How to Develop a Meaningful Devotion to the Mother of God
Devotions to particular saints is a hallmark of the Catholic faith. The practice has its roots deep in tradition and in doctrine, though it is not without criticism. There is no "thou shalt pray for the intercession of saints" in the Bible as some Christians might prefer. Still, the doctrine of the Communion of Saints is found in the ancient Apostles' Creed; that is, a summary of the faith as passed down by the apostles themselves. "The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head." Just as we Christians on earth pray for each other, support each other in the faith, and encourage one another toward our spiritual end, the saints can do that too from heaven. The ability to build up the Body of Christ with prayers doesn't end with death.
Devotion to Our Lady has many facets and comes from many sources. First, it’s a response to her unique, amazing role in the history of salvation. Second, Mary is our Mother thanks to Jesus and the sacrament of baptism. Third, she has truly shown herself to be Our Mother by visiting her children all over the world. Fourth, numerous saints and popes have urged devotion to Mary.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is the object of much particular devotion, and for good reason. Our Lady has a special place in salvation history, and all the dignity and honor bestowed upon her is a result of her role in God's plan of salvation. She derives all her glory from her Son (CCC 954), and His saving work is what made her what she is: immaculately conceived, ever-virgin, Mother of God. Let's not be tempted to think it is too much, or that we honor her at the expense of Jesus. After all, Mary wasn’t randomly chosen for her role: "from the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for His only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate" (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus). Through her “yes” to God, the life of Jesus was made possible! Through her, redemption came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ!
Second, she is our Mother because of Jesus Himself and our baptism. Jesus made her the Mother of all Christians on Calvary. A filial devotion to Our Lady is not an impious invention. Being slowly and painfully asphyxiated on the cross, Jesus would've been struggling for every breath. Even under those conditions, He turned to His Mother saying, “Woman, behold your son,” and to beloved disciple, "behold your mother" (John 19:26-27). We can read Jesus’ words on a literal level, that St. John took Mary into his home from that moment forward. On a deeper level, by giving Mary to St. John, Jesus was anticipating the joining of the Church to Him in His Mystical Body. St. John Paul II reflected on Jesus’ words from the cross, noting that they “signify that the motherhood of her who bore Christ finds a ‘new’ continuation in the Church and through the Church, symbolized and represented by John” (Redemptoris Mater, 24). The sacramental way in which the Church joins herself to Christ is through baptism. In baptism we are made one with Christ—a mystery so profound that St. Paul avows that "it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20).
Third, she has captured the hearts of the faithful in the places where she has appeared. Mary has visited every continent and a host of countries: most famously, Guadalupe/Mexico City, Mexico; Lourdes, France; Fatima, Portugal; Akita, Japan; Knock, Ireland; Kibeho, Rwanda. Her messages call all people to repentance and toward her beloved Son. She did not give lectures at a university; she did not visit popes, bishops, or high ranking religious (that we know of). Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego, an ordinary man. St. Bernadette was an uneducated teenager from a poor family in Lourdes. The three children at Fatima worked as shepherds. In her choices of visionaries, Our Lady followed the example set by Jesus; “he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48). Miracles and conversion of heart resulted from every apparition site.
Fourth, saint after saint has recommended devotion to the Blessed Mother. In every age of the Church, special honor has been given to Mary. The Fathers of the Church wrote about her; in the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote poetry and prayers for her. St. Dominic spread devotion to Mary throughout Europe, as did his successors in the Dominican order. The Renaissance and Counter-Reformation periods featured a further increase in Marian devotion, and the Catholic Church has never ceased to fulfill Mary’s own prophecy, that all generations would call her blessed (cf. Luke 1:48). In our present day, some of the greatest champions of Our Lady have been popes. For as much as St. John Paul II loved Our Blessed Mother and wrote multiple encyclicals about her, Pope Leo XIII wrote twelve encyclicals on the rosary alone. Listen to our elder brothers and sisters in the faith who, by grace, rose to amazing heights of holiness. Our Lady was a big part of their journey!
Benefits to Our Spiritual Journey
Although devotion to Our Lady takes many forms and encompasses different manners of prayer, the rosary is the most prominent Marian prayer. Devotion to the rosary brings with it fifteen promises from Our Lady, including assistance in battling vice, graces at the hour of our death, and special protection from Our Lady. The traditional origin of the rosary was in response to the Albigensian heresy in the 13th century. According to the "pious tradition," Our Lady appeared to St. Dominic and gave him the rosary. St. Dominic’s preaching turned the tide against the Albigensians and won many hearts back to the Catholic faith. So, the rosary is a combination of a spiritual weapon and a protective shield. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of such an extraordinary means of grace?
If that wasn't reason enough, there has been evidence of the efficacy of the rosary. One of the most prominent examples is the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. A combined Christian navy from multiple countries (named the Holy League) faced off against the Ottoman Turkish navy. Pope Pius V asked all of Christendom to pray the rosary—not only did the Holy League win, but they won in a rout.
A dream of St. John Bosco highlights how important of an intercessor and protector Mary is to the Church. In his dream of the two pillars, the Church is depicted as a stately warship on a raging sea, attacked on all sides by its enemies. The ship comes to safety when it moored itself between two columns: one topped with the Holy Eucharist and one topped with the Blessed Virgin. This does not equate her with the Holy Eucharist, but calls our attention toward the great strength of devotion to Mary.
