Here is the text of a presentation I gave last year to the university and church community as part of the Three Things series. Presented at St. John's University, April 16, 2011
The theme of my presentation was this:
As we examine the modern places of Marian devotion we find that modern twentieth-century conflicts were preceded by Marian apparitions imploring for conversion, peace, and compassion. What does that tell us about Mary and her role in the twenty first century?
Pope John Paul II said that "Fatima encapsulates the twentieth century." Mary's message of conversion, peace, and compassion is more important now than at any time because as you look at the twentieth century you will see that it was the most violent and deadly. In many ways, it really was the worst century to be a human. If in any century we needed the message of forgiveness, peace, and compassion this past century was it.
Let's begin with the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1917, the world was suffering from the destruction caused by the First World War, which in the end killed 20 million people. The beginning of the year 1917 was devastating. Only later in the year when the US entered the conflict did the ruin abate. We should also remember in 1917 the world saw Tsar Nicholas II of Russia abdicate in face of the Russian Revolution by the Bolsheviks which began in February and concluded decisively in October.
Right in the middle of the chaotic waters of 1917, Pope Benedict XV began a novena of prayer for peace. On the 8th day of that novena, the Feast of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament May 13, Mary appeared to three children of sheparding families in the country outside Fatima, Portugal. They were Lucia dos Santos (10), Jacinta Marcos (7), Francisco Marcos (9).
Lucia said of this visit that she saw a lady "all dressed in white, more brilliant than the sun, radiating a light clearer and more intense than a crystal glass filled with clear water pierced by the most burning rays of the sun."
Mary said to them, "You are then going to have much to suffer, but the grace of God will be your comfort." She also said to them, "Do not be afraid. ... Recite the rosary every day in order to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war."
Every 13th of the month until October, Mary appeared. Her final words to the children were essential to understanding the meaning behind the apparition. She said, "I want to tell you that a chapel be built here in my honor. I am the Lady of the Rosary. May you continue to pray the rosary every day. The war is going to end and the soldiers will soon return to their homes." After these words of course there followed the great miracle of the dancing sun that was witnessed by about 70,000 people.
To this day, Fatima, Portugal has become the place for devotion to Mary through the rosary for reconciliation.
Pope Benedict XVI like his predecessor has called our attention to Fatima when he went on pilgrimage on May 13, 2010. He said there, "At this time when the human family was ready to sacrifice all that was most sacred on the altar of the petty and the selfish interests of nations, races, ideologies, groups, and individuals, our Blessed Mother came from heaven, offering to implant in the hearts of all those who trust in her the love of God burning in her own heart."
Here in Fatima we saw Mary compassionate toward the world at war.
Between 1992 and 1995, former Yugoslavia erupted in a horrific war of bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling, systematic raping, and ethnic cleansing. In the genocide, over 100,000 people died and about 2 million people were displaced.
We should remember that one of the most devastating months during the conflict was the Sprenica Massacre during July 1995 when over 8000 Bosniaks, Bosnian Muslims, were killed by the Serbian army.
Fourteen years before this massacre and not far from Sprenica, Mary began appearing on June 24, 1981 and has been appearing almost daily in the evening since then. She delivers messages through the visionaries on the 2nd and 25th of every month. She said to the visionaries, Ivan, Marja, Vicka, Mirjana, Ivanka, and Jakov, that she wishes to come here to convert and reconcile the whole world.
When asked what Mary looked like, Marina said, "I consider words very, very weak to express what we experience with our lady. For instance when we say Our Lady has a gray dress, this is not exact. Our Lady's dress is of a certain color that does not exist on earth. ... Everything we use to describe our lady is beyond words."
The urgency of prayer is central to the experience of Medjugorje. Mary has said "Pray as much as you can, pray however you can, but pray more always."
Here in this place of pilgrimage you can learn that the four basic messages of Medjugorje are prayer, peace, fasting, and penance. But if you had to choose one word, it must be the word of compassion. Just as the conflict of the Bosnian war was beginning in 1992, Mary's message to the Bosnians was very urgent. "I am with you and your suffering is also mine."
She is the Lady of Compassion, the one who suffers with the world at war.
In 1994, the mass genocide in Rwanda killed at least 800,000 people. The Hutu-led government instigated by an inflow of armed Tutsi refugees unleashed mass killing of the Tutsi minority. In 1995, Kibeho was the site of a refugee camp for displaced Hutus resulting from the civil war. In an act of revenge, the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army closed in on the camp and opened fire. At least 4000 people in the camp were killed.
Fourteen years before that, in 1981 in Kibeho, Mary appeared to three school children, Alphonsine, Anathalie, and Marie-Claire. Later a few more would see her. Mary spoke to them that they needed to pray to prevent a terrible war. They needed prayer to prevent the river of blood that was shown to one of the visionaries. Sadly, some of these visionaries died in the genocide.
Mary asked the children to pray with her as the Lady of Sorrow, as the Lady who suffers with her people. One of the visionaries said that the message of Kibeho is that Our Lady "will console you; she hears the prayers of all who call on her, and she watches over you. ... She says 'Love my son, love each other, and care for the poor and the sick. Do not let jealousy and anger into your hearts; fill them with kindness and be willing to forgive. If you are weak in spirit or lacking in faith, pray to me, and I will bring you comfort and strength.'"
When the visionaries were asked what she looked like, they said that she seemed "the most lovely woman she had ever beheld emerge from a cloud, floating between the floor and the ceiling in a pool of shimmering light. She wore a flowing, seamless white dress with a white veil that covered her hair. Her hands were clasp in front of her in a gesture of prayer, her slender fingers pointing toward heaven. ... Waves of love emanated from her."
Mary said to Anathalie, "If you will work with me, I shall give you a mission to lead those lost souls back from the darkness. Because the world is bad, my child, you will suffer - so if you accept this mission, you must also accept all the sufferings I send you with love, joy, and patience." Again, we see that Mary's message is that she suffers with us.
The central devotion of the apparition is the praying of the rosary of Our Lady of Sorrows. At the end of the rosary, we pray, "Mary, who was conceived without sin and who suffered for us, pray for us."
Our Lady of Compassion
In the twentieth century, we must learn that Mary's apparitions contain within them the message of compassion. And so it will be for the twenty-first century. Mary is compassion. She suffers with her son and with us.
In each apparition we've talked about Mary has invited people into her compassion, into her suffering with twentieth century humanity.
This is her role revealed to us at the crucifixion of Jesus depicted in the Gospel of John. Here the Mother stands by her son weeping, suffering with her Son. Not powerless but faith-filled, not inanimate but compassionate, she holds her son, she holds humanity close to her heart. Without judgement but only forgiveness, without aggression but only compassion, she invites us to be comforted by her and to be compassionate to others.
As our world slips deeper in its passion, our response must imitate Mary. We must respond to greater suffering with more intense compassion. To be present to the sufferings of humanity in the twenty-first century means we must suffer with them.
May we accept Mary's compassion so we may create a culture of compassion.