  In many ways he was truly the father of Christ—not biologically of course—but as provider and protector and even teacher.  His chastity, and his generosity, and his trust in divine providence are examples of virtue that far outshine any other mortal man.  Imagine having the distinction of being the man who taught Jesus Christ how to pray His human prayers;  the man who taught the Creator how to create things in wood.

    The Holy Family, then seems to exist precisely for the purpose of uniting God and man.  No—let me change that—the Holy Family exists to re-unite God and man;  to undo the damage done by Adam and Eve, so that men could once again walk the face of the earth in Sanctifying Grace, animated by the Spirit of God within them.

    In each one of them we see a spirit of sacrifice -- a sacrifice on our behalf, that ought to inspire our everlasting gratitude and devotion.  They were not "dirt poor" as some unwisely suggest, but anyone who has read the Gospels knows that their lives were difficult.  Israel was no longer flowing with milk and honey, having been the victim of numerous foreign invaders, or whom the Romans were merely the latest.  Joseph seems to have died somewhere between our Lord's twelfth and thirtieth year.  Better than any of the Apostles, Mary seems to have known that her Son's destiny was both great and foreboding—she had known since the fortieth day of His life that He was "destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel, for a sign that shall be contradicted," and that a sword of sorrow would "pierce her soul."[6]  Ultimately, she would accompany Him to Calvary and would stand at the foot of His Cross, offering what truly belonged to her in sacrifice for our benefit.

    If we look at the same Sacrifice from the perspective of her Son, we see yet more.  This was the Son of God who came down to live among men in order to show them the ways of His Father in Heaven.  This was the ultimate condescension: the Infinite Superior not just consorting with but adopting the form of the inferior.  Bishop Sheen used to have a startling analogy:  "We can all imagine a man who likes dogs;  and we can imagine a man who likes dogs well enough to devote his life to them [a veterinarian, for example, or someone working in an animal shelter];  but none of us can imagine liking dogs well enough to become a dog, giving up the power of speech and having to walk about on all four for the rest of our lives."[7]  And that, in essence is what our Lord did.

    Only He went a step further, a step even more unimaginable:  He allowed Himself to be crucified for these creatures whom He loved, and one of which He became.  He knew that He could never simply explain the consequences of sin to us and have it mean anything;  He had to demonstrate them.  He had to leave us the mental image of the crucifix;  of the God-man being brutally nailed to the cross, and dying the hours-long death by asphyxiation that was normally reserved for criminals.  He died only when He was too exhausted to raise Himself on the nails to take another breath.  (Every Catholic ought to read Dr. Barbet's book, A Doctor at Calvary, to understand the magnitude of the pain and suffering.)[8]  And it was a death so shameful that it took Christians centuries to think of displaying the crucifix as a thing of honor and veneration.

    And think of the pain in our Lord's heart to die the death of a criminal and leave His Mother in the custody of a friend.  Not even the foreknowledge of His Resurrection could wipe out that anguish.  So, easily we can say that our Lord's life and death were doubly sacrificial on our behalf.

    So how do we show our gratitude?  What sort of devotions might please our Lord and even lessen the burden of His sufferings?

    It is clear first of all that He wants us to live the life of Sanctifying Grace—that life filled with His Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the other Sacraments, as we mentioned earlier.  Again, this is really not optional.  Yet, we might build on it by receiving the Sacraments more than "necessary";  daily Mass if possible, frequent Confession, attendance at Benediction or Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  How about frequent visits to Him in the tabernacle, even if only mentally, for He waits with infinite patience to receive us as His guest before the tabernacle.

    Second, we can assume that we are to follow His example in living a life of prayer.  The Gospels have Him going aside to speak to His Father throughout all the events of His life—no doubt He did so to instruct us to do the same.  That prayer can be the formal prayers that He and His Church teach us.  It can be the very same Psalms that Saint Joseph taught Him to pray—that's why we are placing such emphasis on the Divine Office during these days.  Or perhaps our prayer will be more meditative, calling to mind the events of His life as we do in the proper recitation of the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross (or other meditations).  And, hopefully, our prayer will get to where we can sometimes just sit and listen to what God has to say to us.

    Finally, there has to be activity in the life devoted to Christ.   On one hand we must be active in resisting sin and avoiding the occasions of sin—the persons, places, and things that often cause us to fall from grace.  We must not hate the material world, but we must keep it in proper perspective.  At a minimum there must be self discipline, which can only be achieved through mortification and abstinence from the legitimate pleasures, preparing us to reject the "not so legitimate" pleasures of life.  Some brave souls will go on to actual vows of Poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Many will live somewhere in between.

    There must also be activity on behalf of Christ, which is to say on behalf of our neighbors.  "When did we feed Thee, Lord, or give Thee to drink; when did we clothe Thee;  when did we take Thee in as a stranger, or visit Thee when sick or in prison?"  The answer, of course, is "when we did these things for the least of His brethren"—our brethren.[9]  In the modern world this goes far beyond simple charity to include the obligations incumbent on citizens, and parishioners, and family members, and so forth.  Look up the passage that I just paraphrased (Matthew xxv: 31-46) and you will see what happens to those who never do these things for Christ.

    Now, we might ask ourselves whether it is enough to have devotion to Jesus Christ.  In a sense, it probably is.  It seems unlikely that the Father and the Holy Ghost could ever be jealous—and virtually all of our prayers and good works are done in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, anyway.  But confining devotion to our Lord alone may not be the thing most pleasing to God.  The Blessed Virgin Mary is in God's plans for much more than the practical necessity of having a Mother for His Son.

