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The Priest and Mary

(Biography: Father Gerald Fitzgerald)

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There is one fundamental reason why a priest should be specially devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is ordained to bring the living Christ on earth in the Holy Sacrifice, to make the living Christ available to the faithful in Holy Communion, and to keep the living Christ on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. In his own way, therefore, a priest continues the miracle of the Incarnation that Mary first made possible at Nazareth and Bethlehem. If, as St. Augustine so beautifully expresses it, Caro Jesu, Caro Mariae, the flesh of Jesus is the flesh of Mary, then a priest who has the power of consecrating the Body and Blood of Christ, should be most devoted -- after his love of Christ -- to the Mother who brought Christ into the world and therefore made the Eucharist a present Reality.

Grace Builds on Nature

But as we look more closely, there are other reasons, too, why we should expect priests to be particularly devoted, we might almost say attached, to the Mother of Christ. "A man is always a child to his own mother," Father Gerald observed, "always a little one, always in need of his mother." And the need is commonly reciprocated. Mothers never forgot that their sons somehow depend on them and the sons, if they remain normal, always retain a wholesome sense of the need of a mother's solicitude and care. Father Gerald recalled "following the wake of the last war, that the army chaplains found out more often than not, that when a soldier was going to die it was not even his wife he would ask for; he would revert to his childhood and would want his mother." (D-228).

There is a deep-grained relationship in a man's heart with his mother that is a law of nature. And the greater his sense of gratitude to the woman who gave him birth, the deeper and more lasting his affection for her, in spite of the passage of time or the entrance into his life of other persons who also claim his devotion and love.

Grace elevates this law of nature, and further refines it in a priest whose vocation calls for a life of celibacy. Then, if a man is honestly conscious within himself of past, and grave infidelities, he has all the more reason, based on faith, to rely on the Blessed Virgin as his mother in the spirit. "There is a time," we can say, "when man can so offend the race that everyone but his mother will desert him. His brothers and sisters and perhaps even his father will disown him. But normally his mother, whose flesh and blood he is, will not disown him but will cling to him to the last." (D-228).

While these insights apply to every priest, they are especially pertinent to those whose priestly life has been shoddy and who, since ordination, may have strayed far from the practice of even elementary Christian virtue. Men like this desperately need to know that, no matter how far they may have wandered from God, the Mother of God cares for them still. Their inspiration comes from the scene that took place when the dead Christ was taken down from the cross and laid in the arms of His Mother.

Faith tells us that a person in mortal sin is supernaturally dead. And if the person is a priest, he may be compared to the dead Christ, "for the charity of Christ is not in him."

How tenderly the Mother of God bends over the souls of Christians who are in mortal sin. How steadily upon those lifeless bodies, those cold bodies, fall her tears, seeking to wash them. How warmly and tightly she holds that body seeking to warm it again into life, as the prophet, in symbolism of Christ, warmed the dead son of the Shunamite (?) into life again. So our Blessed Mother, the mother of all mothers, bends over the souls in the Church that are the living image of her dead Son, and works and labors and prays unceasingly, making with Her Divine Son, unceasing representation before the throne of God: that Her firstborn Son might not have died in vain for these other Christs. (D-229).

Mary, we might say, is the priest's final refuge of mercy, and the priest knows it almost instinctively, from his understanding of how enduring is a mother's love for her sons.

A Marian Life

What Father Gerald recommended to priests was more than ordinary devotion to the Blessed Virgin. He did not hesitate to tell them, "We must live our whole life with our Blessed Mother, without tiring, without any weakening of our resolution." Specifically, "we must be contented to stand and to labor, to weep and to pray and to immolate, with Mary at the foot of the cross." (D-231). Why should a priest's devotion focus on the Sorrowful Mother, and even more immediately on Her role as the Stabat Mater under the Cross? Because his role as priest is mainly to continue Christ's mission of reconciling sinners with an offended God; and Mary shared in that mission in a unique way all Her life but especially on Calvary.

It can be said with security that God gives His Mother "in a particular way to His priests." And while the beloved disciple beneath the Cross represented all believers, "St. John" was specially "the representative of the priesthood," when he received "in a formal statement and donation the sublime gift of the Mother of God to be his mother."

