Saturday, June 22, 2024

Mary, Mother of Mercy

February 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Jean Coste

The starting point for Colin and all the first Marists was the conviction that Mary wanted something. This was not based on any specific revelation. Their conviction was that Mary wanted something, and the society of Mary exists because of that. But what did Mary want? Let us try to express more this supposed wish of Mary for the Society and the Church.

As we have said, it is this idea that Mary, who is a mother full of mercy, would like while there is still time, at this moment which is considered by them as the end of time, to gather and to save all her children. We find this, as you know, in the inspiration of Le Puy. We have read it this morning. I will just re-read a few lines:

“I have always imitated my divine Son in everything. I followed Him to Calvary itself, standing at the foot of the Cross when he gave his life for man’s salvation. And now, in the glory of heaven, I am like a powerful army defending and saving souls.”

Mary is associated with this work of salvation, and she wants to do something for the Church at this stage, at this moment.

As you know, Colin had been struck by the idea brought by Courveille that Mary was present to the work of salvation, she had been present at the beginning of the Church, and she would be at the end of time. That was certainly the sentence that Colin quoted the most during his life: “Mary was the mainstay of the Church at the beginning, she will also be the mainstay of the Church at the end of time.” This certainly comes from the first inspiration of Courveille: therefore, Mary present to the work of salvation at the beginning and at the end.

He himself will insist on this, but develop more the idea of the mother who really wants to save her children. One of the sources we could use to better know our Founder’s mind on this are his unpublished and practically unused sermons he gave as a missioner. Unfortunately, as was the practice of the time, they are made out of extracts from renowned preachers of the past and very often, unfortunately, these sermons are not very personal.

We have a sermon of Father Colin’s about Mary which is completely taken from the famous book, The Glories and Mary: The Threefold Crown of the Blessed Mother by Father Poirre. It is a bit disappointing for us to see that Colin was taking his material about Mary from some other authors. In any case, in this sermon, which happens to be sermon 28, after all that stuff copied out from another book, we see that the handwriting of Colin changes. He has written very, very quickly a full page which is completely his own. Finally, Colin is speaking of Our Lady himself. The text is long enough. I will not read it all, just the end of it. It is a kind of praise of Mary: “She is the haven of salvation, she is etc., etc… And, finally, “she is the Mother who in her tenderness, is more of a mother than all the mothers on earth, the mother of all Christians for whom she underwent on Calvary all the pain of childbearing, whose motherly heart is forever open to all, and whose boundless charity extends to all ages of the new covenant, to all nations and all peoples, comforts all miseries, meets all needs, grants all prayers.”

That is really Colin, after so many praises of Our Lady he finally says what he has to say: she is this mother, a mother absolutely without any limit, mother of all, all nations, trying to save them all; and this idea that she underwent on Calvary all the pain of childbearing, and now, in heaven, she wants to save all the children. We are really in the big perspective.

Among other texts that could be quoted, we have a supplication presented to the Pope in 1833.There’s a genera1 presentation of the Society, and after having presented the various branches, he says:

“Nor are the doors of the Society closed to lay persons living in the world, for not only have we diligently practiced those exercises of piety which other societies use in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but we have also included Third Order Exercises for the sake of lay people of both sexes. Thus, as Mary is the Mother of all, so, perhaps, all might be able to share in the graces of the Society and grow in devotion of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

His idea: Mary is the Mother of all, and that’s why we have this confraternity which will include all the world. After that, the best document is his famous n. 109 of the Summarium where it says:

“The general aim of the Society is to contribute in the best possible way, both by its prayer and its efforts, to the conversion of sinners and the perseverance of the just, and to gather, so to speak, all the members of Christ, whatever their age, sex, or standing, under the protection of the Blessed Mary Immaculate, Mother of God.”

A big gathering of all the people of God, of whatever age, sex, condition, and all of them will be gathered under the protection of the Blessed Mother, because that is what the Blessed Mother wants.

