Refuge of Sinners
by Timothy Harris, SSC
Devotion to the Immaculate Heart
Modern devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is directed to Our Lady’s compassionate love for men, and to the office she exercises as advocate for sinners and dispenser of graces. The recent feast was instituted, so the Apostolic Instruction tells us, that through the assistance of the Blessed Mother of God, peace may be given to the world and freedom to the Church of Christ, that sinners may be freed from their guilt, and that all the faithful may be solidly established in the love of purity and the exercise of all virtues. The Introit of the Mass of the feast ascribes to Our Lady the office of merciful mediation, which Saint Paul attributes to her Son in the text of Hebrews quoted above. The Immaculate Heart is thus revered as the Refuge of sinners, the throne where grace is dispensed and whither all can come with confidence, who seek for grace and mercy in their need.
The modern devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is said to have had its origin in the miracle of grace that took place in the Church of Our Lady of Victories in Paris in the year 1832. This Church was situated in one of the worst quarters of the city and the parish priest of the time was in despair at the fruitlessness of his labours to reclaim his people. One day as he knelt in prayer he was admonished by an interior voice to consecrate his parish to the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary. With much hesitation and after some delay he complied, and the Act of Consecration was solemnly made in the Church one Sunday evening in December in the presence of a small congregation. The response, we are told was remarkable. Immediately conversions took place in great numbers and a rapid improvement was visible in the condition of the parish. A Confraternity in honour of the Immaculate Heart was founded and became widespread in France and throughout the Catholic world, numbering twenty million in the founder’s lifetime. The shrine of Our Lady of Victories became a place of pilgrimage and devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary took firm root in the hearts of the faithful.
Message of Fatima
After the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima in 1917 the devotion to the Immaculate Heart came into special prominence. During the apparitions, according to official accounts, Our Lady declared that her Son, Our Lord, wished devotion to her Immaculate Heart to be established throughout the world. Twenty-five years later in 1942, when the Silver Jubilee celebrations in honour of Our Lady of Fatima were held, the Holy Father, at the request of the Portuguese bishops, solemnly consecrated the Church and the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This public act of worship made by the Sovereign Pontiff on behalf of the whole Church is rightly regarded as something momentous in the history of devotion to Our Lady, it is the complement of the solemn consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus made by Pope Leo XIII, and it satisfies a desire that the Church had for some time cherished. At the time of the Vatican Council Pope Pius IX had said that there would be something wanting to the dignity of the Queen of Heaven until the glory of Consecrations should be given to her. Son and Mother now rule with common sway over the minds and hearts of the Church’s children.
As devotion to the Immaculate Heart is associated with the apparitions at Fatima, its votaries should give special heed to what is known as the “message of Fatima.” This message is about two things, penance and the Rosary.
The communications made by the Lady of Fatima to the children who were favoured with the apparitions have all the same lesson—the inconceivable malice of sin, which offends God, causes the eternal loss of souls, grieves the motherly heart of Mary and unlooses on the world the scourge of divine justice. Men must amend their lives and ask pardon for their sins; they must no longer offend Our Lord, who is already offended too much. Not only must sinners return to God but the good too, the ordinary faithful, represented by these innocent children, are called by Our Lady to prayer and penance for the conversion of sinners. “Sacrifice yourselves for sinners,” they were told, “and say often, especially when you make sacrifices: O Jesus, it is for love of you, for the conversion of sinners and in reparation for the offenses committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” Again they were instructed to say, when reciting the Rosary, at the end of each decade, “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fire of Hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.”
The great concern of Our Lady for the offense done to God by sin and for the woeful plight of sinners was visibly communicated to the children. Their lives, we are told, were transformed. They multiplied Rosaries and little acts of virtue and of penance “to console the good God” and to save souls from the dreadful hell that the Lady had allowed them to see for a moment. Those who knew the children revered them for their holiness and the two who were called away by Our Lady died the precious death of a saint.
With the message of penance is joined the recommendation of the Rosary. It may be said that the Rosary is entwined around all the events at Fatima. The first apparitions appear to the children as they were reciting the Rosary. The beautiful Lady of the apparitions has a Rosary hanging from hands folded in prayer. She admonishes the children to say the Rosary every day and she teaches them how to say it. She asks them to say many Rosaries for the conversion of sinners and at the end of each decade to add the touching prayer we have already mentioned. Finally in the last apparition she gives her name, “I am Our Lady of the Rosary.” The Lady of Fatima is Our Lady of the Rosary come down on earth to entreat men to amend their lives and to say the Rosary. The apparitions at Fatima but repeat the message given to Saint Dominic by Our Lady centuries ago, and they confirm, were confirmation needed, all that the Supreme Pontiffs and Saints have said in praise of the Rosary—“the most beautiful and the riches in grace of all prayers, the prayer that touches most the Heart of the Mother of God.”
