“Totus Tuus [‘I am completely yours’]. This phrase is not only an expression of piety [to Mary], or simply an expression of devotion. It is more,” wrote Pope John Paul II in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” (Knopf, $15) about the words that accompanied his papal coat of arms — a golden crucifix set against a Marian blue backdrop, next to which stands a gold “M,”Mary’s initial.
The Pope’s fervor for the Mother of the Redeemer was, indeed, more than a theology of a Marian Church, although it was that, too. It was personal. It was relational. And it effortlessly acknowledged Mary’s intrinsic role in the history of our salvation — and the modern Church.
“Mary’s request, ‘Do whatever He tells you,’ keeps its ever timely value for Christians of every age,” the Pope reflected on the wedding at Cana at a general audience in 1997.“It is an exhortation to trust without hesitation, especially when one does not understand the meaning or benefit of what Christ asks.”
Karol Jozef Wojtyla understood well the challenge of living this trust, even in the face of tragedy or political crisis.
At the moment of Karol Jozef’s birth on May 18, 1920, Emilia Wojtyla asked the midwife to open the window of their second floor apartment.“From the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church across the street, hymns in honor of the Virgin Mary flooded the room. It was the month dedicated to Our Lady . . . ‘You’ll see, my Lolek [Karol Jozef ’s nickname] will be a great man,’ she would tell friends,”noted biographer Jo Garcia-Cobb. “Lolek learned his first prayers and heard his first earful of Scripture from her. The first altar he knelt at was the one his mother had arranged in the parlor of their humble apartment.”
Pope John Paul fondly recalled the many times that as a child he stopped before the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in his
parish church at Wadowice. As a youth, he learned from the Carmelite convent on the hill the rich tradition of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Carmelite scapular. And he credited his pilgrimages with his father to the shrine of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, a Bernardine monastery 20 miles from their hometown,with teaching him how his devotion to Mary was deeply joined to his faith in Christ.
Karol Wojtyla may owe the roots of his Marian devotion to his deeply religious family and to the long history of Marian devotion in his native Poland. But he also acknowledged that it matured during his years as a factory worker during World War II. “At first, it had seemed to me that I should distance myself a bit from the Marian devotion of my childhood, in order to focus more on Christ,” wrote the Pope. “Yet thanks to the writings of Saint Louis of Montfort,” he added, “I came to understand that true devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric, indeed, it is very profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, and the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption.”
|Pope John Paul II prays during a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square in 2000 during which he entrusted the world to Mary's care. CNS photo from Catholic Press photo
Promotion of devotion
Following the lead begun at Vatican II, Pope John Paul II took every opportunity to promote devotion to Mary. In general audiences, homilies and encyclicals, he emphasized Mary’s “precise place in the plan of salvation. [The Church] sees Mary maternally present and sharing in the many complicated problems which today beset the lives of individuals, families and nations,” he wrote in his sixth encyclical, Redemptoris Mater (“Mother of the Redeemer”). “She sees her helping the Christian people in the constant struggle between good and evil.”
Mary’s title “Mother of the Church,” used frequently by John Paul II, had “profound implications for how the Church should understand itself,” noted biographer George Weigel in “Witness to Hope” (Harper Collins, $20). “Without being divided from it, the ‘Marian Church’— the Church of disciples — preceded and made possible the ‘Petrine Church’— the Church of office and authority. Indeed, office in the Church has no other purpose except to form the Church in line with the ideal of sanctity already programmed and prefigured in Mary. ”While both complementary, Weigel added, “the Marian profile is . . . pre-eminent and richer in meaning for every Christian’s vocation.
His favorite prayer
Calling the Rosary his favorite prayer, “marvelous in its simplicity and its depth,” John Paul II challenged believers in his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae to “rediscover the Rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the Liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives.”
In order to “bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary,” the Pope announced a new set of mysteries focused on Christ’s public ministry: the luminous mysteries. “No one knows Christ better than Mary; no one can introduce us to a profound knowledge of His mystery better than His Mother,” wrote the Pope in October 2002, the beginning of the 25th year of his pontificate. “Contemplating the scenes of the Rosary in union with Mary is a means of learning from her to ‘read’ Christ . . . and to understand His message.”
On May 13,1981,when would be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca shot the Pope during an open-air audience at St. Peter’s Square, John Paul II firmly believed that Mary interceded to save his life. The first two shots hit pilgrims but missed the Pope, who had bent down to hug a young girl who seemed to be wearing an image of Our Lady of Fatima. The next shot hit the Pope in the abdomen, causing major injuries.
John Paul II showed no interest in the mystery surrounding his shooting — numerous conspiracy theories and contradictory confessions by the shooter –– biographer Garcia-Cobb noted. His interest centered not in who was behind the plot to end his life, but in who saved his life and why. “The Pope became convinced that divine intervention, through the Lady of Fatima, saved his life. The shooting occurred on the feast day of the Lady, who is believed to have appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917 in a series of six apparitions. The Pope was shot at 5:19 p.m.,the exact time of day he was elected pope in 1978.” Quoting the Pope, Garcia-Cobb noted, “One hand fired, and another guided the bullet.”
Entrusting himself — and each of us — to our Heavenly Mother was an intimate and completely natural act for John Paul II. “Be our Mother. Share with us your limitless faith,” wrote the Pope in one of his many prayers to Mary. “Take and keep us within your protective arms
in a world that has largely lost faith and abandoned hope.”
Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, a regular contributor to OSV, is the author of “The Seeker’s Guide to Mary” (Loyola, $11.95).