Pope Francis at the altar at the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

On his first day as the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis humbly went on his way to St. Mary Major Basilica, to pray to Our Lady for guidance. It was a stunning moment. If that wasn’t enough, the Holy Father knelt and prayed at the tomb of St. Pius V, the great Pope of the Counter-Reformation. Just exactly what does all of this mean though, and why should we expect something exciting?

The veneration of Mary is the most misunderstood aspect of Catholicism today. Both non-Catholic Christians and unbelievers think that Catholics worship Mary as a god. The former think its a form of idolatry, and the latter is convinced it’s proof that Catholicism is nothing more than pagan belief.

Nothing could be more further from the truth.

While it is not necessary for your salvation to have such a devotion, Devotion to The Blessed Virgin is one of the oldest aspects of Christianity. Jesus Christ himself venerated his Mother, and we are called to imitate Him as Paul mentions in his first letter to the Corinthians. Non-Catholics might claim that His devotion was as natural as any son would love his mother,┬ábut the focus on this blog is what it could mean for Pope Francis to make a humble, yet public veneration to Our Lady (in any case, read the first bullet point below to get a taste of why it’s faulty theology to assume the above).

In history, every time the Catholic Church becomes more orthodox and much stronger, devotion to Mary is the first sign. When the Catholic Church weakens, Mary is the first to go absent. Here are some highlights:

  • The Third Ecumenical Council in 431 defeated the poisonous heresy known as Nestorianism, by affirming Mary as the Theotokos, the “God-bearer”. This was to ensure that the understanding of Christ was not split between his humanity and divinity (coincidentally, the council first convened at the Church of Mary on June 22nd, my birthday =D)
  • The Medieval period is most famous for the development of Mariology, and mistakenly thought to be where devotion to Mary developed. Rather, the incredible strength of the Catholic Church during this period was founded in subliminal devotion to Our Lady built up over many centuries.
  • Protestant disdain for Marian devotion was rooted from the beginning, in the 16th century. 400 years later, Protestant churches today are in worse shape than even the dreadful state of the Catholic Church.
  • The Council of Trent, responding to the Protestant heresies, reaffirmed many Catholic practices, including devotion to Mary and the Saints. Thus began the Counter-Reformation and Baroque Period.
  • The Battle of Lepanto, one of the most decisive battles in history, the battle which prevented the Ottomans from invading and allowing Islam to spread throughout Europe; its victory is attributed to the intercession of Mary, implored through widespread use of the rosary before the battle.
  • In the last 50 years, devotion to Our Lady and the saints has decreased significantly among the faithful, let alone references and intercessions being taken out of liturgies. Look at the state of the Church now.

Through this very brief and amateur highlight of the last 2000 years, a pattern emerges in which veneration of Mary among the faithful increases the strength of the Church. When Pope Francis went to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, it was a plea to Our Lady to pray for us. That alone is a little ambiguous, but Pope Francis also went to pray before the tomb of Pope St. Pius V, the man who lead the Counter-Reformation and rejuvinated the Church against the attacks of many external forces.

For those that are still a little confused, it seems the Pope is anticipating a massive tide of change for Christ’s Church in our time on Earth, one in which there will be a lot of prayer, fasting, pain, and persecution. These are the consequences of being unfaithful to God, and while the Westboro Baptist Church and similar evangelicals may proclaim hellfire only on the heathens, the truth is that the hellfire first rains down on the Bride of Christ before it ever touches unbelievers.

And so, we pray to Mary, not only to protect the innocent who may suffer in the time to come, but for ourselves, that we turn to God, through Christ, and make ourselves unfailing temples of the Holy Spirit. That is, after all, what we were born to do.

I hope to do more posts concentrating on the theology of devotion to Mary, commonly known as Mariology, in further posts.