In the Garden of Paradise, God had said to Satan: I will put enmity between thee and the woman. Here was the woman at the foot of the Cross. O Lord, the same enmity that God has placed between Thy Mother Immaculate and Satan as symbolic of all invasion of the Will of God, we beg Thee to place in our hearts: we who are the Servants of Her Immaculate Spouse and in Thee Her very sons.(D-176).

If priests are par excellence Mary's sons in the spirit, it is only to be expected that they should act accordingly. But saying this is only the beginning. It will take constant effort and earnest prayer to acquire the disposition of living united with Christ but in the company of Mary. Hence the following petition to Mary's Son.

O Jesus, give us the deep and perfect faith that makes a priest live under the bright burden of Our Lady's eyes and under the warm radiance of Thy most beautiful face and most loving Heart. Make us glad with the gladsomeness of faith, when like Peter and John we are found worthy to suffer something for the sake of the Lord Jesus. Make us rejoice as Thy Heart rejoices and rejoiced in every honor given to Thy Blessed Mother. Make us resolve that our whole life will be Marian as Thy life from its first beginning on earth till the dawn of eternity will be a Marian existence. Under the shadows of Thy Mother's Immaculate Heart Thou didst begin Thy life on earth: with Thy Mother at Thy side Thou art living in eternity. The eyes of Thy Blessed Mother are upon Thee and upon us.
O Jesus grant us the graces so to live day by day that we may not be afraid to lift our eyes in life or in death to meet the face of Mary. 0 do we not know that by faith, that if we shall see Our Blessed Mother smiling a welcome to us when we die, in that one smile a lifetime of renunciation, of self-conquest, of self-discipline will seem as a great nothingness, a great brevity? The beginning of eternity -- the smile of Mary upon the soul of a priest as the Angel of death presents it at the judgment of God. (D-193).

A concluding exhortation to priests, reminding them that "someone has tried to inspire men with the saying The eyes of the world are upon you."' How much more inspiring to be told that "the eyes of the Mother of God are upon us and we must not fail her. We will not fail her tomorrow, unless we fail her today. We will not fail her today if we remember that the sweetest privilege of a priest is to be worthy of the love of Jesus Christ and the smile of the eyes of Mary." (D-193, 194). Those who have lived under this inspiration know how effective it is in maintaining one's own priestly integrity, and in bringing souls to Christ, even of those who have strayed far from the Christian faith.

To Christ Through Mary

It is commonplace in Catholic teaching to say that God wants us to come to His Son through Christ's Mother. What may be less obvious is that this has a unique application to priests.

This will seem less strange if we reflect on God's expectations of priests. He has entrusted them with the superhuman powers of transubstantiation in the Eucharist and of absolution in the sacrament of Penance. But because of these great privileges, He requires of them above ordinary holiness. Otherwise, as the Church's history sadly proves, the people will turn away from the sacraments which they see administered by unholy priests.

Yet holiness is impossible without grace, and priestly holiness without extra-ordinary grace. So that if by God's will, all the faithful somehow rely upon Mary to obtain the divine help which they need, priests more than others depend upon her to live up to the heavy demands made on them by Mary's Son. That is why priests can be frankly told that "God wants us to come to Him through Mary, so aspire by fervent prayer and self-discipline to take on her holiness even if it be with the help of the Blood of Christ. After all, her purity of soul and body is due to the prevision of the Blood of Christ. Our purity in chastity is due to the prevision of the Blood of Jesus Christ." (J-8, 25).

As strange and as strong as the words may sound, it is no hyperbole for priests to say, "We must give ourselves to Mary so that we may belong entirely to God."

Experience shows how true this is. "If there is any unhappiness in the priesthood," as there is, "it is to be because of a lack of completeness of totality of giving." For "if I belong to God, I am bound for happiness because God is love, and if God is love I have the fullness of love." But how to give oneself thus entirely to God? The answer is "the Mother of God will help us to belong to God and to God alone." On one condition, that priests are devoted to this Mother and show their devotion by obeying her directive, first spoken to the servants at Cana, referring to her Son, "Do whatever He tells you." (John 2:5). If priests obey, miracles will happen in the sanctity of their own lives and in the graces that God will bestow on others through their apostolate.

There is such a thing as offending the Blessed Virgin, not only by failing in due devotion to her, but mainly by not responding to the graces given to us by her Son, through the illuminations of His Spirit. "0 Jesus," Father Gerald would pray, "we cannot bring pain to Thee without bringing sorrow to Our Lady. We cannot have need of a drop of Thy Precious Blood without having first matched Thy Blood with Thy Mother's bloodless agony." (D-179).

