Popular Marian Piety

Diego Fares SJ

 Diego Fares SJ / Pope Francis / Published Date:21 May 2020/Last Updated Date:8 November 2021

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The volume María – Iglesia. Madre del pueblo misionero[1] is a “summa of popular Mariology,”[2] as the Argentinean theologian Carlos Galli states in his preface. Its author, Fr. Alexandre Awi Mello, was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 17, 1971. Ordained priest in 2001, he was one of the two editorial secretaries of the Fifth General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean, held at the Marian shrine of Aparecida in 2007. There he met Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and collaborated with him in the drafting of the Aparecida Document.

In 2013 the pope asked him to be his secretary and translator during his visit to Brazil for World Youth Day. At that time a friendship was established between them that made this original research work possible. The book’s main sources are two long interviews that Pope Francis gave to Fr. Awi Mello at Santa Marta, on December 23, 2013, and September 6, 2015, after the approval of the topic of his doctoral thesis.[3] These sources constitute the essential part of the thesis on which the Brazilian priest carried out exhaustive research work, with the published work having a bibliography more than 30 pages long.

Fr. Awi Mello states that “he had felt struck by the gestures and attitudes of the first Latin American Pope” in relation to Mary: “The great tenderness he expressed there seemed to reveal something deeper; it certainly depicted Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s sincere and filial love for Mary, probably rooted in his family history.” “The Virgin Mary was a part of our home,” Bergoglio said to Awi Mello, almost as if to make him understand that the concrete signs of devotion emerged in a natural way in the Marian atmosphere of his home and college. A letter from his grandmother Rosa contains a sentence that sealed Bergoglio’s relationship with Our Lady: “A glance at Mary at the foot of the cross can make a drop of balm fall on the deepest and most painful wounds.” Hence his invitation “not to stop letting yourself be looked at by the Virgin and look at her as Mother,” which the pope recommends to everyone, and especially to priests.[4]

La Civilta Cattolica

This love for Mary is also rooted in the pastoral experience of Bergoglio.[5] It brings with it “an innovative vision of the Church and of popular religiosity” (p. 41). With an image, the author synthesizes the objective of his thesis and his book: “To distinguish and help people become conscious of the ‘Marian smell’ that emanates from Bergoglio and let it vitalize the life of the universal Church, It was Bergoglio who allowed himself to be washed in the ‘smell of his sheep,’ deeply marked by the presence of Mary” (p. 42). And so the volume tries to answer the question of what are the theological-pastoral consequences for the Church of his Marian thought and practice (cf. p. 43).

The author focuses on “popular Marian piety.” This is only one of many possible Marian themes, but it is of radical importance since for Bergoglio “feeling with the Church” is not only linked “ to feeling with its hierarchical part.” With regard to Mary, “if you want to know how you love her, you have to ask the people. In turn, Mary loved Jesus with the heart of the people.”[6] Awi Mello proposes some “partial goals,” such as the “contextualization of Francis’ Marian devotion and popular thought in the ecclesial environment of Latin America and Argentina” (ibid.)

We mention here some of Bergoglio’s testimonies about his relationship with Our Lady, which make us sense closely that “Marian smell” of which the author speaks. The first image of the Virgin to accompany Bergoglio was a “small, very pretty metal image of the Virgin of Mercy” that was given to him by his catechist, Sister María Loreto Tortolo, when he was 11 years old and preparing for his First Communion. “The strongest moment, when devotion to the Virgin became clear, was in the first grade, that is when I was twelve,” Bergoglio recounted. The camarín of the Virgin – the small room behind the altar where the image of Our Lady is kept in many sanctuarieswas the place where he confirmed and defined his vocation. “The call was already there several years before, with that experience of the confessional. But, in short, it was there that I decided: “That’s enough, now, yes. And it was there that I decided to enter the Society of Jesus.”

Concerning the Rosary, the pope says: “Until I came here, I used to recite the three crowns (three groups of five mysteries). Not here, here I usually recite one. I can’t do any more for reasons of time and so on. But every day, always, I say the Rosary, and I recommend it to everyone.”

Of Bergoglio’s Marian experiences as a Jesuit, Fr. Awi Mello says that he received no direct testimony from the pope in the context of the interview. For our part, we can remember the devotion to Nuestra Señora de los Milagros, patroness of the Argentine province of the Jesuits, whose painted image is venerated in the church of Santa Fe. The pope wore a silver reliquary in the shape of the painting around his neck, and inside it he kept a piece of cloth that had touched the image of the Virgin when it miraculously sweated in 1636.

Every year, Bergoglio sent novices and many students from Buenos Aires to Santa Fe for the feast of the Virgin Mary. Likewise, the annual walking procession to the Shrine of Our Lady of Luján gathered more than a million people. For the young Jesuits in formation this became an important place of pilgrimage. 

Unity between Mary and the Church

Fr. Awi Mello introduces the formula “Mary Church, Mother of the Missionary People” as an intellectual service that “is in the line of those theologians, (like De Lubac and the Eastern Fathers) who, without denying the difference between Mary and the Church, accentuate unity rather than differentiation . Francis sees them united. The constant reference to Isaac of Stella gives him the appropriate terminology and limits of differentiation” (p. 778). Pope Francis frequently refers to the theological principle of Blessed Isaac of Stella, according to which, with various nuances, “what is understood in general of the Church, virgin and mother, is understood in particular of the Virgin Mary and individually of each faithful soul.”[7]

The unity between Mary and the Church is a “‘unity in bipolar tension,’ whose poles do not cancel and do not deny the tension, but enrich one another, allowing reciprocal analogies and the exchange of attributes” (p. 778f). The above formula is not intended to become a new “title” of Our Lady or a new “invocation” of her, but is intended to serve as an aid to access and participation in the dynamism communicated by the gestures and Marian sayings of Pope Francis, starting from that unity in polar tension between Mary and the Church in which the missionary People of God – outgoing, as the pope says – finds its filial role and extends it to others in the course of generations.

Fr. Awi Mello justifies, if there were a need, a formula that “was not intended to be used pastorally or even in prayer, although it is possible to do so.” His is an idea developed from the reality of the pope’s own testimony and the study of its context, sources and discourses.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 06 art. 4, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0620.4

[1] See A. Awi Mello, María – Iglesia. Madre del pueblo misionero, Buenos Aires, Ágape, 2019, 896. The pages cited in the text refer to this book.

[2] Ibid, 27.

[3] From this came the book A. Awi Mello, È mia Madre. Incontri con Maria, Rome, Città Nuova, 2018.

[4] Cf. D. Fares, Dieci cose che Papa Francesco propone ai sacerdoti, Milan, Àncora, 2018, 37-42.

[5] The camarín (the “chapel”) of Mary help-of-Christians is the place where Bergoglio was baptized and where he always went to pray, especially when he had some difficult problem to solve. With his characteristic humor, Francis affirms that when they saw him praying there, “the priests of the sanctuary said: Here’s the bishop, he must have some big issue to face!”

[6] A. Spadaro, “Interview with Pope Francis”, in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 459.

[7] Cf. Isaac of Stella, Sermo 51, in PL 194, 1862-1863.1865.