On December 8, 2003, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope John Paul II signed his important Letter to the Men and Women Religious of the Montfort Families. (1) This relatively lengthy text presents essential elements of the doctrine of Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716) as it is synthesized in his masterpiece: The Treatise on True Devotion to Mary, and summarized in the short Secret of Mary. (2) The Letter is addressed to those who, in the Church and for the whole Church, are in a particular way the depositaries of this doctrine because they are the sons and daughters of Saint Louis Marie.
The Pope had often spoken about this saint who had so profoundly marked his life; but, for the first time, with this Letter, he offers us a synthetic exposé of his doctrine. In fact, in this new text, as well as in the Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (no. 15), the content of the Treatise is principally qualified by the term “doctrine.”
The Letter follows a very clear pattern. It begins by a kind of introduction which presents the Treatise as a classical text of Marian spirituality (no.1), while insisting on its exceptional reception by the Church, its foundation which is Jesus’ gift of His holy Mother, and also the invitation to rediscover this doctrine in the light of the Second Vatican Council: “The Montfort teaching should be reread and reinterpreted today in the light of the Council” (LFM 1). In fact, in the light of the Constitution Lumen Gentium and especially Chapter VIII on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Mystery of Christ and the Church, the teaching of the Treatise is considered, firstly from the Christological point of view, then from the ecclesiological point of view. First of all his Christocentricism is exposed at length under the title of “Ad Iesum per Mariam” (no. 2-4). Next follows the summary of the ecclesiological aspect entitled: Mary, eminent member of the Mystical Body and Mother of the Church (no. 5). Finally, the Papal Letter ends by indicating the ecclesial path to holiness lived with Mary in faith, hope and charity in the last developments which are respectively entitled: holiness, perfection of charity (no. 6), the “pilgrimage of faith” (no. 7), a sure sign of hope (no. 8).
Following the same plan, our study proposes to enter into the great perspectives opened by John Paul’s Letter, while trying to explore and deepen them and at the same time reading them as an echo of the texts of the Council and of Saint Louis Marie.
I. Ecclesial Reception and Doctrinal Value of the Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin
A. From the Discovery of the Treatise to its Rediscovery After Vatican II
Right from the beginning of his Letter to the Montfort Families, John Paul II places the accent on the extraordinary ecclesial reception of the Treatise on True Devotion, from its first publication in 1843, while recalling his personal experience:
A work destined to become a classic of Marian spirituality was published 160 years ago. St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort wrote the Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin at the beginning of the 1700s, but the manuscript remained practically unknown for more than a century. When, almost by chance, it was at last discovered in 1842 and published in 1843, the work was an instant success, proving extraordinarily effective in spreading the “true devotion” to the Most Holy Virgin. I myself, in the years of my youth, found reading this book a great help. “There I found the answers to my questions,” for at one point I had feared that if my devotion to Mary “became too great, it might end up compromising the supremacy of the worship owed to Christ” (Dono e Mistero, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1996; English edition: Gift and Mystery, Pauline Publications Africa, p. 42). Under the wise guidance of St. Louis Marie, I realized that if one lives the mystery of Mary in Christ this risk does not exist. In fact, this Saint’s Mariological thought “is rooted in the mystery of the Trinity and in the truth of the Incarnation of the Word of God” (ibid.). (LFM 1) (3)
Saint Louis Marie’s Treatise, which was discovered more than a century after his death in 1716 achieved, in fact, an “immediate success” among the whole people of God, revealing itself as “a work of an extraordinary effectiveness for spreading true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This “immediate success” became a lasting success, which continued to grow and attained its maximum after the Second Vatican Council, with the pontificate of John Paul II. Together with the Secret of Mary which is its (4) faithful resumé, the Treatise has been translated into numerous languages and is continuously published, exerting on the whole Church an influence beyond measure.
