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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 1, 2008)
Every once in a while someone sends me a question that I file away because I know it is so big and so important that I cannot tackle it right away. Well, a few months ago, a fellow named Ted sent me the following question that I just knew I would have to deal with eventually. After all, this website is an apostolate of the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception, and the Marians have a special calling, as part of their charism, to spread the message of the merciful love of God. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before one of my readers "put two and two together," as the saying goes, and asked me this question:
Some of my friends are really into Divine Mercy, but others prefer to focus on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I know there is no conflict between Mary and Divine Mercy; I'm sure she is in favor of it just as much as her Son. But does the connection run deeper than that? I mean, we do call her "Mother of Mercy" for some reason, right? Could you explain that to me?
Well, Ted, I will certainly try. But there is so much to say here precisely because the connection between Mary and Divine Mercy runs so deep that you will have to pardon me if I take about four instalments to say it all!
When you say that we call her "Mother of Mercy," I presume you are referring to the traditional prayer:
Hail Holy Queen,
Mother of Mercy,
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope ...
For centuries, Christians all over the world have cried out to the Blessed Virgin Mary with these words, placing themselves under her tender care as "Mother of Mercy." We hear a clear echo of this cry in the life of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, especially in that beautiful and tender passage in her diary where Mary encourages us all to approach her as a merciful mother:
Once, the confessor told me to pray for his intention, and I began a novena to the Mother of God. This novena consisted in the prayer "Hail, Holy Queen" recited nine times. Toward the end of the novena I saw the Mother of God with the Infant Jesus in her arms. ... I could not stop wondering at His beauty. ... I heard a few of the words that the Mother of God spoke. ... The words were: "I am not only the Queen of Heaven, but also the Mother of Mercy, and your Mother" (Diary of St. Faustina, 330).
This calls to mind Our Lady's words to St. Brigid of Sweden (Rev. 1.6, c.10): "I am the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of Mercy; I am the joy of the just, and the door through which sinners are brought to God." Mary's words here also remind us of what she said to St. Juan Diego in Guadalupe:
Am I not here, I who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the folds of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else that you need?
Mary is truly our Mother of tender compassion, our "Mother of Mercy." If we look at the life and writings of St. Maria Faustina, we can find at least four ways in which Mary can be truly called the merciful Mother of Christians, and of every soul searching for God.
First of all, Mary is Mother of Mercy because, through her Immaculate Conception, God fashioned her to be the created masterpiece of his mercy in the world.
After all, what is Divine Mercy? It is God's undeserved, unmerited, often even unsought for divine grace — the grace that our compassionate God pours out upon us to help us overcome our miseries and meet our true needs. Theologians call one form of that mercy God's "prevenient" grace, from the Latin prae-venire, which means "to come before." In other words, even before we ask for it, and quite apart from the fact that we do not deserve it, and have not earned it in the least, God graciously takes the initiative and comes to our aid. Prevenient grace is this completely free gift of God's mercy. We see a faint reflection of it in a parent's love for a child. A child is loved by its parents not because the child has "earned" it, or deserved it, or even asked for it in any way. Rather, the parent's love comes right from the start, a completely free gift, just because the child is the parent's own child. That is human mercy "par excellence," and it is a mirror image of the divine.
When you think about it, that is exactly what is on display in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Immaculate Conception is really the supreme manifestation of God's prevenient, unmerited mercy. After all, Mary did not "merit" her Immaculate Conception. Nor could she ask for it. It was something done in her and for her by the Father of Mercy, and solely on the basis of the foreseen merits of His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. As Pope John Paul II wrote in His encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), section 9: "Mary is the one who experienced mercy in an exceptional way — as no one else."
We see this reflected in the Bible in the Gospel according to St. Luke, where the angel Gabriel addressed Mary with the words, "Hail, full of grace." The Greek word used here is kecharitomene, which means, "graced one," or in this context, "transformed by grace." God's transforming grace cannot be just some external blessing. It must be the gift of His grace that fills a soul to overflowing. What a tremendous, prevenient, free gift — this grace overflowing in Mary's soul from the very moment of her conception! And this special grace is the reason why the angel Gabriel could go on to say to Mary: "Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God." She found divine favor not because of her merits or deserving, but because of God's special grace within her. Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, relying on the work of the French theologian M.D. Philippe, once explained the matter this way:
The mystery of the Immaculate Conception ... is the expression of the first act of the heavenly Father's mercy in Mary's regard — an act of absolute gratuity. This is why we can see in it the Father's mercy in its pure state. The first act is the Father's prevenient mercy for this very tiny child that is to be born.
In fact, we can go further and say that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the great divine act of grace that lay at the foundation of God's whole work of salvation through Christ. The Father of Mercy took the initiative with sinful mankind, fashioning Mary's soul from the moment of conception, preserving it from the effects of original sin, making her soul the very masterpiece of His mercy, and it was this unique and extraordinary foundation of grace in Mary's soul that enabled her, years later, to respond to the angel Gabriel's message with total, trustful surrender: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word." By God's prevenient grace, therefore, she was made the masterpiece of the Father's mercy, and in the fullness of time, this special grace within her enabled her to receive our Savour into the world. In short, the whole world's salvation began with a foundational act of unmerited, unprompted, freely given Divine Mercy: That act of mercy was Mary's Immaculate Conception.
Is it any wonder, then, that our Lord called the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception to be not only the custodians of the U.S. National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass., and the sponsors of the work of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, but also to be the official translators of St. Faustina's Diary into English and Spanish — and indeed, the first agent of the worldwide spread of The Divine Mercy message and devotion? The theological connection between The Divine Mercy and the Immaculate Conception is just too deep and profound for all of this to be an historical accident.
Also, we should not be surprised to find that St. Maria Faustina, the great apostle of Divine Mercy, had a special devotion to our Lady's Immaculate Conception. Although she usually referred to Mary as "the Most Holy Mother," or simply as "Mother of God," another form of address for Mary that Faustina cherished was simply: "The Immaculate Mother." Look at what St. Faustina wrote in Diary entries 1412 and 1413:
It is with great zeal that I have prepared for the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God. I have made an extra effort to keep recollected in spirit, and have meditated on that unique privilege of our Lady. And thus my heart was completely drowned in her, thanking God for having accorded this great privilege to Mary.
I prepared not only by means of the novena said in common by the whole community, but I also made a personal effort to salute her a thousand times each day, saying a thousand "Hail Marys" for nine days in her praise....Although I must admit that such a matter requires a good deal of attention and effort, nothing is too much when it comes to honoring the Immaculate Virgin.
In short, the first reason we can rightfully call Mary our "Mother of Mercy" is that by God's special, prevenient grace, He created her soul to be the masterpiece of His Mercy in the world, and this special gift of grace within her was the foundation of His whole work of mercy in the world through Christ. Everything about Mary was fashioned by Divine Mercy and for the work of Divine Mercy. No other creature, therefore, so completely manifests God's mercy as does Mary Immaculate.
Three more reasons for rejoicing in Mary as "Mother of Mercy" are on the way in the next three instalments of this column. Read part 2 here.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at email@example.com.