Totus Tuus: Marian Suffering and Pope St. John Paul II

Today for the first time in the liturgical calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John Paul II.  For many of us as we were growing up, JPII – as we affectionately call him – was the only pope we had ever known, thanks to his long pontificate from 1978 until 2005.  There is so much that one could reflect on about the man today, but I want to focus on just one aspect of his life, thanks to a work of art I stumbled upon yesterday.

The image of JPII reproduced below is part of a huge canvas about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide.  It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary following her arrival in Heaven, and was painted by contemporary Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa Fernández (born 1979).  The work covers the ceiling of the Oratory of Santa Maria Reina (Mary, Queen of Heaven) of the Hermandad de las Penas (Brotherhood of the Sorrows) in the Andalusian city of Málaga.  The painting took 6 years to completeand was just finished and dedicated a month ago.

The Brotherhood is one of the religious associations which participate in the famous Holy Week processions in Spain.  Each of these groups typically has their own church or chapel where they preserve the elaborate floats and statues used in these processions, and where members gather throughout the year for prayer, services, and to encourage the local community in their faith.  This particular group cares for two historic images used during Holy Week: one a highly-detailed sculpture of Christ on the Cross, and the other of the sorrowful Virgin Mary, weeping over the pains being suffered by her Divine Son.

Not only is Sr. Berzosa Fernández’ work magnificent, it demonstrates that the study of classical art is not yet dead, thank goodness.  Yet it also gives us an image of the late Pontiff in a wider theological context, not simply as a portrait.  As one of the figures in a piece celebrating the Blessed Mother, in the chapel of a group dedicated to meditating on the suffering which she and Her Son endured, the presence of St. John Paul II in this painting is more than simply a pious inclusion. It exemplifies the Pope’s deep understanding as a result of his own, personal suffering of how Mary’s example of suffering along with Her Son can lead us to better follow Him.

St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady, particularly at her shrine of Czestochowa in Poland, and at Fátima in Portugal following the attempt on his life, is well known, of course.  His motto on his Papal coat of arms was the same which he had as Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “Totus Tuus” – “All Yours” – referring to the opening consecration to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis de Montfort. The coat of arms also featured an initial “M” beneath the cross, recalling the presence of the Blessed Virgin beneath the cross at the Crucifixion, witnessing the suffering of her Son and sharing in His sorrows.  And sorrow was something JPII understood all too well, under the Nazis, later under the Communists, and still later in surviving an assassination attempt and suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

Yet for JPII, while sorrow and suffering was a reality not to be shied away from, he recognized that these things were ways to bring us closer to Christ, as indeed the Mother of Christ herself understood by remaining close to her Son.  In his 1987 encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”, a complex theological document which has been studied and commented on by many far more educated than I, St. John Paul II reflected on the relationship of Mary to Christ and His Church.  I won’t even attempt to unpack it in a blog post.  Instead, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite passages in the text, which is relevant for our consideration here.

Toward the end of the encyclical, when the late pope points out Mary’s role as an example and as an intercessor in helping us to struggle against evil and do good, to carry on even though suffering, and to pick ourselves up and rise after we have fallen, he reflects on the times in which we live, when we can be so easily deluded into thinking everything is fine and dandy in the world:

Mankind has made wonderful discoveries and achieved extraordinary results in the fields of science and technology. It has made great advances along the path of progress and civilization, and in recent times one could say that it has succeeded in speeding up the pace of history. But the fundamental transformation, the one which can be called “original,” constantly accompanies man’s journey, and through all the events of history accompanies each and every individual. It is the transformation from “falling” to “rising,” from death to life. It is also a constant challenge to people’s consciences, a challenge to man’s whole historical awareness: the challenge to follow the path of “not falling” in ways that are ever old and ever new, and of “rising again” if a fall has occurred.

Just as the painting which brought about today’s post was something that took many years to complete, so too, our own lives are a constant work in progress, not something which is ever going to be perfected in this life.  Christ taught us this, His Mother understood it, and St. John Paul II certainly tried to live it and pass that reminder along to us.  As we remember him today, let us also remember that picking up our cross and soldiering on, however difficult it may be, is what all Christians are called to do.

Detail of "The Coronation of the Virgin" by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014) Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Malaga

Detail of “The Coronation of the Virgin” by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014)
Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Málaga

Common Sense in the West Conference: July 17-20

Here’s a terrific opportunity for you to check out if you’re in the New York City area, or looking to get away for what sounds like quite a weekend for debate and discussion:

An upcoming conference co-sponsored by the Adler-Aquinas Institute, Renewing the West by Renewing Common Sense, will give those of you with a philosophical bent the chance to meet with others of like mind, in order to consider some of the issues facing Western society today, as old bonds fracture and need repair or replacement.  How does the church receive funding from the state going forward, if said funding increasingly has moral and ethically problematic strings attached to it? How do we see the question of theological anthropology now, in the wake of the new, trendy version of atheism? What can we learn from the ideas and leadership styles of figures like Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II?  What lessons about tyranny from Socrates are still applicable in the present socio-political climate?

These are some of the topics to be considered the weekend of July 17-20 at the inaugural international conference, which will be held at the beautiful Seminary of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island  Registration is still available, and includes accommodation, meals, and receptions, but spaces are becoming limited.  You can find out how to register by visiting the Adler-Aquinas Institute site.

Even if you cannot attend, several of the talks at the conference will be streamed live on YouTube. Some of those which will be streamed include presentations on humanism and management, Dante, and the work of G.K. Chesterton.  If you subscribe to the conference’s YouTube channel, you will be able to catch those selected for broadcast.  In addition, selected papers from the conference will also be made available over on the Dead Philosophers’ Society.