Without entering too much into the texts of the generalate, I would like to quote at least two of them. One is n. 2 of  A Founder Speaks, one of the very first texts noted down by Father Mayet, who entered the Society at the end of 1837. One of the first texts that he noted from Father Colin was this assertion: “Our aim,” he said, “is nothing less than to make the whole world Marist.” (FS. 1:1). After that comes document n. 2:

“Someone reminded him that he had said the whole world must be Marist. He said, ‘Yes, God the Father has appointed our Lord as judge of the living and the dead. The congregation of Jesus is a simple body. With the Jesuits you must have talents and many other things. In the congregation of the Blessed Virgin, it is not so. She is the Mother of Mercy. Her congregation will have several branches. It will be open to all kinds of people.’”

In French you have, “le corps”: “Le corps de Jesu est un corps simple;” “corps de Marie.” Tony Ward has translated “le corps” as “a congregation” because “body” would probably have been unbearable in English; but in French you have this play of words. It is “corps” and also the “corps” in the sense of a body. In any case you have to know that the body of Jesus is a simple body, the body of Mary is not so. She is the Mother of Mercy. Her body will have several branches, it will be open to all kinds of people.

It is a strange text, but you know, I think it is very, very typical for us. There is the comparison between the Jesuits. There’s this idea that Jesus is the judge, Jesus represents justice, and therefore, the body of Jesus, the body of the Jesuits will be a body based on a kind of selection. The Jesuits will be very severely selected, and it’s a simple body. You have, thus, the Jesuit Fathers. You have no Jesuit Teaching Brothers, no Jesuit Sisters, no Jesuit Third Order, absolutely nothing of that kind. The Jesuits are only a very monolithic congregation of men.

That’s the Jesuits, but the body of the Blessed Virgin is different. She is the Mother of Mercy, no longer the judge, no longer justice, but the mercy. And, therefore, her congregation, her body will have several branches in order to encompass absolutely everybody. Nobody has to be potentially, if you like, left out, because she is the mother of mercy, the mother of all.

Here we are very close to the vision of Colin. The plurality of branches in the society is not just a peculiarity, you know: we happen to have several branches. No, it is constitutive. A Society of Mary which could not include lay people, which could not include average people, would not be the congregation of the Blessed Virgin. It could be the congregation of Jesus, the congregation based on the idea of justice, of selection, but it would never be the congregation of the Blessed Virgin, who is the Mother of Mercy, the mother of all.

Another text, very significant along this same line, is document 78, paragraph 2 of A Founder Speaks.

“At the end of the retreat, Very Reverend Father Superior spoke a few words in the chapel, among which I noted the following: ‘We are now in the age of Mary. Yes, indeed, for this is an age of indifference, unbelief, an age of crime, of false learning, of this earth. Nowadays, the inhabitants of the earth are bowed towards the earth, stuck to it, breathing for it alone. That is why in these last days she has appeared with her hands stretched out toward the earth…’” (That’s the image of the Miraculous Medal of Catherine Laboure Rue Bac in Paris, this famous image of Mary with the hands like that…), ah “with … her hands full of rays which stand for graces being poured forth upon men. What gratitude should we show to Mary for having chosen us to spread her Society, this Society comprising the three branches, because Mary intends to cover the whole earth with her mantle.’”

Here, just by way of a parentheses, are the three branches: priests, brothers and sisters? No, no, no, no, no. The real three branches of Colin are always fathers, sisters, and laity. The Marist Teaching Brothers have never been completely, 100%, integrated by Colin into his plan, and he will say that very clearly at the end of his life. That’s one of the reasons for our difficulty sometimes with the Marist Brothers in explaining completely the problem of the Marist family at the origin… and this text is very typical. We are in 1844, but even at that time, he still speaks of the three branches: fathers, sisters, and laity.

You know, if we have three branches, it’s not just for a kind of easy distribution, it’s because Mary wants to “cover all the earth with her mantle” to reach everybody. She is the Mother of all and she cannot leave anybody out. There are many other texts that could be quoted along this line. I may give the references somewhere in order that you read them. For now, I would just like to quote one of the texts of Colin from the end of his life, it’s the beginning of the paper he has dictated about the Third Order. He says:

“The Church calls the Blessed Virgin the ‘Gate of Heaven.’ We can and we ought to consider and regard the Little Society of Mary, founded by her and whose perpetual Superior she is, as the harbor whence she will guide her true children and servants to heaven, their true native land, always ready to open to them the door of which she is the guardian. And since she is the Mother of all the children of God, all of whom she desires to save, her Society ought to open its arms to all those among her children who wish to be saved and claim her help. For this reason, the Society associates to itself through a Third Order under the name of the Confraternity of Mary for the Conversion of Sinners and the Perseverance of the Just, all classes of persons, and divide them into several categories…”

Here again this idea: Mary is the Mother of all, would like to save them all; and that’s the reason why we have this possibility for sinners and for the just and for all those who want the help of Mary to be gathered by her in the Society of Mary in the broad sense.