The fruit, then, of devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary should be a loving fidelity to the twofold wish that she has expressed—penance for sin and the recitation of the Rosary. To enter into the heart of our Mother, to share her sorrow at the loss of souls and the injury done to God, to enter upon a life of prayer and expiation for sinners, and to say the Rosary every day with that end in view—this is the special work of those who are drawn to honour the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is presented to us together with a number of definite practices. These are the special observance of the First Saturday of each month, the five First Saturdays, and the Act of Consecration. These practices have a marked similarity to the exercises that belong to the worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Saturday devotions principally consist in the Rosary, Communion of Reparation, penitential exercises, and a short contemplation of some mystery of the Rosary in company with Our Lady. In addition to their general purpose of reparation and intercession for sinners, they have also the object of consoling the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and of making reparation for the blasphemies and outrages committed against her. Such consolation and reparation should be a sacred duty to every soul that loves our Blessed Mother. At all times with her Divine Son she bears the brunt of the devil’s hatred and the world’s hostility. In our own times we have sad experience of the lengths to which that hatred and hostility can go in the blasphemous writings of anti-religious propaganda. Good need have we to be ashamed, and to grieve that one so holy and so pure, so tender and compassionate, the noblest and best of our sinful race, should be scorned and dishonored by her own kindred and children. Willingly and eagerly should we strive to make expiation to our offended Mother by greater veneration and love, by more devoted service, by pious practices and penances, and not least, by earnest supplications in union with her, that God may pardon those wretched ones who know not what they do in blaspheming her and her Divine Son.
The Act of Consecration is the supreme act of worship to the Immaculate Heart. This is a formula of prayer recited solemnly and renewed at certain times. The Act of Consecration has many forms, but all express the one purpose—the complete offering of oneself to the Immaculate Heart, with all that we have and all that we are. Such an offering, it might be said, is properly made only to God or to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is an acknowledgment of that dependence, submission and devotedness that we owe only to God, our Creator and Father and to Jesus Christ, Our Lord and King. Our Lady has not these sovereign rights over us. Hence in making this consecration to her we do so as to the minister or intermediary of God or her Divine Son, whose authority she represents and in whose name she receives our homage. We consecrate ourselves and all that is ours as to a loving Mother, who accepts our offering on behalf of her Son and who disposes of it according to His will.
But the consecration to the Immaculate Heart does not solely consist in the recitation of a formula. It implies a habitual state of filial devotion to Our Lady and a reference of all our thoughts, wishes and actions to her. Unless Our Lady really enters into one’s spiritual life and takes possession of it completely, the act of consecration, though often repeated, has only the value of a passion prayer. As with the true worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus the spirit of the devotion goes far beyond its practices. This spirit consists in a life wholly devoted to the honour and love of Our Blessed Mother. Our thoughts, affections, and wishes should rest in her Immaculate Heart as they do in the Heart of her Son. Our wills should be completely submissive to hers so that we should never do anything that would grieve her or offend her Divine Son. We should lovingly contemplate her as a model and imitate the virtues that shine forth in her. We should commit all our works and interests to her protection and confidently turn to her in all our needs. The thought of Mary should dominate our lives. As Saint Louis Marie de Montfort expresses it, “the soul should breathe Mary as the body breathes air.”
In all this there is no conflict with the pre-eminence which the thought of Jesus should hold in our lives. Mother and Son are never apart in the minds and hearts of those who try to grow in the knowledge and love of one or the other. If we put Jesus immediately before us, the sweet figure of His Mother always stands near, and if our thoughts turn first to the Mother, she gently draws us to the presence of her Son. Those who are most devoted to Mary in the spirit of the Act of Consecration are aware of this. The thought and the love of Jesus become far more active and intense in their lives. When we speak of pleasing our Mother and of seeking to do her will in all things, we speak in so many words of pleasing her Divine Son and of doing what we know He wishes us to do. For the wills of Jesus and of Mary are but one and the same.
The earliest liturgical worship of the Heart of Mary was introduced by Saint John Eudes and included the worship of the Heart of Jesus as well. When the special feast of the Heart of Jesus was later established in his congregation, the holy founder declared that there was no intention of separating two things so closely joined together as the most august Heart of the Son and the holy Heart of His blessed Mother. We should regard and honour these two Hearts as one and the same in unity of spirit, of sentiments, of will and of love. The true spirit of devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is put before us by the Church in the Collect of the Mass of the feast. In that prayer we ask God that we who celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Heart with devout minds may be enabled to live according to His own Heart.