The Virgin Mary “wants to help us grasp the breadth and depth of our Christian vocation,” the Holy Father told a large number of pilgrims at Vespers this evening in Etzelsbach, a Marian Shrine and chapel of pilgrimage in the German region of Thuringen. “With a mother’s tenderness, she wants to make us understand that our whole life should be a response to the love of our God, who is so rich in mercy.”
Benedict XVI explained the meaning and purpose of Marian devotion, stressing that it is not “self-fulfilment that truly enables people to flourish, according to the model that modern life so often proposes to us.” That, he said, “can easily turn into a sophisticated form of selfishness.” Instead, what makes people flourish “is an attitude of self-giving directed towards the heart of Mary and hence also towards the heart of the Redeemer.”
In his homily (full text below), the Holy Father describes the Pieta sculpture housed in the 16th century chapel. The Pieta is designed to draw attention to the five wounds inflicted on Jesus during the crucifixion. To make these wounds visible the head of Jesus is usually placed on the left, as seen from the onlooker’s perspective. But the special feature of the Etzelsbach Pieta, which is carved from wood, is the reversal of this principle: from the onlooker’s perspective the head of Jesus is on the right. This means that not all the wounds are visible.
The Pope explained how he has contemplated this difference, saying he believes it signifies “the hearts of Jesus and his mother are turned to one another; they come close to each other. They exchange their love.”
The largest number of pilgrims so far - around 90,000 according to organizers - came from all over Germany to join the Pope for Vespers this evening.
The region of Eichsfeld in which Etzelsbach is located is a small Catholic enclave in what is the predominantly Protestant north of Germany. The region was divided after the Second World War, and what became known as Obereichsfeld was taken over by the Soviets and became part of the GDR, communist East Germany, from 1949 to 1990. During that time it was just 2 miles from the East-West border. But despite being threatened by an atheistic state, the people preserved their Catholic roots and the Church remained relatively intact.
Speaking to a few of the local pilgrims who remember life in the GDR, they didn’t recall the old Soviet system as being especially repressive of the Church. “We’ve experienced everything here,” joked one pilgrim, “but there were few restrictions on worship.” Occasionally, he said, the Stasi [secret police] would plant agents in the congregations to check the priests preaching. We’d call them the “Red Things”,” he laughed, and added that one of the worst aspects of Communist rule were the restrictions on travel, although he said life for the Church in the region was naturally much worse under Nazism.
Eichsfeld resident Gerhard Görge agreed, saying the proximity to the border was especially difficult, especially for those who had loved ones living in the West. “One had to be careful - it was difficult to move forward under Communism – we had 30-40 years of it,” he said. But he recalled that Masses were well attended, processions would be freely allowed and there would generally be no other restrictions. It seems only the Assumption holiday was forbidden.
A large number had also made today’s Vespers from distant parts of the country. Often when asked for their views on the visit they will stress that to come and see Benedict XVI during this trip is not a chance of a lifetime, of a decade or even of a century – but of a millennium. Only eight Germans have ever been elected Pope, this is a very rare papal state visit that includes the German capital, and so it will probably be many years before such a papal visit like this is repeated.
Tomorrow the Holy Father will celebrate his second open-air Mass, in Erfurt’s cathedral square. He will then leave for Freiburg im Breisgau where he will meet representatives of Germany’s Orthodox Church, seminarians, and local dignitaries including the former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The day will close with a youth prayer vigil.
Homily of Pope Benedict XVI during Marian Vespers in the esplanade next to the small Marian shrine of Etzelsbach.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Now I am able to fulfil my wish to visit Eichsfeld, and here in Etzelsbach to thank Mary in company with you. “Here in the beloved quiet vale”, as the pilgrims’ hymn says, “under the old lime trees”, Mary gives us security and new strength. During two godless dictatorships, which sought to deprive the people of their ancestral faith, the inhabitants of Eichsfeld were in no doubt that here in this shrine at Etzelsbach an open door and a place of inner peace was to be found. The special friendship with Mary that grew from all this, is what we seek to cultivate further, not least through this evening’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When Christians of all times and places turn to Mary, they are acting on the spontaneous conviction that Jesus cannot refuse his mother what she asks; and they are relying on the unshakable trust that Mary is also our mother – a mother who has experienced the greatest of all sorrows, who feels all our griefs with us and ponders in a maternal way how to overcome them. How many people down the centuries have made pilgrimages to Mary, in order to find comfort and strength before the image of the Mother of Sorrows, as here at Etzelsbach!
Let us look upon her likeness: a woman of middle age, her eyelids heavy with much weeping, gazing pensively into the distance, as if meditating in her heart upon everything that had happened. On her knees rests the lifeless body of her son, she holds him gently and lovingly, like a precious gift. We see the marks of the crucifixion on his bare flesh. The left arm of the corpse is pointing straight down. Perhaps this sculpture of the Pietà, like so many others, was originally placed above an altar. The crucified Jesus would then be pointing with his outstretched arm to what was taking place on the altar, where the holy sacrifice that he had accomplished is made present in the Eucharist.
A particular feature of the holy image of Etzelsbach is the position of Our Lord’s body. In most representations of the Pietà, the dead Jesus is lying with his head facing left, so that the observer can see the wounded side of the Crucified Lord. Here in Etzelsbach, however, the wounded side is concealed, because the body is facing the other way. It seems to me that a deep meaning lies hidden in this representation, that only becomes apparent through silent contemplation: in the Etzelsbach image, the hearts of Jesus and his mother are turned to one another; they come close to each other. They exchange their love. We know that the heart is also the seat of the most tender affection as well as the most intimate compassion. In Mary’s heart there is room for the love that her divine Son wants to bestow upon the world.
Marian devotion focuses on contemplation of the relationship between the Mother and her divine Son. The faithful constantly discover new dimensions and qualities which this mystery can help to disclose for us, for example when the image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is seen as a symbol of her deep and unreserved loving unity with Christ. It is not self-fulfilment that truly enables people to flourish, according to the model that modern life so often proposes to us, which can easily turn into a sophisticated form of selfishness. Rather it is an attitude of self-giving directed towards the heart of Mary and hence also towards the heart of the Redeemer.
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28), as we have just heard in the Scripture reading. With Mary, God has worked for good in everything, and he does not cease, through Mary, to cause good to spread further in the world. Looking down from the Cross, from the throne of grace and salvation, Jesus gave us his mother Mary to be our mother. At the moment of his self-offering for mankind, he makes Mary as it were the channel of the rivers of grace that flow from the Cross. At the foot of the Cross, Mary becomes our fellow traveller and protector on life’s journey. “By her motherly love she cares for her son’s sisters and brothers who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home” (Lumen Gentium, 62). Yes indeed, in life we pass through high-points and low-points, but Mary intercedes for us with her Son and conveys to us the strength of divine love.
Our trust in the powerful intercession of the Mother of God and our gratitude for the help we have repeatedly experienced impel us, as it were, to think beyond the needs of the moment. What does Mary actually want to say to us, when she rescues us from our plight? She wants to help us grasp the breadth and depth of our Christian vocation. With a mother’s tenderness, she wants to make us understand that our whole life should be a response to the love of our God, who is so rich in mercy. “Understand,” she seems to say to us, “that God, who is the source of all that is good and who never desires anything other than your true happiness, has the right to demand of you a life that yields unreservedly and joyfully to his will, striving at the same time that others may do likewise.” Where God is, there is a future. Indeed – when we allow God’s love to influence the whole of our lives, then heaven stands open. Then it is possible so to shape the present that it corresponds more and more to the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then the little things of everyday life acquire meaning, and great problems find solutions. Amen.