For further information, and to be a part of the conference as it is going on, be sure to visit the conference Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter.  Those attending the conference or wanting to interact with those who are, will be using the hashtag #CommonSense to keep the conversation going.  The organizers are very keen on having those participating engage with the speakers and other attendees, so your thoughts, questions, and comments will be most welcome!

Immaculate Conception Seminary Huntington, New York

Immaculate Conception Seminary
Huntington, New York


Queen Elizabeth II: A Catholic Appreciation

This weekend world Anglophiles, such as yours truly, are enjoying the celebrations surrounding the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.  For those who wish to watch some of the events taking place this weekend in London, the BBC (including BBC America here in the U.S.) and the CBC are two of the best places to see live coverage of the numerous ceremonies.  I am particularly looking forward to seeing the Thames Pageant tomorrow morning before mass, in which over 1,000 vessels of all sorts will float down the Thames in London in honor of the Queen.

However as we discussed during the recording of the Catholic Weekend show today over at SQPN, one thing which is often overlooked with respect to the reign of the present Queen is the gracious effort she has made to reach out to Catholics.  She has done so in ways which some of her ancestors, such as Elizabeth I, would have found surprising, to say the least.  Anti-Catholicism has long been a problem in Britain, and it sill exists in some places. However in leading by example the Queen has shown what it means to be a true lady: someone who is welcoming, knows who she is, treats others with the respect they deserve and is deserving of respect in return.

The Queen is, of course, the head of the Church of England, which is something a bit hard for Americans to get their heads around, at times.  Imagine the President of the United States also being the head of your religion, and you get something of an idea.  The history of Catholicism in Britain since the split with Rome is one marked by a great deal of tragedy and centuries of legally-enshrined discrimination, which probably to the surprise of many of my readers still exists at the present time.

And yet despite this, it is worth pointing to the outreach that this Queen and the Popes have made to one another over the past several decades.  For example, she met with Pope Pius XII while she was still Princess Elizabeth; she also had a private visit with Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1962. In 1980 Elizabeth II made a state visit to meet with (now Blessed) Pope John Paul II, during the course of which she formally invited John Paul II to come on a pastoral visit to Britain.  Accordingly, Blessed John Paul II came to visit in 1982, an event which was considered an extraordinary success as well as an historic first, as the first sitting pope to visit the United Kingdom.

During the Church’s Jubilee year of 2000 the Queen came to visit Pope John Paul in the Vatican again, in commemoration of their first meeting twenty years earlier. By this time of course the Pope was already visibly suffering the long, painful decline in his health, but the Queen appeared as radiant and happy to see him as she had been twenty years earlier. At their meeting the Pope acknowledged the difficult past between the Vatican and Britain, but noted that “in recent years there has emerged between us a cordiality more in keeping with the harmony of earlier times and more genuinely expressive of our common spiritual roots.”  I daresay that part of that cordiality stemmed from the personality of the woman seated across from him as he gave his remarks.

When John Paul II died five years later, the Queen’s example was mirrored in the actions of her government and her son. Not only did the British Prime Minister attend the Pope’s funeral, which is something in and of itself, but many may not remember that Prince Charles actually postponed his wedding to Camilla Parker-Bowles so that he could attend the Pope’s funeral and represent the British Crown. The Queen herself issued a statement at his death offering her condolences, and noting the work that the Pope had done, trying to bring peace around the world. No doubt Henry VIII was spinning in his grave when he heard that.

Afterwards of course, came the historic state visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain in 2010, when he met with the Queen for the first time at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, and later made his exceptional address in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament in London. When they met, in her welcoming speech the Queen acknowledged that the Pope would be beatifying Cardinal John Henry Newman, probably the most seminal figure in the rebirth of Catholicism in Britain, during his visit. “I know that reconciliation was a central theme in the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman,” she noted, “for whom you will be holding a Mass of Beatification on Sunday. A man who struggled with doubt and uncertainty, his contribution to the understanding of Christianity continues to influence many. I am pleased that your visit will also provide an opportunity to deepen the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the established Church of England and the Church of Scotland.”

As pointed out on the Catholic Weekend show this morning, symbolism matters. The fact that this elderly woman in her 80’s continues to hold the fascination of so many people around the world I think has less to do with glamour and glitz, and more with an appreciation that she, too, understands the power of symbolism. She does what her country needs her to do, and while we may think that work is easy, or extraordinarily well-paid, the sacrifices and personal losses she has had to bear as a result of not being able to relax, take it easy, and be just a normal granny like everyone else her age, are things I daresay none of us could reasonably be capable of fathoming.

In the case of the present monarch and her outreach to the Catholic Church, unimaginable to previous generations of Britons, I think she “gets” it. She appreciates that her visits to Rome, and the Pontiff’s visits to her realm; the warmth both sides have shown to each other during those visits in trying to make sure everything goes perfectly; and the interaction that the Queen has made with the Catholic hierarchy in the UK – going so far as to refer to the late Cardinal Hume as “MY cardinal” and attending Vespers at the Catholic cathedral in London – have gone a long way toward normalizing relations between her country and the Catholic Church, after so many years of unhappiness.

I for one will be raising my glass to Her Majesty this evening, to thank her for her efforts to reach out to Catholics in her country: your very good health, Ma’am.

Queen Elizabeth II meeting Blessed Pope John Paul II at The Vatican,
October 17, 1980