Pope Francis has concluded his historic visit to Latin America during the days from July 8 through 12. The visit was filled with an expression of tremendous faith on the part of the people as well as that of the Pope so well expressed in his spirit filled words. At the conclusion of his visit in Paraguay, Pope Francis was as close to his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, since his leaving there in March, 2013, to be the Universal Shepherd of the Church. This was especially true as he celebrated Mass at Paraguay's Shrine of Our Lady of Caacupe, only 25 miles from the border of Argentina. Here tens of thousands of Argentinians filled the front of the shrine and its streets to be with the Holy Father.
It was on this occasion that Pope Francis once again expressed his deep devotion to our Blessed Mother. While he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he paid annual visits to a mostly Paraguayan slum to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Caacupe. It was reported that before the Mass on July 11 began, Pope Francis was so overcome with emotion that the celebration had to be delayed for a few minutes. There is a moving photo of the Pope praying at the Shrine of Our Lady of Caacupe and presenting to Mary a white rose in a most simple but profound moment portraying his deep love for the Blessed Mother.
During his homily for the Mass, Pope Francis reflected on Mary as one who helps us to get through difficult times as she had to in her life. Specifically pointing to the conditions of the birth of Christ where Mary found herself homeless, to the flight to Egypt where she was a migrant and to the Lord's death on the Cross where she because childless, Mary experienced the most difficult of times. We all are able to identify with her in the difficult experiences of our lives where she never abandons us. As the Pope expressed so well, "We look at her life, and we feel understood, we feel heard. We can sit down to pray with her and use a common language in the face of the countless situations we encounter each day. We can identify with many situations in her own life. We can tell her what is happening in our lives because she understands."
Shortly before his departure from the Latin American visit, Pope Francis delivered the Angelus address in Paraguay following the celebration of Mass. Here he stressed how Mary is always with us. He prayed that Mary may strengthen the Church's members as a family and that with her help we may be a welcoming home for all. He said that Mary "is the gift that Jesus gives to His people. He gave her to us as our mother at the hour of His Cross and suffering. She is the fruit of Christ’s sacrifice for us. And from that moment, Mary has always been, and will always be, with her children, especially the poor and those most in need."
Like his Encyclical on Ecology, Laudato Si’, many of Pope Francis' words and actions during his visit to Latin America have already had worldwide positive repercussions, both within and outside of the Church. However, all his words must be understood in the context of his final words in Paraguay where he placed Mary before all of us as a great gift from the Lord and the model of what it means to be a Christian. As he has said on other occasions, echoing the teaching of the Church, the role of Mary in our lives supersedes that of the apostles since she is a model of what holiness and closeness to Christ are all about. Pope Francis is a man of tremendous faith which is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and following Mary as an example of one who lived her Son’s teaching in a perfect way. Pope Francis gives us the example that the only way we can settle the problems of our lives, and those of the world as well, is to live as did Mary, following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is as profound and simple as that.
Mary fulfills the unique and sublime role which God chose for her as stated in the words of her Son, "The last shall be first" (Mt 19:30). By quietly and humbly accepting what appears to be the last place, Mary takes the primary place as the perfect disciple and Mother of the Church. She appears to be the most silent figure in the Gospels and yet her presence can be found on almost every page. There is no mention made of Mary after the death of Christ when she is given to us as our mother, but she is first to be present as the fullness of Christ’s promise comes to fruition on Pentecost.
There are times in the Gospels when Christ seems to put His mother in the last place. We can all identify with that in our lives. We are told in the Gospel of St. Luke that Mary and Christ’s relatives came looking for Him but could not get to Him because of the crowd. When Jesus was told of this, instead of making room for Mary, by welcoming her first, Jesus simply says, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it" (Lk 821). Jesus points to the prominent place of Mary as the one who listens and carries out the word of God and it is that which makes her the first and perfect disciple.
We are also told in the Gospel of Luke that a woman praises Mary as the Mother of the Lord as she cries out, “Blessed is the one that carried you and the breast that nursed you" (Lk 11:27). But Jesus does not seem to praise His mother and simply replies, "Rather, Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it" (Lk 11:28). Again, Jesus places Mary’s greatness in her willingness to live the word of God. By seeming to place her last, he makes her first through the very testimony of her life.
In the Gospel of St. John, we read of the Wedding Feast at Cana which Jesus attends with his mother. When the bride and groom run out of wine, Mary wants to help them by coming to ask for the Lord's assistance. He seems again to put her last when He questions, "How does your concern affect me?" (Jn 2:4). Yet she has faith and tells the waiters, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5). Jesus changes water into wine at the request of His mother and works His first miracle, thereby ushering in His public ministry. Again, as Mary appears to be last but takes the first place.
Of all the significant places in the Gospel in which Mary is missing is the Last Supper. Yet, St. Pope John Paul II frequently reflected on how Mary was present at the Eucharist since it is from her body and blood that Jesus was born and is that body and blood which is present at every Eucharist.
It is no small wonder that Mary is so close to all of us as Pope Francis stressed at theconclusion of his visit to Latin America. As the Pope expressed, we can easily identify with Mary's life and all of the difficulties that she faced. Our lives are so similar to hers. Many times we seem to be in the last place and have to struggle with doing God's will. However, it is especially in these times and by doing the will of God that we find the first place as promised by Jesus. Mary stands as the model for all of us. May we always hear all of the wonderful words of Pope Francis in the context of his deep faith and devotion to Our Blessed Mother. It is from her that we will find our way.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
July 24, 2015