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)