Tomorrow is the 13th May, the day of the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin to the children of Fatima.
It migh tbe a coincidence that this be the day for the publication of Universae Ecclesiae, the new Ecclesia Dei document with the instructions about Summorum Pontificum. But I love to think that it isn’t.
The document would appear to be not good, but very good and if the legal part is followed by a robust enforcement (perhaps with the one or other exemplary punishment of some of the most reluctanct bishops, following a pattern that has started to take form in the last months), then this might be an important step forward toward a Church where everyone has reasonable access to a Tridentine Mass.
If I may allow myself the thought, I think it’s fair to say that on the day of John Paul II’s death – around only six years ago – no one would have imagined that things would have progressed so far, so fast. Again, we now need a healthy enforcement.
In all this there was, mind you, no schism. Schism is, I think, rather an excuse for inactivity than a real danger.
Those who have read me for some times know that whilst my attitude toward salvation is probably – in line with my Mediterranean upbringing – more relaxed than the apocalyptic concept of some, particularly Northern European, hard-liners, I still do not indulge in complacency as far as salvation is concerned.
I obviously do not subscribe to any of the childish heresies of Medjugorje (not recognised by the Church as worthy of belief), but I am not a fan of the devotion of the Divine Mercy (recognised as worthy of belief) either. I love to think that the faciloneria of so much post V-II thinking (= the departed was such a fun chap, therefore God certainly called him to Himself to enjoy the jokes and it is well-known that in Hell Stalin, Hitler and Pol-Pot need Satan if they want to play a hand of poker) has not polluted me.
Still, in order to avoid you thinking me too harsh or tinged with unforgiving puritanism I’d like to spend some words about something that might be of interest for some reader: what I personally see the proper understanding of the Rosary in the economy of salvation in the light of the Marian promises. In doing so, I will remain (as far as I know) within the path of the strictest traditional (that is: pre-VII) understanding of them.
It is well-known that the Blessed Virgin appeared to St Dominic and Blessed Alan de la Roche giving (or confirming) the famous fifteen promises to those who faithfully and devoutly pray the rosary. It is not my intent to examine in detail the circumstances of such revelations, as the fact that they have been traditionally considered perfectly in line with Catholic teaching is sufficient to me. What is important to note here is that the Blessed Virgin clearly wanted to point out to the great advantages that faithful, devout, daily (as we know beyond doubt from the Fatima apparition) recitation of the Rosary carry with them.
I will here examine only those among the promises which I consider most strictly linked to the only real aim we have in life: salvation. I invite the reader to – if they feel so inclined – give their alternative interpretation and explain why they would give a more restrictive (or more lenient) interpretation than the one I give.
a) Promise #5:
The soul which recommends itself to me by the recitation of the Rosary shall not perish.
This is very strong, and the presence of such a limited number of words in the phrase doesn’t leave much space for alternative interpretations: if you recommend yourself to the Blessed Virgin by your daily effort, you are going to make it. This clearly requires that the rosary is prayed well. This also requires a contrition and consciousness of one’s own sinfulness implicit in the perceived necessity of recommending one’s soul to the Blessed Virgin. Therefore, the promise doesn’t apply to people like:
1) those who pray a distracted, shallow, rushed Rosary, whose main aim is to “get done with it”.
2) those who are not faithful in their recitation (“oh well, I pray the rosary in principle every day, but in the last months I had (fill here excuse) to do and therefore it was perhaps three times a month” would, methinks, not qualify).
3) those who do not see that they are in need of any recommendation because they are so “inclusive”, “modern” and otherwise “tolerant” and “non violent”.
Still, promise #5 is a very powerful promise and I am very glad that it was given, and in such powerful terms.
b) Promise #6:
Whosoever shall recite the Rosary devoutly, applying himself to the consideration of its Sacred Mysteries shall never be conquered by misfortune. God will not chastise him in His justice, he shall not perish by an unprovided death; if he be just he shall remain in the grace of God, and become worthy of Eternal Life.
