Cardinal Arinze Discusses Mary at Fatima — and in Tradition and Christian Devotion

The former prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship is the author of the new book Marian Veneration: Firm Foundations.

(photo: Dennis Callahan/ via Flickr, CC BY SA 2.0)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Francis Arinze has no doubt that, this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima, the Blessed Virgin Mary will help the Church through her current difficulties and confusion — but it depends on the faithful’s prayers to the Holy Mother of God.

The Nigerian cardinal was speaking in a March 13 interview with the Register in Rome about his new book, Marian Veneration: Firm Foundations.

Cardinal Arinze explained how he hopes the book will equip Catholics and non-Catholics with a full knowledge of Our Lady, the importance of Marian devotion today, and the meaning of apparitions in the life of the Church, especially in this anniversary year.

The former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments also gives his opinion on the perennial question of whether a pope has consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart that would usher in a period of world peace — an act Our Lady requested at Fatima in 1917.


Your Eminence, what prompted you to write the book?

One motivation was the anniversary, indeed, the centenary, of Fatima, which is in May this year. Also, one of my priest friends said to me: “You haven’t really written a book on Our Lady. You’ve given talks, but not written a whole book.”

So I thought of it. But the bigger reason is to furnish people who are devoted to Our Lady with arguments — scriptural, dogmatic — on the foundations of Marian veneration so they should not be on the defensive. They should be calm, knowing this is actually founded on holy Scripture, on the Tradition of the Church and on good theology — not to focus on the practice of saints or the teachings of popes, and the actual living of Christian people all around the world — so that those devoted to Our Lady will have this type of assurance, the foundation on doctrine and Scripture.

Also, if anybody asks them the reason for their Marian veneration, not so much for those who want to argue, or for those who are against Marian veneration: If they want information, this book will help them, but if they only want to win an argument, then this is not the reason for the book.

It’s so a Catholic will be equipped with material so that if he has a Protestant friend who wants to know, “Why are you Catholics devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary?” my answer is: “Take this book.”


How important is devotion to Our Lady, especially today?

It is part of Christianity, because when divine Providence decided to put into action God’s plan for human salvation, he sent the archangel Gabriel, who came to the Virgin Mary of Nazareth with God’s proposal, and Mary accepted it, saying, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” which means that the Blessed Virgin Mary cooperated in a very exceptional way with God’s plan for human salvation.

It was not her own invention, but she accepted it, and she was an associate of the Redeemer, not only at the Annunciation, of course, the Visitation of Elizabeth — of course, we know what happened there — but the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt and her private life in Nazareth, about which we would like to know so much — we are told just enough, but not enough for our curiosity.

Then, in the public life of Christ, Vatican II talks of Mary’s significant appearances, especially on Calvary and what Christ said there, which means Christ was saying to John: “This is your mother” and to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold your son.”

Christ was declaring what was already there by the fact that he is the Redeemer, and we who are redeemed are his brothers and sisters, so we are spiritual children of the Virgin Mary. This means Marian veneration is not something invented by the Vatican or by enthusiastic Catholics. It is something that is just in the normal, calm reading of God’s working out of our salvation.

So Mary cooperated in a special way in our salvation history — which means Marian veneration is normal to Christianity. The way it is expressed can differ and change.


Would you say that it’s especially important to listen to God’s word today and that she gives the perfect example of listening to God and what he wants for our lives? Is that the primary example she gives us?

You are right — she listened.

Indeed, one chapter is on the faith of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which many Christians don’t think about. Mary believed every detail about the life of Christ wasn’t made clear to her.

Two or three times, St. Luke tells us she did not understand what he had said: “She kept these words and reflected on them in her heart,” which means she made what Vatican II calls a pilgrimage of faith. She grew in faith. She believed. Elizabeth praised her: “Blessed are you who believed.” She must have been thinking of a man very near her [Zechariah] who did not believe, and the angel struck him with dumbness for nine months! So she’s a model of faith.


You say one has to adapt the devotions to today. How have the devotions changed compared to, say, 100 years ago?

Well, the way it is expressed can change according to people or cultures or times.

If you are in Spain, they have long traditions of how they express devotion to the Virgin Mary. On Good Friday, they have a type of procession where she is wearing black. We don’t have that in Nigeria. We are new Christians, in a way.

And then in Italy, they have 2,000 years of Christianity, so they have developed forms of Marian veneration — the shrines, the big sanctuaries and even the small ones, their style, their expression, the hymns associated with lutes. So it is just normal.


How does the book aim to help the faithful practice their devotions in particular ways?

On what we call popular devotions, the Second Vatican Council, in its document on the liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], Paragraph 13, says that popular devotions should be encouraged, but they should be in line with good theology and also with the liturgical life of the Church.

