For multiple and varied reasons the month of May has come to be associated with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In the United States it is the month in which Mother’s Day, First Communions, many ordinations and weddings are celebrated. It is also associated in the Northern hemisphere with “Mother Earth” springing back to life.
For equally multiple and varied reasons, Mary (often called by Catholics the “Blessed Mother”) has generally been associated with God’s mercy. As has been customary in papal documents of varying kinds since the time of St. John Paul II, Mary is generally mentioned and/or invoked at some point (usually by way of concluding remarks). Pope Francis considers the mercy of Mary along with other “saints and blessed ones” (specifically St. Faustina Kowalska…more on her in a later meditation) in Misericordiæ Vultus #24. There is only one more section – #25; hence, we are at the end of the document here. Francis writes:
My thoughts now turn to the Mother of Mercy. May the sweetness of her countenance watch over us in this Holy Year, so that all of us may rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness. No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh. The Mother of the Crucified and Risen One has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of His love.
This is high veneration indeed. Before the month of May passes by it might prove useful to reflect on the relationship between Mary and mercy. In this first of three brief meditations we will consider Mary under the title of “Mother of Mercy.” Here we are simply taking our cue from Pope Francis. Two subsequent meditations will follow, each also taking its cue from Francis’ consideration of Mary in MV #24. In next week’s meditation we will focus on the Magnificat as Mary’s “hymn of praise, sung at the threshold of the home of Elizabeth” and “dedicated to the mercy of God that extends from ‘generation to generation’” (Francis second paragraph in #24). This hymn of praise, of course, is prayed daily in the Liturgy of Hours. In the third meditation we will then consider Mary at the foot of the cross (Francis’ third paragraph in #24).
Returning to the first paragraph above, Francis considers Mary under the title of “Mother of Mercy.” Here he returns, though in a veiled way, to the theme of the face of mercy, by referring to the “sweetness of her countenance” which reflects “the joy of God’s tenderness.” (The theme of “joy” is one that has marked his papacy as well as certain other documents – “The Joy of the Gospel” and most recently “The Joy of Love”). Francis explicitly mentions the Salve Regina and Mary “turning her merciful eyes towards us.” He speaks of the incarnation as “mercy made flesh.” Francis refers to Mary as the “Mother of the Crucified and Risen One.” We might want to take note of his rather full Christology in which he speaks of the incarnate, crucified, and risen One. Mercy lies at the heart of Jesus’ life and mission.
Of some significance is Francis’ remark that Mary “has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of His love.” We shall return to this thought in the third meditation but for now we need to note (to borrow an old expression) “the elephant in the room.” The title and image of Mary as “Mother of Mercy” gained popularity especially during the Medieval Era, unfortunately in part by diminishing the mercy of Christ. As some theologians have put it, Mary became the zone of God’s mercy even as Jesus became the zone of God’s justice (and it could be quite a harsh justice too). This gave rise to quite a number of marian legends regarding notorious criminals and sinners fleeing to Mary for her intercessory mercy. The mother had access to the son and could gain favors. No doubt the dynamics of royal court life drove this imagery to a degree. To put the matter bluntly, perhaps the kindest remark one might offer is to suggest that given the context, this zoning served a useful purpose: it allowed for God’s mercy to be manifest. (By way of an aside, we might also want to note that not every medieval Catholic zoned mercy and justice in this way, St. Francis of Assisi being a case in point).
Interestingly enough, rather than “legends” the modern era experienced the advent of marian apparitions, the first of these notably being the one that we now associate with Our Lady of Guadalupe. Of course, the Vincentian tradition of devotion to Mary under the title of “Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal” finds its origins in these phenomena. Suffice it here to note that these phenomena also manifest mercy in that they are often experienced by those who dwell beyond the usual borders of power – women, children, and the poor and marginal. Of course, there are also exceptions here as well especially where the phenomenon is at times associated with punitive and apocalyptic overtones in which one sees not the “sweetness of her countenance” but rather a kind of angry glare. Such apparitions generally do not win church approbation partly because they are out of sync. (By way of a side-remark, when the Church gives approbation to such an apparition it says precious little about the “historicity” of the event. It simply confirms that the phenomenon is authentic, not demonic, possesses a charismatic origin, and that devotion, rightly undertaken, will lead one towards God.)
Today, of course, we tend to shy away from the medieval type of “zoning” of mercy and justice while pilgrimages to marian shrines are at an all-time high.
The pope seems to indicate that Mary is merciful with Christ, and not apart from Christ. (Without attempting to romanticize, psychologize, or play family therapist it might be possible to suggest that the child Jesus himself grew in mercy as he saw it modeled in Mary. Perhaps it might be useful to understand the mercy of Jesus and Mary as mutually influencing one another. Furthermore, recall that Mary and Jesus were Jewish and mercy is very much a hallmark of the Jewish understanding of God.)
To return to the title and image of Mary as mater misericordiæ, Mother of Mercy, the etymological roots of the Latin word misericordiæ are wonderfully rich and ambiguous. Though we often simply translate the word as “mercy,” upon reflection we see that the roots of the word are misereri and cor/cordis. Here we are yoking the ideas of “pity” (perhaps better translated into English as “compassion”) and “heart.” The yoking of the two ideas possesses a rich texture involving a heart of compassion, a heart for those in need of compassion (the “wretched”), the heart/s of the poor/wretched, one’s own heart in need of compassion, and so forth. The obvious point is that mercy is thick with multiple meanings (as we have been trying to note throughout these meditations). Mary is Mother of Mercy because Jesus is the face of God’s mercy. To return to an earlier citation from MV, Mary “turns her merciful eyes towards us, and makes us worthy to contemplate the face of mercy, her Son Jesus.”