Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Personalist” Approach to Mary and her Heart: A Guide for Us in Prayer
Over the years, in a number of homilies, Bl. John Paul II offered profound insights on the meaning of the words of St. Luke, that Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19; cf. Lk 2:51). The Pope’s insights were derived in part from his “personalist” approach to the meaning of Our Lady’s Heart, understood as the symbol of her interior life, and also from the Greek words used in the text. The Greek word synterei, which we translate as “kept,” is derived from the verb terein, which means “to keep” and expresses the notion of keeping in one’s memory. The added prefix syn indicates a union, a synthesis or a comparison of the things that are kept in the memory. The Greek word symballousa which is translated as “reflecting” (or “pondering” in some translations) expresses a conclusion drawn from putting together or comparing diverse aspects of an event, a problem or a situation, and may best be translated as “interpreting.”
How appropriate that St. Luke should choose these words to describe the interior activity in the Heart of Our Lady in regard to all the prophecies about the Messiah which she had read in the Old Testament Scriptures, along with all the things that she herself saw and experienced in regard to the saving mystery of her Son, Jesus Christ. She put them together, compared them, in order to interpret their meaning; and she stored them in her memory—precisely what a loving mother would do!
Now, let us look at the teaching of Pope John Paul II. In a homily on January 1, 1987, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, he says of the Virgin Mother: “You are the Church’s memory! The Church learns from you, O Mary, that to be a mother means to be a living Memory, means to ‘treasure and reflect in the heart’ on all of the events of men and peoples—the joyous events as well as the sad ones.”1 Three years later, in a homily on January 1, 1990, again referring to Luke 2:19, he says that the Church “constantly keeps her eyes fixed upon the Mystery of the Incarnation. She wants to see it with Mary’s eyes, share in her memory.”2 With these words the Holy Father offers Mary’s memory—those things she witnessed, pondered over, interpreted and kept in her Heart—a rich font from which the entire Church should draw in order to come to a deeper understanding of the great mystery of the Person of Jesus Christ and all the events of His life on earth.
Each of us can come to a more profound knowledge of Our Lord by meditating upon His Incarnation and Birth, His teaching and preaching, His suffering, death and Resurrection, with and through the eyes of Mary’s Heart, by asking our loving Mother to teach us about Jesus, to impart to us her memory, her interpretation and understanding of these saving events with which she was so intimately associated, which she meditated upon and ruminated over, and which even now, in Heaven, she forever keeps and ponders in her Immaculate Heart. This approach offers an efficacious means, moreover, to pray the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Before beginning to pray the Rosary, or even before each mystery, we should invite Our Lady to pray with us and beseech her to share with us her treasured memories of the mysteries of her Son and of His salvific work—all those things which she reflected upon and continues to keep in her Heart.
At the prayer vigil at the Shrine of Jasna Gora on the eve of World Youth Day, August 14, 1991, the Holy Father offered a reflection on three parts of a traditional prayer, “Appeal of Jasna Gora,” the last two parts of which deal with themes of “remembering” and “watchfulness.” On these themes the Pope looked to Mary’s Heart; and, in his words, we see how his personalist approach, which focuses on the subjectivity of the person, shines forth. He says that man “remains near God through the act of remembering” the truths revealed in Scripture, “meditating on them in his heart like Mary of Nazareth.” He goes on to describe Mary and her Heart as the “living text” of the mystery of Christ, saying that before the Evangelists recorded the truth as revealed by Jesus, “that truth was already inscribed and held in the Heart of His Mother (cf. Lk 2:51); she herself had become a ‘living text’ of the divine mystery.”3 Then he links Mary’s memory with the Church’s memory, and exhorts us to look to Mary and her Heart as a model to interiorize the Gospel message:
We have come here, dear friends, to participate in a Marian remembrance of the great works of God, to participate in the Church’s memory, which lives in a devoted listening to the inspired Scriptures. Let us approach Sacred Scripture… in a way that she may be the source of our interior lives.4
In reading, meditating on and praying over the Scriptures, especially the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life, we can call upon our Blessed Mother—who is herself both a source and a “living text” of these accounts—to pray with us, to assist us, to impart to us her knowledge and understanding of the saving mysteries concerning her Son which she keeps in her Heart.
Between September 6, 1995 and November 12, 1997, Pope John Paul delivered a comprehensive series of seventy addresses on Mary at his Wednesday General Audiences. In his address of November 20, 1996, he again commented on Luke 2:19 from a “personalist” perspective, saying that Mary,
because of her faith, kept alive the memory of the events involving her Son, and deepened her understanding of them by reflecting on them in her heart, that is, in the inmost core of her person. In this way she suggests that another mother, the Church, should foster the gift and task of contemplation and theological reflection, in order better to accept the mystery of salvation, to understand it more thoroughly and to proclaim it with renewed effort to the people of every age.5
These words of Pope John Paul can provide inspiration and guidance to those who study and teach within the Church. Theologians, in their research and writing, should invite the Virgin Mary, the spouse of the Holy Spirit, to lead and guide them in their attempts to better understand and expound the mystery of her Son and the truths of our Faith in their respective disciplines (Scripture, dogma, etc.). Likewise, catechists and other teachers of the Faith, in preparing their lessons and before teaching their classes, should call upon the Blessed Virgin to assist them; they should strive to imitate Our Lady, whom medieval authors call “the Evangelist of the Evangelists”6 and the “Teacher of the teachers.”7
All of us, inspired by the words of our late Holy Father, should call upon Our Lady as we begin our daily meditation:
O Blessed Virgin Mary, you who took in all the saving events associated with the life of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, who pondered their deep meaning and have kept them in your Heart, I beg you, my dear Mother, to share these memories with me. Imprint them on my heart. Impart to me your understanding of these mysteries—you who conceived Jesus in your immaculate womb and saw His life unfold before your eyes—in order that I may come to know Jesus better, and love Him and serve Him as you did in your earthly life.8
1 L’Osservatore Romano, weekly English language edition (hereafter cited as ORE), (Jan.5, 1987), 5, no. 7.
2 ORE (Jan. 8, 1990), 1, nos. 1, 3.
3 ORE (Aug. 26, 1991), 1, B., no. 2. (The Holy Father’s talk was divided into three main parts, A, B and C, each numbered separately.)
4 Ibid., 1, B., no. 3.
5 ORE (Nov. 27, 1996), 11, no. 4.
6 William of Malmesbury (+ 1145), De quatuor virtutibus quae fuerunt in B. Maria: cap. III, De prudential . . . ; PL 159, 582B.
7 Rupert of Deutz (+ 1129), In Cantica Cant., Lib. 1; PL 168, 850A.
8 My own prayer.