Catholic by Choice: The Gift of Mary and the Communion of Saints
As one who returned to the practice of the Catholic Christian faith as a young man, I spent much time studying the lives of the saints, the teachings of the early fathers and the devotion of the early Christians. I discovered something which forced me to examine my limited understanding of Mary and my youthful perceptions of Catholic practice which I had picked up from other Christians leery of Catholic piety and practice. I discovered that the early Christian Fathers loved Mary - personally. They had a special devotion to her. In fact, some of the most profound of the ancient writings concerning the special role of Mary in the plan of salvation were written in the earliest centuries of the Christian Church.As I dug further into the lives of many of my personal heroes of the faith in the Second Millennium of Christianity, such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi, I discovered that devotion to Mary informed their worship and deeply enriched their Christian lives.
True love and devotion for Mary does not lessen love for the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor does t detract from the worship which is due only to God. To the contrary, it enhances worship, draws us loser to Jesus, and inspires us to live holy lives which reflect the fact that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is alive. That He lives His life now, continuing His redemptive mission in and through His Body, the Church, of which we are members.
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - Among the many titles given to Mary is "Queen of all the Saints". In one of his many reflections on Mary, Saint John Paul II proclaimed:"This woman of faith, Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of God, has been given to us a model of our pilgrimage of faith. From Mary we learn to surrender to God's will in all things. From Mary we learn to trust even when all hope seems gone. From Mary we learn to love Christ, her Son, and the Son of God. For Mary is not only the Mother of God, she is the Mother of the Church as well." (Oct. 6, 1979)
John Paul's devotion to Mary was characteristic of so many holy men and women throughout the entire history of the Christian Church. That is especially evident when we examine Christian writings before the continuing division which followed the Protestant Reformation in the West. As one who returned to the practice of the Catholic Christian faith as a young man, I spent much time studying the lives of the saints, the teachings of the early fathers and the devotion of the early Christians.
I discovered something which forced me to examine my limited understanding of Mary and my youthful perceptions of Catholic practice which I had picked up from other Christians leery of Catholic piety and practice. I discovered that the early Christian Fathers loved Mary personally. They had a special devotion to her. In fact, some of the most profound of the ancient writings concerning the special role of Mary in the plan of salvation were written in the earliest centuries of the Christian Church.
As I dug further into the lives of many of my personal heroes of the faith in the Second Millennium of Christianity, such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi, I discovered that devotion to Mary informed their worship and deeply enriched their Christian lives.This love and devotion did not lessen their love for the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor did it detract them from the worship which is due only to God. To the contrary, it enhanced their worship, drew them closer to Jesus, and inspired them to live holy lives which reflected the fact that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is alive. That He lives His life now, continuing His redemptive mission in and through His Body, the Church, of which we are members.
First, let us consider the word saint. We are all "saints" in the sense of having been set aside for the Lord to live holy lives and called into communion with Him, and through Him, with one another for the sake of the world. (See Catholic Catechism, # 946 - 952) We live in the Church. However, there are some among us who excel in love. From the earliest centuries of the Church, those Christians who lived lives of extraordinarily intimate communion with the Lord and demonstrated heroic virtue; those who reflected the radiance of Christ were honored, both during life and after they entered into eternal communion with the Lord. They were given a place of honor within the "communion of saints." This is the fertile field from which the practice of canonizing some of those members of the Body of Christ began. The Catholic Catechism explains:
"By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God's grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors. "The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church's history." Indeed, "holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal." (CCC #828)
Among them all, the "God - bearer", in Greek the Theotokos, the Mother of the Lord, was always given the place of honor at the side of the King of Kings, her Son and Savior Jesus Christ. In the very nhe next paragraph the Catechism explains:
"But while in the most Blessed Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle, the faithful still strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness. And so they turn their eyes to Mary - in her, the Church is already the "all-holy." (CCC #829)
My study over decades only confirmed what I discovered as a young man on my way home to the Church of my early childhood, the Catholic Church. The great saints of the Church - canonized or not - had a special devotion to Mary, the Queen of the Saints. For example, one of my great heroes, the Cistercian Abbot, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) once preached the following words which we still reflect upon every year, during the Advent season, in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours:
"You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.
"Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.
"Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word. Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary.
"Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word."
This great teacher of prayer also instructs us all in another of his homilies:
"In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name depart from your lips, never suffer it to leave your heart. And that you may obtain the assistance of her prayer; neglect not to walk in her footsteps. With her for guide, you shall never go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart; so long as she is in your mind, you are safe from deception; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal."