In practice, this means that "we must imitate and give up and give our souls to the Holy Ghost to love Our Lady with. How the Holy Ghost loves to fill the heart of a priest and the soul of a priest with love for the Mother of God, love for His stainless Spouse." (D-179). As a priest is more responsive to grace, he becomes more devoted to Mary; and as he grows in devotion to her, he becomes more generous in responding to the invitations of grace.

So great is Mary's love for souls that, like her Son, she has, if anything, a special predilection for those in sin -- including priests estranged from God.

Our Blessed Mother uses her heart as a pawn. She has given it over and over again, seeking even as Her Divine Son seeks with His Sacred Heart to win by love and tenderness the hearts of her sons beloved for Him. It is the tradition and the teaching of at least one of the mystics of the Church that Our Blessed Mother all through the public life showed a very special tenderness to Judas, thereby seeking to draw him away from the terrible disaster that was apparently to alienate his soul forever from his God. 0 final tenderness. 0 complete dedication to the purposes of the Redemption. The heart of the Mother of God showing special courtesy and tenderness, manifesting a predilection for the Apostle who was to betray her Son. How selfless is the heart of Mary that can so triumph over its natural feeling of resentment, and love even unto the last moment a soul that would betray its God. (D-179, 180).

The lesson to be learned from this is that, like Mary, a priest should not show partiality in his affections. He is to show love "not only to the good but even to the malevolent, even to the wicked." "We must manifest towards them a great consideration. We must love them for what they could be even if we cannot love them for what they are, for the possibility of good that resides in them, for the possibility that we may some day salvage them for God." (D-180).

To illustrate this aspect of imitating Mary's compassion, Father Gerald recalled having just received a letter from a priest who at one time had to be dismissed from Via Coeli. And now, years later, after the grace of conversion touched his soul, he writes back with appreciation for the understanding care he was shown. "So," Father Gerald concludes, "consistently we must be good even to our enemies and thus follow closely in the footsteps both of Our Divine Master and of His beautiful Mother." (D-180).

Practices of Piety

Internal devotion should find expression in practices of Marian piety in the life of a faithful priest-client of Our Lady.

Some of these practices are the common possession of all the faithful, others are more distinctively priestly. No matter, every one who is ordained by the Son of Mary is to manifest his special love for Christ's Mother.

Rosary. Paramount among these practices is the Rosary. Writers speak of the Rosary as the layman's breviary, and in so far as this indicates the devotion of our Catholic people to Our Lady, the designation is well justified.

But is not the rosary a priest's Little Office? In the hands of his dear mother has it not channeled prayers for him from the time he was a heart-throb beneath her heart until he shall have joined her in the golden rosary of souls clustered at Mary's knee in Heaven? His own father said the beads for him before he was born. His own friends, including his priestly friends, have said and will say these same beads for him after he has passed into that purifying kingdom which we call Purgatory. Indeed if he himself lives long enough, dimming eyes will close to him the privileges of the chorusing of the inspired psalms but the rosary can still move through his fingers. In his mother's hands it guarded his cradle -- in the hands of a Catholic Sister it will guard the cradle of his deathbed. (Sponsor, October, 1950, p.1).

No doubt, the Rosary belongs to the laity, but not exclusively. It is the property of all who belong to Mary, and who belongs to her by a higher right than her Son's priests?

A priest is the follower of the Prince of Peace. The Rosary, a weapon of mercy, is his offensive weapon. With it, like David with his sling with its five shining pebbles, he can overcome the Goliath of evil and liberate his own and the souls committed to his care. It is his walkie-talkie giving him instantaneous contact with the Queen of Heaven. It is a symbol of his priestly years slipping, bead by bead, through the Hands of God, slipping but never dropped, for God will not drop even the sinner while the sinner holds by the fingers of prayer the hem of Our Lady's robe of mercy. In short, if the Rosary is the layman's breviary it is as well a priests vale mecum -- the symbol of his priestly consecration to a Queen and a Cause not of this world. (Sponsor, October, 1950, p.2).

Father Gerald was in the habit of reciting the fifteen decades of the Rosary every day, and he encouraged his followers to do the same.

