Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Holy Vine
‘A sure way of remaining united to Christ, as branches to a vine,’ said Benedict XVI, ‘is to have recourse to the intercession of Mary.’
As the Church in America celebrates a three-year Eucharistic renewal, it is appropriate to consider the role of Mary in our Eucharistic sanctification by considering especially the relevant papal teachings and popular devotions.
“Above all, I emphasize the need for a Eucharistic spirituality modeled on Mary, Woman of the Eucharist.”
This quote, from Pope St. John Paul II’s 2004 letter for the Year of the Eucharist, Mane Nobiscum Domine, alludes to the last section of his 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “The School of Mary, Woman of the Eucharist.” Its importance is indicated by his adamant position on the significance of Mary in relationship to the Eucharist. He points out that “Mary is the most perfect teacher of that love which enables us to be united in the deepest way with Christ in his Eucharistic presence.”
On May 14, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI made an interesting statement: “A sure way of remaining united to Christ, as branches to a vine, is to have recourse to the intercession of Mary.”
This brings to mind the very important analogy of the vine and its branches as found in St. John’s Last Supper account (John 15). In it, Our Lord compares himself to the vine and his disciples as its branches. While united to him, they produce an abundance of fruit of virtuous holiness pleasing to our heavenly Father. If separated from him, they wither from rejecting God’s will and become spiritually-dry firewood.
Related to this is the significant perspective given by the Venerable Pope Pius XII when he referred to Our Lady as “Mother of the Vine” in his address to the Canadian National Marian Congress at Ottawa in 1947. He noted of the Blessed Virginity at the Annunciation:
She became the Mother of God in the physical order but in the supernatural order of grace she became Mother of all, who through the Holy Spirit would be made one under the headship of the Son. The Mother of the Head would be Mother of the members. The Mother of the Vine would be the Mother of the branches. … The filial love of Mary prompts us to dwell for a space in prayerful meditation. … But time does not permit us.
Pope Pius XII hereby made it a magisterial teaching and authenticated this title as a mystery to be delved into profoundly as the basis for a special spirituality. Since Jesus spoke of the vine and branches at the Last Supper, the title is Eucharistic. The application of it to Our Lady by both popes makes it a Marian title as well. Therefore, it can be the foundation of a distinct Marian Eucharistic spirituality developed through “prayerful meditation” and study, as the Venerable Pope Pius XII stated. He identifies her as the “Mediatrix of Eucharistic Holiness.”
This doctrine is portrayed in a vision granted to Blessed Dina Bélanger, a Religious of Jesus and Mary in Quebec, Canada, on June 4, 1928. In her autobiography, she recorded:
Our Lord, God made man, showed me His adorable Heart in the sacred Host. … Both His Heart and the Host were perfectly united, so united with one another that I could not explain how I could distinguish between the two. From the Host, there emanated an immense number of rays of light. From His Heart there came forth a tremendous number of flames, issuing as if in dense floods.
The Most Blessed Virgin was there, so close to Our Lord that she seemed to be absorbed by him, and yet I saw her as distinct from Him. … All the light from the Host and the flames from the Heart of Jesus passed through the Immaculate Heart of the Most Blessed Virgin. … In addition, the Most Holy Virgin was drawing souls towards her so as to lead them to the Eucharistic Heart. Finally, I saw a countless multitude of angels around the Eucharistic Heart, a multitude also reaching as far as the eye could see. In their heavenly language, they repeated: ‘Glory to the immortal King of ages!’ The rays from the Host can represent the graces of enlightenment of the mind for proper understanding of this sacrament, while the flames can represent the graces of ardent union of the Heart of Jesus with ours.
Origins of the Connecticut Icon
Providentially, 50 years after Pope Pius XII’s statement, an icon of Mary, Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine, was blessed and venerated to inspire a Marian Eucharistic spirituality according to these papal directives.
The story of this icon begins at the time of the 1993 World Youth Day at Denver, Colorado, during which an icon of Our Lady of the New Advent was presented to Pope St. John Paul II. The iconographer, Father William McNichols, skillfully integrated symbols of Colorado into the traditional icon of Our Lady of the Sign of Isaiah. The robes of Our Lady are in the Advent colors of purple and rose, while the Christ Child, instead of holding a scroll, holds a columbine (the state flower). The background has hints of the Rocky Mountains.
At that time, I was assistant at the St. Martha Church in Enfield, Connecticut. Upon seeing that icon, the thought came to me, “If Colorado can have a local icon, why not Connecticut?” I got to work researching proper state symbols and, importantly, an icon to adapt.
Icons usually encode a message inspiring meditation. The Connecticut state shield includes three grape vines representing the three original townships of the colony and a banner with the state motto, Qui Transtulit, Sustinet — “He who transplanted still sustains.”
