The Virgin Mary and the Saints in the Formation, Life and Ministry of Priests


         The Venerable Pontiff Paul VI defined chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Mystery of Christ and of the Church as “summit and crown” of the entire Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council. At the same time he declared Mary to be the Mother of the Church (Address to the Council for the promulgation of Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964).  This final chapter is inseparable from chapters V on the Universal Vocation to Sanctity, and VII on the Eschatological nature of the Pilgrim Church and its union with the Celestial Church.  It is these great teachings of the Council that shed the most profound light on our topic: The Virgin Mary and the Saints in the formation, life and ministry of priests.  For the Light of Christ (Lumen Gentium) brings new splendor to the sanctity of Mary and of the Church in Heaven as it is on Earth, and the great and shared vocation to sanctity of all members of the Church.  The profound spirituality of the Council as perceived by Paul VI is none other than the Love of Christ, of

Mary and of the Church.  “Love for the Church will become love for Mary, and vice versa, since the one cannot exist without the other” (Marialis Cultus, n.28), and also “Loving Mary means loving the Church, just as loving the Church means loving Our Lady” (General Audience of May 27, 1964).

         The Blessed John Paul II further developed upon the same christocentric, marian and ecclesial spirituality of the Council.  In the Homily for his Beatification  (May 1, 2011) the Holy Father Benedict XVI offers us a luminous synthesis thereof:


Dear brothers and sisters, today our eyes behold, in the full spiritual light of the risen Christ, the beloved and revered figure of John Paul II. Today his name is added to the host of those whom he proclaimed saints and blesseds during the almost twenty-seven years of his pontificate, thereby forcefully emphasizing the universal vocation to the heights of the Christian life, to holiness, taught by the conciliar Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. All of us, as members of the people of God – bishops, priests, deacons, laity, men and women religious – are making our pilgrim way to the heavenly homeland where the Virgin Mary has preceded us, associated as she was in a unique and perfect way to the mystery of Christ and the Church. Karol Wojtyła took part in the Second Vatican Council, first as an auxiliary Bishop and then as Archbishop of Kraków. He was fully aware that the Council’s decision to devote the last chapter of its Constitution on the Church to Mary meant that the Mother of the Redeemer is held up as an image and model of holiness for every Christian and for the entire Church. This was the theological vision which Blessed John Paul II discovered as a young man and subsequently maintained and deepened throughout his life. A vision which is expressed in the scriptural image of the crucified Christ with Mary, his Mother, at his side. This icon from the Gospel of John (19:25-27) was taken up in the episcopal and later the papal coat-of-arms of Karol Wojtyła: a golden cross with the letter “M” on the lower right and the motto “Totus tuus”, drawn from the well-known words of Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort in which Karol Wojtyła found a guiding light for his life: “Totus tuus ego sum et omnia mea tua sunt. Accipio te in mea omnia. Praebe mihi cor tuum, Maria – I belong entirely to you, and all that I have is yours. I take you for my all. O Mary, give me your heart” (Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, 266).


         Thus are the two great chapters V and VIII of Lumen Gentium interpreted, in the light of the Gospel and in harmony with the book that had the most influence on the life of Karol Wojtyla, from the age of 20 until his death; that is, from the beginning of his priestly vocation through til the ultimate completion of his mission as Successor to Peter (John Paul II opened the Montfort Treatise every single day; the final words are Totus Tuus).  It is, therefore, the best possible illustration of our topic, that is, the place of the Virgin Mary in the formation, the life and the priestly ministry of Karol Wojtyla.   Wojtyla first discovered the Treatise in 1940, during the dramatic years of Nazi oppression, when he was forced to work as a laborer and keep his life as a seminarian a secret.  It was from that time on that the “marian thread” became and remained the guiding theme throughout his life.