Examen of Conscience. Not unlike the daily Rosary is the practice of the daily examination of conscience. This has been in the Church's heritage over the centuries. But what can make it distinctive for a priest is to make the review of his daily virtues and failings under the eyes of Mary.

Faith tells believers that the Blessed Virgin is aware of their conduct. Her eyes "rest upon us day by day, hour by hour, for it is a mother's privilege and duty to watch over her sons and daughters. And now from the high heaven, she watches over the world and in particular over the Christian world, and most particularly over those who on earth are by their vocation called upon to be other Christs." (D-191).

For a man who is willing to face the facts honestly, it would make a very searching and penetrating examen of conscience to ask himself: Have I brought joy or sorrow or have I even made it necessary for the Mother of God to turn her eyes from me this day? The examination of conscience is one of the standard practices of the spiritual life. It is one of the ways for the soul who is truly in earnest to make any progress, tries to check that progress. If we were runners we would carefully check our time for our daily trial run: so too the spiritual man who takes his life in earnest will check over his daily life, his record, his score-sheet.
The eyes of Mary would make a very practical, very searching way of making that check. Our blessed Mother saw my preparation for Mass -- was she pleased with it? Our Blessed Mother saw and watched me during meditation -- was she happy over it? Did she see my distractions? Our Blessed Mother saw my Mass -- did it leave her happy? And so on through the day. 0 how supremely well a priest would have to live, to say honestly: I have held the smile in Our Lady's eyes, all day over my soul. (D-191, 192).

Some may find these recommendations extravagant. But they were the normal expressions of a deep Marian faith that Pope John Paul II praised so highly on his pilgrim visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock. Said the Holy Father, "I have been told that in Irish speech, the names of God and Jesus and Mary are linked with one another, and that God is seldom named in prayer or in blessing without Mary's name being mentioned also." (Address at the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, September 30, 1979). Father Fitzgerald had inherited this kind of faith.

Days in Honor of Mary. Another recommended form of devotion to the Blessed Virgin is to associate each day of the week with one of the Sorrows of Our Lady. "It goes very nicely especially when one puts Saturday as the repository, the taking down from the Cross, and Sunday as the entombment, giving Friday the place for the foot of the Cross, Thursday the meeting on the way to the Cross, Wednesday for the loss of the Christ Child, Tuesday for the fight into Egypt, and Monday for the first sorrow, Simeon's prophecy." (D-200).

On each day, the priest should give some special attention to the particular Sorrow of Our Lady and maybe compose a short prayer to go with it.

Thus on Mondays, as one finished for example the Hour of one's office, one would say, "The Sorrowful Heart pierced by the knowledge of Simeon's prophecy, grant that I may today console you by my fidelity to Christ."

Then on Tuesday, reflect on the flight into Egypt. "That flight into Egypt made our Blessed Mother Queen of all the D. P.s. What a Queen she is of all the displaced persons. So gather up all your little sorrows and separations from your dear ones. And you ought to say, 'Blessed Mother, I too am on my little flight into Egypt. Help me to travel lovingly and trustingly in Jesus and Joseph. And like Joseph, I trust in Jesus and in you'

On Wednesday, focus on "the loss of the Christ Child (that) ended in the finding of the Christ Child." The lesson is that "the joys and the sorrows in Our Lady's life are closely mingled, like our own lives." So that "if anybody goes with faith to our Divine Lord, the darkness is bound to disappear. We may not be with Him, but He is always with us."

Then on Thursday, "you have the meeting on the way to Calvary. Those of you who still have mothers on earth, you know that every moment that goes by brings one or the other of you closer to eternity." The mystery of Christ's meeting with Mary on the way to Calvary emphasizes the need for our own "great loving conformity to the Divine Will. We see everything pass: our life, our health our opportunity. But please God before our opportunities pass, we must seize as many as we can for the salvation of immortal souls."

