Mary, Mother of Mercy

Focusing herein on Mary, Mother of Mercy, I direct the reader at the outset to Pope Francis’ veneration of the statue of the Immaculate Conception this past Dec. 8, 2015, annually done in the heart of Rome, in the famed Piazza di Spagna. This was the specific day when this Jubilee Year of Mercy began. And, significantly, it began on an important Marian feast.

Amid tight security, Pope Francis made his way to the bustling city center to venerate this statue, as is the tradition each year on this feast. Reciting a prayer specifically composed for the occasion, the pope said he came not only in the name of families, young people and the elderly, but also for the sick, the imprisoned and “those who arrived from faraway lands in search of peace and work.”

Pope Francis placed them under the maternal care of the “Mother of Mercy” whose “heart is full of tenderness toward all your children.”

“Gazing toward you, our Immaculate Mother, we recognize the victory of divine mercy over sin and over all its consequences,” the pope said. “May it reignite in us the hope of a better life, free from slavery, resentments and fear.”

Yes, the Pope speaks of the merciful gaze of Mary, not unlike the merciful gaze of Jesus pointing to Matthew in the call of him to be an apostle depicted in the Caravaggio painting, or the merciful embrace of the merciful father in St. Luke’s version of the prodigal son, or the merciful search of the Good Shepherd for the lost sheep!

Opening the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the pope prayed that Christians in Rome might hear Mary’s call toward “that Holy Door which represents Christ.” Mary, he said, calls everyone to “enter and receive the gift of mercy” and “not to be afraid and ashamed.”

Yes, Mary is Mother of Mercy. To him, to Jesus, she always leads.

Most recently, on my trip to Rome, I did precisely what the pope suggested on the first day of the Year of Mercy — almost four months to the day of the opening of the Holy Year. At the Vatican, I actually walked through the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, that door which represents Christ. After I entered the basilica through that special door (and I was alone with a priest friend as the basilica was closed), we turned immediately to the right of the door, to the Pietà, that great masterpiece of Michelangelo on display at the entrance of the basilica.

And then, it was as if I had an incredible experience of the Holy Spirit — right after I crossed the Holy Door and saw the Pietà. As I looked at Mary holding and contemplating the battered body of her dead Son, it struck me immediately that, in Italian, the word pietà means mercy. At Mass in Italian, we pray Signore pieta or Cristo pieta (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”). Yes, this masterpiece, which shows the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ in her arms after his crucifixion, death and removal from the cross, but before he was placed in the tomb, depicts Mary, Mother of Mercy.

I immediately decided to dedicate the Pietà as our artwork for this article on Mary, Mother of Mercy. And having seen the Pietà on so many different occasions, I had never quite thought of it as representing Mary, Mother of Mercy until that day.

And then, as if to confirm that movement of the Spirit in my own heart and mind, in the General Audience talk which followed my visit to the Vatican, Pope Francis, on that very day, April 6, 2016, referred to Jesus as Mercy itself. He said: “Encountering the multitudes, proclaiming the Gospel, healing the sick, being close to the least, forgiving sinners, Jesus made visible the love that is open to us all: none excluded! Open to all without borders. A love that is pure, freely given, absolute. A love that culminates in the Sacrifice of the Cross. Yes, the Gospel is truly the ‘Gospel of Mercy,’ for Jesus is Mercy!”

If Jesus is Mercy, then Mary is clearly the Mother of Mercy. “No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 24).

And the Pietà beautifully communicates this title of Mary — Our Blessed Lady holding Jesus, Mary, Mother of Mercy. Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his book “Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life,” writes, “Mary is presented as the mother of all who are suffering, who are sorrowful, who are beleaguered, and who are in need of consolation” (p. 214).

Contemplate Her Son

What does this mean that Mary is the Mother of Mercy, the Mother of Jesus with that specific title? It is as if she is inviting us to contemplate her Son (as she holds and contemplates him in the Pietà, especially her Son who suffered, died and rose for us, as Mercy itself), but more the victory of mercy over death and sin revealed in and through him.

On New Year’s Day this year, at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, Pope Francis said: “It is most fitting that on this day we invoke the Blessed Virgin Mary above all as Mother of Mercy. The door we have opened is, in fact, a Door of Mercy. Those who cross its threshold are called to enter into the merciful love of the Father with complete trust and freedom from fear; they can leave this basilica knowing — truly knowing — that Mary is ever at their side. She is the Mother of Mercy, because she bore in her womb the very Face of divine mercy, Jesus, Emmanuel, the Expectation of the nations, the ‘Prince of Peace’ (Is 9:5). The Son of God, made incarnate for our salvation, has given us his Mother, who joins us on our pilgrimage through this life, so that we may never be left alone, especially at times of trouble and uncertainty.”