Good… Those are the main texts about this idea of Mary’s desire for salvation for all her children. Now, let us come more specifically to the idea of the Mother of Mercy.

Fr Colin dedicated a sermon to this topic: Mary, Mother of Mercy; but here again, he takes many, many of his quotations from other authors, particularly from Poirrier. We have seen that this expression, Mary, the Mother of Mercy, was used in Number 2 of the A Founder Speaks. This raises the question of what was the importance of this idea of Mary as Mother of Mercy in the vision of Colin? I wonder whether we have to connect that with the fact that Colin from his childhood, was devoted to Our Lady, the Mother of Sorrows. The only thing we know about any devotion of Father Colin to Our Blessed Mother during his youth was that he paid frequent visits to a statue of the Mother of Sorrows in the church of St. Bonnet-le-Troncy.

It could be just that this statue happens to be one of the Mother of Sorrows, and that not many great conclusions should be drawn from that; but, when Colin, after his generalate, founded something of great importance for him, a kind of realization of one if his personal aspirations, the famous house of La Neyliere, he consecrates it to the work of Our Lady of Compassion. And here, it seems that he comes back to a devotion of his youth, and he writes to the Cardinal of Bonald:

“It comes within the purposes of the work to awaken the devotion of the faithful to the days and passion of Our Lord, and this is why it has chosen as special patron, Our Lady of Compassion, in order that under the protection of this Mother of Sorrows, all those who are aggregated to the work may go deeply into the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Passion of her divine Son, and may receive the abundant fruits that he has gained for us through His suffering.”

Now we have two attestations of something which are in the line of the personal devotion of Colin to Mary. It’s not Colin’s vision of the Society. It’s a personal devotion of his: the only attestation we have in his childhood, and, after that, his attestation at the moment when he is trying to do something at La Neyliere. In both we see this idea of Our Lady of Sorrows.

It’s not exactly, if you like, the theme of Mary as the Mother of Mercy, the Mother who was merciful for everybody; but in both cases you have this relation between the mother and the son in difficulty: the Pieta, the mother who receives her son, the son who, at that moment is already dead, but the one who also was at the foot of the cross when Jesus was still dying, still suffering, the mother is there, the mother who cares for the abandoned child. I think that in this aspect we have to take into consideration Colin’s devotion to the Mother of Sorrows in order to draw a certain light on the idea. Mary as the Mother who really cares for the abandoned child.

Another question: is it completely by chance that the first vows of the Society of Mary were taken on the feast of Our Lady of Mercy? Is it a mere chance that it happened that the 24th of September was a good day for several reasons, or did he choose it purposely. (Father Terraillon, in his narrative of the origins, says: And we have taken our vows on the twenty-fourth of September, the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy – it seems that Terraillon really wanted to underline that). I am just bringing to you a few considerations like that, but I think that all that may orientate us to what’s a case of certain devotions, a certain vision of Mary in the line of the Mother of Sorrows, the Mother of Mercy for all.

In any case, to better understand all that, we have to go to the sources of this idea; the Mother of Mercy, the sources used by Colin, the sources in the tradition. As you know, the expression Mother of Mercy,” “Mater misericordiae,” comes from the Salve Regina, probably from Saint Bernard. I have not made any special studies on the Salve Regina “Hail, Holy Queen.” One of the first ones to comment on it was the famous Gerson, who was the university chancellor in Lyons. He was the first to make the distinction that the Kingdom of God consisted in justice and mercy. But this Kingdom of God had been divided: God has reserved for Himself, or for the Father, or for Jesus, the Kingdom of Justice, and He has given to Mary the Kingdom of Mercy, ordering that all the mercies that are given to man pass through the hands of Mary.