This I interpret in the sense that those who pray the Rosary well (you will notice the insistence on this point) will: 1) not be driven to despair and in the end to the ultimate blasphemy, suicide, by the difficulties and crosses of life, 2) nor will they, as the saying once went, be surprised by death by being caught by the Reaper in the state of mortal sin.
This obviously doesn’t mean that the one who prays the rosary will not sin mortally – as the “if” of the last sentence makes abundantly clear – . This merely means that the sincere intention to obtain a happy death will, in this case, be helped by the Blessed Virgin with such a powerful intercession, that she will obtain for the faithful who perseveres in devoutly praying the Rosary the grace of a happy death.
c) promise #7:
Whoever shall have a true devotion for the Rosary shall not die without the Sacraments of the Church.
This echoes what has been said before. “Sacraments” here doesn’t mean “Last Rites”, and therefore the meaning is not that, a contrario, if one is knocked by a bus and dies instantly he hasn’t been praying the rosary faithfully. Confession and communion are, I think, rather meant here.
d) Promise #8:
Those who are faithful to recite the Rosary […….] at the moment of death […] shall participate in the Merits of the Saints in Paradise.
Note once again: 1) the Rosary must be recited faithfully, and 2) the promise only applies to the moment of death.
e) Promise #15:
Devotion to my Rosary is a great sign of predestination.
This is a bit complicated.
“Predestination” means, for a Catholic, that whilst every human being is perfectly free to make his own choices, God already knows what choices each and everyone of us will make. This, mind, does not limit our freedom more than the freedom of the football players is limited just because I happen to know, after the fact, how their match ended.
Therefore, God already knows whether each one of us is going to achieve salvation or not; but this doesn’t make us any less free in every decision we make. This promise is therefore there to give the faithful great comfort in the fact that his devotion makes it pretty likely (but not certain!) that he will, in fact, persevere in his faith, obtain a happy death and be among those whose salvation had been foreseen by God from all eternity.
These are the promises. Let us now try to put them into a practical, everyday context.
1) A person prays the rosary without devotion, just as a habit.
The promise of Mary doesn’t apply to him, because the point of praying devotedly, faithfully etc. is stressed on several occasions. Let’s not try to cheat here, as we’ll not get away with it.
2) A person prays the rosary every day, but is manifestly evil or a great sinner.
This is not in contradiction with the promises as they do not refer to saintliness in life, but to salvation at the end of it. Whilst the Rosary will be a great help (if recited properly) to one’s spiritual improvement, the recitation of the rosary is no automatic means to saintly behaviour in life.
Such a person will, therefore: a) stop praying the rosary, or b) stop praying it devoutly, thus losing the protection afforded by the heavenly promises, or c) insist in his devout recitation and in the end – and I am sorry here for you, puritan supporter of the fire and brimstone faction 😉 – still manage to get a happy death by the special intercession of Mary.
Notice here that the Blessed virgin doesn’t even promise that those who devoutly pray the rosary will refrain from evil doings. The rosary works slowly, imperceptibly as Pius XII says in his encyclical letter on the matter. It doesn’t create an immediate either/or situation; on the contrary, the either/or only applies at death.
Please also notice that this doesn’t mean that a person can plan on praying the rosary, so to speak, as one pays an insurance premium and think that he can, after paying his dues, willfully go on living an evil life with the certainty of final salvation. It is obvious that such an evil intention is not compatible with the devout and faithful recitation of the rosary.
3) A person prays the rosary every day as devoutly as he can, but he is assailed by recurring doubts as the whether he will be saved, and the fact that God already knows whether he will be saved or not is, to him, not in the least reassuring.
This person can greatly benefit by the recitation of the rosary because he will know that he can have a tangible sign of his working toward his salvation one day at a time. In other words, he knows a) that as long as he perseveres there is no cause for scruples, and b) that he only has to persevere to avoid the scruples assailing him. If you suffer from scrupulosity, I doubt that there is a better cure around than your daily medicine, the Rosary.
