Holiness and Mary

Holiness and the Blessed Virgin Mary

– Sister M. Danielle PetersFather Johann G. Roten, S.M.

The Solemnity of All Saints reminds us of the Universal Call to Holiness issued by Vatican II's Lumen gentium (LG) chapter V and directed to all the faithful. In particular, the Council Fathers identified holiness--"the fullness of life"--with perfection of charity, conformity to Jesus Christ, being moved by the Spirit and apostolic activity. (cf. LG 41)

The Universal Call to Holiness

Jesus Christ, "the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection ... [is] the author and consumator of this holiness of life" (LG 40) and in Him we are made holy. In and through the gift of baptismal grace we "are justified in the Lord Jesus ... [and] become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature." (LG 40) As our return gift we are charged to live "as becomes saints" (Eph 5:3) and to put on "as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience" (Col 3:12) and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness. (Cf. Gal 5:22; Rom 6:22)

Contrary to some misconceptions, Vatican II assures us that holiness is not a privilege of a few; it is indeed the universal vocation of each Christian! Likewise, holiness is not a superhuman feat brought about through rigorous asceticism. Quite the opposite. Holiness is a gift freely given to us by God which needs to be treasured, preserved and continuously re-conquered! Although a high ideal, holiness is our Christian destiny and ultimately the realization of Christian living!

John Paul II responded to Vatican II's teaching on the "universal call to holiness" with great urgency. The late Pope raised more candidates to the honors of the altar than any other Pope in history. Although this practice did meet with criticism, the Pope believed that it was important to accentuate that the "universal call to holiness" had been accepted on every continent and among people of every walk of life.

Being created in the image and likeness of God who is Love, being incorporated into Jesus Christ and being endowed with the gifts and dynamism of the Holy Spirit marks the foundation for our participation in God's holiness. In order to cultivate this gift of holiness Christians "must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history." (LG 40)

Lumen gentium points out that "in the most holy Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection." For that reason "the followers of Christ ... turn their eyes to Mary who shines forth to the whole community of the elect as the model of virtues ... For Mary ... unites in herself and re-echoes the greatest teachings of the faith." (LG 60)

The Blessed Virgin Mary – Chosen Model of Holiness

Especially in the Eastern Church Our Lady is invoked as Panagia (Παναγία)--the All Holy One. The title points to Mary's unique election among all Christians and highlights that she possessed the fullness of the gift of grace from the first instant of her life. This gift was planted in Mary as "a seed of holiness, or a spring which rises in the soul as a gift from God Himself." In the mystery of Christ she is present as the one whom the Father has chosen as Mother of His Son and entrusted from the very beginning of her existence to the work of the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier. Since in Mary the working of the Sanctifier has never been challenged by sin, she precedes everyone on the path to holiness and "in the hierarchy of holiness." The Blessed Virgin Mary is the only human person who was able to participate in Christ's historical life from the Incarnation to His Ascension. It is in uniting herself with the life and mission of her Son that she discovers the fullness of her vocation to holiness. She is led to the realization that all she is and has is a gift from God (Immaculate Conception). As her gift in return she consecrates her love undividedly to Him, existing only for God (Virginity). Her life becomes abundantly fruitful through her cooperation with God (Divine Maternity) and after the completion of her earthly pilgrimage she continues her mission in God (Assumption and Spiritual Maternity). The person of the Blessed Virgin Mary is thus a human paradigm of what it means to possess the fullness of the gift of holiness and to return it to Him in love's full participation. Mary's self-gift resulted in her cooperation in the Incarnation and culminated in her alignment with Christ's attitude of self-emptying on Golgotha. Her complete self-emptying can only be understood through the fullness of grace she had received at the beginning of her life. In other words: to be full of grace means to be full of God's Love and that fullness always sees her in union with her divine Son by being His disciple and a Mother in the order of grace to His mystical body, the Church.

