Time magazine recently published an article titled, “Why Pope Francis Is Obsessed With Mary.” One of the reasons the magazine gave for describing Pope Francis as having an obsession with Our Lady was the fact that he prays the Rosary three times a day. Time is correct in observing that the Holy Father does have a personal devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but this is not an obsession; it is better described as a very deep love.
Pope Francis has admitted the importance of his daily Rosary to his sense of peace and well-being, which also helped him remain calm during his election as pope. The Holy Father told an interviewer that, during the course of the second vote during the conclave that elected him, he was praying the Rosary, which gave him “great peace, almost to the point of insentience. I have not lost it. It is something inside; it is like a gift.”
Pope Francis’ Love of the Salus Populi Romani
Twelve hours after his election as the 266th successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis made a quiet visit to the Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the famous icon of Our Lady known as Salus Populi Romani (protectress of the Roman people). The Holy Father placed a small bouquet of flowers before the icon and sang the Salve Regina. Cardinal Abril y Castelló, the archpriest of St. Mary Major, explained the significance of the Holy Father’s veneration:
“He decided to visit the basilica, not only to thank the Blessed Virgin, but — as Pope Francis said to me himself — to entrust her with his pontificate, to lay it at her feet. Being deeply devoted to Mary, Pope Francis came here to ask her for help and protection.”
Since his first visit as pope, the Holy Father venerates this icon of Our Lady before and after each of his international trips.
When Pope Francis Fell in Love With Our Lady
But Pope Francis didn’t always have such a deep devotion to Our Lady or to praying the Rosary. Father Jorge Bergoglio was 49 when he fell in love with Our Lady. Two encounters with Mary in the 1980s transformed the future Pope Francis’ devotion to her — witnessing Pope St. John Paul II praying the Rosary and discovering the sacred painting of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.
To understand why Father Bergoglio’s devotion to Mary underwent a radical transformation, it’s important to know something of the traumatic events that led up to this moment in his life. He had served as the Jesuit provincial during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” when the military and paramilitary death squads conducted state-sponsored terror, resulting in the killing of as many as 49,000 civilians. Left-wing guerrillas also killed 6,000 military, police and civilians. The death squads singled out for execution anyone working with the poor, including priests, religious and catechists.
Father Bergoglio used his position to publicly criticize the violence of the junta and the guerrillas. But more than this, he put his own life at risk by rescuing people from the death squads and helping others to evade arrest, providing them with the means to flee the country. He personally drove through the streets of Buenos Aires with men and women in his car who were being hunted by the regime. It has been estimated that Father Bergoglio saved at least 100 people during the Dirty War.
Pope Francis has admitted that the stress of living through those times resulted in personal problems for him:
“I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.”
Like countless Catholics before him, Father Bergoglio turned to Our Lady in his pain and suffering.
St. John Paul II Taught Jorge Bergoglio How to Pray the Rosary
Two years after the end of the Dirty War, Father Bergoglio witnessed Pope St. John Paul II pray the Rosary. This encounter most probably took place during Pope John Paul’s apostolic visit to Latin America in 1985. Following Pope John Paul’s death, then-Cardinal Bergoglio gave this personal testimony on the impact on his life of seeing the Holy Father praying the Rosary:
“If I remember well, it was 1985. One evening I went to recite the holy Rosary that was being led by the Holy Father. He was in front of everybody, on his knees. The group was numerous; I saw the Holy Father from the back, and, little by little, I got lost in prayer. I was not alone: I was praying in the middle of the people of God to which I and all those there belonged, led by our pastor.
“In the middle of the prayer, I became distracted, looking at the figure of the Pope: his piety, his devotion was a witness. And the time drifted away, and I began to imagine the young priest, the seminarian, the poet, the worker, the child from Wadowice … in the same position in which he knelt at that moment, reciting Ave Maria after Ave Maria. His witness struck me.
“I felt that this man, chosen to lead the Church, was following a path up to his Mother in the sky, a path set out on from his childhood. And I became aware of the density of the words of the Mother of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego: ‘Don’t be afraid; am I not your mother?’ I understood the presence of Mary in the life of the Pope. That testimony did not get forgotten in an instant. From that time on, I recite the 15 mysteries of the Rosary every day.”
