Anyone who has known former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio understands well that his Marian devotion, far from being a recent manifestation, is a long-established devotion. From the very beginning of his Petrine ministry, he has let us experience his love for Mary, Mother of the Lord. Appearing for the first time to the world, he told us on the night of March 13, “Tomorrow I want to go to pray to the Madonna, that she may protect Rome.” We were moved the following morning by the scenes of the newly elected Pope praying in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.
This Basilica was built in honor of Mary, Mother of God, which is the first and most important title of Our Lady. It is a living witness to that great moment in the history of the ancient Church, the Council of Ephesus, in which the divine motherhood of the Virgin Mary was authoritatively defined. This Church is the first Marian shrine in Rome and in the entire West, in which the image of the Mother of God “Theotokos” (God bearer) is venerated under the title of Salus Populi Romani.
From his very first meeting with his brother cardinals in the Clementine Hall on March 15th, Pope Francis stressed his link with Mary and the role he ascribes to Jesus’ Mother. He said: “I entrust my ministry and your ministry to the powerful intercession of Mary, our Mother, Mother of the Church. Under Her maternal gaze may each one of you walk happy and docile on your path, listening to the voice of Her divine Son, strengthening your unity, persevering in your common prayer and bearing witness to the true faith in the constant presence of the Lord.”
Francis has visited the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on the eve of every one of his foreign visits, and upon returning to Rome, goes from the airport to the basilica to pray in gratitude for graces and blessings received on the journeys. On the eve of his departure for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for World Youth Day 2013, Pope Francis visited once again the Basilica and entrusted World Youth Day 2013 to Mary’s care. During his unforgettable experience at World Youth Day 2013 in Brazil, he made a side-trip to the famous shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in central Brazil.
Aparecida evokes first of all a major Marian shrine that was the venue of a very important meeting of bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean region back in 2007. During that important continental gathering, in which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio played a decisive role, bishops were confronted on a daily basis with the traditional piety of Latin America that finds rich, beautiful expressions manifested toward the Mother of the Lord. The Mother of the Lord brings together past, present and future and offers countless opportunities of creativity and fidelity to the millions of people who flock to this shrine.
In a very moving homily in Aparcida during the 2013 Brazilian World Youth Day, he spoke these words about Mary:
“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. …Today, looking forward to the World Youth Day which has brought me to Brazil, I too come to knock on the door of the house of Mary – who loved and raised Jesus – that she may help all of us, pastors of God’s people, parents and educators, to pass on to our young people the values that can help them build a nation and a world which are more just, united and fraternal. For this reason I would like to speak of three simple attitudes: hopefulness, openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy.
…Dear friends, we have come to knock at the door of Mary’s house. She has opened it for us, she has let us in and she shows us her Son. Now she asks us to “do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Yes, dear Mother, we are committed to doing whatever Jesus tells us! And we will do it with hope, trusting in God’s surprises and full of joy.”
During his recent “tour de force” in Latin America, Pope Francis’ first homily in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015, in the Parco Bicentenario offered another opportunity to speak about Mary, Mother of the Lord:
“Mary is attentive, she is attentive in the course of this wedding feast, she is concerned for the needs of the newly-weds. She is not closed in on herself, worried only about her little world. Her love makes her ‘outgoing’ towards others. She does not seek her friends to say what is happening, to criticize the poor organization of the wedding feast. And since she is attentive, she discretely notices that the wine has run out. Wine is a sign of happiness, love and plenty. How many of our adolescents and young people sense that these is no longer any of that wine to be found in their homes? How many women, sad and lonely, wonder when love left, when it slipped away from their lives? How many elderly people feel left out of family celebrations, cast aside and longing each day for a little love, from their sons and daughters, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren? This lack of this ‘wine’ can also be due to unemployment, illness and difficult situations which our families around the world may experience. Mary is not a ‘demanding’ mother, nor a mother-in-law who revels in our lack of experience, our mistakes and the things we forget to do. Mary, quite simply, is a Mother!”
On July 9 as he bade farewell to the clergy of Ecuador in the Marian shrine of El Quinche, the Bishop of Rome said:
“…Something else that Our Lady’s Presentation makes me think of is perseverance. In the evocative iconography associated with this feast, the Child Mary is shown moving away from her parents as she climbs the steps of the Temple. Mary does not look back and, in a clear reference to the evangelical admonition, she moves forward with determination. We, like the disciples in the Gospel, also need to move forward as we bring to all peoples and places the Good News of Jesus. Perseverance in mission is not about going from house to house, looking for a place where we will be more comfortably welcomed.”