In my eyes, this is pretty much the interpretation of the effect of praying the rosary that would have been given to a quisque de populo in – as the Italians love to say – tempi non sospetti. It seems to me that it adheres strictly to the tenor of the promises without indulging in dangerous complacency, but without losing sight of the wonderful weapon that has been put in our hands.
I can’t stress enough (and will regularly insist on this point as long as I blog) how important the Rosary is in the life of the Catholic. So much so, that it seems to me that the faithful who willingly decides not to take the habit of the daily recitation of the rosary is like the stuntman offered helmet and body protection and refusing them on the ground that he believes himself to be professional enough to escape harm.
It is very well-known that Pope Pius XII, Pastor Angelicus, was a great supporter of the Fatima apparitions; so much so, that one of the names with which he is remembered is the Pope of Fatima.
An important issue of the Fatima apparitions is the great importance put by Our Blessed Virgin on the daily recitation of the Rosary. It is therefore no surprise that this great Pope would at some point address the importance of the rosary in an encyclical letter.
It is particularly indicative that this happened in 1951, in the middle of the Cold War. The Holy Father chose the day of the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, the 15th September, to address the entire Catholic world with Ingruentium Malorum.
Let us see some of the – in my eyes – most relevant and instructive passages of this work.
We well know the Rosary’s powerful efficacy to obtain the maternal aid of the Virgin. By no means is there only one way to pray to obtain this aid. However, We consider the Holy Rosary the most convenient and most fruitful means, as is clearly suggested by the very origin of this practice, heavenly rather than human, and by its nature.
The most convenient and the most fruitful means. This is an important reminder both of the power of the Rosary (that Padre Pio didn’t hesitate in calling “weapon”) and his “convenience”. What this holy Pope means by this is explained a bit later, when he says that through the Rosary
[….all, even the most simple and least educated, have in this a prompt and easy way to nourish and preserve their own faith.]
The Rosary is so beautifully simple, that everyone can profit from it, no matter how simple or uneducated. This simplicity is one of his greatest beauties, because it makes it so accessible.
The simple structure of the Rosary is also extolled by the Pastor Angelicus from a different angle, namely that:
The recitation of identical formulas repeated so many times, rather than rendering the prayer sterile and boring, has on the contrary the admirable quality of infusing confidence in him who prays and brings to bear a gentle compulsion on the motherly Heart of Mary.
This is not a new form of prayer (think of the endless affirmations and repetition of sacred words used in the Eastern religions), but it is a point that is still not less valid and also followed by the most elementary common sense and by the wisdom of the ages: repetita iuvant.
How does it work, concretely? The Holy Father writes beautifully about this that:
from the frequent meditation on the Mysteries, the soul little by little and imperceptibly draws and absorbs the virtues they contain, and is wondrously enkindled with a longing for things immortal, and becomes strongly and easily impelled to follow the path which Christ Himself and His Mother have followed.
Little by little, imperceptibly. One doesn’t have to expect miracles from the Rosary (or from any other form of prayer or devotion, by the way). Praying the Rosary is the work of a lifetime, not a specific event with a before and an after. It is like the habit of living a healthy life, not the injection which cures the disease. I would say that the The recitation of the Rosary is, in a sense, as much a way of living than it is a way of praying.
So much so, that Pope Pius XII stresses the importance of the recitation of the Rosary in the daily life of the family; he does so with extremely beautiful words:
What a sweet sight – most pleasing to God – when, at eventide, the Christian home resounds with the frequent repetition of praises in honor of the august Queen of Heaven! Then the Rosary, recited in common, assembles before the image of the Virgin, in an admirable union of hearts, the parents and their children, who come back from their daily work. It unites them piously with those absent and those dead. It links all more tightly in a sweet bond of love, with the most Holy Virgin, who, like a loving mother, in the circle of her children, will be there bestowing upon them an abundance of the gifts of concord and family peace.
