Thursday, 07 April 2022 14:40

A Centenary of Love and Devotion: Keynote Address

joecaddy ss22 01 250Keynote Speaker: 
Very Rev Joe Caddy, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Melbourne

When I was a prison chaplain, I recall a conversation I had with the mother of one of the inmates. The young man was from a good family but his life had gone off the tracks. The mother was deeply concerned about him and I made some sort of comment acknowledging her love for him and added that I guess for a mother it is difficult, as they have to love all their children the same. She said no I have to love him even more: he needs it.

It was a lovely expression and it got me thinking - does God have favourites? I think yes when we most need it. I think that the love of the mother I met is like God’s love.

The Gospels are full of stories that show God’s special concern for the lost and the lonely, the poor and the vulnerable. The ninety-nine sheep are left while the Good Shepherd goes in search of the lost one and when he finds it, he gathers it up in his arms and brings it tenderly home.

When the Prodigal Son comes to his senses and starts the journey home, his father sees him while he is still a long way off and is filled with compassion and ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

There is something about the particular vulnerability of ourselves and others when we are somewhat lost that creates an opportunity for God’s love to enter. When we are not feeling totally in control then we often are able to see that we have a need for the something else in our life to make sense of it. We come to realise that we are not self-contained and for us that something else can be expressed as our need for God.

We are not so self-sufficient after all. The experience of the Covid Pandemic has been a very sobering one across the world that may cause us to reflect on this reality. Clearly humanity is out of its depth with this one. Many of our old certainties are now being questioned.

Covid is a great disruptor and to some extent the great equaliser. Where can we find God in this crisis? For us as people of faith we have to believe that God is there because as I reflected earlier our God does have favourites; that is to say God does have a special kind of love in the lost and those on the edges and margins, those who are vulnerable and in need. And doesn’t our current Covid reality emphasise that this is in fact all of us at one time or another.

I think that one of the most extraordinary passages of scripture that emphasises God’s preferential love for those in greatest need is Mary’s prayer of thanksgiving, the Magnificat.

Unfortunately, we often present a very wrong picture of Mary in the Church. Art, music and homilies at times present her submission to God's will as passivity; her obedience as subjection; and her 'Yes' to God as something sweet, small and feeble. But this prayer of Mary is powerful and unsettling, it is disruptive of the established order and could even be seen by those in power as seditious.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised the subversive nature of Mary’s song. Before being executed by the Nazis, he spoke these words in a sermon during Advent on December 17, 1933:

marywritingmagnificat01 350“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols”.

The Magnificat can be so threatening to those who are in power that there are numerous instances where it has been banned from being prayed publicly.

They include:

  • During the British rule in India, the East India Company prohibited the singing of the Magnificat at evening prayer in church by them because of its inflammable words. So, on the final day of British rule in India, Gandhi, who was not a Christian, requested that this song be read in all places where the British flag was being lowered.

  • During the 1980s, the government of Guatemala found the ideas raised by Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor to be so dangerous and revolutionary that the government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.

  • While a military junta ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, dissent was In broad daylight or in the middle of the night dissidents were swept from their homes, and across the nation those who spoke suddenly “disappeared,” either to prison with torture or the grave. The Government banned Mary's song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza.

So, what is all the fuss about? After all, this prayer is prayed every day in the evening prayer of the Church. I sometimes wonder if we recite it so often that its impact is lost on us and we take it for granted.

My soul glorifies the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.
He looks on his servant in her lowliness;
henceforth all ages will call me blessed.

This is a disruption, a reversal of the usual world order. This is a young woman in poor and low circumstances, a virgin with no social status and yet God is looking on her and all ages will call her blessed.

The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy his name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear him.

From his position as Almighty God comes not with judgement or harsh expectations but with mercy he works marvels for the poor and powerless.

He puts forth his arm in strength
and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.

He casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly! What more do we need to say?

He fills the starving with good things,
sends the rich away empty.

Again, those who always have enough and plenty to spare have had their day - now it is the day of the poor!

He protects Israel, his servant,
remembering his mercy,
the mercy promised to our fathers,
to Abraham and his sons forever.

The emphasis here is that the promise holds: God will not forget his own people ever!

In praying this prayer day after day as I mentioned earlier, we can become a bit over familiar with it and think to ourselves, well they are wonderful thoughts and sentiments, but when we reflect deeper on those words, we should feel a little unsettled.

Why? Well, I will speak for myself.

I am privileged I live in one of the richest countries in the world. I might even at times feel moments of pride - as though I have achieved a great deal through my own efforts.

I am not a mighty prince ruling from a throne but I do have plenty of authority and standing and can pull a few strings in the church and wider community.

I certainly do not go hungry and by comparison to most people of the world I am rich.

So, Mary’s song should unnerve me a little. Its voice belongs to the dispossessed, the people of Myanmar suffering under the rule of the military junta and Christians in China facing oppression. It belongs to homeless woman subjected to violence and neglect. It belongs to poor farmers facing the ravages of climate change and rising sea levels in the Pacific. It belongs to the lost children of Manilla living on scrap heaps.

So how can I make this song my song too?

I think there are ways that we can do this and I think the hundred years of “love and devotion” that we celebrate in the Legion of Mary this year can provide a key.

The call to “love and devotion” challenges me to be a person of service to consider my own values and goals. What am I seeking in life - is it security, power, popularity?

The call to “love and devotion” also opens up the way to empathy and draws us into caring for those who are least well off and understanding their plight. We are invited to love those who most need loving – God’s favourites.

Mary’s song is the song that spills out of her after she has said “yes” to all that God has asked of her. It is her experience of being lifted up. In serving God through her “Yes” Mary serves all of broken humanity and allows God to find a new way to us in Jesus and for us to find a way back to God.

Mary’s song can be our song too - especially when we can begin to acknowledge all that is broken and fearful and unsure and frail in our own hearts and celebrate those places as the places where we meet our God - in our lowliness, in our need for mercy, in our deepest hungers and yearnings.

In our vulnerability we too are God’s favourites and like Mary we too can Magnify the Glory of God especially though the love and devotion made concrete in the love of neighbour.

Mary’s song reminds us that God’s heart is close to those that the world might least expect. It is also close to those parts within ourselves where we might least expect.

On the 15th August each year we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The day the Church celebrates when Our Blessed Mother was assumed into heaven having completed the course of her earthly life - a life of love and devotion. This was solemnly declared as a dogma by the Church in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. In many countries in the world, the 15th August of course is such an important day that it is a public holiday. In Italy it is commonly known as Ferragosto and signals a time of rest and refreshment. While it is the only holyday of obligation for Catholics in Australia other than Christmas Day – we still haven’t managed to get it declared a public holiday!

Some of you may have had the opportunity to visit the beautiful Church in Jerusalem – known as the Dormition of Our Lady – the place where tradition holds that Our Lady “fell asleep”. Like Fatima, Lourdes, Loreto, Guadalupe and other Marian shrines around the world, it is a special place filled with Our Lady’s spirit.

Some of you may have seen the (2020) film “Fatima” directed by Marco Pontecorvo and featuring Andrea Boccelli’s song Gratia Plena. It is a beautiful work of art and entirely shot on location in Portugal. At the end it features footage of the 100th Year Anniversary Mass in Fatima celebrated by Pope Francis. The miracle of Fatima is a reminder that the love and devotion of Our Lady extends also to us, her sisters and brothers.

As we celebrate one hundred years of the Legion of Mary, we should give thanks that the “love and devotion” that you live out in service of God and neighbour through your works of care and mercy help you to make Mary’s song your song too:

The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy his name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear him

Holy Mary – Cause of our Joy – Pray for us!