St. Louis de Montfort, one of the greatest champions of Marian devotion, addressed the supposed tension between honoring Jesus and honoring Mary in True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As her Son, Jesus was obedient to Mary and honored her on earth; neither of those things changed in heaven. This is not:
“an abasement or imperfection in Jesus Christ. For Mary, infinitely inferior to her Son, who is God, does not command Him in the same way as an earthly mother would command her child who is beneath her. Since she is completely transformed in God by that grace and glory which transforms all the saints in Him, she does not ask or wish or do anything which is contrary to the eternal and changeless will of God” (p. 11).
That is why St. John Paul II could have Totus Tuus as his papal motto, “Totally Yours”, speaking of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is no competition between Mary and Jesus! The most earnest desire of her heart is to win souls for Him.
Practical Tips for Developing a Personal Devotion
This is the exciting part, because so many resources are available thanks to new forms of media. In his encyclical Marialis Cultus, Pope St. Paul VI encouraged devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in four areas: biblical, liturgical, ecumenical, and anthropological. I’m going to take from his idea and use three of those four areas, after starting with a basic point.
Trust in her intercession. If the thought of Marian devotion seems scary or feels useless, take a leap and trust in her desire to bring you closer to Jesus. "[She] has a favor and power with her Son greater than any human or angelic creature has ever obtained, or ever can gain. And, as it is her greatest pleasure to grant her help and comfort to those who seek her, it cannot be doubted that she would deign, and even be anxious, to receive the aspirations of the universal Church" (Pope Leo XIII, Supremi Apostolatus Officio).
Pray the rosary often, and dig deep into the mysteries. Don't let your prayer become dry and repetitive; reflect on the Gospel stories as you pray the mysteries. If you leave the rosary as just a collection of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, is it any wonder that some people find it boring? Try a scriptural rosary, where a verse of scripture is recited before each Hail Mary. Or, try the Ignatian method of prayer, by which you imagine yourself in the mystery itself. For example, imagining yourself as one of the shepherds on Christmas night; seeing the angels, visiting baby Jesus, and letting your imagination fill in the other details.
The Church Fathers, as early as the 2nd Century (St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus) refer to Mary as the New Eve. St. Paul VI noted the many titles the Fathers gave to Mary, like Abode of the King, Bridal Chamber of the Word, the Temple, Tabernacle of the Lord, Ark of the Covenant, and Ark of Holiness; "titles rich in biblical echoes.” Take the Old Testament and read it typologically. Read Gen 3:15 and Rev 12:1-6 together; meditate on Mary as the new Ark of the New Covenant.
Ecumenical, or Apologetical
I’d rename this section apologetical, although apologetics is primarily about truth than about argumentation. There is so much misunderstanding on the part of non-Catholics regarding the role of Mary, but there is also a lot of confusion among Catholics. Study the Catholic apologetics arguments about Our Lady even if you never end up being in a discussion about this. Be convinced and be ready to give a reason for your faith (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).
And did you know that the first apologetic tract on behalf of the Blessed Mother wasn't from Catholic Answers or Ignatius Press? It was from St. Jerome, the Patristic biblical scholar. In 383 A.D. he penned a lengthy tract against Helvidius and covered issues familiar to any Catholic apologist today: the brethren of the Lord (cf. Mark 6:3, Matt 13:55-56), the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the marriage of Joseph & Mary.
There are a tremendous amount of Catholic resources on the Church’s teaching on Mary. The books and encyclicals cited in this article just scratch the surface on invaluable resources. Many are web-based and free.
Ven. Fulton Sheen described her as “what God wanted us all to be” (The World’s First Love, p. 13). Mary isn’t unapproachable; she is a real person who endured real trials in her life. Look to Mary as a model of faith and trust! She showed tremendous faith when Gabriel appeared to her, and that assent continued for the rest of her life. When St. Joseph woke her in the middle of the night and said they were leaving for Egypt, she trusted. When Jesus used her visit as an opportunity to teach about the new family of God, based on spirit rather than flesh (cf. Matt 12:50, Mark 3:35), she allowed her Son to teach without interruption. Mary pondered the events of Jesus’ birth and childhood in her heart. She heard the Word of God and acted upon it. We may not be immaculately conceived, but we can follow in her footsteps in keeping the Word frequently in our hearts.
Finally, embrace the communal aspect of the Church with devotion to Our Lady. Don't go it alone! Did you know there was a simple way to get thousands of people across the world to pray for you, as well as unknown souls in heaven and purgatory? Join the Rosary Confraternity, a centuries-old association of Christians. The only requirement is to pray a full rosary once a week (all three sets of mysteries) and include the confraternity in your intentions. This association is traditionally thought to have been started by St. Dominic himself and revitalized by Bl. Alan de la Roche. Fr. Don Calloway points to historical evidence of St. Dominic founding confraternities—which would make the Rosary Confraternity about 800 years old (Champions of the Rosary, p. 43).
In addition, involve your family and/or your parish family. It may take some convincing, maybe none more so than yourself, that it's worth the fight to get everyone to say it together.
Mary, help of Christians, pray for us!