In a small church near where I live in Rome, a church with origins in the Middle Ages, there is a painting in front of which I often linger. In this painting by an eighteenth-century author, there is an angel who impales a demon, in turn held by the Blessed Virgin Mary with one foot. I always think of this painting and I find it very significant because it well describes the Christian struggle, the war that each of us must wage and in which we are also assisted by the Virgin Mary who does not leave us alone in the trial. We cannot hope to make it on our own, but the struggle is also up to us. I think of all this reflecting on the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on May 31st. A significant date, precisely because it closes the Marian month in which even more often, our thought goes to the Mother of Jesus.
I remember many years ago, when I was one of the organists of St Peter’s Basilica, I happened to play at the closing ceremony of the month of May celebrated at the grotto of Lourdes (a replica, of course) which is found inside the Vatican gardens. At the end of the ceremony, celebrated by the Archpriest of St Peter’s Basilica, the Pope arrived. My first memories of this ceremony obviously refer to John Paul II. And over the years I have also been able to follow the physical evolution of this Pontiff, until the final decline. Speaking of Mary, I cannot fail to mention John Paul II, now venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church. He was truly a great devotee of Mary, of that deep and rooted devotion, as it was for us in Europe not so many years ago.
In a speech given in 1993, the Pope referred to the very delicate situation in the Balkans. About that he said: “In the month of May the Church with particular intensity prays to Mary, Mother of God, entrusting to her the vicissitudes of men and peoples in today’s world. To her who is our Mother and Queen of Peace we especially recommend peace in the world, but above all in Europe, in the Balkans. Through her we turn to Christ, the Redeemer of the world, recalling the words with which we prayed at the beginning of this year, during the meeting in Assisi: ‘O Lord, break down the barriers of hatred that divide the nations … Where sin now abounds, let justice and love overflow, to which every man, every people and nation in you is called.’ Now let us think above all of those nations that have suffered for some years because of the war: ‘Behold, the peoples, the nations of that land, involved in the horrendous conflict underway in the Balkans, constitute communities united among themselves by so many bonds, not members only in the memories of the past, but also in the common hope of a better future based on the values of justice and peace. Each of these nations represents a particular good, a confirmation of the multiform wealth given by the Creator to man and to all humanity. In addition, each nation has the right to self-determination as a community. It is a right that can be realized either through one’s political sovereignty, or through federation or confederation with other nations. Could one or the other modality be saved among the nations of the former Yugoslavia? It is difficult to exclude it. However, the war that has broken out seems to have removed such a possibility. And the war is still ongoing. Humanly speaking, it may seem difficult to see its end. And yet: ‘Sanabiles fecit Deus nationes …’ (Wis 1:14). This was our common prayer in Assisi at the beginning of this year. Today, at the end of the Marian month, we return to it, because in the Balkans the right peace has not yet been reached. We must therefore persevere in prayer to the Mother of men and peoples – to the Queen of Peace.”
Here, in a situation of grave political and social distress, the Pope addressed Mary to be with men, to keep the forces of evil under her feet so that the good could finally win. And the Pope did it with a bright look at the reality of things, not seeking compromised solutions with an easy sentimentality: each nation, the Pope said, has the right to self-determination as a community. What a beautiful phrase and how powerful it sounds in the days when we are discussing, at least here in Italy, about Europe, how to be part of a wider community without losing your own identity. Because identity is not a dirty word, it is what defines what we are. We cannot dialogue with others unless we start from what we are. The writer Raffaele La Capria states: “A strong identity is a window on the world, able to include the others in itself. If it is weak, instead, it limits itself to glorifying itself, enclosing itself in the confines of localism.” Of course, this sentence has to be well understood: only those who are strong in their identity can include other identities, not getting confused but enriching themselves.
We think that the role of Mary in this is essential, since through her, Jesus has taken up his dwelling with men, becoming a member of a community, of customs and traditions, of a language and of a food proper to his people, at least in one earthly perspective. This is why over the centuries the Christian people have paid Mary a veneration that was alive in the Poland of John Paul II as in Italy of ancient Catholic tradition. Vittorio Messori, in his Hypothesis on Mary, said: “Starting in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment proposed above all a goal: to replace religion with politics and culture. Understanding, the latter, in the restrictive, academic sense. Not surprisingly, the cultural one became a real religion, with professors (and, in general, intellectuals) as new priests to replace priests. The use of the term cathedra (the teacher as a professor [cattedratico in Italian]), especially university, is significant: let us not forget that ‘cathedra’ – from which comes ‘cathedral’ – was the place from which the bishop taught. Now, the magisterium has passed to the professors. Devotion has been replaced by scholarship; the seminary by the university college; the breviary by the manual; the theological summa with the encyclopedia of sciences and techniques (it was not by chance that it was the instrument to which the Enlightenment immediately put their hand).”
Here the Marian devotion has been opposed, fought, denigrated. Seen as a thing of an ignorant people. Maria is that “flesh hook” (Vittorio Messori) that keeps us attached to the supernatural dimension. And this incarnation also passes through our being in our communities. You can also feel deeply connected to other peoples, like I do for example with China. But I never thought of annuling my identity as an Italian in theirs. Indeed, my years in China have strengthened my sense of belonging even more (including the suffering that it can certainly bring) and made my identity even stronger. A social and cultural identity but also a Christian identity, defended with the struggle against the forces of evil, a struggle in which Mary does not abandon us.
On the feast of the Visitation, Mary is remembered visiting her cousin Elizabeth after receiving the announcement of the angel. It brings the joy of this announcement to St Elizabeth and to her to all men and women. In the Magnificat Mary sings her wonder at the predilection of which she was the object: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. Because he looked at the humility of his servant, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Many interpret this canticle as a sort of hymn of liberation on the social level, “he has overthrown the powerful from the thrones, has raised the humble” … but they forget that before this she said “from generation to generation his mercy is extended on those who fear him.” Not a hymn to the political revolution, but to the strengthening of one’s own religious identity, a reinforcement that must not become contempt for others, but awareness of oneself. Let us rediscover Marian devotion and all our Catholic traditions, shaped by centuries and centuries of prayers, tears and blood and by the inner strength of so many of our brothers and sisters in the faith.