In my previous column, I reflected in regard to the terrible events of hatred and violence which have been present to us in our own nation and around the world. Unfortunately, in the interim, other such horrific events have occurred again including the brutal murder of an eighty-six year old French priest while he was saying Mass before an elderly congregation. All of us are experiencing a great sense of compassion for the victims of violence as well as a sense of horror and insecurity in the face of such atrocities. When asked about the murder of the priest in the face of so many other violent attacks, Pope Francis, in his own state of being overwhelmed, said the following strong words at a press conference on the plane to Poland for World Youth Day: "The word that is being repeated often is insecurity, but the real word is war. Now there is this one war. It is perhaps not organic but it is organized and it is war. We need not be afraid to speak the truth. The world is at war because it has lost peace." The Pope clarified that he was not speaking of a war of religion. He said, "Not a war of religion. There is a war of interests. There is a war for money. There is a war for natural resources. There is a war for domination of peoples. This is the war. All religions want peace. Others want war. Do you understand?"
I previously reflected upon the passing of a great humanitarian of our time, Elie Wiesel, who experience the horrors of the concentration camps during the time of World War II. He left a great legacy regarding our need never to forget the horrors which human beings are capable of inflicting on each other for the sake of domination. Pope Francis, on his visit to Poland, visited the concentration camp at Auschwitz at which Elie Wiesel was imprisoned. The Pope's visit was a silent one in which he preferred to be alone and to be in prayer. He said, "I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds - - only the few people necessary. Alone, enter, pray and may the Lord give me the grace to cry." He met twelve survivors of the camp simply grasping their hand and kissing them tenderly as he looked into their eyes. He also visited the death block where the Franciscan priest, St. Maximilian Kolbe, offered his life for that of a younger man and his family. Pope Francis signed the Auschwitz guestbook writing in Spanish, "Lord have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty." As I previously reflected, prayer truly is our most powerful means of coping with the horrors of violence and the tragedies that are before us, as they put us directly in touch with God who suffered with and for us. Those who inflict such violence on others inflict them upon God as well.
As we join together in prayer at this difficult time, it is essential to place before us the woman of prayer and peace, our Blessed Mother, Mary. At this time of August we celebrate the Feast of her Assumption as a reminder of her being the first to share fully in the fruits of Christ's peace through His Resurrection. Mary truly is the Queen of Peace and the Mother of Mercy who was able to remind us of what the meaning of life is all about - not what we want but what God wants – not the control of others but the love of others. Certainly, Mary, above all others, experienced the horrors of violence at the foot of the Cross where her Son was put to a cruel death. At this wrenching point of her life, she remained in prayer as a woman of faith trusting that the Lord's promise would be fulfilled and that He would not leave us on our own.
During his visit to Poland, Pope Francis commemorated the 150th Anniversary of the Baptism of Poland and celebrated Mass in Jasna Góra near the Shrine of Czestochowa, which is the home of the revered icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, also known as the Black Madonna. St. Pope John Paul II had great devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa to whom he was very close. He always visited her shrine in Poland and had replicas of the icon in his chapel and in his room.
The icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa has been through many times of war and has also been the cause of miraculous events such as spontaneous healings. It is known as the Black Madonna because of the dark residue which has formed on the image due to centuries of it being exposed to votive lights and candles. It is a beautiful icon in which the Virgin Mary is depicted as the one who shows the way. There is a mystical look in Mary’s eyes as she directs attention away from herself by pointing with her right hand toward the infant Jesus in her left arm. Likewise, the infant, with a mystical gaze in His eyes, extends His right hand toward Mary and toward the viewer in blessing while holding the book of the Gospels in His left hand. Our Lady of Czestochowa is the patroness of Poland, so closely associated to its history. The Black Madonna has many legends associated with it including that it was painted by Saint Luke on a wooden table from the home of the Holy Family. The legends also include that the painting was discovered by St. Helen and was brought back to Constantinople to be presented to her son, Constantine the Great.
In view of his great devotion to Our Blessed Mother, it is no surprise that Pope Francis made reference to her during his homily at the Mass near the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. He referred to the "Marian thread" which has been intertwined with the divine thread that runs throughout salvation history. Referring to the miracle of Jesus at Cana in Galilee, where Mary persuaded the Lord to work His first miracle in assisting the couple who ran out of wine for their wedding, Pope Francis referred to the nearness of Mary to the couple and how she is always near to us with a mother's love. He reminded us that it is Mary who during difficult times keeps us together as a family. It is Mary "who stood steadfast at the Cross and persevered in prayer with the disciples in awaiting the Holy Spirit. It is Mary who will obtain for us the desire to leave behind all past wrongs and wounds, and help us build fellowship with all, without ever yielding to the temptation to withdraw or to domineer." The Pope expressed that at Cana, "Our Lady showed great realism. She is a mother who takes people's problems to heart and handles them discreetly, efficiently and decisively. She is neither imperious nor intrusive, but a mother and a handmade." At this time of fear, hatred, prejudice and violence, it is most appropriate to turn to Mary as one who understands and supports us and is able to lead us to true peace in the world so much in need of it. The “Marian thread" has run throughout the history of the world to bind men and women together in peace. She has done this in the past and will do it for us as well.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption at this troubled time, may Our Lady help us to focus our attention on her Son, the Prince of Peace, who leads us to what is the true meaning of life. August 26 is the Feast of the Black Madonna in Poland where her power and intercession are very much understood by a nation which has faced many difficult times. There are several prayers and acts of consecration to Our Lady of Czestochowa including the beautiful new act which St. Pope John Paul II gave us in his homily at Jasna Góra on June 4, 1979. I came across the following prayer which is a very fitting for all of us at this time.
O Mary, our dear Lady of Czestochowa, look graciously upon your children in this troubled and sinful world. Embrace us all in your loving and motherly protection. Protect our young from godless ways; assist our dear ones growing old with age to prepare for their journey home; shield our defenseless unborn from the horrors of abortion, and be our strength against all sin. Shield your children from more hatred, discrimination and war. Fill our hearts, our homes and our world with that peace and love which comes only from your Son, whom you so tenderly embrace. O, Queen and Mother, our comfort and strength! We pray through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
August 12, 2016