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The sweet name of Mary

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The name "Mary" is like this not from the meaning of the word, but because it was borne by this holy and remarkable woman -- as if the virtues of the woman are reflected in the name, and by merely saying the same with reference, we receive graces to be like her.

Michael
Pakaluk

''May this appeal of mine not go unheard!"

Thus wrote the sainted Pope John Paul II in 2002, near the end of his apostolic letter on the rosary. "I look to all of you, brothers and sisters of every state of life, to you, Christian families, to you, the sick and the elderly, and to you, young people, confidently take up the rosary once again."

Has this plea gone unheard?

"Rediscover the rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives," he added. Are we doing so now, almost 20 years later? Have I acquired the good habit of praying the rosary daily? Does my family do so?

These are good questions to consider once again, as we approach October, the Month of the Rosary in Catholic piety. As if to prepare us, the Church places two important Marian celebrations in September: The Nativity (Birthday) of Mary on Sept. 8, reasonably, nine months after the celebration of Mary's Immaculate Conception; and then on Sept. 12, the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary.

St. Pope John Paul II had a particular devotion to the name of Mary and ends his apostolic letter with a prayer of Blessed Bartolomo Longo: "O Blessed Rosary of Mary, sweet chain which unites us to God, bond of love which unites us to the angels, tower of salvation against the assaults of Hell, safe port in our universal shipwreck, we will never abandon you. You will be our comfort in the hour of death: yours our final kiss as life ebbs away. And the last word from our lips will be your sweet name."

Blessed Bartolomo is an interesting teacher for our times. When he was a young man, some atheistic lectures by a philosophy professor led him away from the faith and made him hostile to the Church. He immersed himself in the occult and even became a Satanist priest. But led by Dominicans back to the faith, he spent his mature life promoting the rosary. He is essentially our contemporary, as he died in 1926.

This prayer of Blessed Bartolomo, that he be given the grace that his final word be the name, "Mary!" echoes a prayer of St. Germanus, "Dei matris nomen sit mihi ultimus linguae loquentis motus," "May the name of the Mother of God be for me the last movement of my tongue!" St. Alphonsus Liguori prayed the same, "Let us pray, then, my devout reader, let us pray God to grant us this grace, that the last word we pronounce at death may be the name of Mary."

The official reports of Pope John Paul II's death say that his final words were "Let me go to the house of my father." A nun who was by his bedside reported, "Let me go to the Lord." And yet he said these things several hours before he actually passed. I prefer to believe that his prayer was granted.

The traditional Catholic "Prayers for a Happy Death" contain this petition: "Let me die, like the glorious St. Joseph, in the arms of Jesus and Mary, repeating in turn each of these sweet names which I hope to bless throughout eternity." Yes, the name of Jesus comes first, but then the second spoken is the last word.

Jesus himself invoked Mary from the cross. It was apparently his custom to refer to Mary as "My Lady" (sometimes translated, literally but perhaps too brusquely, as "Woman"). According to St. John's Gospel, he saw his mother standing at the foot of the cross, and "the disciple whom he loved," and said, "My lady, here is your son." It's not quite the Most Holy Name of Mary, true, but something greater than a name, for someone who had the relation of son. Also, they were not his last words. And yet in conferring Mary to John as John's mother, he did the same for us, as if to teach us to call upon her also, at the time of our death.

St. Bonaventure, in his "Speculum" or "Mirror of the Blessed Virgin," devotes two opening chapters to the name of Mary. In the first, he considers everything bound up in the four, traditionally recognized interpretations -- Bitter Sea, Star of the Sea, Lady, and Source of Light. He says in summary, "Mary is a bitter sea to demons; to men she is a star of the sea; to the angels she is illuminatrix; and to all creatures she is lady."

In most cultures someone's name has been taken to express his nature or distinctive character. (Our culture is almost unique in taking names to be mere sounds attached to things.) So, in a following chapter, St. Bonaventure discusses how the remarkable virtues of Mary are all contained in her name. "The name of Mary," he says, not simply Mary, "is free from all vice and resplendent with every virtue."

The name "Mary" is like this not from the meaning of the word, but because it was borne by this holy and remarkable woman -- as if the virtues of the woman are reflected in the name, and by merely saying the same with reference, we receive graces to be like her.

To this end, he quotes a prayer of St. Bernard, "May Jesus Christ, thy son, bestow the gifts of his grace on thy servants, who invoke the sweet name of Mary."

- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book, on the Gospel of Mark, is "The Memoirs of St Peter." His next book,"Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John," is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway.



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