    She is the Mother of us all—for we were represented by Saint John at the foot of Cross, and we were entrusted to her care, as she was entrusted to us:  "Woman behold thy son(s) ... son(s) behold thy Mother."[10]  I've put the plural (s) in parenthesis after the word son, according to the immemorial tradition that it includes all of us as Mary's sons and daughters.

    Yet, it is my personal belief that the sons need Mary even more than the daughters.  Obviously the daughters need her as a role model, in much the same way that men ought to model their lives after Saint Joseph.  But, roughly fifty percent of the human race is made up of men, and most of those men would be embarrassed even to imagine, let alone think, the thoughts that religious women often speak out loud about Jesus Christ.  I don't at all mean this to belittle the devotion of holy women—but most men would be very hard pressed to keep from blushing or giggling if they had to describe themselves as "brides" or "intimate lovers" of Christ.  We do much better with a Mother than with a Husband.  And even for women as well as for men, it is often easier, mentally, to approach a motherly authority figure than a masculine one.  Mary has been seen as an "easier mark" ever since that incident at the Wedding Feast in Cana of Galilee!

    *  If anyone here is thinking about becoming a priest, you should understand that Mary is the Mother of the Priesthood—not just by some pious title, but in actuality.  Every man who ever stood or will stand before the altar to consecrate bread and wine is another Christ, anyone who sits in the Confessional and forgives the sins of the penitent is another Christ, even if all of us are considerably more motley than her first Son.  She is the Mother of the Priesthood by virtue of the fact that she, more than any other created being is entitled to offer up the Body and Blood of Christ, and more than any other created being she can say truthfully "This is my body..." for He is flesh of her flesh.

    The number of devotions to Mary and Jesus are as numerous as the stars.  There are any number of approved medals, and scapulars, and cinctures, and dresses, and chaplets, and so forth.  Remember, though, that none of these things are magic charms.  For them to be truly useful, they must inspire holy qualities in us.  We must make use of them as reminders of our call to lead virtuous lives, and to unite ourselves in the prayers and good works of the entire Church;  militant, triumphant, and suffering.

    As a priest, I must caution against running too quickly to new innovations.  The traditional canon law forbids it, but dubious apparitions have constituted a thriving industry in the world of airline transportation, inexpensive printing, and video tapes.  No private revelation is ever necessary for your salvation.  Things that are genuine will endure.

    My personal favorites are the Brown Scapular of Mount Carmel and the Dominican Rosary.  The one clothes us in a habit given to a religious order whose first Christian monks actually knew the Blessed Virgin.  The second follows her orders to make converts through prayer and meditation on the events of her life, and that of her Son.  I suppose I would also urge the "Miraculous Medal" which honors her under her title of the Immaculate Conception; perhaps one of her most important.

    It is not a sacramental, but the "Heroic Act of Charity," is in my estimation a very commendable act.  One essentially puts all of the merits and indulgences one gains in her hands for disposition by her.  It shows great trust in our Blessed Lady  and has the added benefit of leaving such things to one who know the true need of the world and never forgets (as many of us are prone to).

    There are numerous solid books on Marian piety.  St. Louis de Montfort is among the best writers.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux is good, as is St. Alphonsus de Liguori, although the latter writes in a flowery style a bit difficult for modern people.

    Among modern titles, I would suggest reading Henri Daniel-Rops, The Book of Mary;  William G. Most, Mary in Our Life;  and Frank Sheed, The Mary Book—if you can find copies.  The Rosary in Action is a terrible title for a great book by John S. Johnson, and it is available through TAN.

    Let me bring all this to a close with one final point.  Devotion to Jesus and Mary is the Hallmark of authentic Christianity.  We haven't talked at all directly about the objections of Protestants to Marian devotion -- that would take another conference or two—perhaps some other time.  But I would like to read to you my favorite piece of writing on the subject, written around the beginning of the 20th century by a convert to Catholicism, Monsignor Ronald Knox:

            They have said that we deify her; that is not because we exaggerate the eminence of God's Mother, but because they belittle the eminence of God.  A creature miraculously preserved from sin by the indwelling power of the Holy Ghost -- that is to them a divine title, because that is all the claim their grudging theologies will concede, often enough, to our Lord Himself.  They refuse to honor the God-bearing Woman because their Christ is only a God-bearing Man.  We who know that God could (if He would) annihilate every existing creature without abating anything of His blessedness or His glory, are not afraid less the honor done to His creature of perfect Womanhood should prejudice the honor due to Him.  Touchstone of truth in the ages of controversy, romance of the medieval world, she has not lost with the rise of new devotions, any fragment of her ancient glory.  Other lights may glow and dim as the centuries pass, she cannot suffer change; and when a Catholic ceases to honor her, he ceases to be a Catholic.[11]



[1]   Nicene Creed.

[2]   Cf. John i: 1-3

[3]   Genesis iii: 15.

[4]   Proverbs viii: 22-35.

[5]   Gospel of the Annunciation, Luke i: 26-38.

[6]   Luke ii: 34, 35.

[7]   Paraphrased, and from memory.

[8]   Pierre Barbet, M.D., A Doctor at Calvary, 1950 (various editions).

[9]   Matthew xxv: 31-46

[10]   John xix: 25-27.

[11]   Msgr. Ronald Knox,  The Belief of Catholics (Garden City: Image Books)


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