For St Bernard - and for all who seek to grow closer to Jesus Christ - Mary points the way to Him. In her "Yes", Fiat in Latin, we find the way of a life of devotion to Jesus, a life of surrendered love. A way to imitate, honor and participate in. A way of Love. Bernard preached in another homily,
"Love is sufficient of itself; it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in the practice. Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be. For when God loves, all he desires is to be loved in return. The sole purpose of his love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love him are made happy by their love of him."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us some beautiful reflections on how Mary must have prayed, and how Mary still prays. She has a special role in the plan of salvation and is a model for all Christians:
"Mary's prayer is revealed to us at the dawning of the fullness of time. Before the incarnation of the Son of God, and before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, her prayer cooperates in a unique way with the Father's plan of loving kindness: at the Annunciation, for Christ's conception; at Pentecost, for the formation of the Church, his Body.
"In the faith of his humble handmaid, the Gift of God found the acceptance he had awaited from the beginning of time. She whom the Almighty made "full of grace" responds by offering her whole being: "Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word." "Fiat": this is Christian prayer: to be wholly God's, because he is wholly ours.
"The Gospel reveals to us how Mary prays and intercedes in faith. At Cana, the mother of Jesus asks her son for the needs of a wedding feast; this is the sign of another feast - that of the wedding of the Lamb where he gives his body and blood at the request of the Church, his Bride. It is at the hour of the New Covenant, at the foot of the cross, that Mary is heard as the Woman, the new Eve, the true "Mother of all the living."
"That is why the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat (Latin) or Megalynei (Byzantine) is the song both of the Mother of God and of the Church; the song of the Daughter of Zion and of the new People of God; the song of thanksgiving for the fullness of graces poured out in the economy of salvation and the song of the "poor" whose hope is met by the fulfillment of the promises made to our ancestors, "to Abraham and to his posterity forever." (CCC #2617-2619)
The Catechism addresses the ancient practice, present from the beginning of the Church, of seeking Mary's intercession. This is rooted in the Christian belief in the communion of saints. From antiquity, the Church has proclaimed, as St Paul affirmed in his words to the Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death. (Romans 8:38ff) As the author of the letter to the Hebrews affirmed, we are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1).
One of the great lay Catholic apologists of our age, Scott Hahn, once explained devotion to Mary with these words:
"So we say, "Well then, why give glory and honor and devotion to Mary?" Because we do whatever Jesus tells us. And we do whatever Jesus does because the fundamental axiom of Christian morality is the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ, and he is the best of the best when it comes to being a son. Not only a Son of his heavenly Father,but a Son of his earthly mother.
"When he accepts the mission of his Father to become a man and to obey the law, he obeys it more perfectly than anybody could have ever imagined it being obeyed. And when he gets to that commandment, "Honor your father and your mother," that Hebrew word, kabodah, means bestow glory, comes from kabod weight, glory. So he honors his Father and obeys his command by bestowing unprecedented glory upon the one that he has chosen from all eternity to be his mother. The only time that the Creator created a human creature, created the one destined to be his mother. And he filled her with his own life and grace because he began honoring as soon as she was created his mother."
"So what do we do? We honor Christ and we glorify him and we imitate him. If we really imitate him, we do what he does and we honor and bestow glory upon his mother. Not instead of him. It isn't undermining devotion to Christ. It's to express our devotion of Christ, our worship of Christ by imitating him. And if we do it we're going to be able to see in her face, the face of our mother, because Jesus has taken on her flesh and blood and given us his own Divine nature. Peter says, "We are partakers of Divine nature through Christ" (2 Peter 1:2-11) so that his mother can become our mother, spiritually, supernaturally, but actually and really. And so in devotion to him, we can be devoted to her without any compromise, without any tug of war, without any diminution or decrease of our honor to Christ."
In its treatment of the ancient creed's profession of the "communion of saints" the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
"After confessing "the holy catholic Church," the Apostles' Creed adds "the communion of saints." In a certain sense this article is a further explanation of the preceding: "What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?"The communion of saints is the Church.
"Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others. . . . We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church. But the most important member is Christ, since he is the head. . . . Therefore, the riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments." "As this Church is governed by one and the same Spirit, all the goods she has received necessarily become a common fund." The term "communion of saints" therefore has two closely linked meanings: communion in holy things (sancta)" and "among holy persons (sancti)." (CCC # 946-948a)
Mary, the Mother of the Lord, is also our Mother as members of His family, His Body, the Church. She is a powerful intercessor in that family. Just as her intercession at the Wedding of Cana moved the heart of her Son, so her intercession on our behalf continues to move His Sacred Heart. Our Marian devotion and prayer is a treasure which leads us, as does all genuine Marian devotion, closer to her Son Jesus and into the communion of love in which she now participates in glory. We participate in that communion, even now, and her prayers assist us in our journey to its fullness.
In addition, we are still joined in Jesus Christ with all who have gone before us because nothing can separate us from the love of God made fully present in Jesus Christ, including death. (Romans 8:38,39). The Saints are a part of the eternal family to which we are now joined in and through Jesus Christ. They are part of that great cloud of witnesses which the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews makes reference in these inspired words of encouragement:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Heb 12:1-2)
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