| MARY IN HISTORY 6
We Fly to Thy Patronage
The sixth stage of our journey to discover Mary’s incidence in history: Before the Ottoman danger and the effects of the Protestant Reform, the figure of Our Lady affirms itself as safety for the Christian people and hope for the future. Sanctuaries and pilgrimages flourishby Fidel González
During the 17th century, “the values of creative fantasy took on great importance” (S. De Fiores). The horizons of the Western world were thrown open with the discoveries and the colonization of the extra-European countries. The missionary action of the Church spread everywhere, often amidst tremendous difficulties and terrible persecutions, like in Japan and Vietnam. The theological debates were very hot; most of them centered on theological anthropology and the question of salvation. These themes are reflected widely in the art and literature of the time. In the field of theology, the Church replied to the criticism of the Protestants in a polemic and systematic way–which was one of the aspects of the so-called Counter Reformation. This broadening of interests and controversy touched all levels of life.
The flourishing of Marian devotion was situated in this cultural and ecclesial environment: the birth of many congregations centered on Mary, the multiplication of Marian shrines and related devotions at the popular level and the appearance of many treatises on Our Lady.
Around the Jesuits, Marian congregations were born, starting with the Belgian Jesuit, Leunis (1563); the members of this group consecrated themselves to Mary with particular intensity. It was a kind of “little way” of Christian life in which Mary became the sure guide to the fullness of Christ. In this sphere we find St Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort (1673-1716), founder of the Missionaries of the Company of Mary (Montfort Fathers) and of the Daughters of Wisdom. Educated by the Jesuits, he was a friend of other outstanding figures of French history, like Claude François Poullart des Places, founder of the Missionary Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost Fathers). He was to become an apostle of the de-Christianized areas of France. This saint incarnated the Catholic spirit of the popular mission and the spread of Marian devotion, in line with other great contemporary saints, like Vincent de Paul (1660) and John Eudes (1680). “Remember to love Jesus Christ ardently”, wrote de Montfort, in his Letter to the Inhabitants of Montbernage, to love him through Mary, making the devotion to the most holy Virgin, our good Mother, shine out before all, so that you may be everywhere the sweet perfume of Jesus Christ… thus you will not fail to fulfill and keep faithfully your baptismal promises.” Baptism occupied the center of his Christian experience and of his proposal. This is why he made people renew their baptismal promises often, even in writing, and promoted the consecration to Jesus Christ through the hands of Mary. This experience became the central point of his Treatise on True Devotion to the Virgin Mary (1711-1712), born of the relationship with some great saints who were his friends.
Already much earlier than de Montfort, other Catholic theologians had dedicated themselves to writing systematically about Our Lady. Amongst these shines out the great Jesuit, Francisco Suárez, who, at the end of the 14th century, wrote many works about her. He wrote that in order to know the Word according to human nature, one needs to know the Mother. Among others who distinguished themselves in the same way were St Robert Bellarmine and St Francis de Sales. The Sicilian Placido Nigido wrote systematically about Our Lady at the beginning of the 15th century, and gave rise to the theological science called Mariology. Vincent Contenson (1674) and Dionisio Petavio (1652) followed his lead, and rediscovered the Marian aspects of the ancient Patristic theology.
After the Council of Trent and during the Baroque period, many books about Mary were published, and the custom of crowning statues of Our Lady and of consecrating nations to her was begun. Many kingdoms, Spain for example, made vows to defend the Immaculate Conception up to death. The Spanish kings promoted the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception everywhere and urged the papal definition of the dogma (Pius IX would proclaim it in 1854).
In 1645, the King of Spain obtained from the Pope the bull In his per quae Beatissimae Virginis, which established the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, to be kept throughout all the dominions of the Spanish Empire. Moreover, in 1656, the king asked, and was granted, that the Immaculate Conception be proclaimed Patroness of all the Spanish Kingdoms.
Confraternities, shrines, pilgrimages
The Christian people wants to see, touch and feel the presence of the Mystery. This is why, during the Baroque period and later, minor celebrations of the mysteries of Christ, of Our Lady and of the saints were multiplied. Chapels were built everywhere; small wayside shrines were set up at crossroads, on the roads, in the streets. They were decorated with flowers and candles; people would stop briefly for a prayer or to hang an “ex-voto.”
“ Holy Mounts” were built, celebrating the Mysteries of Salvation, where Our Lady’s place is always in evidence, either dedicated to the Way of the Cross or to the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. One example is the Holy Mount of Varese, in northern Italy, transformed into a huge chaplet of the Rosary, with the fifteen mysteries of the life of Christ and Our Lady represented by groups of statues, each in its own chapel along the way. At the top of the Mount is the chapel dedicated to the last mystery, the Coronation of Our Lady, where an ancient image of Our Lady, said to be by St Luke, is venerated.
The Holy Mount of Varallo is another sanctuary, founded in 1493 by a Franciscan who brought a fresco representing Our Lady’s tomb and her assumption into heaven from the Holy Land. On the hill there are 900 statues and 45 chapels evoking the mysteries of the faith. In the same tradition, we find similar hillside shrines all over Italy and the rest of Europe with chapels or other signs in memory of the Mystery of Christ and Our Lady, such as that of St Luke at Bologna and that of Guardia at Genova, and many others.
Often whole families go on pilgrimage to these places to give thanks for graces received or to ask for one. The faithful try to meet Christ, led by the loving hands of Mary. She is represented with the child in her arms, or as the Mother of Sorrows in the Passion, holding her Son’s body in her arms. In this way, the image of the “Pieta” became popular. In the 17th century, these images became widespread, especially in Germany, where many shrines were dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows.
