Karol Wojtyla lost his own mother at the age of 8. Amid the vast solitude created by her absence, he clung to his spiritual mother, the Virgin Mary. She filled the chasm of his grief with the divine love of her only son, Jesus Christ.
As a pilgrim Church celebrates the beatification of Pope John Paul II and welcomes the month of May — the period in the liturgical calendar when we specifically venerate Mary, it’s time to consider how the late Pope’s mystical bond with the Mother of God revived our love and appreciation for both Mary’s decisive role in salvation history and her unwavering maternal bond with all who seek her intercession.
When Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope, popular Marian piety — once a distinctive element of Catholic culture in the West — had declined. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics came to believe that devotion to Mary would impede ecumenical dialogue and even undermine their faith in God. Statues of Mary were removed from parish churches, and recitation of the Rosary, once the centerpiece of family prayer, faded away.
Mary’s abrupt withdrawal from parish and family life coincided with a parallel explosion of theological dissent, a politicized interpretation of the Gospel at every level of the Church, and the breakdown of sacramental marriage. Were these parallel developments connected, or coincidental? Pope John Paul II’s personal witness and teaching provided a diagnosis and a solution to the destructive currents sweeping through the Church as he assumed the Chair of Peter.
A man of the Council, the Pope challenged theologians and ordinary Catholics to appropriate the Council Fathers’ actual teachings and set aside all misinterpretations of their work. He argued that Catholic dogma regarding Mary does not undermine our faith. Rather, it fosters and guards our belief in God in all his Trinitarian mystery.
In his encyclical Redemptoris Mater, the Pope suggested that her enduring role in the life of her Son — from the Incarnation to the Crucifixion — confirmed the depth of her maternal love for every person redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb: “In the liturgy the Church salutes Mary of Nazareth as the Church’s own beginning, for in the event of the Immaculate Conception the Church sees projected, and anticipated in her most noble member, the saving grace of Easter.”
To forget Mary, suggested John Paul, was to threaten our pilgrimage to eternal life by making us vulnerable to despair. Human progress and secular ideologies had encouraged modern man to believe in his own powers and make himself, or political programs, a kind of god. But the reality of sin also made human failure inevitable. That truth, confirmed throughout a century that witnessed incalculable evil, drove many to lose hope.
As a young man, Karol Wojtyla lived just a short distance from the charnel houses of Auschwitz, yet that grim reality never defined his vision of the world or shattered his gratitude for all the gifts of creation. His spiritual mother protected him. The Pope’s antidote was an intimate bond with Mary. In Redemptoris Mater, he asks us to pray with him the “Marian antiphon: the people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.”
Since the election of Karol Wojtyla as the Vicar of Christ, the statues of Mary have returned to our parish churches. Now, many of us must still make a home for her in our own pilgrimage on this earth. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”