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Part 16: Mary, Most Merciful
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 9, 2017)
The following is part 16 of a special series on the role Mary plays in the life of the Church.
Mercy is the virtue that enables us to show love and compassion to those in need. In this way we reflect in our own lives the very nature of God Himself, who is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (Ps 103:8).
Saint Alphonsus Ligouri once wrote:
Love towards God and our neighbour are commanded in the same precept: And this commandment we have from God, that he who loveth God love also his brother [I Jn 4:21]. St. Thomas says that the reason for this is that he who loves God loves all that God loves. ... But as there never was, and never will be, anyone who loved God as much as Mary loved him, so there never was, and never will be anyone who loved her neighbour as much as she did.
Two passages early in the Gospel story especially manifest Our Lady's merciful love and compassion for others: her visitation to St. Elizabeth and her intervention at the Wedding Feast at Cana.
No sooner had Mary heard from the angel Gabriel that her elderly kinswoman was with child, than she journeyed with haste through the hill country to visit her, and she stayed with her three whole months to help her (Lk 1:36-46). Moreover, Mary went to Elizabeth not just to aid her with the daily chores, but also to share with her the secret of the Christ Child that was to be born. In fact, as soon as Mary had crossed the threshold of Elizabeth's house, a bond of the Holy Spirit formed between them (Lk 1:41).
Saint John Paul II explains that Mary's compassionate love for Elizabeth was simply an expression of her underlying commitment as "the handmaid of the Lord":
By proclaiming herself "handmaid of the Lord" [at the Annunciation], Mary, "full of grace," intended to commit herself to fulfill personally, and in a perfect manner, the service God expects of all his people. The words: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord," foretell the one who will say of himself: "The Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45; cf. Mt 20:28). ...
Mary spontaneously declared herself "the handmaid of the Lord," although aware of the lofty dignity conferred upon her at the angel's announcement. In this commitment of service she also included the intention to serve her neighbour, as the link between the episodes of the Annunciation and the Visitation show. Informed by the angel of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Mary set out "with haste" (Lk 1:39) for Judah, with total availability to help her relative prepare for birth. She thus offers Christians of all times a sublime model of service. (General Audience of September 4, 1996).
Indeed, as Fr. Peter Cameron, OP, tells us in his book The Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, Mary's journey to visit Elizabeth was essentially "the first Corpus Christi procession. The Blessed Virgin's initial impulse, once God takes up residence in her body, is to bear that presence to others."
This is true in our own lives today as well. We know that the Spirit of the Lord is truly at work in our hearts when we are impelled, as by an invisible force, to reach out to our neighbors in every kind of need, and to share with others the Gospel of the merciful love of Jesus Christ. As our Savior told St. Faustina: "When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls" (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 1074).
In other words, a heart full-to-overflowing with the merciful love of Jesus Christ is like a torrent that bursts through the walls of a dam and floods the whole area around it with graces and blessings.
Father Louis Cameli explains:
We know that no real love remains silent and unexpressed for very long. ... If Mary's journey to visit Elizabeth seems abrupt and unplanned to some people, it is because they have not understood how faith and love work. Mary had to share her story, and some part of herself by serving.
The movement from an experience of faith to an expression of faith in loving service and sharing is central to the preaching of Jesus. He tells us to be compassionate because we have experienced God's compassion in our own lives. He gives His disciples a new commandment to love one another because they have experienced his love for them.
The second Gospel passage that speaks clearly of the Blessed Virgin's merciful heart is the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana, when Mary noticed that the young newlyweds were running out of wine for their guests. Eager to preserve them from shame and embarrassment on their wedding day, Mary brought their needs before her Son with the simple words, "They have no more wine" (Jn 2:1-3). By her intercession, therefore, Mary came to their aid. To reach out to those in need is the essence of the virtue of "mercy."
We should notice two things about Mary's intervention here. First, as in the story of her visitation to St. Elizabeth, the Blessed Virgin responds to the needs of others without waiting to be asked. She simply notices the needs of Elizabeth and of the wedding couple, and she swings into action. Second, in each case the needs that she seeks to meet include the most simple, most lowly human privations: a wedding couple's lack of wine at their wedding feast and an elderly mother's lack of help with the housework and with caring for a newborn. Let us not overly "spiritualize" Our Lady. Like God Himself, she "knows our frame ... remembers that we are but dust" (Ps 103:14). Her compassion extended even to the simple social and bodily needs of others.
As it was then, so it remains now: Mary continues to intervene and intercede for the needs of all the children of God. Moreover, her intercession at Cana was an example of the confidence and trust we need to have in Divine Mercy, whenever we bring our authentic needs before the Lord. The author of The Imitation of Mary tells us:
While Mary was at the wedding feast of Cana with Jesus and His disciples, the wine ran out. Mary was moved by the shame that the bride and groom felt, and, full of confidence in her Son's power, she told Him of their need.
God has always linked His graces to prayer. He is always ready to give these graces, but he invites us to ask for them, and He wants us to ask with confidence....
Mary's prayer was brief; God, unlike men, does not require labored prayers of us. We need neither subtlety nor eloquence in dealing with Him. The prayer that pleases God and makes Him inclined to answer us is one marked by simplicity, in which we ask only what we think will be to His glory and our good, or at least what we know is not contrary to either. The sentiments of the heart, much more than fine words, win his favors.
If our Lady had such compassion and love for others during her sojourn on earth, and such confidence in faithful prayer to her Son, how much more must she possess these same radiant virtues now in Heaven! The Medieval Franciscan St. Bonaventure once wrote:
Nor has this love of Mary for us diminished now that she is in heaven, but it has increased; for now she better sees the miseries of men. ... Great was the mercy of Mary towards the wretched when she was still in exile on earth; but far greater is it now that she reigns in heaven.
Recite the Chaplet of the 10 Evangelical Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and prayerfully reflect on Mary's virtue of patience.
Questions for Discussion
1. How do the gospel stories of the Visitation and the Wedding Feast at Cana display Mary's merciful love for those in need?
2. Do we tend to avoid asking our Lady to pray for our lowly, temporal needs — as if only "eternal" and "spiritual" things were worthy of her consideration? How do the gospel passages discussed in this article show us that Mary, our Mother in Heaven, does indeed care about our simple, most basic human needs?
3. What does Mary's compassion for us during her time on earth tell us about the virtue of compassion she has now in Heaven?
Suggestions for Further Reading
Read Edward Sri, Walking With Mary, the chapter entitled "She Still Says Yes," pp. 119-129.
Access the series to date.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Mary - Who She Is and Why She Matters (Marian Press).