In this fashion, the Rosary will help both the adults and the children:
This meditation on the Divine Mysteries of the Redemption will teach the adults to live, admiring daily the shining examples of Jesus and Mary, and to draw from these examples comfort in adversity, striving towards those heavenly treasures “where neither thief draws near, nor moth destroys” (Luke 12, 33). This meditation will bring to the knowledge of the little ones the main truths of the Christian Faith, making love for the Redeemer blossom almost spontaneously in their innocent hearts, while, seeing, their parents kneeling before the majesty of God, they will learn from their very early years how great before the throne of God is the value of prayers said in common.
Please note here a point rarely stressed this day, but extremely important in any age: as a child naturally sees in his parents the source of authority, seeing their parents kneeling before the majesty of God will readily impress itself in the child’s receptive mind.
Pope Pius XII spoke to Catholicism during the cold war, with the Communist monster reigning over half of Europe, and threatening the other half. This is what Pope Pius had to say about the way to destroy the evil menace:
We do not hesitate to affirm again publicly that We put great confidence in the Holy Rosary for the healing of evils which afflict our times. Not with force, not with arms, not with human power, but with Divine help obtained through the means of this prayer, strong like David with his sling, the Church undaunted shall be able to confront the infernal enemy, repeating to him the words of the young shepherd: “Thou comest to me with a sword, and a spear, and with a shield; but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of armies . . . and all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear, for this is his battle, and he will deliver you into our hands” (I Kings 17, 45-47)
“Not with force, not with arms, not with human power” was Communism defeated, but with the determination of staunchly Christian people (Ronald Reagan very probably the most important single person); the prayer of millions of Christians and, of course, countless shoots from that most powerful weapon, the Rosary.
This great Pope had the misfortune to become Pope in the most grievous of times, and to have to absolve his role in possibly the most dangerous situation a Pope personally – and Catholicism collectively – were ever called to confront.
It will be a comfort to you to know that the Rosary was always in his mind and in his prayers.
Some time ago I read a book from the great theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, called Life Everlasting.
I have found on the Internet the following excerpt from this book and I remember being as struck now as when I first read it directly from the book.
I copy the passage here in its entirety.
Deathbed conversion, however difficult, is still possible. Even when we see no sign of contrition, we can still not affirm that, at the last moment, just before the separation of soul from body, the soul is definitively obstinate. A sinner may be converted at that last-minute in such fashion that God alone can know it. The holy Cure of Ars, Divinely enlightened, said to a weeping widow: “Your prayer, Madame, has been heard. Your husband is saved. When he threw himself into the Rhone, the Blessed Virgin obtained for him the grace of conversion just before he died. Recall how, a month before, in your garden, he plucked the most beautiful rose and said to you, ‘Carry this to the altar of the Blessed Virgin.’ She has not forgotten.”
Other souls, too, have been converted in extremis, souls that could barely recall a few religious acts in the course of their life. A sailor, for example, preserved the practice of uncovering his head when he passed before a church. He did not know even the Our Father or the Hail Mary, but the lifting of his hat kept him from departing definitively from God.
In the life of the saintly Bishop Bertau of Tulle, friend of Louis Veuillot, a poor girl in that city, who had once been chanter in the cathedral, fell first into misery, then into misconduct, and finally became a public sinner. She was assassinated at night, in one of the streets of Tulle. Police found her dying and carried her to a hospital. While she was dying, she cried out: “Jesus, Jesus.” Could she be granted Church burial? The Bishop answered: “Yes, because she died pronouncing the name of Jesus. But bury her early in the morning without incense.” In the room of this poor woman was found a portrait of the holy Bishop, on the back of which was written: “The best of Fathers.” Fallen though she was, she still recognized the holiness of her bishop and preserved in her heart the memory of the goodness of Our Lord.
A certain licentious writer, Armand Sylvestre, promised his mother when she was dying to say a Hail Mary every day. He kept his promise. Out of the swamp in which he lived, he daily lifted up to God this one little flower. Pneumonia brought him to the hospital, served by religious, who said to him: “Do you wish a priest?” “Certainly,” he answered. And he received absolution, probably with sufficient attrition [imperfect contrition], through a special grace obtained for him by the Blessed Mother, though we can hardly doubt he underwent a long and heavy Purgatory.