         Those words of Montfort in Latin, the summary of his entire spiritual doctrine, were copied over and over by Karol Wojtyla the seminarian, the priest, then bishop and Pope, on the first page of his manuscripts.  They are a personal appropriation of the words of the gospel when John receives from the Crucified Christ the gift of Mary as his mother: “The disciple took her into his home” (Accepit eam discipulus in sua,  Jn 19,27).  But in order to be able to truly receive this great gift of the Mother from Jesus, the disciple must give entirely of himself: Totus Tuus.  And Saint Theresa of Lisieux in her last poem Why I love you, Mary! writes: “To love is to give completely, and to give oneself” (P 54, v 22).   There is no true love without a total giving of oneself.  To say I love you must mean I give myself to You completely; I am entirely Yours forever.  This act of love is directed at Jesus through Mary, by means of Mary, but it is also directed at Mary for loving Jesus with her own Heart.  Thus the request “Give me your heart, O Mary” is granted to such an extent that John Paul II goes so far as to speak of an actual “identification of the faithful with Mary in her love for Jesus, in her service to Jesus” emphasizing the fact that such an “identification with Mary is entirely directed at Jesus” (Letter to the Monfortane Families, December 8, 2003).  According to the words of Montfort, it is the Holy Spirit which “reproduces Mary in people’s souls” to the point that they become “living copies of Mary, to love and glorify Jesus Christ” (True Devotion, n.217).  Thus, in Montfort’s spirituality as in the doctrine of the Council as summarized by John Paul II, it is clear that “true marian devotion is christocentric” (Letter to the Monfortian Families).

         The Blessed John Paul II presents this profound spirituality as an ecclesial pathway of sanctity travelled together with Mary, sharing in her perfect love, her pure faith, and her secure hope (ibidem).  It is thanks to the grace of the baptism that Mary helps us to live fully, in listening to the Word and in the communion with the Body and the Blood of her Son.  This is a spirituality for all the People of God, all of us called to sanctity.  But it has a particular value and a particular efficacy for those who are called to the ministerial priesthood, because  of their privileged relationship with Christ, with his Word and with his Body.  As the Mother of Christ and of the Church, Mary is the great teacher of the seminarians and of the priests,  helping them to grow in the love of the Lord, in the daily Eucharist and in the Lectio Divina.

         As the all holy and immaculate Mother, Mary is in a unique way the formator of the heart of the priest as a man consecrated in celibacy, teaching him the true and pure love of Jesus and of his neighbor --of everybody entrusted to his pastoral care, men and women.  Celibacy, renunciation of marriage for the love of Jesus and of his Church, bathes the priest in the infinite Mystery of matrimonial love for Christ and for the Church.  The blessed John Paul II, saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Venerable Paul VI are all examples of recent holy priests who were truly in love with Christ, with Mary, and with the Church.  And thus they were able to love all people in a manner that was absolutely pure, without possessiveness and without self interest.  And more; a great love for Our Lady provides the priest with a proper rapport with women: as a father, a brother and a son.  That was what saint Catherine of Siena meant when she addressed a friend priest as: “My dearest father and brother and son in Jesus” (Letter 225).  As a matter of fact, in her relation to the priest, a woman is not only a daughter and a sister but also a mother, who helps him in his spiritual growth.  This aspect of maternal spirituality towards priests, true of so many holy women, married or consecrated (two examples being the Venerable Louise-Marguerite Claret de la Touche and the Venerable Concepción Cabrera de Armida) was clearly underlined in the recent Magisterium (cf the Letter of John Paul II to the priests on Holy Thursday 1995, the catechesis of Benedict XVI on female saints, and the Congregation for the Clergy document Adoration, Reparation and Spiritual Maternity for priests,  2007).  Thus a priest can very well live his priestly identity entirely free of any form of paternalism or clericalism, with great respect and esteem for the dignity of women.

         Together with Mary, the Saints of both genders have an important part in the formation and the life of priests, as their best friends and teachers of sanctity.  Starting with saint Joseph, Husband of Mary, legal Father of Jesus and Patron of the Universal Church, his matrimonial and paternal role stands as a prime example for all men, whether married or consecrated in celibacy.  Joseph has much to teach us about the internal life, given his intimacy with Jesus and Mary in the hidden life (cf Saint Teresa of Avila and the Redemptoris Custos of John Pail II).

         And finally, in the theological formation of priests it is always a good thing to keep “The Great Science of the Saints” (Saint Louis Marie of Montfort) in the forefront.  After the Apostles and the Evangelists. It is the Fathers of the Church, the great Medieval Doctors and all the Mystics, who have drawn this science from the wellsprings of prayer.  In the words of saint Teresa of Lisieux, “Is it not from prayer that saints Paul, Augustine, John of the Cross, Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Dominic and so many other illustrious Friends of God have drawn this Divine science which so fascinates the greatest minds?” (Ms C, 36r).


Fr. François-Marie Léthel, OCD