Mother’s Day 2017 in the United States is on the day after the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima, Mother’s Day for the Universal Church.
The only radio available for purchase where I happen to be living is a small hand-held model manufactured by Sangean and sold for just under $50. It’s a pricey item considering that there are many radios for a fraction of that price, but there are no other options. It’s also a risky purchase because the world of concrete and steel where I spend most of my time “inside” blocks out most radio signals.
So why would anyone buy a radio? That’s a question I was asking myself even as I filled out the order form to send to a friend who wanted to order one for me from a catalog of items approved for prisoners. At the time, I needed other things more than a radio, but for reasons I do not understand to this very day, my friend was insistent that I have a radio.
Then another friend mentioned in a note to me that Concord, New Hampshire is host to a small Catholic radio station that carries Ave Maria Radio, a subsidiary of EWTN. So when my radio arrived, I installed its two AAA batteries, tuned to the FM frequency that carries the signal for Ave Maria Radio, and heard nothing but disappointing static.
The next morning, something strange happened, something that I described in a post last summer, “The Canonization of Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta.” Before I revisit that short account, please note that I retain “Mother” in her title. Saints do not retain their Earthly status, but in my mind there are two saints whose names I cannot separate from the familiar titles by which they were known and loved among us. One is Saint Padre Pio. The other is Saint Mother Teresa.
But I got off track for a moment. The morning after I heard all that static on my new radio, I went outside to walk a few miles around the perimeter of the prison Ball Field. On my way there, it dawned on me that I could bring my radio. So I rushed back through multiple barriers, patiently waiting at each for unseen entities to buzz me through a multitude of electronic locks. I got into my cell, grabbed the radio, and reversed the process of waiting at each of the locked doors.
I made it back to the Ball Field just as the last door was about to slam shut. I walked toward the back of the field, took my radio out of my pocket, and unraveled its earbud headphones. It was still tuned to the local Catholic station from which I heard only static the night before.
At the moment it came alive in the Ball Field, I heard the voice of Teresa Tomeo say, “Our guest today is Catholic singer and songwriter Annie Karto to discuss her latest CD, ‘Rise Up All Peoples.’” And then I heard for the first time Annie’s now famous song. I had imagined that song in my mind many times, but never heard it. Months before, Annie Karto, produced a video for that song for a national conference on Divine Mercy, and the video included, among many images, a photograph of me from the “About” page at These Stone Walls.
Having neither seen nor heard any of this before, I could only imagine it until that morning outside when I had the right receptor at just the right time to hear the music play. It was wonderful. So each morning thereafter, I brought my radio to the Ball Field for one hour to listen to Teresa Tomeo’s Catholic Connection program on Ave Maria Radio.
A month later, on September 20, 2016, I heard her interview Catholic League President Bill Donohue as they discussed the injustice of my imprisonment. My friend, Pornchai Moontri was on the pitcher’s mound in a game when he stopped to wonder why I was standing mesmerized and immobilized at the far outfield.
AVE MARIA, GRATIA PLENA, DOMINUS TECUM
When that was over, and Teresa Tomeo’s Catholic Connection had signed off for the day, I had another five minutes out in the field. I continued listening to a call-in show about Scripture. The first caller was a man who identified himself as a fallen away Catholic who is now a Protestant Evangelical. He said that he left the Church because of the Catholic focus on Mary as “a conduit of grace” which, he seemed to believe, is not supported by Biblical truth.
At that moment, my new radio just stopped working. It died two months after I received it. I tried everything to get it working again, but to no avail. I cannot return it, and given its limited use (outside only) I cannot justify buying a new one. So now I just walk in the Ball Field in silence. The little radio now just takes up space in a corner of a metal box welded to the bottom of my prison bunk where the sum total of my possessions share 24-square-feet with me.
But I have the strangest sense that I heard the three things I was supposed to hear when I had the right receptor to hear them. I do not know how the Catholic radio commentators responded to the Evangelical’s concern about Mary, but the answer came to me immediately. I was thunderstruck by it, and by how little thought I had ever given to this before.
The basis of religious authority for Evangelical Protestants is “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “Scripture Alone.” The concept embraces not just Biblical authority, but also the deeply held belief in Biblical inerrancy. Both notions clearly support Catholic belief in the role of Mary in Salvation History. It’s a truth that I was once deaf to as well, because I did not employ the right receptors to hear it. The deep reverence that Catholics hold for Mary, and the notion that she can be, and has been, an emissary from Heaven make total sense.
