Romanus Cessario on the Priesthood and Our Lady

A Homily by Dominican Theologian at Boston’s Seminary

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BOSTON, Massachusetts, DEC. 24, 2003 ( Dominican Father Romanus Cessario in a homily for the recent feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe focused on the priesthood and the role of the Blessed Virgin.

Father Cessario is a professor of systematic theology at St. John’s Seminary in the Boston Archdiocese. He also is a member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. He adapted the homily for ZENIT. * * *

What’s New at the Boston Seminary?
By Romanus Cessario, O.P.

When Dominican Father John Farren was appointed in July rector of St. John’s Seminary in Boston, he announced that he had dedicated his rectorate to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Many reasons undoubtedly persuaded Father Farren toward making this choice.

One of these reasons springs from the more than a century-old tradition of devotion to Our Lady that finds expression in the Boston seminary’s buildings. From the beginning of the seminary, Boston priests have been accustomed to honor Mary under her title «Regina cleri,» Queen of the Clergy. Now, the newly instituted liturgical feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a new rector invite seminarians from New England and beyond to ponder her mediation as Mother.

«Juanito, the humblest of my children, know and understand that I am the ever virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom all things live.» Thus spoke Our Lady to St. Juan Diego in 1531. Mary’s apparition on the American continent is unique. She comes to us pregnant with the embryonic Jesus.

To America then, Mary especially displayed her divine maternity. The black sash tied around her waist conforms to the practice observed by Aztec women, who thereby signaled that they were with child. The black bow, we are told, also entitled expectant mothers to enjoy special protection from harm. Juan Diego would have recognized immediately that the Lady of the apparition was a Mother.

Mary’s maternal mediation occupies a central place in Catholic life and doctrine. No Catholic who reads the Gospel of John, for example, should fail to observe Mary’s association with the life of her Son: «Do whatever he tells you» (John 2:5). «Woman, behold your Son» (John 19:26). «Behold your Mother» (John 19:27). From this moment, the Church recognizes in Our Lady a source of both doing and being. We thus revere her both as Queen and Mother.

Some provisions that divine providence ordains for our salvation divide Christian believers. Mediation is one of them. By and large, the ecclesial communions which spring from the 16th-century Reform object to placing mediators other than the One Mediator between God and the human race. They instead relegate Mary to the rank of disciple. Those who reject Mary’s maternal mediation, also likely reject other forms of mediation in the Church, especially that of the priesthood.

The Church considers all instances of mediation as forming one mystery of redemption. That’s why, for instance, Catholic piety associates Mary especially with the unique ministry of priests. The core explanation resides in the fact that priests and Mary both exercise a causal influence in the communication of divine grace. Each constitutes, in other words, a true form of mediation.

The priests who established and decorated St. John’s Seminary understood deeply the connection that exists between Mary and priests. They placed images or symbols of Our Lady in three key positions within the original seminary structure. That French-trained Sulpicians had a hand in the project should come as no surprise: In the first decades of their existence these Fathers were the carriers of a high expression of Marian theology that remains associated with the Catholic Reform that swept Europe from the middle of the 16th century.

An icon of Mary first shows over the main door of the seminary. There at the center of three stained-glass lunettes the one entering beholds «Ave Maria,» Hail Mary. On either side of this Marian monogram appears a chalice and a lily, symbolizing respectively what is distinctive to the priestly office and the virtue of chastity.

These windows instruct entering seminarians about the quality of person that the seminary was built to house: Chaste men dedicated to perpetuating the Eucharist are to discover in union with Mary their strength for virtue and priestly ministry. To discover virtue in Mary does not terminate at learning a lesson about virtue or at following an example of probity. What Mother would rest content just with giving instruction and example?

To learn how Mary imparts virtue requires moving to the next Marian shrine in the seminary. We find an altar dedicated to Mary, «Regina cleri,» Queen of the Clergy, located in between the chapel and the outer vestibule. Since the arrangement of the chapel at the beginning of the last century, thousands of seminarians have passed in front of this image of the Blessed Virgin Mary each time that they went to pray in the main chapel. Really, though, the seminarians passed through Mary. «Ad Jesum, per Mariam.» To Jesus, through Mary.

This filial instinct — «Ad Jesum per Mariam» — remains a solid and indestructible one in the Catholic consciousness. In order to understand rightly Mary’s maternal mediation, it is important to recall that spatial metaphors fail when we speak about God. The truth of the matter is that nothing can intervene between a creature and God; each such relationship is immediate. It would have to be, or else the creature made for God would not be able to embrace God.

If immediacy describes our relationship with God, why does God establish mediations? The answer is simple: We need them. They belong to what one may designate the «logic of the Incarnation.» Pope John Paul II summarizes the point succinctly: «All the saving influences of the Blessed Virgin on mankind originate … from the divine pleasure. … In no way do they impede the immediate union of the faithful with Christ. Rather they foster this union'» («Mater Redemptoris,» No. 38, citing «Lumen Gentium,» No. 60).

To see how this fostering works, consider the virtue of chastity. Mary’s maternal mediation supports the life of chaste celibacy as the cleric unites himself with Christ in Mary. When he does this, Mary’s chaste virginity and the love that a Mother cherishes for her children envelops the priest or seminarian and fosters his union with Christ who, as God, is the source of every virtue.

Take away a Mother’s love and the grace of the Immaculate Conception — which stands at the source of Mary’s holiness — and growth in chastity takes on a different dynamic. Some may inquire, «But what difference does it make? Whether with Mary or without her, one still has to struggle.»

This common view misses the point of what a spiritual Mother accomplishes. Think about pursuing any objective; for instance, pastoral ministry. When is it easy? When you find yourself in a setting with three others, one of whom believes that women should be ordained; another that same-sex unions merit civil recognition; and a third who holds neither view but still believes that the others enjoy the right to their opinions. Or, when you find yourself united with those who share a common love for a common mission?

In a word, the difference that Mary makes is a difference that arises from a union of hearts, from a commonality born of love.

The third representation of Our Lady occurs in the apse of the chapel. There she stands with the apostles at Pentecost. Mary here shows herself to be the Mother of the Church. «Mater Ecclesiae.» Her mediation extends to the whole Church. There is nothing idiosyncratic or isolationist about devotion to Mary. Her very being is ordered to embrace everyone predestined to become a brother or sister of her only Son. No person is excluded.

In fact, all persons remain in some mysterious way related to her. Mary mediates both as Mother and Bride. As Mother, she forms us into the image of her Son.
St. Louis Marie de Montfort liked to exhort that we should prefer being formed rather than being chiseled. Being formed means abiding in the womb of Mary. That is, united in love with the Mother of the Redeemer. Being chiseled means striving for holiness by ourselves. «Behold your mother.» As Bride, Mary draws every human being into the inner mystery of the Church, which until Christ comes again in glory remains like an expectant spouse, waiting for his embrace. «Do whatever he tells you.»

These three representations portray one and the same mystery. «Ave Maria. Regina cleri. Mater Ecclesiae.» The titles are as contemporary as they are true. Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe occupied Catholics on the American continent for centuries before Boston built its seminary in 1884. But the message of Guadalupe fits if not inspires the seminary’s iconography.

Remember that it was on 12 December 1531 that the Virgin of Guadalupe reminded St. Juan Diego: «Am I not here who am your mother? Am I not your fountain of life?» The men studying to be priests at St. John’s Seminary in Boston are resolved to take up the new evangelization under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For them, as for those who instruct them, this means embracing the Mother of the Redeemer as their own spiritual Mother, so that the specific identity of the priest will develop in each seminarian according to God’s plan.

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