The Blessed Virgin Mary – Chosen Teacher of Holiness

As the chosen model of holiness the Blessed Virgin Mary is also our teacher of holiness who provides us with the example of her own life as well as with a lesson plan leading us towards the exalted goal of holiness. She was well-prepared for her educational duties through her experience in raising her own child; not only did she conceive and give birth to the Son of God, but she also accompanied Him in His human growth. Jesus Christ was attentive and receptive to His Mother's teaching. In the concrete circumstances of everyday life, He could find in her a model of perfect love for God and for his brothers and sisters which He could follow and imitate. Although Christ's last words to her from the cross (Jn 19:26ff) officially commissioned Mary to be our spiritual Mother and thus our teacher, she also earned this task through her humble cooperation with her Son's education. Sacred Scripture tells us that this occurred most visibly in the encounter with the twelve-year-old in the Temple (cf. Lk 2:41ff) when, from being her Son’s teacher, Mary became His disciple and helpmate. The lessons Christ taught His Mother gradually prepared her to cooperate "with a maternal love in the [spiritual] birth and education of the faithful." In this context of communion between Mother and Son through whom "the Blessed Virgin is also intimately united with the Church" can we be assured that the school of Mary brings forth saints.

In his Apostolic Letter on the Most Holy Rosary Rosarium Virginis Mariae and in his last encyclical focusing on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II enumerated some of the lessons we are to learn in Mary's school of life. The late Pope pointed out that Our Lady teaches us to gaze at Christ "with adoration and wonder." As teacher, Mary embodies in herself the lesson she passes on since "in a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary." Hence, it follows that the school of Mary offers a unique lesson on how to "contemplate the face of Christ." Contemplation of the face of Christ with, and as Mary, implies a "remembering" of all events and thereby "making present ... the works brought about by God in the history of salvation." In reliving and meditating on the various mysteries of her Son's life Mary "relates her personal account of the Gospel" and teaches us to discern our own. Moreover, by contemplating the face of Christ in Mary's school we learn "through ... the heart of his Mother" to grow "in living communion with Jesus," a relationship which ideally seen "marks the rhythm of human life." Like Mary our pilgrimage of faith will at times have us contemplate Christ with "a questioning look, a penetrating gaze, a look of sorrow, a gaze radiant with the joy and a gaze afire. The class then consists in assimilating the meaning of God's intervention in our life so that it “shapes our existence.” Contemplating the mysteries in the life of Christ and Mary by praying the rosary should help the believer to incorporate his own rhythm of life into "the ‘rhythm’ of God's own life, in the joyful communion of the Holy Trinity, our life's destiny and deepest longing." John Paul II notes that repeating the Hail Mary constitutes "the psychological dynamic proper to love." The repetition is nourished by the desire to be conformed ever more completely to Christ, "the true program of the Christian life." Thus praying "the Rosary helps us to be conformed ever-more-closely to Christ until we attain true holiness." John Paul II was also convinced that Our Lady desires to have influence on our hearts to make them more appreciative and enthusiastic for the vocation and mission we have received. The Pope was convinced that the "Virgin full of courage" will "teach us ... to overcome all the obstacles that we encounter in accomplishing our mission."

In the school of the Woman of the Eucharist we learn to assimilate Our Lady's Eucharistic faith. She who "was a witness to the historical unfolding of the saving events is the supreme model of participation in the divine mysteries ... Thus, in daily life as in the Eucharistic celebration, the 'Virgin presenting offerings,' encourages Christians to 'offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ'." (1 Pt 2:5) In this vein John Paul II was convinced that receiving the gift of Christ in the Eucharist "also means continually receiving this gift [of Mary] ... It also means taking on a commitment to be conformed to Christ, putting ourselves at the school of his Mother and allowing her to accompany us."

In sum: the Solemnity of All Saints reminds us of the universal call of holiness of all Christians. In the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary we have a model on our journey heavenwards. In her relationship with God she is let to realize that she is from God (Immaculate Conception) and that she exists for God (perpetual virginity). She accepts her mission and becomes fruitful in her cooperation with God (Divine Maternity) and after her earthly sojourn (Assumption) she continues to exercise her mission as our Mother in the order of grace by inviting us to attend her School of Holiness.

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