Mary Help of Christians
Dear Brother John Mary,
Divine Providence has so arranged events that this profession of your first monastic vows takes place under the maternal gaze of Mary Immaculate. Today indeed Australia celebrates its patronal feast, honouring Mary under the title of Auxilium Christianorum, Help of Christians. This title was very much in vogue in the 19th century when the Australian bishops chose it, for it was on this day that the Benedictine Pope Pius VII returned to Rome after his five year imprisonment in Paris by Napoleon Bonaparte. It was to commemorate this event that Pius VII instituted the feast and ordered that on this day the Christian world would honour the Mother of God as Help of Christians.
The title itself is full of significance for us. We see in the orations of the Mass that Holy Church has in mind three particular victories for which we need Mary’s help. The first is the victory over sin, over ourselves. Mary comes to our aid. She does not do the work for us, but as a good mother forms her children and educates them to live in society, so Mary teaches us her spiritual children how to renounce ourselves, and live in God’s grace in fraternal communion with others. We can say that the entire monastic life which you embrace today consists in attaining this victory over self, this openness to God and to others. This is one of the reasons for which we here in Colebrook have chosen to wear the white habit of Our Lady. By it we seek to render public honour to her perpetual virginity. By it we place ourselves under protective mantle, confident that she will not abandon us in times of trial.
The second victory for which we need Mary’s help is that of the Church in the world. In every age, but in some more than in others, the Church is like a frail bark tossed about on the high sea. She has enemies on every side, and seems often to be on the verge of capsizing. Mary comes to the help of the Christian people as a whole. She protects the Church, the mystical body of her divine Son. In that battle, the monk might at first sight seem to play an insignificant role. He is not out there actively and visibly working to convert souls. Rather, he is in the heart of the Church, striving to love with all his heart by means of the love which the Holy Spirit pours into his heart. He knows that the more he is faithful to his monastic life, the more the Church will be strengthened to overcome the forces of evil.
In that battle for the faith in a fallen and broken world, we need the maternal guidance and intercession of Mary. We are often disturbed by the thought that so many do not have the faith, that many consider the Church to be an enemy. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that in America there are not a hundred people who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive to be the Catholic Church. For the monk who perceives this sad reality, there can be moments of anguish. What can I do to help souls discover the sweet consolations that the faith brings, symbolised by the maternal touch Our Lady offers to every aspect of our lives? He knows that his principle task is to intercede for the legions of souls who are lost, who do not know God, who have not come to “believe in the love God has for us” according to the amazing expression of your patron saint John the apostle. With him, let’s make sure that at least we monks can say with deep conviction credidimus caritati – we have truly come to believe in the love God has for each of us (cf 1 Jn 4:16). And as St Augustine says: If you love you will sing. And if you sing, you will attract many souls to discover the beauty ever ancient and ever new by whom and for whom our hearts were created and without whom they remain restless.
And that leads us to the third and final victory for which we need our Mother’s help, namely the victory over our infernal enemy the devil, especially at the hour of our death. At that supreme hour, when hell strives to snatch the soul from the divine embrace, we ask that Mother Mary be there to crush the head of the ancient serpent and open the gates of a blessed eternity to each of us. Janua Coeli, gate of heaven, is another sweet title of Our Lady that gives us the confidence that it will be given to us one day to pass happily into the realm of light, peace and love which is God Himself.
For us monks, it is our privilege to commence on earth what we will do throughout all eternity. Here below it is in faith, faith that is no vague feeling, but a certitude based on the word of God Himself. We know that when we come together to sing the Divine Office, we are fulfilling on earth what the angels and saints do in Heaven. We sing God. Far from being what some witless observers call “God botherers”, we stand daily in choir to tell our God how beautiful and glorious and sweet He is. We make efforts to pay no attention to ourselves, but rather to go out of ourselves and sing His glory, the only glory worth giving one’s life for.
And so my dear Brother, you have your program cut out for you. The act you perform today is to be understood against that awesome background. Your act of profession involves renouncing a number of things which a man naturally cherishes. By the vow of poverty, you renounce material possessions and trust in the Providence of God; by the vow of chastity, you renounce the affection of a wife and children; by the vow of obedience, you put God’s will before your own, imitating the Lord Jesus Himself who repeats in St John’s gospel that He came not to do His own will but that of the Father; by the vow of stability, you indicate your conviction that anyone who is grounded in God need not run here and there to find fulfilment. God and His eternity are right here, in faith. As St Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote: “The Trinity is our home from which we must never distance ourselves”. Finally by the vow of conversion of ways, you resolve to make that search for God and the perfection that makes us like Him the constant, unfailing effort of your life. One does not become a monk because one is perfect, far from it, nor does one become a monk overnight, but one becomes a monk in order to tend manfully and perseveringly, in the communion of fraternal charity, towards that perfection which is at once the supreme human fulfilment and the supreme glorification of God who achieves such a stupendous feat in the frailty of our flesh.
And so dear Brother, go forward manfully but with the attitude of the babe who looks with confidence to its mother. The babe can do nothing without its mother, and the monk can do nothing without Mary. Turn to her, gaze upon the star, call upon Mary. Let’s give the final word to that great bard of Our Lady, St Bernard of Clairvaux:
“In danger, in distress, in uncertainty, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let her never leave your lips, let her never depart from your heart; and so that you may obtain the help of her prayers, never forget the example of her life. If you follow her, you cannot falter; if you pray to her, you cannot despair; if you think of her, you cannot err. If she sustains you, you will not stumble; if she protects you, you have nothing to fear; if she guides you, you will never grow weary; if she shows you favour, you will attain your goal” (Hom II super Missus Est, 17; PL 183, 70–71).