Our Lady in the Teaching of Pope Benedict XVI
Donncha hAodha FAITH MAGAZINE January - February 2015
Recent Popes, including the current Holy Father Pope Francis, have shown a deep devotion to Our Lady. Donncha Ó hAodha now attempts to present an aspect of the Marian teaching of Benedict XVI, specifically in relation to the ever-relevant topic of human freedom.
1. Highest Honour of our Race
The abundant preaching of Benedict XVI on Our Lady testifies not only to the centrality of the Mother of God in salvation, but also to the Pope Emeritus’s personal devotion to Mary, whom he has evidently contemplated deeply in the light of Scripture. One aspect of his Marian teaching of perennial relevance, but especially in the context of the New Evangelisation, is the nature and scope of human freedom. “Since the beginning and throughout all time but especially in the modern age freedom has been the great dream of humanity.”1
Mary’s greatness lies above all in her free and unreserved openness to God. She not only hears the word but “keeps” it (cf Lk 11:28). Our Lady conceived Christ in her heart before she enclosed him in her womb. Her greatness resides first in her spiritual maternity, in freely welcoming God’s will, and then also in her physical maternity. She freely renews this commitment time and again. She “ponders” the Word (cf Lk 2:19, 51), while not always understanding it (cf Lk 2:50), and freely embraces it, making it life of her life.
In her choice of the supreme good, namely God himself, by a will unhindered by selfishness, Mary achieves the greatest freedom ever attained by a human creature. She is therefore a model of authentic human freedom. Mary overturns the widespread notion of freedom as “doing whatever I like, regardless of … anything”. By showing the fruitfulness of self-surrender to the divine call, she continually reminds her children of the unlimited horizons of love they may freely embrace, thereby making superlative use of their freedom.
2. Mirror of Justice
The Book of Revelation presents us with the dazzling image of the woman “clothed with the sun” (Rev 12:1).2 This lady of stellar radiance has already appeared fleetingly in Psalm 45:13, which refers to the princess “decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes”, while the liturgy places on Mary’s lips the oracle of Isaiah 61:10: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”3
Mary’s incomparable beauty is the fruit of her freedom. In his homily on the feast of the Assumption in 2007, Benedict XVI meditated on the “multidimensional image” of Rev 12:1-6:
“Without any doubt,” the Pope Emeritus taught, “a first meaning is that it is Our Lady, Mary, clothed with the sun, that is, with God, totally; Mary who lives totally in God, surrounded and penetrated by God’s light. Surrounded by the 12 stars, that is, by the 12 tribes of Israel, by the whole People of God, by the whole Communion of Saints; and at her feet, the moon, the image of death and mortality.
“Mary has left death behind her; she is totally clothed in life, she is taken up body and soul into God’s glory and thus, placed in glory after overcoming death, she says to us: Take heart, it is love that wins in the end!
“The message of my life was: I am the handmaid of God; my life has been a gift of myself to God and my neighbour. And this life of service now arrives in real life. May you too have trust and have the courage to live like this, countering all the threats of the dragon.”
Our Lady is clothed with the Sun of Justice, Christ the Lord (cf Mal 4:2). Her beauty consists in her immersion in Christ. Thus she defeats death (the moon) and enjoys an unheard-of intimacy with the entire Communion of the Saints (the crown of 12 stars).
Christ does not rob us of our freedom. On the contrary, only by a free and complete self-abandonment to the only One who truly knows what is in man (cf Jn 2:25) does our freedom achieve its fullest potential. Indeed, “it is only by conforming our own will to the divine one that human beings attain their true height, that they become ‘divine’”.4
3. Virgin most Prudent
By freely embracing God in Christ, with her fiat (“Let it be to me”; Lk 1:38) Our Lady gives us an unsurpassed lesson in freedom. Freedom is the capacity to choose the good, and the greater the good chosen the greater the freedom achieved. Our Lady’s decisions remind us that human freedom is made for unlimited greatness, for the vast expanses of love, by the choice of the Supreme Good, God himself.
As the then-Holy Father put it at the Vigil of Pentecost in 2006: “We want the true, great freedom, the freedom of heirs, the freedom of children of God. In this world, so full of fictitious forms of freedom that destroy the environment and the human being, let us learn true freedom by the power of the Holy Spirit; to build the school of freedom; to show others by our lives that we are free and how beautiful it is to be truly free with the true freedom of God’s children.”5
4. Mother most Admirable
Our Lady’s person is bathed in Christ, the splendour of the Father (cf Heb 1:3), because she has freely espoused the Holy Spirit. Similarly, to the extent to which the human person “clothes” him or herself in Christ (cf Gal 3:27), he or she attains true human and spiritual perfection. Only in giving ourselves do we truly receive.
As Benedict XVI explained in New York in 2008: “The Gospel teaches us that true freedom … is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love … . Real freedom, then, is God’s gracious gift, the fruit of conversion to his truth, the truth which makes us free (cf Jn 8:32). And this freedom in truth brings in its wake a new and liberating way of seeing reality. When we put on “the mind of Christ” (cf Phil 2:5), new horizons open before us!”6
There is a paradox here. The freedom of the Gospel, the capacity to entrust oneself to eternal love, far from “cramping our style” or “stunting our humanity” is the only access-route to true fulfilment, by means of a genuine participation in the divine life.
In much contemporary discourse, freedom is seen as emancipation from God. “But”, Benedict XVI pointed out, “when God disappears, men and women do not become greater; indeed, they lose the divine dignity, their faces lose God’s splendour. In the end, they turn out to be merely products of a blind evolution and, as such, can be used and abused … . Only if God is great is humankind also great. With Mary, we must begin to understand that this is so.”7
By her free self-entrustment to God, Mary “magnifies” the Lord (cf Lk 1:46) and in so doing supremely develops her own personality. Our Lady shows that it is not an “either/or” dilemma, a choice between God and man, between His happiness and ours. In this sense, Mary’s person proclaims Christianity as the true humanism.
