John Paul II and Mary

Pope’s Life Had a Constant Star to Guide Him

Pope John Paul II prays before an image of Our Lady of Zarvaniza at the Church of St. Nicholas in Kiev at the start of his five-day trip to Ukraine in 2001.
Pope John Paul II prays before an image of Our Lady of Zarvaniza at the Church of St. Nicholas in Kiev at the start of his five-day trip to Ukraine in 2001. (photo: CNS photo from Reuters)

According to a popular account, Pope John Paul II was introduced to Our Lady at his birth. The home in which he was born was in sight of the Wojtylas’ church. He was born in May, the month of Mary, while the daily parish devotions to her were resounding throughout the town square. His mother is reputed to have asked an attendant to open the windows fully so that the first sounds her newborn son would hear would be those beautiful hymns to Our Lady.

Such a maternal sentiment would not be unusual in a country like Poland, which venerates Mary, the Matka Boska (Theotokos — the God-bearer) in 430 recognized shrines throughout the country. It would be natural for Karol as he grew to imbibe this love for the Mother of Jesus through this rich religious culture, with its many liturgical and domestic celebrations in her honor.

Karol Wojtyla’s devotion to Our Lady would notably mature when he accepted an invitation to join a Rosary circle of young men, clandestinely because of the Nazi occupation. This was organized by a tailor, Jan Taranowski, who introduced the 15 members of the circle to the masters of Catholic spiritual life, such as the Carmelite doctors of the Church: St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila). Included also was St. Louis de Montfort’s classic treatise True Devotion to Mary.

It was in this atmosphere that Karol’s attraction to Carmelite life originated and put him on the road for the appreciation of Our Lady in salvation history, which he would share with the entire Church as Pope. Interestingly, both John Paul II and his first mentor in spirituality, Taranowski, are now on the road to beatification.

During his pontifical pilgrimage to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, a shrine on a Polish mountain covered with more than 50 chapels commemorating the Holy Land, Pope John Paul explained his intimate relationship with Mary. He stated, “Here the Mother of God nurtured my heart.”

This dominance of Our Lady in his life would be expressed by his episcopal motto Totus Tuus — Totally Yours — taken from Montfort’s writings. His episcopal coat of arms, consisting of a simple cross and an M, expressed that essential union of Jesus and Mary in his ministry. Pertinent to this is the fact that he included her in his formula of acceptance of the papacy. When officially presented with the conclave’s choice for the office of pope, he declared that it was in obedience to the faith and with confidence in Mary that he accepted that universal responsibility.

Even his private chapel in the Vatican, where visitors attended his daily Masses, gave simple evidence of his living in the presence of Mary. Next to the large crucifix was the face of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. This arrangement resembled his well-known coat of arms. At private audiences, all were given a rosary as a souvenir of their visit with this venerable Pope.

His first encyclical was Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Mankind). Eventually an accompanying document on Mary Mater Redemptoris (The Mother of the Redeemer) would follow, giving his Mariological perspective in the life of faith. In that document, he proclaimed a Marian Year, from Pentecost 1987 to the Assumption 1988, in honor of the Birth of Mary in preparation for the third millennium celebration of the Incarnation. This also was to be an occasion for further studies of the Vatican II portrayal of Mary.

All of his documents and conferences concluded with an invocation of Mary. Nor can we forget that a pilgrimage to a shrine of Our Lady was included whenever possible during his visits to countries around the world. There he would entrust the Church and, in particular, that country to her maternal love and care.

The attempt on his life took place on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. This concurrence awoke in him a desire to investigate the message of Fatima. This study resulted in the act of collegial consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary — the world explicitly and Russia implicitly — as Our Lady had requested in 1929 for the conversion of Russia and the prevention of the Second World War. Within a few years, without anyone’s expectation or prediction, the Communist empire in Europe mysteriously imploded.

Upon publishing the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Most Holy Rosary), in which he introduced the Luminous Mysteries to meditate on the years between the infancy of Christ and his passion, and spoke of the Rosary as a “school of Mary,” he declared a Year of the Rosary from October 2002 to October 2003.

Of special importance in the Marian teaching of the Venerable John Paul II is the emphasis he placed on the relationship of Our Lady to the Eucharist. Vatican II initiated a renewal in the liturgical life of the Church. He formulated the encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church) in April 2003, and in October 2004 he declared a Year of the Eucharist, to run from October 2004 to October 2005.

His encyclical on the Eucharist opens by stating: “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist.” The final section is entirely Marian: “At the School of Mary — Woman of the Eucharist.”

His Marian Eucharistic perspective can be summarized by these statements gathered from his various teachings. A profound penetration of the mystery of Mary’s role in Eucharistic worship and life in all its dimensions is presented for the benefit of the universal Church.

“Let Mary lead us to the Eucharist! ... 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.

“Let us together ask her to lead believers toward an ever more perfect knowledge of the saving power of the sacrifice of Christ, who is present in the Eucharist. … Mary can guide us toward this most holy sacrament, because she herself has a profound relationship with it.

“Mary is ‘the woman of the Eucharist’ in her whole life. … The Church, which looks to Mary as a model, is also called to imitate her in her relationship with this most holy mystery. … Mary is present with the Church, and as Mother of the Church, at each of our celebrations of the Eucharist.”

Father Stanley Smolenski, spma, a Baptistine canonical hermit, is the director of the diocesan Shrine of Our Lady of South Carolina, Mother of Joyful Hope in Kingstree, South Carolina (