River of Wisdom: Conference

Activating Marian Devotion

  • Introduction
  • The Rosary
  • Images of Our Lady
  • Shrines and Pilgrimages
  • Conclusion: A Flowing River



We have spent some time meditating on the essence of Marian devotion and three of its most fundamental forms: Mary’s spiritual presence in our lives, her example, and her powerful intercession.
But how do we actually practice this devotion in our daily lives? In other words, what activities or spiritual exercises help us develop and benefit from this devotion?
Here we enter into the difference between Marian devotion, and Marian devotions. Throughout the two- thousand-year history of our Catholic Church, many different pious practices have emerged, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that can give expression to Marian devotion and allow it to play its proper role in our spiritual development — these are called Marian devotions. In this conference, I would like to talk about three of them.
Most likely, we have all heard of these three Marian devotions, but we may benefit from freshening up our appreciation of them, and reflecting a bit on how we may be able to use them more fruitfully in our own lives.

The Rosary

The most common and most complete way to bring Marian devotion to life is through praying the Rosary. The Rosary is a rich, multifaceted prayer that has
been a favorite spiritual exercise for countless saints, both religious and lay people. In fact, since the year 1900, there has not been a single pope who hasn’t officially encouraged praying the Rosary; no other pious devotion has received such universal and consistent encouragement.
We have all seen Rosary beads at some time or another, though maybe not all of us have actually used them to pray the Rosary. This prayer is substantial enough to be a favorite of popes and professors, and at the same time it is simple enough to be used by children, and by people so sick and weak that they can’t pray in any other way.
It consists in a powerful combination of vocal and mental prayer — using the familiar words of the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be as a kind of rhythmic background in which our mind and heart turn their attention to the important events in the life of Jesus and Mary.
While praying the Rosary, we sometimes focus on the words of those familiar prayers. Other times we focus almost entirely on the different mysteries from the lives of Jesus and Mary, gazing at them through the lens of faith in order to allow the Holy Spirit to give us new insights and to inflame our hearts with faith, hope, and love.
When we pray the Rosary in that fashion, it is as if we were sitting in our mother’s lap and looking through
a photo album of our family history together, and she explains each picture as we contemplate it.
During some moments or seasons in our spiritual journey, we experience joy or suffering or needs or yearning so intense that it’s hard for us to express adequately in our own words what we are experiencing in the depths of our heart and soul.
In those times, the familiar formulas of the Rosary can come to our rescue, giving us a way to lift our hearts to God when other words seem to fail us.
Our Lady of the Rosary
The Rosary has proven so spiritually fruitful in the history of the Church, that in 1571, Pope St. Pius V instituted an annual liturgical feast in its honor: the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — originally known as Our Lady of Victory — on October 7. In modern times, this feast has kind of expanded, making the entire month of October especially connected to praying the Rosary. The specific occasion that gave rise to this liturgical celebration is worth remembering.
Back in 1571 the future of Christian Europe hung in the balance. A vast and powerful Turkish-Muslim empire (the Ottoman Empire) was gradually steamrolling westward, sweeping away all Christian resistance.
It didn’t help that the Protestant Reformation had spawned horrible disunity and even war among the Christian nations of Europe, making them especially vulnerable to external attack. Add to that a recent fire that had devastated the great Venetian naval fleet, and a famine spreading throughout almost the whole of Italy, and you get a truly dire situation.
Pope St. Pius V was one of the few Christian leaders who saw the Muslim threat for what it truly was, and did something about it. He added fervent prayers
to brilliant diplomacy, and successfully gathered an international fleet of over a hundred ships to repel the onslaught of the Ottoman Emperor Selimus II, whose fleet outnumbered the Christians by almost three to one.
On October 7, the first Sunday of October that year, the Europeans engaged the Turks in a sea battle near the Greek harbor of Lepanto. That same day, the
Pope had arranged that fervent prayers be offered all throughout Christendom for a successful outcome. He asked in a special way for the Christian faithful to invoke heavenly aid through praying the Rosary. In Rome and in many other places, huge Rosary processions were held for this intention.
On the verge of battle, Don John of Austria, commander-in-chief of the Christian forces, let fly the signal for engagement by hoisting a flag given him by
the Pope on which an image of Christ crucified was embroidered. All the sailors and soldiers knelt in prayer before the crucifix while the two fleets drew together just as the sun rose in the east.