Mary wanted God to be great in the world, great in her life and present among us all. She was not afraid that God might be a ‘rival’ in our life, that with his greatness he might encroach on our freedom, our vital space. She knew that if God is great, we too are great. Our life is not oppressed but raised and expanded: it is precisely then that it becomes great in the splendour of God.8
5. Mother of Sorrows
The “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21) is the fruit of redemption. By his sacrifice, Christ turns Adam’s “No” into a resounding and definitive “Yes” (cf 2 Cor 1:19-20). In a meditation on Christ’s agony in the garden, Benedict XVI reflected:
Man of himself is tempted to oppose God’s will, to seek to do his own will, to feel free only if he is autonomous; he sets his own autonomy against the heteronomy of obeying God’s will. This is the whole drama of humanity. But in truth, this autonomy is mistaken and entry into God’s will is not opposition to the self, it is not a form of slavery that violates my will, but rather means entering into truth and love, into goodness.
“Mary, as the Fathers of the Church explain, is the New Eve, the true mother of the living, of those who have freely chosen life”
And Jesus draws our will – which opposes God’s will, which seeks autonomy – upwards, towards God’s will. This is the drama of our redemption, that Jesus should uplift our will, our total aversion to God’s will and our aversion to death and sin and unite it with the Father’s will: ‘Not my will but yours.’ In this transformation of ‘no’ into ‘yes’, in this insertion of the creatural will into the will of the Father, he transforms humanity and redeems us. And he invites us to be part of his movement: to emerge from our ‘no’ and to enter into the ‘yes’ of the Son. My will exists, but the will of the Father is crucial because it is truth and love.9
Freedom matters a great deal. Its abuse heralded the trauma of death. Its wise use heals man and restores his dignity as a beloved child of God. “As by one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners, so, by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Christ is the New Adam, reversing Adam’s failure to fully accept the Creator’s love. Mary, as the Fathers of the Church explain, is therefore the New Eve, the true mother of the living, of those who have freely chosen life.
As Co-redemptrix, Mary speaks of the saving power of freedom. She consciously makes her Son’s oblation her own. As a merciful Mother, Mary is the anticipated figure and everlasting portrait of the Son. Thus, we see that the image of the Sorrowful Virgin, of the Mother who shares her suffering and her love, is also a true image of the Immaculate Conception. Her heart was enlarged by being and feeling together with God. In her, God’s goodness came very close to us.10
6. Our Refuge and our Strength
The entire history of salvation can be seen as the dialogue between divine grace and human freedom. This dialogue continues today in the life of each individual. “Man is the one creature free to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to eternity, that is, to God.”11
Mary shows us the solution to the dilemma we all tend to experience: “I really want to … but I just don’t feel like it right now.” Her life proclaims the value of our smaller or greater conversions to truth. She beckons encouragingly to those who hesitate in giving themselves fully to their vocation in life. “She turns to us saying: ‘Have the courage to dare with God! Try it! Do not be afraid of him! … Commit yourself to God, and then you will see that it is precisely by doing so that your life will become broad and light, not boring but filled with infinite surprises, for God’s infinite goodness is never depleted’.”12
“In her person and life Our Lady challenges the imploded freedom of much of contemporary culture”
The Mother of God teaches us that “the person who abandons himself totally in God’s hands does not become God’s puppet, a boring ‘yes man’; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.”13
As the then-Holy Father declared in the evocative setting of Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, “the truth which stands above humanity is an unavoidable condition for attaining freedom, since in it we discover the foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society – in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person”.14
In her person and life Our Lady challenges the imploded freedom of much of contemporary culture. She calms our insecurity by pointing to the human capacity to embrace the eternal. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Lk 1:46-47). The precariousness of human commitment is in fact capable of definitive fidelity if it builds on the faithfulness of God. “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Lk 1:51-52).
7. Queen of Peace
After evoking the momentous inauguration homily of St John Paul II, Benedict XVI inaugurated his own pontificate with words which are like a charter of true freedom and a clarion-call of the New Evangelisation:
Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.15
Mary embodies this fundamental truth. Because she has chosen the supreme Good with a will untrammelled by sin, she is the freest of all human beings. For this reason she is the most beautiful human creature to have ever graced this earth and is indeed the Highest Honour of our Race (cf Jud 15:9).
Fr Donncha Ó hAodha is a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature living and working in Dublin.
1Benedict XVI, Discourse [Roman Major Seminary], 20 February 2009.
2For a rich survey of the patristic exegesis on the Woman of Revelation, cf H Rahner SJ, Our Lady and the Church (Maryland: Zacchaeus Press, 2004), Chapter 10
3Cf Roman Missal, Mass of the Immaculate Conception, Entrance Antiphon.
4Benedict XVI, Audience, 1 February 2012.
5Benedict XVI, Homily, 3 June 2006.
6Benedict XVI, Homily [New York], 20 April 2008.
7Benedict XVI, Homily, 15 August 2005.
8Benedict XVI, Homily, 15 August 2005.
9Benedict XVI, Audience, 20 April 2011. Cf also Benedict XVI’s meditation on the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane in his Audience, 1 February 2012.
10Benedict XVI, Homily, 8 December 2005.
11Benedict XVI, Homily, 1 December 2007.
12Benedict XVI, Homily, 8 December 2005.
13Benedict XVI, Homily, 8 December 2005.
14Benedict XVI, Homily [Havana, Cuba], 28 March 2012.
15Benedict XVI, Homily [Inauguration of the Pontificate], 24 April 2005.