By Corinne Winter
As we approach the month of May, the thoughts of many Catholics turn to Mary. If Catholics could gather, there would likely be living rosaries and processions to place flowers before Mary or to crown her with a handmade wreath. When I was young (back in ancient history), during the last days of April, Dad would clear the top of the organ and set out a statue of Mary. We children would vie with each other to pick the largest or most beautiful bouquets of wildflowers to add to the “May altar.” There, the family would gather at least several times a week to pray the rosary. Admittedly, we had a romanticized view of Mary. She was delicately beautiful, quiet, gentle and able to obtain great favors from her Son. But our prayers were heartfelt. We asked her intercession for what we desired most deeply: health and safety for ourselves and those we loved, a peaceful world, and solutions to the problems that vexed us.
During my college and graduate studies, I was blessed to meet people who added to my appreciation for the rosary and other prayers. I developed a deeper appreciation for the Catholic Spiritual Tradition. I explored the teaching on the communion of saints and understood intercession as praying with us rather than as praying in our place. I also experienced that in times of shock or tragedy, when our own words often fail us, the traditional prayers give us a way to turn to God. The familiar words and rhythms helped calm and focus our hearts and minds.
The teaching of Vatican II reminds us not to treat the saints or devotions as forms of magic or bribery. If what we asked is not granted immediately or in the form we desired, it does not mean God is ignoring our prayer. It also does not mean that our prayer is not good enough or that not enough people are praying. We need to let go of overly specific expectations and open ourselves to God’s grace in whatever form it comes. The road to the resurrection is the road to Calvary. Healing of a loved one may happen in the next life. The grace we receive may be the strength to integrate a painful experience and grow through it.
In this time of unusual crisis, we can’t fill the churches to pray together as we have in other times. The prayers of our tradition can be another way of connecting across time and space. Besides watching Mass online, my husband and I find ourselves praying the rosary together each day. It calls us to reflect on the life and work of Christ and the message of salvation. It connects us with those who have gone before us who have turned to the rosary as a favorite form of prayer. It also joins us with those throughout the world with and for whom we pray.
Mary and other saints can also provide inspiration as we reflect on what we know of their lives. Many saints became known for holiness through outstanding generosity and care for those in need. As we ask their intercession, we may think of ways to reach out in love.
As Scripture scholars and historians point out how little we can know about Mary’s experience and personality, theologians have reflected on Mary as a sign of our vocation rather than as a model on whom we can pattern our lives. They point to her cooperation in God’s saving work, to the gift of grace we believe God gave her, to her bringing forth Christ to the world, and to her attention to God’s Word. Like Mary, we are called to be instruments through whom God brings others to Christ. As we ask Mary to pray with us, we may recognize ways in which we can cooperate more fully with the love of God.
While dogmas such as the Communion of Saints and the appropriateness of calling Mary Mother of God are central to our faith, no particular form of devotion is strictly required of Catholics. However, in this time of crisis, some of our traditional prayers may prove beneficial, providing us with inspiration and helping to sustain us in hope.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)