Moreover, in Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), St. John Paul II’s memorable encyclical on mercy, he also answers the question of Mary as Mother of Mercy and gives it meaning. He writes, and I quote in length: “Mary is also the one who obtained mercy in a particular and exceptional way, as no other person has. At the same time, still in an exceptional way, she made possible with the sacrifice of her heart her own sharing in revealing God’s mercy. This sacrifice is intimately linked with the cross of her Son, at the foot of which she was to stand on Calvary. Her sacrifice is a unique sharing in the revelation of mercy, that is, a sharing in the absolute fidelity of God to his own love, to the covenant that he willed from eternity and that he entered into in time with man, with the people, with humanity; it is a sharing in that revelation that was definitively fulfilled through the cross. No one has experienced, to the same degree as the Mother of the crucified One, the mystery of the cross, the overwhelming encounter of divine transcendent justice with love: that ‘kiss’ given by mercy to justice. No one has received into his heart, as much as Mary did, that mystery, that truly divine dimension of the redemption effected on Calvary by means of the death of the Son, together with the sacrifice of her maternal heart, together with her definitive ‘fiat.’

“Mary, then, is the one who has the deepest knowledge of the mystery of God’s mercy. She knows its price, she knows how great it is. In this sense, we call her the Mother of Mercy: Our Lady of Mercy, or Mother of Divine Mercy; in each one of these titles there is a deep theological meaning, for they express the special preparation of her soul, of her whole personality, so that she was able to perceive, through the complex events, first of Israel, then of every individual and of the whole of humanity, that mercy of which ‘from generation to generation’ people become sharers according to the eternal design of the most Holy Trinity.

“The above titles which we attribute to the Mother of God speak of her principally, however, as the Mother of the crucified and risen One; as the One who, having obtained mercy in an exceptional way, in an equally exceptional way ‘merits’ that mercy throughout her earthly life and, particularly, at the foot of the cross of her Son; and finally as the one who, through her hidden and at the same time incomparable sharing in the messianic mission of her Son, was called in a special way to bring close to people that love which he had come to reveal: the love that finds its most concrete expression vis-à-vis the suffering, the poor, those deprived of their own freedom, the blind, the oppressed and sinners, just as Christ spoke of them in the words of the prophecy of Isaiah, first in the synagogue at Nazareth and then in response to the question of the messengers of John the Baptist” (No. 9).

The Depth of Her Being

Mary thus experiences at the depth of her very being the mercy of her dead and risen Son as his mother. She participated intimately in the mystery of his love, from his birth and placement in the wood of a manger to her standing by the wood of the cross from which our salvation was won. And from the cross, she has in addition been given to us as Mother, Mother of the Church, our Mother, at the same time holding the title Mother of Mercy. As our Mother, she intercedes for us when we seek her intercession from her merciful heart.

But how often do we prayerfully reflect on the meaning of that title, Mother of Mercy?

“Let us address her in the words of the Salve, Regina [an 11th-century prayer], ever ancient and new, so that she may never tire of turning her merciful eyes upon us, and make us worthy to contemplate the face of mercy, her Son Jesus” (MV, No. 24).

Reflect, then, on the words in reference to mercy, as we pray:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry,
Poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy toward us;
And after this our exile,
Show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving,
O sweet Virgin Mary.

V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,

R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ, thy Son.

In addition, I make reference to another Marian prayer for insights into the title of Mary, Mother of Mercy. I write about the Hail Mary. In the closing line, we pray, “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the ‘Mother of Mercy,’ the All-Holy One. We give ourselves over to her now, in the Today of our lives. And our trust broadens further, already at the present moment, to surrender ‘the hour of our death’ wholly to her care. May she be there as she was at her son’s death on the cross. May she welcome us as our mother at the hour of our passing to lead us to her son, Jesus, in paradise” (No. 2677). Jesus came precisely to save us, to save us from our sins. So to whom may sinners turn if not to a Mother of Mercy?

Pietà by Michelangelo in St. Peter’s Basilica. Cosmin Sava/

Bishop Paul Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, writing about Mary, Mother of Mercy, states succinctly: “We turn to Mary. Since she conceived and gave birth to Mercy Incarnate, she is truly the Mother of Mercy. Yes, transformed ourselves by God’s mercy, and aided by the prayerful intercession of Our Mother of Mercy, we must, in turn, become convincing heralds of mercy, so that the Face of God’s mercy may be made present and visible to everyone!”

Having a specific knowledge and experience of God’s mercy for her, Mary thus has a specific intercessory role for us in God’s plan of salvation, our salvation. She is his Mother, our Mother and Mother of Mercy in the order of salvation.

I conclude with the words of Pope Francis, who has given the Church this wonderful Year of Mercy and encouraged each of us to ponder its meaning and especially to reflect, as we have in this article, on Our Blessed Lady, Mother of Mercy: “My thoughts now turn to the Mother of Mercy. May the sweetness of her countenance watch over us in this Holy Year, so that all of us may rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness. No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh. The Mother of the Crucified and Risen One has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of his love” (MV, No. 24).

By her example and prayers, Our Blessed Mother invites each of us, then, in this Holy Year to do the same, to come daily to a deeper experience of his abiding and merciful love for us. She leads us to her Son, whose name is Jesus, another name for Mercy itself.

And Mary’s “hymn of praise, sung at the threshold of the home of Elizabeth, was dedicated to the mercy of God which extends from ‘generation to generation’ (Lk 1:50). We too were included in those prophetic words of the Virgin Mary. This will be a source of comfort and strength to us as we cross the threshold of the Holy Year to experience the fruits of divine mercy” (MV, No. 24).

Msgr. Vaghi is pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.