By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
As Advent approaches its half-way mark, Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, the woman of innumerable titles of honor and respect, is at center stage as we prepare the way for the Lord who is our way, truth, and life. Earlier this week we celebrated the great feast of the Immaculate Conception, Mary’s first moment of life in this world. Saturday, Dec. 12, is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and marks the second anniversary of my announcement as the 11th bishop of Jackson.
One of the symbols on my shield is the rose, representing the bouquet of roses that defined the appearance of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego. It is also the symbol of life at all stages of development.
“Mary, the Most Powerful Woman in the World” are the words, with a compelling portrait of the Blessed Mother on the cover of the current issue of, you might not guess, National Geographic. The feature article is a timely piece during Advent of the Virgin Mother who has the devotion of countless millions throughout the world. There are more than a few remarkable facts sprinkled throughout the cover story of this singular woman. “Praying for the Virgin Mother’s intercession and being devoted to her is a global phenomenon.”
The notion of Mary as intercessor with Jesus begins with the miracle of the wine at the wedding at Cana, when, according to the Gospel of John, she tells him, “They have no wine,” thus prompting his first miracle. It was in AD 431, at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus, that she was officially named Theotokos, Bearer of God. Since then no other woman has been as exalted as Mary. As a universal symbol of maternal love, as well as suffering and sacrifice, Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings.
Her mantle offers both security and protection. Pope Francis, when once asked what Mary meant to him, answered, “She is my mama.”
In a world that is currently hemorrhaging because of the clash among adherents of Islamic, Jewish and Christian civilizations, we can find a bridge across these chasms in the person of Mary. Muslims as well as Christians consider her to be holy above all women, and her name “Maryam” appears more often in the Koran than “Mary” does in the Bible.
“Mary is calling us spiritually, and because of that, both Muslims and Christians love her and respect her,” says a Coptic priest in Egypt who welcomes Muslim and Christian women to his church who pray to Mary for special favors. Imagine if all of the bombs, bullets and power struggles could give way to the tender love of a mother who directs all people to the heart of God as revealed in her Son, the Savior of the world.
As a Jewish maiden, Mary also offers a path to the sacred. Some of the latest Mary scholarship focuses on her as a Jewish mother. One scholar notes that “Mary brings us to Jesus, who is the light of the world, just as Jewish mothers light the Shabbat candles. We see the relationship of Mary with us isn’t just any relationship, it’s sacred.”
The church has officially recognized only 67 of more than 2,000 professed apparitions of Mary throughout the world. At a few of those sites without official recognition the pilgrims continue to come. For example, more than one million of the devout make a pilgrimage to Medjugorje each year, and many with whom I have spoken over the years are strengthened by the journey. There are many venerated sites going back centuries.
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, also known as Our Lady of Czestochowa, is a revered icon of the Virgin Mary housed at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland. Several Pontiffs have recognized the venerated icon, beginning with Pope Clement XI who issued a Canonical Coronation to the image on 8 September 1717 via the Vatican Chapter. The tradition takes it back to the 14th century.
Apparitions better known to all of us in the West are at Lourdes and Mexico City, Fatima in Portugal and Knock in Ireland. More than 5 million per year travel to Lourdes seeking healing and peace. The tilma, or cloak, of the poor Indian man, now Saint Juan Diego still inspires millions who make pilgrimage to Mexico City each year to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
His encounter with the Virgin Mother has led to an outpouring of love and devotion toward her that has not waned four and one half centuries later. Our Lady of Guadalupe is now the Patroness of the Americas as declared by Pope Saint John Paul II. The sites of apparition go on and on, from Vietnam to Rwanda, from Haiti to Chile.
As we prepare for the coming of the Savior, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, the figure of Mary looms large because her yes to God’s indescribable call still amazes us. She remains our Lord’s first and foremost disciple who was present throughout his life, in death, and at the birth of the Church at Pentecost.
She was busy then, and she remains busy through the ages. In the light of faith we can say that she is a prophetess, like the prophets of old, who speaks on behalf of the eternal God. Like the prophets, at times she speaks words of consolation; at other times, words of warning. In every instance her presence and words are those of a loving mother who never abandons, her children, standing at the foot of their crosses, and holding them in her arms at the end. These are powerful images that obviously continue to endure and inspire nearly 2000 years later.
Advent is a time to renew our love for the the Lord Jesus, born into our hearts through faith. May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church show us the way to her Son, the light of the world, this season and always.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz