Francis’ devotion to Mary influences his pontificate

On Oct. 13, Pope Francis will consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, part of a two-day celebration in Rome and around the globe of the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fátima in 1917. While Francis is not the first pontiff to consecrate the world to the Blessed Mother, his decision is one more powerful indicator of the Marian character of his pontificate.

Pope Francis’ strong devotion to Mary was made clear literally on the night of his election on March 13. Minutes after he was proclaimed pope, he stood on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica and pledged to travel the next day to the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome to place his pontificate under the protection of the Virgin Mary. Good to his word, he made his first trip out of the Vatican City State the next morning to the basilica and prayed before the image of Mary as Salus Populi Romani (“protectress of the Roman people”).

Over the next months, Pope Francis has returned several times to St. Mary Major. He has recited the Rosary there and placed his July journey to World Youth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, under her patronage. Upon his return to Rome, he went back to the basilica and gave thanks for the immense success of the trip. He brought with him as a gift to Our Lady a beachball and a T-shirt that he had been given by World Youth Day pilgrims.

In addition to that foundation for his papacy, the pope asked Cardinal José da Cruz Policarpo, the patriarch of Lisbon, to consecrate the new pontificate to Our Lady of Fátima on May 13, her feast day. The consecration of the world to the Blessed Mother is a further amplification of that Marian commitment.

Marian roots

The roots of Francis’ devotion to the Blessed Mother are very deep. He developed a love for the Virgin Mary while growing up in Buenos Aires, and, like his fellow Argentines, the future pope cherished the veneration of Mary under the title of Our Lady of Luján, patroness of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and revered in the region since 1630. Then-Cardinal Jorgé Mario Bergoglio celebrated her May 8 feast day in Argentina; he also marked the day in Rome after his election.

And then there is his particular love of the Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady Undoer of Knots, a devotion that began in Bavaria in the early 18th century. He first encountered the title while still a priest studying in Germany for his doctorate and was so taken with it that he became its chief promoter in Argentina after his return home. Today, Our Lady Undoer of Knots is one of the greatest Marian traditions in Argentina, and devotion to her is spreading rapidly across Latin America and even the United States and Europe.

A Marian theology

Francis’ understanding of Mary is grounded manifestly in her place as the first and greatest of the disciples, her strength in helping us deal with evil and especially her presence in our lives as Mother.

During his time in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, he made a special visit to the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Conception at Aparecida, the patroness of Brazil, and spoke of the Blessed Mother as a great model in discipleship, saying, “When the Church looks for Jesus, she always knocks at his Mother’s door and asks: ‘Show us Jesus.’ It is from Mary that the Church learns true discipleship. That is why the Church always goes out on mission in the footsteps of Mary.”

Equally, more than any recent pontiff, Francis has spoken about Satan and evil, but he regularly calls on the faithful to have recourse to Mary as our great helper in resisting the lies and temptations of the Evil One. In a homily delivered on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption, Francis noted that in “the struggle which the disciples must confront — all of us, all the disciples of Jesus, we must face this struggle — Mary does not leave them alone: the Mother of Christ and of the Church is always with us … Mary accompanies us, struggles with us, sustains Christians in their fight against the forces of evil.”  

The Blessed Mother

Pope Francis’ exceptional devotion to Mary, however, is in her role as the Blessed Mother. On May 4, during one of his visits to the Basilica of St. Mary Major to recite the Rosary, Francis spoke in great detail about Mary as Mother. “Mary,” the pope said, “is a mother, a mother who takes care above all of the health of her children and knows how to heal them with her great and tender love. The Madonna is the custodian of our health. What does this mean? My thoughts go, above all, to three aspects: she helps us in our growth, she helps us to face life, she teaches us to be free.”

Finally, Francis sees Mary in particular as a Mother who participated in the cross of her Son. Francis taught on the feast of the Assumption that Mary experienced “the martyrdom of the Cross: the martyrdom of her heart, the martyrdom of her soul.” He added that Mary lived her son’s Passion to the very depths of her soul and was united fully to him in his death, and so she was given the gift of resurrection. The pope then observed that “Christ is the first fruits from the dead and Mary is the first of the redeemed, the first of ‘those who are in Christ.’ She is our Mother, but we can also say that she is our representative, our sister, our eldest sister, she is the first of the redeemed, who has arrived in heaven.”

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent and the author of “Pope Francis” (OSV, $16.95)