It seems that Saint Thomas said the same thing that the kingdom of God has been divided and that the part of justice has been given to Christ, and the part of mercy given to Mary. You may have your reservations about this theology. You are perfectly entitled to do so. I have mine also. But for Colin, the great source for Mary as Mother of Mercy was Saint Bridget of Sweden. He has said that himself, and when Colin quotes his sources, we may be sure that they were so:

“He told us that the Revelations of St. Bridget had been very useful to him in forming a true idea of the mercy of God. She had seen souls who, when accused before the judgement, the judgement seat of the Lord by the devil, had merely replied, ‘It is true that I have committed that sir, but I have confessed it.”

And in another text, document #102, Par. 5:

“I have never read anything, Messieurs, which brought me to such a realization of how great the ministry of souls is, as the Revelations of St. Bridget. I must confess that, when reading this book, which I did several times, I felt ashamed that I was obliged to spend my time on something so entirely different, on matters of administration. However, to each his own, thanks be to God.”

He explains in another text:

“Ah, how much good you do by hearing confession. How you should love this ministry. When I read what St. Bridget said on this topic in her Revelation (I have retired…) I would like to be still a missioner.”

These are Revelations, Mary is supposed to have said such and such things. For Colin they’re something that brings him into the realm of a reality. From them, he understands this idea that God is a God of mercy, and he has a reason to go and be a missioner, to leave all his business of administration. He wants to go back, to confess and to save people, because that’s what the mercy of God and the mercy of Mary would like to bring to people, this pardon, this forgiveness to sinners.

St. Bridget was certainly one of Colin’s sources for this idea of mercy. And you have in the Revelations of St. Bridget, in Book VI, Ch. 10, a chapter that he mentions. “I am the Queen of Heaven. I am the Mother of Mercy. I am the joy and the entrance of the sinners towards God.” This idea of Mary as “genoa coeli,” the “door of heaven” Colin will take to his text on the Third Order.

Another source for Colin was St. Alphonsus of Liguori, who, in the first chapter of his book The Glories of Mary, made a commentary on the Salve Regina. All the first chapter is dedicated to this title, “Mary, Mother of Mercy.” Here too are reproduced all the texts of St. Bridget, of Gerson, of St. Thomas. It’s certainly through St. Ahphonsus of Liguori that Father Colin became perfectly aware of this literature. As a matter of fact we see this in a few texts of Mayet; for instance, in a text unpublished of the 28th of January, 1851:

“He told us: ‘When I was hearing confession and became embarrassed, I used to say, “Oh, my Savior, what would you do in my place?’ Immediately, I felt that the scale was turned towards mercy. “Oh my God, I feel that you would change this heart.” And then, “Change it likewise right now.” And I ended up by giving the absolution. If He were to reproach me, I would have said, “My God, this is the Kingdom of Mercy.”

And in another text of the same period:

“This is the Kingdom of Mercy. The mercy is, here, limitless; The justice will have it’s turn in the other life.”

Here, we are very close to this idea of the two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Justice and the Kingdom of Mercy. The Kingdom of Mercy has been given to Mary… Mary, herself, says, “I am the Mother of Mercy;” and we are in this age of Mary, the age of mercy. All that fits together and that’s the mind of Colin as a confessor, as a missioner. He wants to be the instrument of that divine mercy.

So, the starting point for Colin is: Our last time of impiety and of unbelief are the times of Mary. She wants to reach all her sons, extending to them the mercy of God, inaugurating this Kingdom of Mercy, and gathering them in as one people as at the beginning.

A lot of this is just, if you like, a reflected image of an epoch, and of Colin’s situation. All this broad vision of a big kingdom bears, in a certain sense, the influence of what was the great cultural element of the time of Colin – Romanticism. Everybody was dreaming; everybody was opening great horizons, and we have to take account of that. Colin was a contemporary of Romanticism, which was a big cultural movement to which, in a certain sense, he participated.  We may also underline the kind of schizophrenic theology, this division of God’s attributes between justice and mercy. It’s tied to a certain theology that we would hardly accept as such today.