A scriptural interpretation was easy to find. The grapes immediately bring to mind what Our Lord said at the Last Supper (John 15:5): “I am the vine and you are the branches.” As for the motto, St. Paul states in Colossians 1:13, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” Our deliverance and transference occur at baptism. Then God the Father sustains us in that kingdom by the Eucharist.
As for the icon choice, the banner reminded me of the traditional image of Our Lady of Protection, recalling the apparition of her holding a veil over Constantinople. It was easy to place the state motto onto the draped veil. On either side of her are two small angels, one holding a baptismal shell while the other holds the Eucharist. She is portrayed in the traditional blue robe with a red mantle. The blue folds resemble gothic arches to represent her as Mother of the Church. As Queen, she wears the royal slippers of the Byzantine empress.
Surrounded by rays, such as the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12:1), she stands in a green field with three grape arbors. Running across is a streamlet representing the Connecticut River. Water in scripture symbolizes the Holy Spirit. At the bottom two corners are laurel plants, the state flower. Our Lady stands crushing a serpent’s head, symbolizing her victory over Satan, the instigator of evil in the Garden of Eden. Taken together, this image represents creation renewed by the Paschal Mystery of Christ, who is portrayed in an inset above Mary.
That is why the icon has a double appellation: that of place (Our Lady of Connecticut) and that of grace (Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine). Her spirituality is contained in her designation as Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine.
The Icon Comes Together
It just so happened that at this time, around February 1994, the Archdiocese of Hartford’s newspaper had a story about a rising young Connecticut iconographer, Marek Czarnecki. He accepted the commission with an August due date.
I asked a master wood craftsman to make a triptych for the icon. John Testa, a parishioner, worked for a custom-made furniture company. He designed an elegant one and told his employer about the project. He, in turn, told John to work at it at the shop using their wood and tools. When completed, the company donated it. The deadline was August as well.
As time went by, both Marek and John had delays. August came with neither projects completed. I did not want to pressure them, fearing inferior work. One day, at the beginning of October, I returned to the rectory after a day of recollection and found a message from Marek that the icon would be ready in two days. I immediately phoned John who gave me the good news that the triptych was ready to be picked up the next day.
The week before, a woman I met on a Marian pilgrimage many months earlier, Paulette Kardos, phoned to tell me that the counseling I gave her was working well. She wanted to thank me with a gift. I asked for prayers, but she insisted on some type of contribution. I told her about the icon and she donated it gladly, especially since it was of Our Lady. Her check arrived the day I went for the triptych. Providentially, the following day I was able to go to the iconographer with both the triptych and payment. It was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Having been given approval for public veneration, the icon was brought to the church for the holy hour concluding 1994 and the midnight Mass beginning 1995. Her story was featured in the archdiocesan paper, and holy cards were then distributed to parishes.
Scriptural Spirituality of Mary, Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine
Our Lady’s relationship to the Holy Vine is included in Msgr. Anthony La Femina’s exceptional study, Eucharist and Covenant in John’s Last Supper Account (New Hope Publications). The Eucharistic sacrifice establishes the New Covenant. “By this Covenant is formed ‘the true vine.’ ... This vine grows by the light of the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit through Mary.”
Mary, who treasured and pondered these things in her heart (Luke 2:19) is the perfect disciple of the Lord and therefore, as Mother of each member of the Church, the mystical Body of her Son, is prepared by the fullness of her grace, to assist us in our call to fruitful Eucharistic holiness. As Benedict XVI alerted us, “Mary gives us the eyes and heart to contemplate her Son in the Eucharist.” And so it is with this Connecticut icon with its sacramental signs, centered on baptism and the Eucharist, presented in the scriptural analogy of the vine and the branches.
Key verses are found in John 15: 1-9:
I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit and everyone that does, he prunes so that it bears more fruit. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me, you can do nothing. … By this is my Father glorified that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father loves me so also I love you. Remain in my love. … It was not you who chose me but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.
Jesus declares the benefits of such fidelity in verse 11: “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.”
Its foundation is given in this directive: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. … This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”
A Name Brings a Mission
There is something personally attractive in a particular title of Our Blessed Mother. The title is usually related to an event, such as the Annunciation or Calvary, or a virtue, such as mercy or wisdom. The person finds that event or virtue meaningful and important because it brings light and strength to spiritual life. That title intensifies and personalizes one’s relationship with Mary, the universal Mother of the Church. A particular name for her draws each of us individually into a greater union with her.
These are the perspectives elaborated by a noted spirituality professor, Dominican Father Michael Monshau, who emphasized that when a particular name or title of Our Lady is chosen, its use draws the person or group closer to Mary and to the mystery it represents as well as to her mission identified with that name.
In this instance, the Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine forms Eucharistic evangelizers and apostles, worshipers and witnesses in spirit and in truth, according to the New and Everlasting Covenant. How appropriate for our times, focused as we are on an earnest national Eucharistic renewal!