Today, the last day of the month of May, the month dedicated to Mary, is also the Feast of the Visitation of Mary when she goes “in haste” to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who has “conceived a son in her old age.” In this episode from Scripture, we see Mary described in the role of the Queen-Mother. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Elizabeth, the elder of the two women, nevertheless receives Mary as a person of greater stature, of higher importance. Elizabeth proclaims:
Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:42-45)
Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord,” and the one who is “blessed among all women.” These designations are a way of referring to the special title and role that Mary holds in the Kingdom of God. In the Jewish tradition, the role of the Queen-Mother stretched all the way back to the time of King Solomon, around 950 BC. The Queen-Mother had three very specific tasks. First, she had a certain amount of authority in her son’s kingdom, secondly, she was an advisor to the king and lastly, she was an advocate for the people who belonged to the kingdom of her son. We know that Mary keeps all three of these tasks. In fact, she appears like a glorious queen during her apparitions at Fatima, when she is dressed in the colors of gold and white, the colors typically associated with the glory of God during the liturgical calendar.
The Visitation itself is one of the mysteries of the rosary, being the second decade in the 5 Joyful Mysteries. Even though Mary is usually referred to as Our Lady of Fatima, her official title for these May apparitions is “Our Lady of the Holy Rosary at Fatima.” That name change makes a big difference. Calling Mary “Our Lady of Fatima” emphasizes the secrets and the supernatural aspect of Fatima. These are indeed notable, to be sure, but they can also quickly become overwhelming. Remembering that Mary is actually named "Our Lady of the Holy Rosary at Fatima" gets to the heart of her message. It enables us to carry out the message that she relayed - Pray, offer sacrifices and repent. In other words, get out your rosary beads. The solution to war, strife and suffering - literally- lies in your own hands. It is not beyond reach, or too high above us. It is in the humble act of daily prayer.
It is helpful to remember the words of Pope Pius XII who said ""The gates of hell will never prevail, where Mary offers her protection. She is the good mother, the mother of all, and it has never been heard that those who seek her protection, will not receive it. She will help! Error will be overcome with her assistance and divine grace." She is our great Queen-Mother who will come “in haste” to aid us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death, and pray for those who never pray to you, now and at the hour of their death. Amen.
I wrote in an earlier article (5 Good Reasons to Pray the Rosary) about Our Lady of Fatima’s request that we pray the rosary daily “to end the war.” The three children whom she was speaking to, Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia, assumed that she was referring to World War I, since the year was 1917 and the “war to end all wars,” as it was sometimes called then, had been raging on for years.
Unfortunately, of course, we know that believing WWI would be the last war was just wishful thinking. No doubt Our Lady was referring to World War I as “the war,” since she is always concerned with the trials we have in our specific, present moment, but, at the same time, she was also likely speaking about the greater war that has been going on since the world began. St. Paul wrote, in the Letter to the Ephesians, that “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” Certainly, Mary was also speaking about this greater war.
With all the sadness, turmoil and death in our world today, we can assume that we need to pray the rosary more, not less, than back in 1917. In reading my Magnificat magazine for May, I found these words in the back, written by Magnificat’s founder, Pierre Marie Dumont, which offer some profound wisdom for interpreting our times, especially as the month of May draws to a close and we remember all those who have died, recently as well as all those we pray for on Memorial Day. Dumont suggests we might slightly adapt the Hail Mary from time to time, “so that the death of everyone, even the most hardened of sinners, may be a victory over death, because remember “the Father is not willing that any of his children should be lost’ (Mt 18:14)”. Consider adding an extra Hail Mary after each decade, saying this:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for all the sinners who never pray to you,
Now and at the hour of their death. Amen.
If praying the rosary can change us, the pray-ers, surely it can also have a good effect on those whom we ask Mary to pray for, even if they - and we - don’t know what those effects will be. Who knows the difference this kind of prayer could have made in the past, or could make in the future?
Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us! And pray for those who never pray to you!
When I originally thought of writing this article a few weeks ago, I had a different idea in mind for it than what I am writing today. I wanted to talk about the pervasiveness of Easter, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the winding down from the school year and the stretching out into long summer evenings. But that was before the Uvalde massacre.
Now, I don’t feel joyful. I feel heartbroken. Again. Since I live in central Texas, just a short drive from Robb Elementary, I know people who were personally affected, who knew the victims. We all do, around here. No, I don’t feel joy or hope or happiness. I feel anxious, ill and overwhelmingly sad.
I went to Mass today, where my parish held a special remembrance and rosary for Uvalde, and I heard these words in the Gospel, “Jesus said to his disciples; “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy…So you are now in anguish, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” (John 16:20-23)
It was a good reminder that the apostles were also deeply sad. Jesus, the one they dearly loved, was going to leave them. Jesus spoke these words before his Passion, to prepare the apostles for what was coming.