It’s as if, at that moment of inspiration, St. John Paul’s deep devotion to Our Lady was passed on to the man who would succeed him as successor of St. Peter 28 years later.
Cardinal Bergoglio’s insight into the significance of the Rosary to Pope St. John Paul as a “path up to his Mother in the sky” resonates with Pope John Paul’s own description of the Rosary in his apostolic letter on the Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae. Pope John Paul concluded his exhortation to the faithful to pray the Rosary with a Marian prayer composed by Blessed Bartolo Longo, the apostle of the Rosary, that uses the image of the Rosary as a “chain” to heaven:
“O blessed Rosary of Mary, sweet chain which unites us to God, bond of love which unites us to the angels, tower of salvation against the assaults of hell, safe port in our universal shipwreck, we will never abandon you.”
Pope John Paul, like his successor Pope Francis, saw the Rosary as a precious chain of prayers that joins us to heaven.
Father Bergoglio’s Encounter With Our Lady, Undoer of Knots
In 1986, Father Bergoglio traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, to study theology. During this German sabbatical, he visited the Church of St. Peter am Perlach, in Augsburg, Bavaria, where he saw the enigmatic 17th-century painting Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.
It is unclear why this painting had such a deep impact on Father Bergoglio at that time in his life. It has been speculated that he was struggling with his own personal problems as a consequence of his recent experiences as Jesuit provincial. But what is clear is that he left St. Peter am Perlach with a passionate devotion to the Blessed Mother.
The painting shows Our Lady surrounded by a host of angels, crowned with a circle of 12 stars, standing on the crescent moon and crushing the head of the knotted serpent, Satan. Our Lady holds in her hands a long, knotted white ribbon; and she is untying a large knot, one of several on the ribbon. Below her is the Old Testament figure Tobit, with the Archangel Raphael, traveling to ask Sarah for her hand in marriage.
The painting was commissioned by the nephew of Wolfgang and Sophia Langenmantel to commemorate the miraculous healing of their marriage through the intercession of Our Lady.
Spread the Devotion
Though it’s unknown why seeing this painting was so important to Father Bergoglio, what is known is that he took a postcard of Mary, Undoer of Knots back to Argentina. By this simple act, and by the example of his own personal devotion, Father Bergoglio is responsible for the spread of this devotion throughout Argentina and Latin America. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, it was his custom to attach an image of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots to his letters.
A homily Pope Francis gave in October 2013 gives an indication of the significance of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots to the Holy Father. In an address on the faith of Our Lady, Pope Francis asked, “What was Mary’s faith like?” The first characteristic he listed: “Mary’s faith unties the knot of sin.” It is an ancient belief of the Church that the Blessed Virgin Mary untied the knot of disobedience in man’s heart created by Eve’s disobedience.
Pope Francis encourages us to look at the knots of unbelief and disobedience in our own lives, with the help of Mary:
“We all have some of these knots, and we can ask in our heart of hearts: What are the knots in my life? ‘Father, my knots cannot be undone!’ It is a mistake to say anything of the sort! All the knots of our hearts, every knot of our consciences, can be undone. Do I ask Mary to help me trust in God’s mercy, to undo those knots, to change? She, as a woman of faith, will surely tell you: ‘Get up; go to the Lord: he understands you.’ And she leads us by the hand as a mother, our Mother, to the embrace of our Father, the Father of mercies.”
The Jubilee of Mercy that commenced on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary reflects Pope Francis’ deep love for his “mama,” as he refers to Our Lady. Throughout the Year of Mercy, the holy Rosary will be prayed daily in St. Peter’s Square before the statue of St. Peter; and during October 2016, a Marian jubilee will be celebrated, with Pope Francis venerating the Salus Populi Romani in St. Peter’s Square.
As part of our participation in the Year of Mercy, let us join our Holy Father in daily praying the Rosary and also asking Our Lady for her assistance in untying the knots of sin in our lives and the lives of our family and friends.
Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to EWTN Radio’s Celtic Connections program.