By Fr. Canisius Tah, Archdiocese of Baltimore
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege and opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for the very first time. The holy sites we visited and many things fascinated me. One of my favorites was the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
The Annunciation and Incarnation of the Lord changed everything, changed the whole universe, and continues changing our lives. At the Annunciation, we got the answer, God’s will for us; the answer was not some theory or some mathematical proof. It was a person. This person is the centre of the universe and explains everything, and He became flesh here at the Annunciation in the womb of Mary. And he chose a home – not the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; but our Lady herself. If this person at the centre of the universe chose the womb of a virgin from Nazareth as His home, we had better pay attention to her. If you are courting a young lady, you know the best way to do that. I am not giving you this advice to court a woman, but maybe for you to pass it on to some young man you know. If he really finds a nice Catholic young girl and wants her to like him, what does he have to do? Impress the mom. Get to know the mother.
God Himself came to Mary, and that is why our priestly spirituality cannot be complete without a devotion to Mary. The Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priest says: “In light of such a rapport, Marian spirituality is rooted in every priest. Priestly spirituality could not be considered complete if it were to fail to include the message of Christ's words on the Cross, in which He conferred his Mother to the beloved disciple, and, through him, to all priests called to continue his work of redemption” (No 68). Our spirituality, the spirituality of a priest, can certainly have varying characteristics. It might take certain turns –Dominicans, Jesuit, Franciscan or Diocesan, or have a certain emphasis because of the priest’s own background and personality. However, there are certain basic, fundamental qualities common to all priests’ spirituality, and one of these is devotion to Mary. No priest is complete without Mary. No priest can truly have a priestly spirituality and a priestly life if he says, “I don’t really have a Marian Devotion; I don’t really know Our Lady.” God became man here in her. So devotion to Our Lady is not something secondary; it is essential to the priesthood.
Mary’s role in priestly formation
Mary plays an intimate role in our early and ongoing formation. She is, first, the exemplar of what it means to say, yes, to a vocation, is she not? Pastores Dabo Vobis says: “The creature who more than any other has lived the full truth of vocation is Mary the virgin mother, and she did so in intimate communion with Christ: No one has responded with a love greater than hers to the immense love of God” (No. 36). Seminary is a time of both discerning and responding to a vocation as well as a time to develop a devotion to Mary. All of priestly formation, too, must have this constant reference to Mary. Ongoing formation must become ever more deeply Marian. What begins in seminary does not stop in seminary. It continues on as priests. So every aspect of priestly formation can be referred to Mary since she is the human being who responded better than any other to God’s call. Mary became both the servant and the disciple of the Word made man, to give Him to mankind. Mary was called to educate the one eternal Priest. Think about that! She was called to educate the one eternal Priest who became docile and subject to her motherly authority. With her example and intercession, the Blessed Virgin Mary keeps vigilant watch over the growth of vocations and priestly life in the Church.
A priest without Mary?
A priest without Mary is an orphan. Devotion to Mary is essential not only to the life of a Christian, but is really especially essential to a priest’s life. Why is this important to us? Because in having this devotion to our Lady we live as sons. We live our divine sonship. The one thing that distinguishes the persons of the Trinity is their relations. What is it that characterises Jesus Christ? He is Son. His sonship, his filiation, is who he is. So if we are to be other Christs, “alter Christus,” one thing that has to characterise us is that we, too, are sons. A son needs a father and a mother. How can we not treat our Mother Mary? How can we not enter into a relationship and have a devotion to her?
Marian Devotion is a kind of thermometer, if you will, of our sense of divine filiation. The more we become sons in living that out, the more that we are in love with our Mother Mary. I call my mother almost every day, and she always has those words which only a mother can say to you. It gives me great joy each time she assures me that she prays for me and indeed for all priests in their ministry. What our biological mothers give, Mary gives far much more. We all are in need of living out that mother devotion. What, therefore, must distinguish priests is living as beloved sons of God? Having a deep experiential understanding of our identity as God’s sons enables us to be faithful with the same knowledge and experience. When people know that we love the Mother of God, they see us as a son; they recognise that we are living our divine filiation in a very concrete way. The Second Vatican Council’s document, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests—Presbyterorum Ordinis notes: “Let priests love and venerate with filial devotion and veneration this mother of the Eternal High priest, Queen of Apostles and Protector of their own ministry” (No 18).
Our Lady is the Refugium Peccatorum, the Refuge of Sinners, because we are sinners too, and we need a Mother to wrap us in her mantle, to intercede for us, to guide us, to help us repent and convert. There is a beautiful scene in the movie “The Passion of Christ”. In this scene, Peter betrayed Christ, and having betrayed Christ, who does he go to? He goes to Mother. He even uses that term in Mel Gibson’s movie. He comes to her and calls her Mother, looking for some forgiveness. She is the Refuge of Sinners. She is never afraid or shocked of our sins, ever more reason why we need her.
Priests should also have a loving devotion to Mary because the Incarnation which happened at Nazareth continues today. The Incarnation, as St. John Paul II says, continues in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the continuation of the Incarnation. And how does that happen without the priest? Mary and the priest are asked the same question. Will you give flesh and blood to the Son of God? Priests are asked the same kind of question that Angel Gabriel asked Our Lady: Will you give flesh and blood to the Son of God? Everyday the priest is asked the same question before Mass. Will you give the Son of God flesh and blood? And it is really to Mary and the priest that this question can be asked in a very unique way. It is only Mary and the priest who can uniquely say, yes, although the priest does it sacramentally, of course. But we can say with Our Lady. “This is My Body,” “This is My Blood.” And so there is a connection, union, and relationship as a priest.
In formation and the priestly ministry, therefore, fostering this Marian Devotion, this filial love, this dedication to Christ, and carrying out this continuation of the Incarnation, should be marked by Mary and should be characterised by a Marian Devotion. This path has to be taken to be a happy, holy, and zealous priest. Let it be done unto me according to your word. We are dedicated to him for his sacred purpose. Let us do whatever we can to deepen our dedication and devotion to Mary.
To her, who keeps her priests in her heart and in the Church, we want to entrust our pastoral work and the Lord’s abundant harvest. To her, who welcomed us from the beginning, who protected us in our formation, we raise our petition, that she may accompany us in our priestly lives and ministries.
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.
Subheads inserted by L'Effort Camerounais