Beginning 2004 Strong, With the Mother of God

I moved from the United States to Rome three weeks before the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's pontificate. I attended the celebrations — the Mass commemorating his election, the consistory, the signing of the post-synodal exhortation Pastores Gregis, the beatification of Mother Teresa.

They were bittersweet celebrations.

We all rejoiced in the countless blessings God has provided the Church through this pontificate. Yet we also saw a physically exhausted Pope, unable to read his speeches. Was God signaling the end of his Vicar's mission on earth?

Two months later, God gave us a different signal. At St. Peter's Square I saw the Pope addressing the faithful, from his balcony or from his office window, on Dec. 21, 25, 26 and Jan. 4. Words were distinctively uttered, and his voice reminded us of his previous, healthier years as Pope. He celebrated the long Christmas Eve Mass and presided over the Jan. 1 Mass with no sign of tiredness.

The most convincing expression of John Paul's vitality these days was his first general audience of the year Jan. 7. More than 6,000 people crowded Paul VI Hall to hear the Holy Father and receive his blessing. He constantly waved to the pilgrims with his right hand.

More than 100 performers of the American Circus, who were in Rome for the Christmas period, delighted the Pope with their songs. John Paul patted the children, some of whom were dressed up as clowns, and smiled repeatedly at a juggler-clown's performance.

The Pope was notably at ease. He shook hands with about 100 people and blessed about 50 newlywed couples one by one. He took pictures with several groups, including children's choirs from Poland, the 60 consecrated women of the Regnum Christi movement present in Rome and the 44 newly ordained Legionary of Christ priests. He was visibly happy when more than 500 Legionaries of Christ, most of them seminarians, went onto the stage of the hall to be closer to him.

The next day, Jan. 8, the Holy Father received Ivo Sanader, the new Croatian prime minister, in a private audience. He also received representatives of Polish academic communities of Wroclaw and Opole, who bestowed on him the Academic Golden Laurel for the 50th anniversary of the defense of his thesis in order to become a professor in the school of theology at the Jagiellonian University.

What gives John Paul so much energy these first days of the year?

We might find a hint to the answer in the Pope's address at his first general audience of 2004.

The address was a meditation on the “Mother of the Redeemer,” as we invoke Mary at Christmastide, with an ancient and moving Marian antiphon, Alma Redemptoris Mater. “Mary, Mother of God!” the Pope said, “This truth of faith, profoundly connected to the Christmas celebrations, is particularly evident in the liturgy of the first day of the year, the solemnity of Mary Most Holy, Mother of God. Mary is the Mother of the Redeemer; she is the woman chosen by God to realize the salvific plan centered on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word.”

This humble creature who bore the Creator of the world was “co-participant” in the culminating events of the history of salvation. “It is she who offers Jesus to humanity at Christmas,” the Pope noted, but on the cross “it will be Jesus who will make a gift of his Mother to every human being as a precious inheritance of redemption.” Thus, Mary stays with us as she stays in the crib next to the Child Jesus.

“The same love, the same concern she had for her divine Son, she reserves for us,” the Holy Father said. “Let us allow her, therefore, to guide our steps in the New Year, which Providence gives us to live.”

This last exhortation might reveal part of the secret of the Pope's current good health. As we know, John Paul's deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin has been for him a constant source of energy and inspiration.

In Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, to be released Feb. 25, Jesus seems to draw part of his strength to endure unspeakable sufferings from his look at his Mother. In the movie Mary accompanies her Son step by step, from the moment of his trial at the Sanhedrin to his last breath on the cross.

Maybe the suffering Pope draws some of his strength from looking into the Mother's eyes at the Christmas crib. Maybe the celebration of the solemnity of the Mother of God on the first day of the year made him feel more sustained and comforted.

Maybe that's part of the reason why he chose such a topic for his first general audience of 2004.

Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome.

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