The Gospel was also a reminder about what Joy really is. C.S. Lewis once commented in his memoir, Surprised By Joy, that Joy, “must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again…But Joy is never in our power.”
Joy is not so much a feeling as a longing, a longing for a place and space where all our tears will be wiped away, where we will never have to worry about losing our loved ones again. It’s not so much something we feel as a spiritual reality we want to participate in. Catholic theologian Peter Kreft writes that, ”The way to joy is sanctity, loving God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself. No one who ever said to God, "Thy will be done" and meant it with his heart, ever failed to find joy – not just in heaven, or even down the road in the future in this world, but in this world at that very moment, here and now.”
So, yes, I am still joyful, in the midst of sadness, despite senseless mass shootings, wars that drag on and on, and the various other fires that keep spreading throughout our world. I don’t feel it, but I believe in it. Jesus promised us that “if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:10-11) The Joy that we seek in the Eastertide goes beyond chocolate bunnies and colored eggs. It points us to union with God and each other, both here and in eternity.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help, pray for us!
Today, May 13, we celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. This day recalls and commemorates the time period in 1917 when Our Lady appeared to three young children who were shepherding their sheep near Fatima, Portugal. During the six times Our Lady appeared to them, she requested they pray the rosary every day, in order to bring peace to the world and the end of World War I. We don’t have to look far today to know that Mary is still making the same request of us: pray the rosary every day to bring peace to the world and an end to war.
But why did Mary specify we pray the rosary? After all, there are many forms of prayer available to Catholics, such as the Liturgy of the Hours, novenas and chaplets, as well as Mass. But Mary only -and explicitly- asked for a daily rosary. We know that praying the rosary brings us so many graces and benefits. Five benefits of this prayer are listed below, starting with the most basic and building up to the top, best reason to pray it. Perhaps these five reasons can give us some insight into why Our Lady asked for the rosary.
5. For the physiological changes that take place in the body.
In today's over-scheduled, over-rushed world, it seems like everyone is always looking for ways to relax. Many studies have shown the effects on the body that take place when we pray the rosary. The rhythm of the words, the repeating prayers and the consoling knowledge that someone who loves you is listening all combine to slow down the heart rate, cut down the release of cortisol, improve concentration and even our breathing. While anxiousness and stress may not totally evaporate, they certainly subside. And all these benefits are on the purely physical level - we haven't even gotten to the spiritual benefits yet.
4. To practice Contemplative Prayer
Once the body is calm, the mind is much more able to practice contemplative prayer. Cortisol and adrenaline levels subside, opening the pathway to the creative and restorative areas of the brain. We can use our imagination to dwell on the mysteries of the rosary. Many spiritual pathways incorporate a well-formed imagination to dwell on the mysteries of God. The Ignatian Exercises and the Dominican Practice of Contemplation help us to remain grounded in a place of calm alertness, able to step away from our daily lives for a few minutes and obtain a greater perspective.
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3. To Draw Down and Apply Graces
By lifting our hearts and minds in contemplation and supposition to God, we are able to draw down the graces won for us by Jesus as he walked the earth. Prayer unites us with God, so we can apply the graces and guidance from Jesus' life to our own. In a very real way, we can participate in the life of the Holy Family as we pray through the mysteries of the rosary, and draw down those graces into our own homes and situations. The rosary assists us in incarnating the stories of Scripture.
2. To Grow In Holiness
Repeated contemplation of the lives of Jesus and his only perfect follower, Mary, his Mother, will change us. We will slowly grow in imitation of them and understanding of how to react and act in our own lives as we put on more and more of Christ.
1. To Change Our World and Build the Kingdom of God
This sounds like such a huge statement, and it is. It's also a true statement. Our prayers for world peace, for guidance and wisdom for our world leaders, are more necessary than ever today. Yet, we can also change our own corner of the world by first changing ourselves.
If you don’t consider yourself to be a devotee of the rosary, today is a good day to give it a try. Since it takes only about 20 minutes to say, there is usually a pocket of time during the day when we can pause and pray it. The rosary is also a great way to introduce communal prayer into families. Families with very young children might only say one or two decades together, and add more as children grow. The point is not perfection, but practice and persistence. Just remember, no matter how well or poorly we pray it, saying the rosary in any form can only be good for ourselves, our families and the world, as we respond to Mary’s request. You can find directions on how to say the rosary at the Dominican Rosary Center and Confraternity.
During the season of Easter we celebrate feast day of St. Catherine of Siena, one of the four female Doctors of the Church and a woman remembered for her fiery personality and truth-filled words. From a young age, Catherine was favored with mystical visions, the earliest taking place when she was only six or seven. She was out with her brother, running an errand, when she looked up and saw saints in the sky. She saw Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by saints John, Peter, Paul and others. To her great delight, Jesus smiled at her, then raised his hand and blessed her. This vision had a profound influence upon Catherine and she remembered it the rest of her life.