On Saturday July 11 at the Marian shrine of Caacupé, Paraguay, Francis again gave a deeply human, moving reflection about Mary:
“Being here with you makes me feel at home, at the feet of our Mother, the Virgin of Miracles of Caacupé. In every shrine we, her children, encounter our Mother and are reminded that we are brothers and sisters. Shrines are places of festival, of encounter, of family. We come to present our needs. We come to give thanks, to ask forgiveness and to begin again. How many baptisms, priestly and religious vocations, engagements and marriages, have been born at the feet of our Mother! How many tearful farewells! We come bringing our lives, because here we are at home and it is wonderful to know there is someone waiting for us.
- The birth of Jesus. There was no room for them. They had no house, no dwelling to receive her Son. There was no place where she could give birth. They had no family close by; they were alone. The only place available was a stall of animals. Surely she remembered the words of the angel: “Rejoice, Mary, the Lord is with you”. She might well have asked herself: “Where is he now?”.
- The flight to Egypt. They had to leave, to go into exile. Not only was there no room for them, no family nearby, but their lives were also in danger. They had to depart and go to a foreign land. They were migrants, on account of the envy and greed of the King. There too she might well have asked: “What happened to all those things promised by the angel?
- Jesus’ death on the cross. There can be no more difficult experience for a mother than to witness the death of her child. It is heartrending. We see Mary there, at the foot of the cross, like every mother, strong, faithful, staying with her child even to his death, death on the cross. Then she encourages and supports the disciples.
We look at her life, and we feel understood, we feel heard. We can sit down to pray with her and use a common language in the face of the countless situations we encounter each day. We can identify with many situations in her own life. We can tell her what is happening in our lives, because she understands.”
In one of the touching moments of the visit to Asunción, Paraguay, on July 12, 2015, Francis visited Bañado Norte di Asunción, an area where many poor people live and where the Church and the State provide various projects of social assistance. He reflected on the plight of the Holy Family in the time of Jesus and the plight of poor families today:
“I have looked forward to being with you today. I could not come to Paraguay without spending some time with you, here on your land. We are meeting in this Parish named after the Holy Family, and I confess that as I arrived, everything reminded me of the Holy Family. To see your faces, your children, your elderly, and to hear about your experiences and everything you went through to be here, to have a dignified life and a roof over your heads, to endure the bad weather and the flooding of these last few weeks…
All this makes me think of the little family of Bethlehem. Your struggles have not taken away your laughter, your joy and your hope. Struggles which have not lessened your sense of solidarity but if anything, have made it grow.
I would like to think for a moment about Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. They were forced to leave home, families and friends. They had to leave all that they had and to go somewhere else, to a place where they knew no one, a place where they had no house or family. That was when that young couple had Jesus. That was how they gave us Jesus. They were alone, in a strange land, just the three of them. Then, all of a sudden, shepherds began to arrive. People just like them who had to leave their homes to find better opportunities for their families. Their lives were affected by harsh weather but by other kinds of hardship too.”
Mary, Undoer of Knots
Finally, Pope Francis has introduced the world to the little known Marian devotion to “Mary, Undoer of Knots.” He has a very special devotion to Mary under a title that goes all the way back to the second century. When young Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio was completing his graduate studies in Germany, he was captivated by a Bavarian painting of “Holy Mary, Our Lady Undoer of Knots” that he saw in a Church in Augsburg. In the painting the Virgin is shown in the act of untying a knot on a long white ribbon while crushing the serpent, which stands for evil. Bergoglio obtained a copy of the painting and brought it back with him to Argentina where he helped spread the devotion among his people. While this devotion is relatively unknown in our part of the world, it is known and loved in Argentina. This devotion originated from a painting executed by the German artist Johann Georg Schidtner around 1700, located in St. Peter am Perlach Church in Augsburg, Germany.
The second-century devotion comes from an historic period less than one hundred years after the death of the Apostles. St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote: “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” The understanding of Mary’s universal mediation and her subordinate role to Christ in human salvation is beautifully summed up in this saying of Saint Irenaeus. The fact that it goes back to the second century reveals that this is not a medieval accretion. It’s a doctrine going back to the Apostolic period. From the earliest Church, the faithful commit themselves to Mary’s intercession when confronted with a difficult situation in their lives.
Prayer to Mary, Undoer of Knots
Virgin Mary, Mother of fair love,
Mother who never refuses to come to the aid of a child in need,
Mother whose hands never cease to serve your beloved children
because they are moved by the divine love and immense mercy
that exists in your heart, cast your compassionate eyes
upon me and see the snarl of knots that exist in my life.
You know very well how desperate I am, my pain,
and how I am bound by these knots.
Mary, Mother to whom God entrusted
the undoing of the knots in the lives of his children,
I entrust into your hands the ribbon of my life.
No one, not even the Evil One himself,
can take it away from your precious care.
In your hands there is no knot that cannot be undone.
Powerful Mother, by your grace and intercessory power
with Your Son and My Liberator, Jesus,
take into your hands today this knot.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is the CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and the English Language Assistant to the Holy See Press Office.