We also find, quite widespread, the image of Our Lady with a large mantle, a symbol of the Refuge of Sinners. Our Lady takes the name of Notre-Dame du-Bon Secours, or Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, or Help of Christians, depending on the country. In the same line we find Our Lady of Help, as at the Shrine of Passau, in Germany. Our Lady is represented with the child who appears to be seeking refuge in her arms. It would seem that the painting is by Luca Granach and was a gift of the Protestant Elector of Saxony to the Prince-Bishop Leopold of Hapsburg. It was placed in a chapel by the Cathedral dean and soon people were flocking to it. It was entrusted to the Capuchins in 1624 and they built a large shrine for it. It is said that in 1677 alone, 120,000 communions were distributed there. Pilgrims come to it from all over central Europe and copies of the image are found throughout the German world.
Against the Turkish peril
After the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was established in memory of the Christian victory over the Ottoman Empire at Lepanto in 1571, many Marian confraternities were established, especially ones linked to the Rosary. We must not forget that the “Turkish peril” was a real threat for the Christians of central and southern Europe up to the 18th century. In various moments of the fierce confrontation between Turks and Christians, we see the latter often having recourse to Mary with the prayer of the Holy Rosary. This happened during the Siege of Vienna (1683) and during the war of Hungarian liberation (1716). At the moment of this last grave threat, the Pope extended the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary to the whole Church. During the Siege of Vienna in 1683, the Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano (died 1699) played a fundamental role as papal legate in the liberation of the city and in the work of unifying the Christians. In this work of promoting unity between European peoples, divided by opposing political interests, he always quoted, as a method, Mary’s example and prayer to her as “Help of Christians.”
The victory at Vienna was attributed to Our Lady and, to witness to this, the Emperor sent the trophies of war to Passau, and renamed an entire quarter of the capital “Hilf” in honor of Mary. Even earlier than this, Our Lady had been called upon by Catholics in moments of tragedy, as in 1620 under threat from the Protestant King of Bohemia, Frederic V. After the victory, a former Protestant church was dedicated to Mary in Prague. Emperor Ferdinand II put there a crowned statue of the Child Jesus, now famous as the Holy Child of Prague, and this devotion quickly spread throughout Europe. Similar things happened in France with the image of Our Lady at Benoîte-Vauz, during the Thirty Years’ War in Lorraine, when the duchies of Lorraine and Bar put themselves under her protection. In Poland, the successful defense of Czestochowa, under siege by the Protestant Swedes, tells a similar tale. The city was liberated, it is said, through the intercession of the Black Virgin of Jasna Góra and the shrine became, from that time, the clear symbol of Polish national consciousness and the center of continuous pilgrimages.
Another famous shrine is that of Maria-Zell, on the Austrian Stirian Mountains. It was to become the most famous shrine in central Europe. The Austrian Royal Family visited it continually. The Empress Maria Teresa hung the medals of her husband and her children there. During the war against the Turks, Prince Esterhazy went there, followed by 11,000 pilgrims.
In lands that embraced Protestantism, the survival of Catholicism is closely linked with Marian shrines, as in Switzerland. In Canton Ticino, the cities of Lucerne and Lugano refused the preaching of the Reformers precisely in the name of Marian devotion. We can recall the shrine of Einsiedeln, called Our Lady of the Hermits because it is said that a hermit called Meinrad promoted Marian devotion there.
In Italy, the area said to have had the largest number of churches dedicated to Our Lady is Brianza, a section of Lombardy to the northeast of Milan. Today there are about fifty Marian shrines there. The history of each of these is woven with stories of miracles, apparitions and graces granted to the pilgrims. As a barrier against the spread of Protestantism, St Charles Borromeo strengthened Marian devotion there by building or embellishing churches dedicated to Our Lady. In Monza is the shrine of our Lady of Graces, described in 1500 as “the third shrine in Italy for antiquity, for its number of pilgrims, and for the miracles worked there” (R. Beretta), after that of Loreto and the Holy Mount of Varese. Other shrines of the same name can be found in Milan (Santa Maria delle Grazie), and shrines can be found all over with the name “Our Lady of Help” or “Our Lady of Miracles.” At Caravaggio, southeast of Milan, is a shrine recalling the miraculous spring that was found after Our Lady appeared to a young peasant girl. At the place the miracle happened, Duke Visconti of Milan had a church built which was later embellished by St Charles Borromeo and destined to become a place of pilgrimage. It is often women who go to seek the help of Our Lady in her shrines, either to ask a grace for their children or, faced by a difficult pregnancy, to ask the help of Our Lady for the birth. The Marian shrine of Chartres and Altöting, like Santa Maria Podone or St Celso in Milan, are examples.
Apparitions and cult
Often these Marian shrines are used as hospitals in times of plague. Or sometimes they are built on plague cemeteries. In 1586, Our Lady appeared to a peasant at Vellentimbro, in Liguria, Italy. A church was built on the site and later the Doria family built a hospital beside it. This became the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy. On other occasions, Our Lady appeared in the woods or in the fields, usually to shepherds, peasants, or pilgrims, as in the case of Imbersago, a tiny village in Lombardy, in May 1617, now the Shrine of Our Lady of the Woods.
Other Marian shrines with small or large churches were built in places where images of our Lady were found. Often these discoveries were believed to be miraculous, as in the case of Santa Maria alla Porta, in Milan, in 1651.
Marian devotion became more and more splendid and ornate in the 17th century. Especially in the Spanish world, ancient Romanic or Gothic-style statues of Our Lady were often robed with large silk dresses, embroidered with gold and precious jewels. The Spanish and the Portuguese spread these images and shrines all over the Americas, the Philippines and the Portuguese East. Mary became the first “missionary.” Countless cities and towns bear her name, and there is not a city or small town in the New World without a shrine dedicated to her that constitutes the town center.