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


An Invincible Woman

Somehow it seems fitting that today is not only the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it’s also the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila.

Nietzsche, of course, not only proclaimed that “God is dead”, but he also gave us the concept of the “Übermensch” or “Superman”.  In his book, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – which, if you ever studied advanced German, you probably had to struggle through at one point – the Superman was a kind of new human, brought about through a rejection of Christian hope in the next life.  The materialism espoused by Nietzsche sought a perfection of the physical and mental capabilities of human beings in this life, since he believed that there was no afterlife to follow, and that whatever creator-god there may once have been, he had faded away leaving only a cloud of dust, like the remains of a supernova.

In creating the post-religious superman as a goal for mankind to strive toward, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for all sorts of monstrosities, from eugenics to Nazism. In fact, when the comic book character of the same name was first conceived back in the 1930’s by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, he was actually a super-villain, along the lines of the materialist, amoral ideas of Nietzsche then being championed by Hitler, et al.  It was only later that Superman was changed to become an anti-Nazi champion and the world’s biggest goody-two-shoes.

St. Teresa of Ávila was probably just about as opposite a thinker to Nietzsche as you can get. A woman whose childhood piety was muffled in young adulthood as she was drawn to seek the material pleasures of this world, she later rejected those comforts in order to draw herself and others closer to God through her life of prayer, her many writings, and her work.  She also gave us something far better than the concept of the Superman: an encapsulation of her thinking which today is referred to as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”, so called because it was found written on a prayer card which she kept in her breviary, the book of daily prayers centered around the Psalms still used to this day in the Church.


Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve shared this counsel of St. Teresa’s with others, particularly non-Catholics who have never heard of it, and there’s always a positive reaction.  It’s really a reflection of what Christ told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 6:25-34) about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s also a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

We all have choices to make in this life. We can conform ourselves to this world, saying that this is all there is, as Nietzsche did, so let’s all have a good time.  I can then put on the rather tight tights and the cool (if admittedly pointless) cape, and go around pretending that I’m invincible, but in the end suffering and death are my kryptonite just as they are yours.  Sooner or later I’ll be made painfully aware of the fact that I’m not invincible after all, and material satisfaction is just as much a passing fantasy as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

If however we choose to see this life as a kind of training ground for the life to come, as St. Teresa did, then we can find meaning even in our suffering.  She demonstrated how invincibility comes not through a reliance on material ends, but rather through spiritual means.  If the goal becomes obtaining eternal life in Heaven, and not the finite, ultimately futile effort to conquer the world rather than ourselves, then we realize that there, at last, lies the permanence we are seeking.

This only happens, as St. Teresa came to understand, through the surrender of our will to God.   “Christ does not force our will,” she observed. “He takes only what we give him. But he does not give himself entirely until he sees that we yield ourselves entirely to him.”

On her Feast Day then, let’s try to exercise that real superpower, by making the same choice to show our invincibility through our surrender.

"The Holy Spirit Appearing to St Teresa of Avila" by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

“The Holy Spirit Appearing to St. Teresa of Ávila” by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam


Waiting with Mary

We spend a great deal of time in this life waiting around for things to happen.  When something we’re waiting for is particularly urgent or critical, many of us get more nervous and more upset the longer we have to wait for it.  It’s very easy in these moments to come to sympathize with the Psalmist.  “How long, O Lord,” we read in Psalm 13, “will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me?”

Yet how often do we stop to think about the fact that He is asking us the same question: “How long do I have to wait for YOU?”  Prayer, of course, is the way back, when we’ve forgotten that He is not our plaything, to be put down or taken up as we wish.  And one of the most powerful forms of prayer there is comes in the form of a set of beads.

Today Catholics celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.  The rosary is, of course, an object which Catholics and non-Catholics alike are very familiar with.  It is not some sort of amulet or talisman, nor is it simply “worry beads” to numb the consciousness.  Rather, the rosary is a tool for remembering and meditating on the love that God has for all of us, in recalling the Incarnation of God the Son through some of the major events of His life and that of His Mother.  It has been a lifeline for Christians for centuries, and today’s feast day recalls one particular instance of that.

On October 7, 1571, as the Ottomans were conquering their way into Europe, they were defeated by a naval armada led by Spain and a coalition of smaller Christian kingdoms at the Battle of Lepanto.  Knowing that the Christian forces were hugely outnumbered, and recognizing the implications for Christianity if the Ottomans were to invade Italy,  Pope St. Pius V called for all of Europe to fast and pray for the success of the effort, particularly encouraging people to pray the rosary and ask the Virgin Mary to intercede with Her Son.  In thanksgiving for the defeat of the Ottomans, Pius dedicated October 7th on the Church calendar to Our Lady of Victory; his successor, Pope Gregory XIII, changed the name of the feast day to honor Our Lady through prayer of the rosary.

This is all very grand and heady stuff, of course.  Saints having visions, popes issuing decrees, battling imperial forces, and so on are enough to fire anyone’s imagination.  Yet we have to remember that a lot of what went on here, albeit on an international scale, was waiting, and then waiting some more.  Because of this, the rosary was absolutely the right tool for the job at that time, as indeed it is on both an international and personal level today.

Most of us are not sitting around waiting to be conquered and slaughtered by the hostile armies of a different religion, although in fact many of our Christian brothers and sisters actually are, at this very moment.  For them, the rosary provides protection greater than any number of drone strikes or missile launches (let alone a politician’s misguided speech in rather poor taste.)  It reminds them that God’s promise works its way out in God’s time, not in the time we might like it to, and often not without great suffering.  Sometimes amazing things may happen, as at Lepanto on this day 443 years ago; other times, the outcome is not so obviously joyful.

For those of us whose suffering-while-waiting is more personal rather than geopolitical in nature, the rosary is just as powerful a reminder that we are loved, but also that we have to accept God’s Will whatever it may be, and whenever it may be revealed.  As we anticipate news of the job or school application, the mortgage approval, or the biopsy report from the oncologist, the rosary reminds us that this, too, is just a passing moment, even if it seems to be taking a long time to pass.  The rosary can accompany us in those moments, as we wait for the phone to ring, the letter to arrive, the person to come down the hall and tell us the news that we’re waiting on.

The real example for Christians to take from reflecting on the life of the Virgin Mary through praying the rosary is two-fold.  First we must accept that our life as Christians, like that recalled in the rosary, must have Christ at its center.  All that Mary does and witnesses, which we recall in the prayer of the rosary, is centered around her relationship with Him.  If we do not get that, then we do not “get” the point of the rosary.

Second, the rosary serves as a reminder of how we must humbly accept God’s Will in our life, even when things are not as we would necessarily like them to be, or when we don’t see how everything is going to work out in the end. It took Mary but a moment to say yes to the invitation to become the Mother of the Messiah brought by the Angel Gabriel.  It took her a lifetime for her to see how God’s promise to her, and indeed to all of mankind, would be fulfilled.

Whatever you are waiting on, then, no matter how great or terrible the news, or how long it takes to arrive, consider allowing the rosary to be your way of remaining close to God, as you await the outcome of His Will.

Detail of "Our Lady of the Rosary" by Caravaggio (1607) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Detail of “Our Lady of the Rosary” by Caravaggio (1607)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.