Another French writer, Adolphe Rette, shortly after his conversion, which was sincere and profound, was struck by a sentence he read in the visitors’ book of the Carmelite Convent: “Pray for those who will die during the Mass at which you are going to assist.” He did so. Some days later he fell grievously ill, and was confined to bed in the hospital at Beaune, for many years, up to his death. Each morning he offered all his sufferings for those who would die during the day. Thus he obtained many deathbed conversions. We shall see in Heaven how many conversions there are in the world, owing to such prayers.
In the life of St. Catherine of Siena we read of the conversion of two great criminals. The Saint had gone to visit one of her friends. As they heard, in the street below, a loud noise, her friend looked through the window. Two condemned men were being led to execution. Their jailers were tormenting them with nails heated red-hot, while the condemned men blasphemed and cried. St. Catherine, inside the house, fell to prayer, with her arms extended in the form of a cross. At once the wicked men ceased to blaspheme and asked for a confessor. People in the street could not understand this sudden change. They did not know that a nearby Saint had obtained this double conversion.
Several years ago the chaplain in a prison in Nancy had the reputation of converting all criminals whom he had accompanied to the guillotine. On one occasion he found himself alone, shut up with an assassin who refused to go to Confession before death. The cart, with the condemned man, passed before the sanctuary of Our Lady of Refuge. The old chaplain prayed: “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who had recourse to thy intercession was abandoned. Convert this criminal of mine: otherwise I will say that it has been heard that you have not heard.” At once the criminal was converted.
Return to God is always possible, up to the time of death, but it becomes more and more difficult as hard-heartedness grows. Let us not put off our conversion. Let us say every day a Hail Mary for the grace of a happy death.
This beautiful passage is, I think, instructive in many ways.
1) Please note how fast the conversion process can be. The episode mentioned by the Cure d’Ars recalls another one in the life of Padre Pio, with the great saint assuring a mother that her son has repented and asked the Blessed Virgin for forgiveness after throwing himself from a bridge.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that such a conversion should be assumed, as it is the scandalous praxis of too many priests nowadays. To do so means to play down the extreme gravity of suicide, and to indirectly cause further ones.
2) Please also note Father Garrigou-Lagranges insistence on these being extreme cases, with the sailor who didn’t even know the Hail mary of Our Father being, in my eyes, the most striking. Powerful, consoling stuff.
3) Particularly notable, please note how strongly the prayer of third parties can, with Mary’s assistance, move the sinner to repentance. The cases of St. Catharine of Siena and of the Nancy chaplain are in my eyes – and someone please correct me if I am wrong – to be interpreted not in the sense that conversion will impose itself on the sinner against his will, but that the prompting to conversion can, through heavenly intervention, become strong enough to reach, together with the collaboration of the sinner, the desired result.
I liked the chuzpah of the chaplain, though….
4) You see here a typical example of what I am tempted to call “South European Catholicism”, to distinguish it from the rigid, protestantised attitude tinged with Puritanism I happen to see in the northern part of the Continent. Once again, we see an approach that whilst doesn’t play down the gravity of the sin, points out to the relative ease with which the direst consequences can be avoided and allows the faithful to live his faith with confidence – the typical attitude in Catholic countries – rather than with fear. I can’t avoid thinking that this confidence is the single most important reason why traditional Catholic countries have – collectively speaking – that striking joy of life that I, alas, never noticed in the north.
5) These examples taken together point out to the absolutely vital necessity of daily prayer. Prayer is what gives us the best cards in our hope to be given final perseverance, and the same Blessed Virgin who helped the sinning sailor just for uncovering his head will very probably take care in her mercy of those who pray to her daily and daily ask her to pray for them in the hour of their death.
As a corollary to this, the great importance of the practice of praying the Rosary and the extremely powerful promises attached to it can never be stressed strongly enough.
I do hope that this little gem of Father Garrigou-Lagrange’s wisdom will help the one or other among the readers; particularly if – as I suppose must happen not infrequently in those parts of Europe, still polluted by Puritan influences – they tend to labour under scrupulosity.