Jesus is Our Bridge
The desire to dedicate her life to God grew stronger as Catherine grew older, and she eventually became a Third Order Dominican, taking on the black and white mantle of the Sisters of Penitence of St. Dominic in 1363. St. Catherine left many writings to us, but her most well known is The Dialogue, written in a very short period of time while she was in ecstasy, around 1377. It records conversations between herself and God, dictated by St. Catherine and written out by her secretaries. Catherine saw that Jesus, through obedience to his Father, made himself into the bridge between Heaven and Earth - the only bridge that could ever cross the huge chasm separating us from God. Journeying back to God along this bridge happens in three different stages. The following excerpt reveals God instructing Catherine in this idea:
I want you to look at the bridge of my only-begotten Son, and notice its greatness. Look! It stretched from heaven to earth, joining the earth of your humanity with the greatness of the Godhead. This is what I mean when I say it stretches from heaven to earth.
God also explains to Catherine why it was necessary for Jesus to make himself into this bridge. The Dialogue records:
This was necessary if I wanted to remake the road that had been broken up, so that you might pass over the bitterness of the world and reach life. ..Your nature had to be joined with the height of mine, the eternal Godhead, before it could make atonement for all humanity. . . so the height stooped to the earth of your humanity, bridging the chasm between us and rebuilding the road.
But why should Jesus have made himself into this bridge?
So that you might in truth come to the same joy as the angels. But my Son’s having made of himself a bridge for you could not bring you to life unless you make your way along that bridge.
The Three Stages of Crossing the Bridge
The Dialogue states that it is only by staying securely on this bridge of Christ that souls are able to pass safely over the stormy sea below, as they journey through three different spiritual stages to reach Heaven. The three stages are described in this way: “On the first step, …the soul strips itself of vice, on the second it is filled with love and virtue, and on the third it tastes peace.”
The first stage is referred to as “the feet,” when the person decides to turn from sin. Using the body as an image, it is the feet which carry us towards or away from God, to virtuous actions or to sinful occasions. God tells St. Catherine that walking with purified, cleansed feet “are the steps by which you arrive at his side, which manifests to the secret of his heart.”
The second stage is closely linked to the first. It is when we replace sin with virtue. Sinful habits and behaviors have to be replaced by virtuous and good habits and behaviors. A soul who stops sinning must be careful to fill the cleansed area inside with the light of God, otherwise she can find herself in an even worse state later on. In the second stage, the person climbs to “the heart” - “the soul, gazing into that open heart with the eye of the intellect, finds it consumed with ineffable love.”
The first and second stages “were made with the wood of the cross.” The cross is made of two pieces of wood - the vertical and the horizontal planks. The vertical plank represents the connection between earth and heaven (love for God), while the horizontal wood refers to what we do on earth (love for neighbor). God repeatedly reminds St. Catherine that we cannot say we love God but ignore our neighbor. Love for God is shown through our love for our neighbor, and both aspects are represented by the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Christ’s cross. In these two stages we turn from sin and learn to love as Christ loves.
The third stage, “still retains the great bitterness Jesus tasted when he was given gall and vinegar to drink.” During this last stage, the soul participates in some of the suffering of Christ’s passion. However, this is also when the soul finds peace. Represented by “the mouth”, the soul now is able to “find peace from the war it has been waging with sin.”
Even though the body of Jesus himself has been lifted up and returned to Heaven, God tells Catherine that “there remains the bridgeway of his teaching, which, as I told you, is held together by My power and my Son’s wisdom and the mercy of the Holy Spirit.” The teachings of Christ have been illuminated and reflected on for us by”the apostles and evangelists, the martyrs and confessors and holy doctors, who have been set like lamps in holy Church” to light the way across the bridge of Christ, to shine light into the darkness of our lives.
Those Under the Bridge
One of the more touching aspects of The Dialogue is the glimpse we get into the personality of God the Father. Far from being angry and vengeful, he says to all of us, through St. Catherine “I tell you, my dearest children, travel on the bridge, not under it. For the way beneath the bridge is not the way of truth but of falsehood. It is the way of wicked sinners, and I beg you to pray to me for them. I ask for your tears and sweat on their behalf so that they may receive mercy from me.” God does not want to lose a single soul, every person is of immense importance and he does everything he can to bring souls back to him.
So the next time you are crossing a bridge, think of St. Catherine and the three stages of the spiritual life. Maybe even send up a small prayer asking for help in “staying on the bridge of Christ.” And don’t forget to offer up some thoughts for those who have fallen under the bridge, as well.
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
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