We could also underline that everything in what Colin says here, and says during this period of origin is always a kind of projection into the future: “The day will come in which… etc., etc. …for the moment…” It is not yet the moment. Colin is not starting from an experience of religious life, a concrete experience of what it is to live in a community of religious. He is projecting all that in the future, and therefore, how far can we rely on something which is just a projection of an idea into the future?

Rather than just make this a kind of negative reflection, I think it better to face the fact that in all these texts we have a certain type of thinking. You know, man may express himself in poetry; he may express himself in legislation, he may express himself in descriptive texts, in historical accounts. You have many genres literaires, many ways of expression. You know, you can have a great truth in the poetry that says to you that the sun is above the tree. It’s not true that the sun is above the tree, but in poetry, it’s true like that. Every way of expression has its own value, its own interest.

I would say, without classifying Colin and creating a new genus literarum for him, that his type of thinking is if you like, an eschatological type of thinking, which is the one used by many, many founders in the Church. Another way of describing it could be the concept of modern sociologists called utopia. They describe “utopia” as, “the criticism of a present situation in the name of a past, which is, in a certain sense, idealized, in the view of a future.”

You have a present, and you criticize this present by coming back to a past, but from there, you project the past into the future. That’s typical of this kind of thinking that you call “utopia.” That is very close to what in the ecclesiastical sciences, is called if you like, “eschatological” thinking.

It is certainly true that Colin was unsatisfied with a certain type of church man, a certain way of exercising the ministry, and in a certain sense, we may say, with a certain form, a certain type of the Church. Not that Colin ever questioned ecclesiastical institutions – that is what we are doing now. He was not against the institution, but we may say that he was certainly unsatisfied with what was going on in the Church: a certain way of exercising administration. If he had been perfectly satisfied, he would have stayed in his parish of Cerdon. He would never have founded anything else.

Ah, therefore, he was unsatisfied in the name of what? In the name of a real Church, a true Church, the Church of the beginning, the Church of the apostles, the Church that was not relying on power or in money or anything like that. At that moment, the great conversion has taken place! That’s the image, you know, of the ideal image of the past: this primitive Church.

The primitive Church has always been the great theme of all the reformers, all the schismatics. We appeal to the primitive Church in order to condemn the modern one. That’s the processes of so many of the heretics. We take this ideal image of the early, early Church, and it just serves us to criticize and to condemn the practical, the present Church. Therefore, this theme of appealing to the idealistic, primitive Church is very, very equivocal. What is interesting in Colin is that this primitive Church has one image, and this image is Mary. And what is Mary for? It is precisely the person that has not taken a position outside the Church to better judge the Church, and she is the only one who could have done that!! She could have stayed, in a certain sense; she was not like the disciples, she was the mother of the Messiah, she could have judged the Church from outside and said: “Oh! Look at Barnabas and Paul! Look at Simon, Jacques etc. No…, she just joined the Church, she was in the Church, and she disappeared in it, hidden and unknown; and that’s why she has enriched the Church by her presence and strengthened the position of Peter and the apostles, etc.

Therefore, you have in Colin this evocation of the past, an ideal Church, but it is already an ideal Church in which exists the image of the humble Virgin Mary. That is what he projects into the future, that’s really what we would have at the end; a Church based on that, based on persons able to disappear into it as Mary did; people just forgetting themselves, their own position, their own interests in order to strengthen the unity around the Pope, around the bishops; in a Church of communion – cor unun et anima una. That is, everybody  in the Church, forgetting his own position and helping a new Church to be born, a Church of the communion, a Church which will be better than our Church offered today.

Therefore, you know, we have to put all this of Colin into his original type of thinking, which is, if you like, “utopian,” provided you take it with the precise meaning that the sociologists of today give to “an eschatological type of thinking.” But in any case, we have a consistent type of thinking which has often been the one of founders in the past.

What though is the relation between this type of thinking and theology? Is it the relation between something more or less vague and with no value to theology? Is the scientific way of speaking of God something real, speech about God which is one hundred percent sure in its words and expressions?