In the twentieth century, the diffusion of the Treatise may be compared to that of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s The Story of a Soul. In the writings of these two saints, we encounter the same gospel characteristics of depth, simplicity and radicalness; a Christocentric and Trinitarian, Marian, ecclesial and missionary doctrine; a spirituality of confidence and love, a path to holiness opened to all the baptized, and above all, to the poorest and the little ones. It is a doctrine, which has produced numerous fruits of holiness. Numerous saints and blesseds have particularly welcomed the Treatise, often along with The Story of a Soul, as for example, Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Dina Bélanger, Edward Poppe, and numerous others. Thérèse, we know, has already been declared Doctor of the Church on October 19, 1997. For Louis Marie, such a declaration has not yet taken place, but it remains the object of great hope among the people of God. (5)
Equally impressive is the positive and enthusiastic reception of this doctrine by the Magisterium of the Church, with a kind of a “crescendo” from Blessed Pius IX to John Paul II. In his Letter to the Montfort Families, John Paul summarizes what he had so often spoken of and written about: the decisive influence of the Treatise on his own life, from his first encounter when he was working as a laborer in a factory during the second World War. (6) Let us cite at some length the texts in which he recounts his personal experience:
At one point I began to question my devotion to Mary, believing that, if it became too great, it might end up compromising the supremacy of the worship owed to Christ. At that time, I was greatly helped by a book by Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort… There I found the answers to my questions. Yes, Mary does bring us closer to Christ, she does lead us to him, provided that we live her mystery in Christ… The author is an outstanding theologian. His Mariological thought is rooted in the mystery of the Trinity and in the truth of the Incarnation of the Word of God. (7) Thanks to Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, I came to understand that true devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric, indeed, it is very profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, and in the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption. (8) When I participated in the Council, I found reflected in this chapter all my earlier youthful experiences. (9)
This Marian chapter had been defined by Paul VI as the “summit and crowning” of the whole Constitution, (10) stating that “the knowledge of the true Catholic doctrine on Mary will always be a key for the correct understanding of the Mystery of Christ and of the Church.” (11) One sees that in Louis Marie’s book as well as in the conciliar text. Just as in the Constitution Lumen Gentium, (ch. 1) the Treatise opens up with a Christocentric and Trinitarian symphony (TD 1-36). Entirely founded on Baptism (TD 118-133), the Montfort doctrine is addressed to all the people of God (cf. LG ch. 2), animated by the same certitude of the universal call to holiness (LG ch. 5). It is thus that in the Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, John Paul II wanted to recall in a special manner “the figure of Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, who proposes consecration to Christ through the hands of Mary as an effective means for Christians to live faithfully their baptismal commitments” (RM 48).
Thus again, at the moment of his pilgrimage to his tomb at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre, John Paul II could state: “I owe a great deal to this saint and to his Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin.” (12) It is a book which always remained with him, and not just a book of his youth. Knowing this text very well, the Pope could truly assert that its author is “an outstanding theologian,” and better than all others, he perceived the deep harmony which exists between the Montfort doctrine and the teaching of the Council, and propose this doctrine to the People of God as an excellent way to enter into with Mary into the depths of the Mystery of Christ and of the Church, by a life commitment to the way to holiness. Such is also the perspective of his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte concerning the Mystery of Christ, deepened through “the living theology of the saints” (no. 27), with the same insistence on holiness to which all are called and on the necessity of a “a genuine training in holiness” (no. 31).
B. The Treatise as a Synthesis of Montfort Doctrine
Saint Louis Marie’s doctrine is based on the Gospel, and most especially on the Redeemer’s words addressed to his Mother and to his disciple. John Paul II starts off from this text from St. John to explain the meaning of his Episcopal insignia and his motto “Totus Tuus“:
Since she came into being, and especially in her most difficult moments, the Church has contemplated with special intensity an event of the Passion of Jesus Christ that St John mentions: “Standing by the Cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (Jn. 19:25-27). Throughout its history, the People of God has experienced this gift of the crucified Jesus: the gift of his Mother. Mary Most Holy is truly our Mother who accompanies us on our pilgrimage of faith, hope and charity towards an ever more intense union with Christ, the one Savior and Mediator of salvation (LG 60, 62). As is well known, my episcopal coat of arms symbolically illustrates the Gospel text quoted above; the motto Totus tuus is inspired by the teaching of St Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort (cf. Gift and Mystery, pp. 42-43; Rosarium Virginis Mariae, no. 15). These two words express total belonging to Jesus through Mary: “Tuus totus ego sum, et omnia mea tua sunt,” St Louis Marie wrote, and he translates his words: “I am all yours, and all that I have is yours, O most loving Jesus, through Mary, your most holy Mother” (TD 233). (LMF 1).
Thus, it is the all-powerful word of the Redeemer, addressed to the Mother and to the disciple, which has created a new relationship between Mary and the newborn Church represented by the disciple. Among all the saints who have experienced this gift made by Jesus to the Church, the gift of his holy Mother, Louis Marie occupies an eminent position. He has deeply identified himself with this beloved disciple who, through his faith in Jesus’ word, has received Mary into his home, and in all the dimensions of his own life. He never ceased to live this word of the Gospel; he experienced its dynamic and always Christocentric character. In fact, this gift of Mary comes from Jesus and leads to Jesus, and it is in obeying the Redeemer’s word that the disciple continually receives her. This is the meaning of Totus Tuus: It is this gift of self to Jesus through Mary which allows the disciple to receive Jesus’ gift of his Mother. (13) John Paul’s pontifical insignia thus indicates to the whole Church, in a clear and simple manner, the meaning of the Montfort doctrine, a “lived teaching,” whose style is well defined in the Letter:
This Saint’s teaching has had a profound influence on the Marian devotion of many of the faithful and on my own life. It is a lived teaching of outstanding ascetic and mystical depth, expressed in a lively and passionate style that makes frequent use of images and symbols (LMF 1).