Friday is "the natural day to spend with Our Lady at the foot of the Cross." Among the sentiments to cultivate on Friday is the need for being patient with others, even as Mary was patient with her Son's executioners. "How blessed is the soul that learns to accept, to offer up the mortification of one's sensibility for the sake of Jesus. If we can't bring to God beautiful large gems of merit, let us bring the gold dust of our little sacrifices." In practice, this means we are to be "big in forgiving, big in overlooking the limitations of others, big in recognizing that behind every little man, stands the great beautiful God." To cultivate this habit, "Do what the Blessed Mother did: lifted her eyes over that crowd who were crucifying their God, over the heads even of the apostles, over the head of the golden hair of Magdalen, up to the Cross." She "lifted her eyes until they rested on Jesus." Then like Mary, you "will find in Jesus the answer to all your problems and permit Him as He did eventually for His Own Mother, to wipe away, to drive away, to absorb your tears in the golden chalice of His divine love."

Saturday commemorates the taking down from the Cross. "Who shall taste the sorrow of the Mother of God at the descent from the Cross? With a mother's privilege to be the throne of her child while in life, in death she became His altar." (D-228). This has particular meaning for priests who may see in the dead Christ in Mary's arms the numerous sinners estranged from God, and dead to His life, for whose reconciliation they have been mainly called to the priesthood.

Sunday may be associated with Christ's entombment, to commemorate Mary's strong faith while her Son's body was resting in the grave. It is also profitable spiritually to remember the poor souls in purgatory in relation to the seventh Sorrow of Mary. "Be devoted to the Queen of Purgatory, one of the titles of Our Lady." (C-70). Ask her to intercede for those who have died in body and are buried, but whose souls are still detained from heaven and especially "the priests to whose purgatory we may have contributed by our omissions or commissions." (C-70).

Sacrifice in honor of Mary. Anyone who understands the life of the Blessed Virgin realizes that the seven traditional Dolors by which she is honored did not exhaust the trials she underwent as the Mother of Sorrows. Just one example. Take the anguish "Our Lady must have felt, the fear and sorrow that must have gripped her heart when she went down to the synagogue at Nazareth with her Son whom everybody was talking about and He went up into the rostrum and opened the Book and began to speak." Then "before the day was ended, they tried to lynch Him; they tried to take His life." (D-199). All through Christ's life, from His birth in Bethlehem to His death in Jerusalem, Mary shared in His sorrows, and at every stage in the Savior's redemptive biography, His Mother suffered with Him and thus gave the faithful a pattern for imitation. That is why a good prayer to say is, "Dear Mother of Sorrows, pray for us that we may be worthy of a participation in the Passion of Christ." (C-56).

The more devoted a priest is to Mary the more his ingenuity will prompt him to offer some small sacrifice in her memory and to obtain, through her, the graces that he needs. Thus "abstaining in honor of Our Lady on Saturday is pleasing to Our Blessed Mother." (C-199). From the earliest Christian times, Saturday has been specially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin to commemorate her unswerving faith in her Son during the first Holy Saturday when He lay in the tomb. Others were disheartened because their faith in Christ failed them. But not Mary.

Besides external practices or simple progress, "Anything done, a triumph over self for Our Lady and ultimately for God", is commendable. Nothing we do is too trivial to "honor Our Lady, because God wills it." Moreover, "in honoring her we honor God," who is pleased with the veneration we pay His Mother. (D-199).

Can a priest ever be too devoted to Mary? Impossible. "How Jesus wants the hearts of His priests." Why should this be? Because "what Our Lord sees in the heart of a priest is the hearts of all the souls, the human beings, that He can reach through that priest." And how is a priest to give his heart to Jesus? "We must imitate Mary." (D-137). She is the Via Immaculata chosen by God to lead us to His Son. Consequently, "when you give your heart to Mary, you give it to Jesus most directly. When anyone gives himself or consecrates himself to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, our Blessed Mother straight-forwardly, immediately, without a moment's delay, deposits that heart in the Heart of her Son. She wants nothing for herself. The beautiful unselfishness we have seen in our own mothers is in its highest degree in the heart of Our Lady. She lives in heaven and she lives on earth only for the glory of God, only for the consolation of her Son's Heart, and so when she receives anything so precious as the heart of a priest, she immediately places that heart in the Heart of her Divine Son." (D-138).

Thus the classic phrase, ad Jesum per Mariam, to Jesus through Mary, is not only an expression of Catholic piety; it is the surest way of obtaining grace from Christ, for oneself and those for whose salvation we labor, by going to Him through His Mother. If there is one law in the spiritual life that should be memorized, it is that "we must give ourselves to Mary, so that we may belong entirely to God." (J-8, 25). Devotion to her is the promise of surrender to her Son, who is the Son of God.

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