As a seminary rector on both college and theologate levels, I have struggled for some time as how best to inculcate in today’s seminarian a good and balanced devotion to Mary.

Some seminarians have a spontaneous and facile devotion to Mary: e.g., Hispanic and Vietnamese students. At times, this prayer is overly dramatic and exaggerated. It is, however, authentic and culturally rooted as well as real and heartfelt.

Other seminarians have no real "feel" (the Ignatian sentir) for Mary. Many of them have been raised in certain Church experiences that did not give attention to Marian devotion and piety. Prayers to Mary for this group often ring of anachronism or misplaced piety.

Treasured moments... I personally treasured those moments in the seminary when time was set aside in the community day for the praying, of the Rosary. I liked the moments of silence before lunch when we stopped to pray the Angelus (even if only to ask Mary for a decent meal!). I also have fond memories of October and May devotions.

How does one translate these good Marian experiences into today’s seminary, which is so culturally and theologically pluralistic? This question brought me back to the sources of my own spirituality in the French and Sulpician tradition. What I found was very helpful.

In the 17th century, the founder of the Society of St. Sulpice in Paris, Father Jean Jacques Olier, a disciple of St. Vincent de Paul, and Father de Condren, wrote a letter to a recently ordained priest asserting:

"The state of the priesthood ... obliges you to have a quite particular love for this divine princess [Mary]. And it seems to me that all priests and all clerics have very demanding reasons for giving themselves to this devotion." Father Olier, himself profoundly emersed in the French school of spirituality, presented four compelling reasons to substantiate his claim to the recently ordained priest.

The first is the love which Christ bore for Mary. The love of Jesus cannot be present in a person as dry and use-less; rather, it vivifies and animates a person’s heart with sentiments of love. We must honor Mary, then, because of the special love Our Lord bore for her - a most pressing and strong love, which animated her whole life.

The second reason to honor Mary is the excessive love which she bore for Jesus. Her whole being and life were movements only for Him as she breathed, saw, spoke and worked interiorly and exteriorly only for her son.

Father Olier emphasizes that the priest must be overcome with this same power to bind himself to this interior devotion of Mary, to be well united to her, in order to feel, as she did, fully supported by her son, Jesus.

‘Lure’ of God

The third reason to honor Mary is the attraction which she has in herself, a powerful capacity to draw souls to Jesus. This is why many of the Fathers of the Church called her the "lure" and "bait" of God. Olier emphasized that God wishes to attract souls to His Son and uses the sweetness and the fragrance of Mary as a "hook" at the end of a line, in order to attract us by this sweetness. This attraction to Mary should engender in the life of a priest a desire to subsequently attract others to Jesus.

The fourth reason to esteem Mary is the quality of her Motherhood, for as mother she sustains the fruitfulness to awaken in us a vibrant attraction to the Lord. A priest’s responsibility obliges him to form Jesus in others. Thus must he live continuously in Mary, in order to become a full participant in the power of God who makes Mary fruitful.

Extraordinary Insights

Olier concludes his letter by writing: "Continue to serve her as you have done up to the present, and, no matter what the world says about it, do not interrupt your little exercises and your customary devotions; for Our Lord, who is pleased with the love of His Mother and in the services which we render to her, in time will justify your conduct."

These insights of Olier are quite extraordinary in light of the teaching of Vatican II’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis). This document urges priests to foster union with Christ in all the circumstances of their lives and specifically counsels: "They can always find a wondrous model of such docility in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Led by the Holy Spirit, she devoted herself entirely to the mystery of our redemption. With the devotion and veneration of sons, priests should lovingly honor this-mother of the supreme and eternal Priest, this Queen of the Apostles and protectress of their ministry" (no. 18).

This same point finds an echo in the Decree on Priestly Formation (Optatam Totius): "With the trust of a son, they [seminarians] should love and honor the most Blessed Virgin Mary, who was given as a mother to His disciple by Christ Jesus as He hung dying on the cross (no. 8).

In 1974, Pope Paul VI spoke in Marialis Cultus of Mary as "exemplar of worship in the Church" (Part I, see II) and this point has been more fully elaborated by Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Mater (1987). Here the Pope speaks of Mary... "who first believed by accepting the Word of God revealed to her at the annunciation and by remaining faithful to that Word in all her trials even unto the cross. So, too, the Church becomes a mother when, accepting with fidelity the Word of God, ‘by her preaching and by baptism she brings forth to a new and immortal life children who are conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God" (no. 43).

Further explanation...The Pope further explains that the Church likewise learns from Mary’s motherhood, i.e., the Church ". . recognizes the maternal dimension of her vocation ... in ‘contemplating Mary’s mysterious sanctity, imitating her charity and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will.’ If the Church is the sign and instrument of intimate union with God, she is so by reason of her motherhood because, receiving from the spirit, she ‘generates’ sons and daughters of the human race to a new life in Christ. For, just as Mary is at the service of the mystery of the incarnation, so the Church is always at the service of the mystery of adoption to Sonship through grace" (no. 43).

Consequently, the Pope concludes that ". . . the Church also preserves the faith received from Christ. Following the example of Mary, who kept and pondered in her heart everything relating to her divine son . . . the Church is committed to preserving the Word of God and investigating its riches with discernment and prudence, in order to bear faithful witness to it before all mankind in every age" (no. 43).

Church documents thus present Mary in the mystery of the Church as a model for the Church herself and certainly for its ministers. Father Olier’s four points are thus still quite relevant and helpful in assisting all of us to properly situate the place of Mary in our own lives and in the life of the Church.

I find Olier’s points a wonderfully good compass that helps chart the sometimes difficult waters of giving Marian devotion and piety its proper and important place in our lives.

Father Gerald D. Coleman, S.S. latest book is Homosexuality—Catholic Teaching & Pastoral Practice (Paulist Press, 1995). He is President/Rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park, California.

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