The following catechesis was given by Dr. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in Vienna, May 27th, 2001 -Asst. Ed.
“Mary, help!” On the Meaning of Marian Devotion
On May 13th 1981 at 5.19 PM shots were fired at Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. The 9mm bullet fired by an expert marksman, Ali Agca, hit the Holy Father in the abdomen and would have caused internal bleeding and death within a short time. Ali Agca was pardoned by the Italian President last year at June 15th, to the great joy of the Pope, who had been requesting this for some time. The surgeons at the Gemelli Hospital operated for hours to save the Pope, whose life was hanging by a thread. They found that the bullet had just missed the artery by a few millimeters and had thus not hit any of the vital nerve centers. Later the Pope described this event thus: “One hand fired the shot, another guided the bullet.”
It was May 13th, the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima. The Pope himself said that at that time he was not yet so conscious of the significance of Fatima, but as soon as possible he had all the documents about the events of Fatima brought to the Gemelli Hospital. Among them was the text of the so-called third secret, which he read and then returned to the Archives, where it was kept until May 13th 2000, when, surprisingly the contents were published in its essentials by the Pope or rather by his Secretary of State, in Fatima. Soon after, this secret of Fatima was published, with an explanatory commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger.
Since May 13 th 1981, the Pope’s devotion and love for Our Lady of Fatima have been evident to all. I should like to recall just three dates: (1.) Exactly one year after the attempt on his life he made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Fatima. (2.) In 1984, in a spontaneous gesture, he presented to the Bishop of Fatima a little case containing the bullet that had hit him. This bullet was set into the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. (3.) Finally, another gesture: In the Holy Year, on May 13th, when the Pope visited Fatima again, he presented to Our Lady of Fatima the episcopal ring, given to him by Cardinal Wyszinski when he became pope on which the words “Totus tuus”, his motto, are engraved.
Why am I telling you all this? These are experiences of Mary’s help – which are very concrete, which are clearly not isolated cases and which we can see expressed in the most diverse ways throughout the long history of Christianity: experiences showing that Mary does help us. It is not by chance that we have a Mariahilferstraße, a “Mary, help street” in Vienna, so called after the Church “Mary, help”. For centuries people have found that Mary shows herself to be a Mother, a helper, in all our needs.
To return to the date of May 13 th, 1981. The private Secretary of the Holy Father speaking on May 13 th of this year in Lublin, Poland, gave a full testimony of his recollections of the event that took place 20 years ago, on May th, 1981. On that day the Holy Father signed the document setting up an Institute that has been especially close to his heart to this day: The John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family. Family, the great theme of his pontificate, the word, that he has repeated so often: The future of mankind depends on the family. That same May 13th 1981, the Pope signed another foundation document. He founded the “Academy for Life”, an Academy whose express task it is to study scientific, medical, biological, legal and theological questions relating to life. He appointed the renowned French researcher Jérome Lejeune as ist first President. It was Lejeune who discovered the cause of trisomia, more precisely, the genetic defect commonly known as Down syndrome (mongolism). Jérome Lejeune, this great defender of life, especially of handicapped life, was the Pope’s guest at lunch that May 13th . The Holy Father had maintained close friendship with him right up to his death from cancer. That same day, May 13th 1981, there was to have taken place a big demonstration for the free legalization of abortion, organized by the Communist Party. When the news of the attempt on the Pope’s life became known, the organizers called off the demonstration. Isn’t it strange to see the civilization of life and the culture of death intermingling and battling with one another the same day?
Let us return to Mary and examples of Mary’s help. Let us go into them a little more deeply. What exactly is Marian devotion? What is the reason for venerating Mary? Certainly, these experiences apparently exist in all generations. But what is the justification for devotion to Mary and what are ist limits? How can one distinguish between erroneous forms of Marian devotion, and correct one, we might call them healthy ones?
Returning to May 13th 1981: When the Pope, struck by the bullet, collapsed, he is said to have murmured in Polish, his mother – tongue, the words: “Mary, my Mother, my Mother!” “Totus tuus”, this motto of the Pope bears witness to the fact that it was not the event of May 13th 1981 that brought about his very special relationship with Mary. From then on, the theme of gratitude has still become ever stronger, resounding all the time: gratitude for help experienced. But, evidently, Marian devotion already played an important role much earlier in the Pope’s life. He lost his mother at the age of nine, and his only brother when he was twelve. His father died when Karol Woytila was twenty. He himself says that Mary became a Mother to him early on. Undoubtedly the Marian devotion of the Polish people played an important part. We see it taking on a special, very personal note in his life, marked by the great pilgrimages to Jasna Gora, to Czestachowa. As he himself says there: How often have I said the Totus Tuus here: “All yours!” The life of the Holy Father provides evidence of this deep gratitude and strong confidence in Mary, free of all sentimentality.
I was privileged to take part on October 8th last year, at the Pope’s invitation in the Jubilee of the Bishops. We were some 1.500 bishops from around the world. At