The very day of the battle, in the afternoon, St. Pius V was meeting with some Cardinals when he suddenly stood up from the table, walked briskly to the window, opened the shutters, and peered into the sky for a few moments. Then he shut the window and called the meeting to a close. He told the flabbergasted Cardinals: “Now is not the time to talk business, but to thank
God for the victory he has given to the arms of the Christians.”
He had been granted miraculous knowledge of the equally miraculous victory that the Christian fleet had won over the Turks. The Holy Father attributed this victory to Mary’s intercession. Afterwards, he added the title “Our Lady, Help of Christians” to the famous Marian Litany of Loreto. And that is when he added the feast of “Our Lady of the Rosary” into the liturgical calendar on October 7, the anniversary of the crucial victory at Lepanto.
Pope Paul VI Praises the Rosary
It was also during the papacy of Pope St. Pius V that
the form in which the Rosary is prayed today was given official status. Up to that point, different methods of praying the Rosary had developed organically, gradually, from the times of the Desert Fathers through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. It had been promoted in a special way by the Dominicans in the fifteenth century, and it is no coincidence that Pope St. Pius V, the great champion of the Rosary, was a Dominican himself.
But all the modern popes have also championed this ancient, powerful, beautiful prayer. Here is how Pope Paul VI described it in his encyclical letter to bishops on the Mother of Christ:
If evils increase, the devotion of the People of God should also increase. And so, venerable brothers, We want you to take the lead in urging and encouraging people to pray ardently to our most merciful mother Mary by saying the Rosary during the month of October, as We have already indicated. This prayer is well- suited to the devotion of the People of God, most pleasing to the Mother of God and most effective in gaining heaven’s blessings. The Second Vatican Council recommended use of the Rosary to all the sons of
the Church, not in express words but in unmistakable fashion in this phrase: “Let them value highly the pious practices and exercises directed to the Blessed Virgin and approved over the centuries by the magisterium.” As the history of the Church makes clear, this very fruitful way of praying is not only efficacious in warding off evils and preventing calamities, but is also of great help in fostering Christian life. It nourishes the Catholic faith which readily takes on new life from a timely commentary on the sacred mysteries, and it turns minds toward the truths that have been taught us by God.
Paintings, icons, and even miraculous images like Our Lady of Guadalupe have adorned Christian churches since the very early centuries of our faith. The earliest surviving image of the Blessed Virgin is a fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome showing Mary holding the baby Jesus. Throughout the history of the Church, the greatest Christian artists have filled the world with Marian paintings and sculptures that both instruct and inspire us.
Finding a favorite image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and keeping it in a place where we can see it often is a wise and simple way to foster a healthy Marian devotion.
In the first place, holy images like these remind us
of Mary’s presence in our lives, which is the first fundamental form of Marian devotion. When we see the image, we are moved to remember that we have a spiritual mother who, in accordance with God’s providential plan of salvation, watches over us.
The images themselves also reflect, symbolically
and artistically, the beauty of Mary’s virtue, the different scenes and encounters from her life as the first Christian. In this way, they tie in to the second fundamental form of Marian devotion — her example.
Finally, beautiful Marian images stir up our confidence in Mary’s intercession and in the grace of God, encouraging us to invoke her and allow her to share in our struggles and our joys.
La Madonna della Bocciata
In the grottos that make up the lower level of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you find various chapels dedicated to the memory of Our Lady. Each of these chapels has an image of Mary over the altar. Many of the images are linked to Marian devotions that are popular in particular parts of the world — Lithuania, Mexico, Hungary… A tour of these little chapels is like an international Marian pilgrimage.
One of the chapels is dedicated in honor of the Madonna della Bocciata — the Rejected Madonna. The miraculous story of this image illustrates the role that Marian images can play in our difficult faith journeys.
In the fifteenth century, this fresco had been located
in a more prominent place in the upper basilica. One night, a drunken soldier who had been gambling (playing bocce) and had lost, came to the image to complain to Our Lady.

Images of Our Lady

Besides the Rosary, the preeminent Marian devotional practice, perhaps the next most popular way that Christians have expressed their Marian devotion through the centuries has been through the prayerful veneration of images of Our Lady.

