In the early 80’s, I met a man who had emigrated from China and was studying for the priesthood. He was in his mid-fifties at that time. His story is remarkable. Louie, as he was known to me, was very active in the Legion of Mary in China. The Legion of Mary is a lay group devoted to giving glory to God through prayer and good works through the intercession of Mary. It was Louie’s devotion to the mysteries of the rosary and the example of Mary’s faith that informed his life. Louie was an extremely prayerful man whose kindness and holiness radiated from his welcoming smile. Louie came to the United States in the 70’s after the communist government in China forced him to sign a paper renouncing the Catholic Faith. Louie sent the paper back to government officials with a negative reply. It was signed in his own blood. After that defiant move, friends helped Louie escape to Hong Kong and then to Connecticut.
I think of this story now as I look over St. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “Redemptoris Mater: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Pilgrim Church” (RM). In this encyclical, John Paul emphasizes Mary’s role as both a model of discipleship and Mother of the Church. As a model of discipleship, the future saint states:
“The mystery of the Incarnation was accomplished when Mary uttered her fiat: ‘Let it be to me according to your word,’ which made possible, as far as it depended upon her in the divine plan, the granting of her Son's desire. Mary uttered this fiat in faith. In faith she entrusted herself to God without reserve and "devoted herself totally as the handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son." (RM 13)
In this papal letter, John Paul II, shows how throughout Mary’s earthly life, she was dedicated to her Son and she experienced joy and suffering along with Jesus. I think of my friend Louie, whose faith in Our Lord, led him to defy a powerful regime and sent him on a journey halfway across the world. As a model for us, Mary calls us to be men and women of faith. A faith that rises to the call of Jesus “Come and See.” Like Mary and my friend Louie, we are called to follow Jesus into a future that is unknown, into a future that will have great demands as well as great joys.
The faith that John Paul is referring to is a demanding faith not one that gets us by with a Sunday Mass now and then. It is a faith that transforms us. Let us hear from John Paul again:
“from the first moment of her conception- which is to say of her existence-she belonged to Christ, sharing in the salvific and sanctifying grace and in that love which has its beginning in the ‘Beloved,’ the Son of the Eternal Father, who through the Incarnation became her own Son. Consequently, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the order of grace, which is a participation in the divine nature, Mary receives life from him to whom she herself, in the order of earthly generation, gave life as a mother.” (RM 10)
Just as the grace of God transformed Mary at the very moment of her existence, we too are gradually being transformed from the moment of our baptism until now by the power of God’s grace. It is a transformation fueled by the graces of the sacraments especially the Eucharist. It is a transformation that can make a meek and mild man stand before a world power and refuse to denounce his Lord and Savior. It is this kind of transformative faith that gives a young man the courage and fortitude in the face of cancer to continue to live his life without any self-pity and with an unwavering hope in the providence of God. It is this kind of transformative faith that leads a young woman to give her free time to aid the clients in a homeless shelter rather than enjoying time with her friends. It is this kind of transformative faith that allows a young girl to resist the narcissistic messages of the media and live a life focused on others.
We all know that a life of faith is difficult, and as members of the Church we know that we are not alone. Besides the obvious help of fellow Christians, we have a Mother in Heaven. John Paul describes it this way:
“And here Mary is not only the model and figure of the Church; she is much more. For, ‘with maternal love she cooperates in the birth and development" of the sons and daughters of Mother Church. The Church's motherhood is accomplished not only according to the model and figure of the Mother of God but also with her "cooperation.’ The Church draws abundantly from this cooperation, that is to say from the maternal mediation which is characteristic of Mary, insofar as already on earth she cooperated in the rebirth and development of the Church's sons and daughters, as the Mother of that Son whom the Father ‘placed as the first-born among many brethren’. ” (RM 44)
For St. Pope John Paul II, Mary is not only the Mother of the Church, but the mother of each and every one of us. My friend Louie’s devotion to Mary was not mere superficial piety. I know from my experiences of him that he believed in the deepest part of his soul that Mary walked with him and interceded for him every step of the way. It was her maternal companionship that bolstered his faith and allowed him to make the kind of life decisions that he did. It is Mary who accompanies us on our own journeys of faith. John Paul II uses the ancient Marian title, “Morning Star”. He goes on:
“ For just as this star, together with the ‘dawn,’ precedes the rising of the sun, so Mary from the time of her Immaculate Conception preceded the coming of the Savior, the rising of the ‘Sun of Justice’ in the history of the human race.” (RM 3)
For John Paul and the Church, Mary always and in all ways points to Christ. As the Gospel of John tells us, Christ is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (Jn 14:6) By Mary’s example and through Mary’s loving prayers, we gradually become transformed by our faith in Jesus, the Son of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. For my friend Louie, his faith in his Lord and Savior was enhanced by his devotion to the Mother of God. Just as Mary said to her Son at the wedding feast in Cana, “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3) and to the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:3) Mary hears our prayers when we have no more energy to go on, when our faith is fading, and when hope is dying out. She cries to her Son, “They have nothing left.” and she turns to us and says “Trust in my Son, do what He calls you to do.” I am sure my friend Louie felt like he had nothing left when he was faced with the decision to denounce his faith or face imprisonment. I am sure he prayed those precious beads of Our Blessed Lady and recalled those words “Do whatever he tells you.” It was this vibrant faith and dynamic relationship with Mary that sustained him during his life including his priesthood. Louie was an exemplary priest, a model of holiness. Louie passed away a year ago on Divine Mercy Sunday. I am sure as he entered into the Merciful and Eternal Love of the Trinity, Mary was pointing the way.
As John Paul concludes his encyclical he leaves us with this thought:
“The Church sees the Blessed Mother of God in the saving mystery of Christ and in her own mystery. She sees Mary deeply rooted in humanity's history, in man's eternal vocation according to the providential plan which God has made for him from eternity She sees Mary maternally present and sharing in the many complicated problems which today beset the lives of individuals, families and nations; she sees her helping the Christian people in the constant struggle between good and evil, to ensure that it ‘does not fall,’ or, if it has fallen, that it ‘rises again’.”(RM 52)
In this time of tremendous trial, Mary weeps for the Church. She is at its side praying that the Church may overcome this horrendous evil that has beset it. She sees the exhaustion of the faithful. We can imagine Mary crying out to her Son, “They have no more wine.” In turn, she speaks to each one of us- bishop, priest and laity alike - those eternal words of maternal guidance, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Bill Mannion serves as a Lector, Eucharistic Minister, and Faith Formation teacher at Our Lady of Hope. In addition to these ministries, Bill and his wife Suzanne lead our Baptismal Preparation programming.