The Treatise is the final synthesis of the teaching expressed by Louis Marie in the totality of his Works. (14) It is the “lived teaching” of a holy priest who was a missionary and a mystic, oriented towards the little ones and the poorest. It is built on a solid cultural, theological and spiritual base, received during his formation years, firstly at the Jesuit college in Rennes, then at the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. The Saint’s thought is deeply rooted in the Holy Scriptures as well as in the theology of the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church; (15) it is broadly open to the great spiritualities (Ignatian, Dominican, Francis, Carmelite, etc.); it is particularly situated in the current of the “French School” of spirituality and of its founder, Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, (16) with his powerful Christocentricism, his contemplation of the Mystery of the Incarnation, his teaching concerning Mary and his vision of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. In his writings, Saint Louis Marie will always try to render accessible to the poor and the little ones the great truths of the Christian Mystery and of the spiritual life, using a clear, lively and fervent style, often making use of parables, images and symbols.
One of the best keys for reading his works is found in one of his shortest: The Covenant with God, (17) which the missionary offered to the faithful for the renewal of the “vows and promises of holy baptism.” In it is found, in the first place, the profession of faith: “I firmly believe all the truths of the holy Gospel of Jesus Christ,” immediately followed by the commitment of life: renouncing evil and following the commandments of God and of the Church. It is within this unity of faith and life that the baptized declares: “I give myself entirely to Jesus Christ through the hands of Mary to bear my cross in his footsteps all the days of my life.”
This dynamic synthesis of faith and life, based on baptism, characterizes all of Louis Marie’s writings. The Hymns (Cantiques) constitute the most voluminous part, offering the poor a great catechesis on the Mystery of Christ as lived in the Church. (18)
Among his prose writings, the Letter to the Friends of the Cross and the Secret of the Rosary, (19) have a particular significance in relation to the two great symbols of his missionary activity: the Crucifix and the Rosary. For this reason, in relation with the apostolate of the Rosary, we must remember that Louis Marie belonged to the Dominican Third Order.
Of great theological importance is the treatise entitled: The Love of Eternal Wisdom. We discover in it a first synthesis of the Montfort teaching with its essential characteristics of being sapiential, Christocentric and Marian. The Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom is Jesus, and our true wisdom is the loving knowledge of Him, a true synthesis of faith and charity. (20) This sapiential theology is called: “The supreme science of Jesus” (LEW 8), “the great science of the saints” (LEW 93). It is the “science of love” (21) the knowledge of which “moves and satisfies the heart while enlightening the mind.” (22)
In the Treatise, all of this teaching is repeated in a new and original synthesis which has for its center the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Son, according to the words of the Creed: “For us, men, and for our salvation, he came down from Heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Jesus is always at the center, and Mary is at the heart of the Mystery of Jesus. As in the theology of the Fathers and the Doctors, this Christocentricism is dynamic: everything comes from God and returns to God “through Him, with Him and by Him.” It is always “through Christ our Lord” that the Father gives us the Spirit and that the Spirit leads us to the Father. Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life,” in the descending movement of the Incarnation as in the ascending movement of our divinization, since God became man so that man could become God. Mary is present at the heart of this dynamism of the Mystery of Jesus, present at his “coming” in the Incarnation and at his “return” to the Father in the Passion and the Resurrection. Thus, in the manner of the Fathers, the Treatise contemplates the principal truths of faith: the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Church, in relationship to our whole life. The “perfect devotion to Mary” is nothing other than the full development of the Christian life in grace; it is born in Baptism and culminates in the Eucharist (TD 266–273). Such is the dynamism of the Treatise, in which the whole of this great reality is laid hold of in the Heart of Mary, by means of her faith, her hope and her love.