He was so mad at losing, and so drunk, that he blasphemed the Blessed Virgin and hurled one of the bocce balls at the image. It hit the fresco right in Mary’s face and bounced away.
But as the soldier continued to yell and curse, one of those rare and unlikely miracles occurred. The image
of the Blessed Virgin began to bleed, right where it had been hit with the bocce ball. The drops of blood flowed from the image and fell to the marble floor beneath it. As they flowed, they began to disintegrate the marble and created small cavities in the floor.
No one knows for sure what happened to the soldier, but the rejected image and the marble cavities became famous. And so, when St. Peter’s Basilica was reconstructed a hundred years later, they preserved both the image and the pieces of marble, relocating them to a chapel in the lower grottos.
As Catholics, we don’t worship images — that would be idolatry. But we do use images to remind us of the truths of our faith — in this case, the truth that Mary really is part of the story of our Christian lives, and that as our spiritual mother, she is interested and involved in our journey of faith.
And God also uses images, every once in awhile even throwing in a miracle or two, to encourage us to live, as St. Paul put it, “by faith, and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Shrines and Pilgrimages

A third pious activity that has emerged over the centuries as a practical way to live out Marian devotion consists of visits or pilgrimages to Marian shrines. A Christian shrine is simply a place consecrated, or especially dedicated, to a specific event or aspect having to do with the history of salvation. Pilgrims and visitors come to shrines to celebrate the faith, to pray, to make a spiritual retreat, to do penance, or maybe to ask God for a special favor.

Shrines dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary have been popular since before the Middle Ages. Many of them are built around miraculous events or apparitions linked to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s special care for the Church.
A: http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/samaha.html CONFERENCE
We have all heard, for example, of the shrine of Our Lady at Lourdes in France, or the shrine of Our Lady
of Fatima in Portugal. The most visited Catholic shrine in the world is the one dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. It has drawn tens of millions of pilgrims since Our Lady appeared there to St. Juan Diego in 1531, miraculously leaving her brilliant image emblazoned on his tilma, or tunic.
But with or without miracles, everywhere the Church spreads the faith, Marian shrines, large and small, are eventually built in order to provide places of spiritual refreshment and instruction for all of us. Pope Paul VI, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, instituted an annual meeting with rectors of Marian shrines.
In those meetings he described these shrines as “spiritual clinics” (1965), “testimonies of miraculous deeds and of a continual wave of devotion” (1966), “luminous stars in the Church’s sky” and “centers of devotion, of prayer, of recollection, of spiritual refreshment.” A
By making brief or extended pilgrimages to these shrines on a regular basis (every year, for example), whether they are close to home or far away, we are able to nourish our minds and hearts on Mary’s presence, example, and intercession.
We can make them individually, as a family, or even with the whole parish. It’s a practice that all of us should try to weave into our hectic lives, to make sure that the hustle and bustle of the modern world doesn’t little by little suffocate the true life of our souls: faith, hope, and love for Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.


Conclusion: A Flowing River

We have presented these three common Marian devotions as separate activities. But in reality, they are almost always connected. After all, the most common thing to do when we visit Marian shrines or pause to contemplate a Marian image, is to pray the Rosary.
Mary herself, when she appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, carried a rosary and prayed it with the young woman. In her other miraculous appearances, she has often encouraged us to pray the Rosary, echoing the dozens of papal letters that have given us the same encouragement.

In the end, the easiest and surest way to allow Mary’s spiritual presence to nourish our souls, to learn from her shining example, and to invoke her unique intercession, is through the Rosary.
The Rosary is a prayer that flows gently but powerfully through individual hearts and through the history of salvation, like a deep and mighty river irrigating the
vast fields of the Church — a river of heavenly wisdom constantly ready to refresh our souls, if only we’ll pause to take a drink.
Spend some time now reflecting prayerfully on the 10 questions of the personal questionnaire. Maybe the Holy Spirit will use them to give you some new insights or ideas about how you can better activate healthy Marian devotion in your pursuit of holiness.
Personal Questionnaire
1. How would I describe my relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary?
2. What images that I keep around me (paintings, pictures, photos, etc…) are most meaningful to me personally and why?
3. What are my favorite images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and why are they meaningful to me?
4. What geographical places hold a special spiritual significance for me and why?
5. Reflect on the times I have visited or made a pilgrimage to Marian churches or shrines. What did I learn from those visits, and how did they affect my relationship with God? If I have never made a pilgrimage of this kind, think about what it might be like to do so.
6. Why do I think God wants me to have a mother in the order of grace?
7. What role has the Rosary played in my spiritual life up to now?
8. After going through this Retreat Guide, how would I describe the role I would like the Rosary to play in my spiritual life?
9. Pope John Paul II wrote the following sentences describing the Rosary. Try to explain what he meant in my own words:
10. Pope Paul VI wrote the following sentences describing how to pray the Rosary. Reflect on what you could do to make your own prayer of the Rosary better reflect this description:

The Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium. By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord. In this way the unfathomable riches of these mysteries are disclosed.

– Marialis Cultus 47

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