One week before the beginning of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to the shrine of our Lady, her Holy House in Loreto, Italy. He did this to entrust the Year of Faith to her intercession. This physical gesture of pilgrimage and prayer (he even lit a candle!) incarnated his words at the end of his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the indiction of the Year of Faith, “Let us entrust this time of grace to the Mother of God, proclaimed ‘blessed because she believed’ (Lk 1:45).” But, stepping back, we might ask, “Why Mary? Why Loreto?” Before answering those questions, first we should ask, “What is the goal of the Year of Faith?”
Pope Benedict writes in Porta Fidei, “The Year of Faith…is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world.” A “renewed conversion to the Lord” means turning away from lies and turning towards the Truth. The lies entice us to reduce ourselves, our future, our hope to something much less than God has made us to be. So, if I might paraphrase, during this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict wants us to rediscover who God is and, in light of that, to rediscover the greatness of who we are made to be, the greatness of our destiny, and then, in faith, to take a step in that direction.
With this in mind, we can understand the importance of Mary for the Year of Faith. In her, we come to a clearer vision of God, a clearer vision of God’s love for us, and a discovery of the true greatness of our human nature, a discovery of what we are called to, a discovery of our destiny. Furthermore, we can learn from Mary how to take a step away from the reduced vision of the human person offered to us by the world and a step towards embracing the greatness of the human person revealed by God in Jesus Christ.
Let us see how Pope Benedict explains this in his homily from Mass celebrated a week before the Year of Faith at the Holy House in Loreto. Please allow me to quote at length before reflecting on the Holy Father’s words:
Mary offered her very body; she placed her entire being at the disposal of God’s will, becoming the “place” of his presence, a “place” of dwelling for the Son of God. We are reminded here of the words of the Psalm with which, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ began his earthly life, saying to the Father, “Sacrifices and offering you have not desired, but you have prepared a body for me… Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (10:5,7). To the Angel who reveals God’s plan for her, Mary replies in similar words: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). The will of Mary coincides with the will of the Son in the Father’s unique project of love and, in her, heaven and earth are united, God the Creator is united to his creature. God becomes man, and Mary becomes a “living house” for the Lord, a temple where the Most High dwells. Pope Benedict XVI, Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012
Pope Benedict explains to us that Mary’s very body became the meeting place of heaven and earth, the place where the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, a “living house” for the Lord. What we discover in Mary, then, is the great dignity of the human being. No other creature, not even the angels, can be a dwelling place of God—only human beings, only the human body can be a living house for the Lord. We can have heaven within us.
What a different vision of the human person this is in comparison to what the world offers. We are not just a cog in the wheel of production. We are not merely consumers, who can be manipulated by advertising and enslaved by our appetites. We are not the servants of science on a path to world domination. We cannot be reduced to the sum of our failures, nor to the sum of our successes. Our life is not valuable only in so far as we have possessions, power, and pleasure in this world. Our life is valuable because we are made to be the living house of God. From the unborn child to the terminally ill, from the severely mentally challenged to the most brilliant genius, from the quadriplegic to the Olympic athlete, every human being is made, like our Lady, to be the meeting place of heaven and earth. That is what defines us.
Unfortunately, this destiny cannot be realized unless we are willing to be open to the Lord. God is willing—that is the source of our dignity—but are we willing? What is holding us back? The problem is that we are blinded by a lie, corrupted by a poison that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. We always knew that we were made for heaven, made to be filled with God, made to be like God, but, at the serpent’s urging, we go about it in the wrong way. Hearkening back to the passage of Adam’s sin in Genesis 3, Pope Benedict summarizes, “What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.” Homily from December 8, 2005
When we allow this poison to take hold in our hearts and we see God as a rival, then His commandments become a threat, a plot to steal our freedom, a plot to take away the fun in life. Suspicious of God, we carve out a part of our life and keep it away from Him. This attitude, in the modern day, leads to the cry to keep God out of the bedroom or to keep God out of politics. In whatever area of life that we try to keep God away from, it is because we do not trust Him to bless that part of our life, to fill it with heaven. We think that only when we are in control, when we are free to do whatever we want, that our life will be filled with heaven.
What we discover, however, is that when we keep God out by insisting on control, we also keep love out. Love does not exist in an environment of control, but in an environment of openness and trust. Pope Benedict says, “it is precisely God who liberates our liberty, he frees it from being closed in on itself, from the thirst for power, possessions, and domination; he opens it up to the dimension which completely fulfils it: the gift of self, of love, which in turn becomes service and sharing.” Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012 Being closed in on ourselves, being in control through power, possessions and domination is not heaven. To the contrary, it is a radical isolation, being locked up entirely in ourselves. It is hell! Only God draws us out of ourselves to become the gift of love we were made to be.
In this light we see the wisdom of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, “man… cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (#24) We are filled with heaven when we make a gift of ourselves. In this, and so many other teachings of the Second Vatican Council, we see that Blessed John XXIII’s prayer to the Virgin of Loreto was answered: “Here at Loreto fifty years ago, Blessed John XXIII issued an invitation to contemplate this mystery, to ‘reflect on that union of heaven and earth, which is the purpose of the Incarnation and Redemption,’ and he went on to affirm that the aim of the Council itself was to spread ever wider the beneficent impact of the Incarnation and Redemption on all spheres of life.” Pope Benedict XVI’s Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012
At the heart of the Year of Faith is this rediscovery of who we are, in light of the Incarnation and Redemption. Our bodies are made to be the meeting place of heaven and earth, living houses of God. Our task for the Year of Faith is first to believe this and then to let this truth reach into every corner of our lives until we experience a total conversion to the Lord. We look to Mary for this, as Pope Benedict said in Loreto, “As we contemplate Mary, we must ask if we too wish to be open to the Lord, if we wish to offer our life as his dwelling place; or if we are afraid that the presence of God may somehow place limits on our freedom, if we wish to set aside a part of our life in such a way that it belongs only to us.”
Concretely, in this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict is asking us to look back to those seminal teachings in Vatican II where we can learn who God is and who we are. He directs us also to the Catechism which is, as he says, one of the most important fruits of the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore, as a daily practice we are encouraged to take up the Creed as part of our daily prayer. We can remember that the interpretive key for all that teaching is the fundamental truth that God has made us to be His dwelling place and He wants to fill us with heaven.
In this article, we have allowed the mystery of the Annunciation to shine light on the Year of Faith. It would take another article to see how Mary guides us in the other dimension of the Year of Faith—in light of the mystery of the Visitation. Having been filled with God in the Annunciation, it is in the Visitation that Mary brought Jesus to her cousin Elizabeth, and by extension, to all who are in need. This follows the impulse of the New Evangelization, noted by Pope Benedict in Porta Fidei: “Caritas Christi urget nos.” (2 Cor 5:14) The Love of Christ impels us to share this gift of faith with others, to counteract the lie that self-sufficiency is heaven, and to open the heart of each person to be, like the womb of the Virgin Mary, filled with heaven.
To return to the question stated above, then, we can see now how important our Lady is. Heaven and earth come together in her and she teaches us how to be her little children, little Mary’s, such that heaven and earth can also come together in our bodies. With her faith in our hearts, heaven and earth come together in us. Let us conclude with Pope Benedict’s own prayer from the end of his homily in Loreto, “Mother of the ‘yes’, you who heard Jesus, speak to us of him; tell us of your journey, that we may follow him on the path of faith; help us to proclaim him, that each person may welcome him and become the dwelling place of God. Amen!”
(Published originally in the Theology of the Body Institute online newsletter October 25, 2012)