I would think it’s not so simple. I think that the good theologians, if we have any in this room, would tell us that even theology is only an attempt to say something about God, and that every speech about God is something so imperfect. So, before opposing Colin, who’s not a theologian at all, with a good theologian of today, perhaps we should rather look in a positive way to the possible relation between this type of thinking and a theological type of thinking. I would say that the insights of the founders, even though expressed in a language which, for us, is very puzzling today, is a locus theologicus. We used to say that the liturgy, the prayer, the expression of the people of God is a locus theologicus, that the theologians start from that, that the Feast of the Assumption has been celebrated during centuries, and only after that, the Assumption has become a part of our faith, and of our belief. I think that whatever is lived by the people of God, and especially by these men who have a certain gift of seeing the values, and of anticipating what the people of God could be, project an image, a positive image of faith. I think that’s a real locus theologicus. Their insights are not to be looked upon as just, you know, “blah-blah-blah.” Ah, no. It may be something which is full of a potential theology.

I would just like to read you two texts, one after the other. The first one is the one we read at the beginning, the Le Puy revelation, in which we have this idea that Mary was at the beginning of the Church, standing at the foot of Calvary when God gives his life for man’s salvation:

“And now in heaven, sharing his glory, I follow the path… the work He does for the Church of us. I am like a powerful army, defending and saving souls.”

What’s the basis for that? Is it just a revelation, just a kind of insight that was in the air? It’s both!

Now, another text, a text which is not only theological but also dogmatic. We have not had many dogmatic texts in our century, but we did get a few in the Council of Vatican II, and especially, the dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Let us read together the conclusion of Lumen Gentium n. 69:

“Let the entire body of the faithful pour forth persevering prayer to the Mother of God and Mother of men. Let them implore that she, who aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers, may now, exalted as she is in heaven, intercede with her Son in the fellowship of all the saints. May she do so until all the peoples of the human family, whether they are honored with the name of Christian, or whether they still do not know their Savior, are happily gathered together in peace and harmony into the one People of God, for the glory of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.”

“Each and every one of the things set forth in this dogmatic constitution has won the consent of the Fathers of this Most Sacred Council.” (There follows the signatures of it all.)

You know, for me, I have these two texts! One is typically in the line of an insight. The other one is a dogmatic text. Are they so far from one another? Shouldn’t we start to reflect on the relation between these two ways of thinking? Rather than to just throw Father Colin in the “pooh” along with those who don’t know anything about theology, let us start thinking about the continuity between his type of insight and a real theology! That’s the question I want to ask you at the end.

And also, you know, we have the end of Lumen Gentiun, where Paul VI proclaimed in St. Mary Maggiore at the end of one session of the Council, this title of Mary, Mother of the Church. It was nothing completely new, it was the truth already lived, but he made a solemn declaration of that. And many Catholic theologians were not so happy. Why, during all the Council they tried to show that Mary was in the Church. The treatise on Mary was placed into the treatise in the Church: Mary is in the Church, is one of the believers, the first one, she is among the believers, Mary is not above the Church. And here! Look at this Pope who dares to come like that without consulting us, and says that Mary is the Mother of the Church, is above the Church. Many of them were not happy at all. Fortunately, there was here in Harvard the Presbyterian theologian, Richardson, who has published an article that has been handed to me by Father DiIanni or John… I don’t know, but I got it from a man of this Province, and in which this Protestant theologian said, Be careful you progressive Catholic theologians. The Pope has said something very, very great in speaking of Mary as the Mother of the Church, because Mary, in that perspective, is not only an image, an icon, only a type of the Church, she is its archetype.

Therefore, the Church has to learn from Mary, and the Church has to resemble Mary. The Church cannot be satisfied with a Petrine image, the image of Peter who binds and looses, but she has to identify with the image of the Mother of all. He went on to draw a number of good conclusions from that on the level of the conception of authority in the Church, and many other things like that.

Even in that line, in this idea of Mary, Mother of the Church, things come into the realm of a real theological reflection with many possible consequences. Here again, I see what has been lived by a Couveille, a Colin. The level of an insight, an insight which was also poorly expressed without any real ground in the theology of the time. I think that there was something there which should be considered in relation with our modern theology. That’s more or less what I wanted to tell you about and now I am ready to face your questions.

Source: transcript of a talk from Jean Coste’s 1980 Conference 2 Framingham Retreat to the Boston Province.

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