You will notice that the earlier forms of devotion of the Blessed Virgin Mary were in Advent, because it was normal when expecting the nativity of Christ to think of his mother. So that would be one of the ways in which devotion develops.

Then there is a particular stress or an angle: prayer, penance and listening to the word of God. Everyone will have their own way of having recourse to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The religious sisters would record her as an example, a model, although she was not what we would call a religious sister, in the sense of a consecrated religious.

If anything, she was a married woman, but [had] a very special type of marriage. Then mothers would look on her in their own way, of course, and even girls growing up can look on her. And because she brought Christ to other people, every one of us priests are to bring Christ to other people. She lived for Christ. Her whole life was Christocentric, so every one of us, in our own way, can look up to her.


How significant is the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima?

Our Lady appeared at Fatima to the three children in 1917. It took the Church some time to approve it because it is normal that the Church is slow to approve apparitions — because our faith is not built on apparitions. So they are proposed, not imposed.

If, therefore, a person says: “I am not attracted by Fatima, I am not attracted by Lourdes,” we do not condemn anybody for that. But if a person says: “I do not believe he died in Jerusalem,” that’s different, because that’s part of Revelation. But an apparition can help us: not because Our Lady appeared at Fatima to make a new revelation, but to stress an angle, or emphasis we need. So she asked for prayers: prayer for sinners, prayer for peace, to do penance, to pray the Rosary, and then “my Immaculate Heart will finally triumph.”

So, in that sense, yes, an apparition helps us.


And do you see this whole year as particularly significant? Do you expect some special grace from it?

There is no question of binding anyone to that, or condemning a person because they’re not enthusiastic about the Fatima anniversary and so then [saying] they’re not a good Catholic.

That’s not good logic, nor good theology. But an individual is free. I don’t personally expect a particular miracle this year.


But for the Church generally?

Oh, I will pray that we take more seriously the message of Fatima, that we pray — pray the Rosary, do penance, and pray for world peace; and also that the ideology behind communism would not keep a hold on people. That is part of the message of Fatima. It is relevant, and it is in line with the Gospel. Therefore, I have hope and pray, in that sense.


How can Our Lady, perhaps through this anniversary, help guide us through this difficult moment in the Church, where people say there’s a lot confusion? Could the Blessed Virgin help us through this, perhaps by praying to her more, so that we could achieve clarity?

Yes, no doubt — hoping to have a miracle this year, as if I were giving God an ultimatum, that, no, but that Our Lady will help us, yes, because she’s the mother of Christ the Savior, and she’s the spiritual mother of all Christians. She is the mother of the Church.

Even if Paul VI didn’t declare that in 1965, or 1964, it is still a fact, as Christ even said it on Calvary. And even if Christ didn’t say it on Calvary, the fact that she’s the mother of Christ, and therefore spiritual mother of all of us, makes her Mother of the Church and means she must be interested in how the Church is getting on.

If the Church of her son is in difficulty, we can’t expect the mother to be unconcerned. Therefore, we must pray to her more this year and believe that she intercedes for the Church. How it will work out, I cannot tell.


Do you subscribe to the view that the Pope still needs to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart for peace to be achieved?

If I begin to make a statement: “Has the Pope done that or not?” — I’m not ready to do that. But Our Lady said, “Consecrate the world and Russia to my Immaculate Heart.” Yes, Pope St. John Paul II said: “I have done that,” especially in 1984, and, for me, that is good and enough.

But it is not a dogma, whether he actually did all Our Lady asked for or not; we don’t have to go to that length.


On apparitions in general, do you deal with that in the book?

I give it a chapter, because it is a fact in the life, the history of the Church.

God is not bound to send the Blessed Virgin Mary to appear, but de facto in history, in the last 2,000 years, some say that Christ appeared to them, such as St. Margaret Mary Alacoque or Sister Faustina. Many said the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to them — now, not all of them would be authentic, but some are, and the Church, in a very rigid way, has looked to them, with theologians, psychologists and so on, and finally pronounced this [instance] is from heaven.

In some cases, the apparition is not clear, so the Church, when it is not clear, does not pronounce, because the Blessed Virgin Mary does not get permission from the Pope, or a bishop, to be able to appear to anybody. She will appear as she wishes, according to God’s plan.

We don’t have to be informed, but we take notice of the fact — our faith is not built on an apparition, but an apparition can help us and does help us.


It’s an aid to faith?

Oh definitely, so I gave it a chapter; and, indeed, I listed shrines where Our Lady is in many countries in the world — some of them already approved right up to Rome, others approved by the bishops at the diocesan level, others with no certainty, so no approval, and it’s just normal that it should be so.


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.