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The Praying Presence of Mary

Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI during his series on Prayer
General Audience, Wednesday 14 March 2012, Saint Peter's Square - also in Croatian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
With today’s catechesis, I would like to begin to speak about prayer in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Letters of St Paul. St Luke, as we know, has given us one of the four Gospels, dedicated to the earthly life of Jesus; but he has also left us what has been called the first book on the history of the Church, ie the Acts of the Apostles. In both of these books, one of the recurring elements is prayer, from that of Jesus to that of Mary, the disciples, the women and the Christian community. The beginning of the Church’s journey is rhythmically marked by the action of the Holy Spirit, who transforms the Apostles into witnesses of the Risen One to the shedding of their blood, and also by the rapid spread of the Word of God to the East and to the West. However, before the proclamation of the Gospel is spread abroad, Luke recounts the episode of the Ascension of the Risen One (cf Acts 1:6-9). The Lord delivers to the disciples the program of their lives, which are devoted to evangelization. He says: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In Jerusalem, the Apostles who were now eleven due to the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, were gathered together at home in prayer, and it is precisely in prayer that they await the gift promised by the Risen Christ, the Holy Spirit.

Within this context of expectancy, between the Ascension and Pentecost, St Luke mentions for the last time Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and his brethren (v 14). He had dedicated the beginning of his Gospel to Mary, from the announcement of the Angel to the birth and infancy of the Son of God made man. With Mary the earthly life of Jesus begins, and with Mary the Church’s first steps are also taken; in both instances, the atmosphere is one of listening to God and of recollection. Today, therefore, I would like to consider this praying presence of the Virgin in the midst of the disciples who would become the first nascent Church. Mary quietly followed her Son’s entire journey during His public life, even to the foot of the Cross; and now she continues in silent prayer to follow along the Church’s path. At the Annunciation in the home of Nazareth, Mary welcomes the angel of God; she is attentive to his words; she welcomes them and responds to the divine plan, thereby revealing her complete availability: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (cf Luke 1:38). Because of her inner attitude of listening, Mary is able to interpret her own history, and to humbly acknowledge that it is the Lord who is acting. In visiting her relative Elizabeth, she breaks forth into a prayer of praise and joy, and of celebration of the divine grace that filled her heart and her life, making her the Mother of the Lord (Luke 1:46-55). Praise, thanksgiving, joy: in the canticle of the Magnificat, Mary looks not only to what God has wrought in her, but also to what He has accomplished and continually accomplishes throughout history. In a famous commentary on the Magnificat, St Ambrose summons us to have the same spirit of prayer. He writes: “May the soul of Mary be in us to magnify the Lord; may the spirit of Mary be in us to exult in God” (Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam 2, 26: PL 15, 1561).

Also in the Cenacle in Jerusalem, in the “upper room where [the disciples of Jesus] were staying” (cf Acts 1:13), in an atmosphere of listening and prayer, she is present, before the doors are thrown open and they begin to announce the Risen Lord to all peoples, teaching them to observe all that the Lord had commanded (Mt 28:19-20). The stages in Mary’s journey -- from the home of Nazareth to that in Jerusalem, through the Cross where her Son entrusts to her the Apostle John -- are marked by her ability to maintain a persevering atmosphere of recollection, so that she might ponder each event in the silence of her heart before God (cf Luke 2:19-51) and in meditation before God, also see the will of God therein and be able to accept it interiorly. The presence of the Mother of God with the Eleven following the Ascension is not, then, a simple historical annotation regarding a thing of the past; rather, it assumes a meaning of great value, for she shares with them what is most precious: the living memory of Jesus, in prayer; and she shares this mission of Jesus: to preserve the memory of Jesus and thereby to preserve His presence.

The final mention of Mary in the two writings of St Luke is made on the sabbath day: the day of God’s rest after Creation, the day of silence after the Death of Jesus and of expectation of His Resurrection. The tradition of remembering Holy Mary on Saturday is rooted in this event. Between the Ascension of the Risen One and the first Christian Pentecost, the Apostles and the Church gather together with Mary to await with her the gift of the Holy Spirit, without whom one cannot become a witness. She who already received Him in order that she might give birth to the incarnate Word, shares with the whole Church in awaiting the same gift, so that “Christ may be formed” (Galatians 4:19) in the heart of every believer. If the Church does not exist without Pentecost, neither does Pentecost exist without the Mother of Jesus, since she lived in a wholly unique way what the Church experiences each day under the action of the Holy Spirit. St Chromatius of Aquilea comments on the annotation found in the Acts of the Apostles in this way: “The Church was united in the upper room with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and with His brethren. One, therefore, cannot speak of the Church unless Mary, the Mother of the Lord, is present … The Church of Christ is there where the Incarnation of Christ from the Virgin is preached, and where the Apostles who are the brothers of the Lord preach, there one hears the Gospel” (Sermon 30, 1: SC 164, 135).

The Second Vatican Council wished to emphasize in a particular way the bond that is visibly manifest in Mary and the Apostles praying together, in the same place, in expectation of the Holy Spirit. The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium affirms: “since it has pleased God not to manifest solemnly the mystery of the salvation of the human race before He would pour forth the Spirit promised by Christ, we see the apostles before the day of Pentecost ‘persevering with one mind in prayer with the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with His brethren’ (Acts 1:14) and Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation” (n 59). The privileged place of Mary is the Church, where “she is hailed as a pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity” (n 53).

Venerating the Mother of Jesus in the Church therefore means learning from her to become a community that prays: this is one of the essential marks in the first description of the Christian community as delineated in the Acts of the Apostles (cf 2:42). Often, prayer is dictated by difficult situations, by personal problems that lead us to turn to the Lord for light, comfort and help. Mary invites us to expand the dimensions of prayer, to turn to God not only in times of need and not only for ourselves, but also in an undivided, persevering, faithful way, with “one heart and soul” (cf Acts 4:32).

Dear friends, human life passes through various phases of transition, which are often difficult and demanding and which require binding choices, renunciation and sacrifice. The Mother of Jesus was placed by the Lord in the decisive moments of salvation history, and she always knew how to respond with complete availability -- the fruit of a profound bond with God that had matured through assiduous and intense prayer. Between the Friday of the Passion and the Sunday of the Resurrection, the beloved disciple, and with him the entire community of disciples, was entrusted to her (cf John 19:26). Between Ascension and Pentecost, she is found with and in the Church in prayer (cf Acts 1:14). As Mother of God and Mother of the Church, Mary exercises her maternity until the end of history. Let us entrust every phase of our personal and ecclesial lives to her, not the least of which is our final passing. Mary teaches us the necessity of prayer, and she shows us that it is only through a constant, intimate, loving bond with her Son that we may courageously leave “our home,” ourselves, in order to reach the ends of the earth and everywhere announce the Lord Jesus, the Saviour of the world. Thank you."