This synthesis of the Treatise corresponds to the Church’s experience all along its history. In fact, since the first centuries, the Church experiences how Mary speaks to Jesus’ disciples: she always speaks the pure truth of the faith in Jesus, and she does not cease to repeat to them: “do whatever He tells you” (cf. Jn. 2:5). As Virgin-Mother, the Holy Mother of God (theotokos) is really the purest “mirror” (23) of the Incarnate Word, which reflects the truth of his Mystery by dissipating all the errors. (24) But, at the same time through the reflection of her perfect holiness, the Immaculate Virgin never ceases to call all Jesus’ disciples to conversion, and not to stop on the path of holiness. Like a faithful echo, she never ceases to recall the most radical demands of Jesus in the Gospel. Thus, the Marian synthesis of the Treatise presents all the greatest paradoxes of the Christian faith which are the Mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, without sweetening the scandal of the Cross, while recalling all the demands of the Gospel. (25) It is exactly in the same sense that the Council declared:
“Having entered deeply into the history of salvation, Mary, in a way, unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith; and when she is the subject of preaching and veneration she prompts the faithful to come to her Son, to his sacrifice and to the love of the Father” (LG 65).
II. “The Love of Jesus Which We Seek Through Mary”: A Dynamic Christocentrism
The typical expression of Louis Marie: “To Jesus through Mary” (Ad Iesum per Mariam), is repeated in John Paul II’s Letter as the title of a long section (2 to 4), which presents the essentially Christocentric content of de Montfort’s teaching.
Saint Louis Marie proposes the loving contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation with unusual effectiveness. Authentic Marian devotion is Christocentric. Indeed, as the Second Vatican Council recalled, “Devoutly meditating on her (Mary) and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church reverently penetrates more deeply into the great mystery of the Incarnation” (LG 65) (LMF 2).
The same Constitution, Lumen Gentium, also invited theologians and preachers to “illustrate the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which always refer to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity and devotion” (LG 67). Paul VI, in promulgating the Constitution, insisted on this point: “We desire, above all, that full light be cast on the fact that Mary, the humble servant of the Lord, is entirely relative to God and to Christ, the one Mediator and our Redeemer.” (26)
A. The Absolute Centrality of Jesus Christ
To shed light on the Christocentricism which characterizes “true Marian devotion,” the pontifical Letter quotes a particularly important passage from the Treatise. It concerns the first of the “fundamental truths” of all authentic devotion to Mary, as of all Christian spirituality. We give the text in its entirety while indicating the passage cited in the Letter:
First Truth: Jesus, our Savior, true God and true man, must be the ultimate end of all our other devotions; otherwise they would be false and misleading. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of everything; “We labor,” says St. Paul, “only to make all men perfect in Jesus Christ.” For in Him alone dwells the entire fullness of the divinity and the complete fullness of grace, virtue and perfection. In him alone we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing; he is our only teacher from whom we must learn; the only Lord on whom we should depend; the only Head to whom we should be united and the only model that we should imitate. He is the only Physician that can heal us; the only Shepherd that can feed us; the only Way that can lead us; the only Truth that we can believe; the only Life that can animate us. He alone is everything to us and he alone can satisfy our desires. We are given no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. God has laid no other foundation for our salvation, perfection and glory than Jesus. Every edifice, which is not built on that firm rock, is founded upon shifting sands and will certainly fall, sooner or later. Every one of the faithful, who is not united to him, is like a branch broken from the stem of the vine. It falls and withers and is fit only to be burnt. If we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us, we need not fear damnation. Neither angels in heaven nor men on earth, nor devils in hell, no creature whatever can harm us, for no creature can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Through him, with him and in him, we can do all things and render all honor and glory to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit; we can make ourselves perfect and be for our neighbor a fragrance of eternal life (TD 61).
This splendid text, which synthesizes the main affirmations of the New Testament on the absolute centrality of Jesus Christ, also shows the Trinitarian character of this Christocentricism, (27) by repeating the wording of the Liturgy (the conclusion of the Roman Canon). It is on this base that Louis Marie defines the sense of Marian devotion, even stating that “if the devotion to the Blessed Virgin distracted us from Jesus Christ, it would have to be rejected as an illusion of the devil” (TD 62). John Paul II quotes again this text from the Treatise:
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin is a privileged means “of finding Jesus Christ perfectly, of loving him tenderly, of serving him faithfully” (TD 62). St. Louis immediately expands this central desire to “love tenderly” into a passionate prayer to Jesus, imploring him for the grace to participate in the indescribable communion of love that exists between him and his Mother (LMF 3).
It is in addressing Jesus that our Saint expresses again the sense of this true devotion. It is “a wonderful secret to find you and to love you perfectly” (TD 64). And it is also to Jesus that he says: “To obtain from your mercy a true devotion to your holy Mother, and to spread it throughout the world, help me to love you wholeheartedly” (TD 67). Everything comes from Jesus and returns to Jesus, and especially the gift of his Love: It is, in fact, “the Love of Jesus that we are seeking through Mary” (TD 67).
B. “The Total Relativity of Mary”