The appearances of Mary in the Gospel are like bookends for the story of salvation. Her first appearance – in the Gospel of Saint Luke (1:26-56) – opens with an angelic declaration that is unprecedented in all of Sacred Scripture:
“In the sixth month the Angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.’” (Luke 1:26-28.)
Scripture contains 326 references to angelic appearances between the fall of Adam and the Resurrection of Christ. This brief passage in the Gospel of Luke is the first and only place where an angel refers to a human person with a title instead of a name. And the title – rendered “full of grace” in its English translation – is fascinating.
The term appears in only one other place, the Book of Acts of the Apostles which was also authored by Saint Luke. It’s a reference to Stephen who would become Christianity’s first martyr: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). However, these English translations of the term fail to capture the full meaning the Evangelist intended. In Saint Luke’s original Greek, the terms have very different meanings.
In the case of Stephen, the original Greek words of Luke for “full of grace” were “plērēs charitos.” You can see in this the Greek roots of the word “charity.” But in the angel’s reference to Mary, a very different Greek term was used to convey the words, “full of grace.” It was a title much more than a trait. The Greek term Saint Luke used is “kecharitomēnē,” a far more revealing concept. It refers not just to a facet of her character, as in the case of Stephen, but of her essence. “Kecharitomēnē” refers to a prior action of God in which Mary was “graced” in the sense of her being a “vessel” in multiple tenses – past, present, and future – who is instilled with divine life, a soul that magnifies the Lord.
This does not mean that Mary was divine. It means that God prepared her from the moment of her conception. Some English translations use the term “highly favored one” instead of “full of grace” in the Angel’s greeting, but this in no way captures the truth of the Evangelist’s meaning which is far more profound than “favor.” It is closer to “innate holiness.”
Saint Luke’s unique Greek title became the Scriptural basis for the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. It points not to a trait of Mary’s character, but to a revelation of her lifelong holiness and unique place in Salvation History as the Mother of the Redeemer and the redeemed – the new Eve.
In the angelic declaration to Mary (Luke 1:28) the next phrase is rendered in English, “the Lord is with you’” But its more proper sense is “the Lord is within you’” Her Greek title, “Theotokos,” literally “Mother of God,” was defined at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium (53). For the entire life of the Church, Mary has been venerated – not worshipped, but venerated – as the Mother of God.
THE MIRACLE OF FATIMA
Having been sent by my diocese to a modern “trendy” seminary in the 1970s – with clown Masses and more regard for academic prowess than spiritual depth – I had neglected these truths for much of my life, including much of my life as a priest. Priesthood suffered as a result. I owe a debt today to the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, stewards of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I wrote of this debt, and of my all-too-human resistance to their great gift, in an article that appeared at Marian.org entitled “Behold Your Son – Behold Your Mother.”
Now that debt has deepened. On the day before Mother’s Day this year, the Church marks the 100th anniversary of our Blessed Mother’s first of six appearances to three small shepherd children in the village of Fatima, Portugal, as World War One raged on – what Pope Benedict XV (not XVI) described at the time as “the suicide of Europe” – Mary reentered human history to convey a message through the smallest of voices in a most insignificant place. Then it echoed with ever increasing volume across the century to follow.
I have never fully understood the apparitions at Fatima. My scientific mind with its natural skepticism has always been in the way, making real moments of grace hard won for me. But now I think, for the first time in my life, I understand what happened at Fatima commencing on May 13, 1917 and the 13th of each of five months to follow. And thanks to Father Michael Gaitley’s book The Second Greatest Story Ever Told, I finally understand Fatima’s meaning in the context of faith.
My understanding has also been greatly aided by a wonderful gift by a superb Catholic writer and friend of These Stone Walls, Felix Carroll. You have met Felix Carroll in these pages before. He is the Executive Editor of Marian Helper magazine, and author of the great Divine Mercy book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions with a chapter about the life of Pornchai Moontri.
As I was pondering how to approach a post about the Fatima Century, I quickly found myself wading into waters I am only now beginning to sound for spiritual depth. Knowing the facts is one thing, but knowing the necessary story under the story is quite another.
Then my copy of the Spring 2017 issue of Marian Helper arrived just days before I write this. Its cover, entitled “Fatima: 100 Years Later”, got my attention, and I read it cover to cover in one sitting. Its centerpiece is an amazing article by Felix Carroll entitled, “Fatima. The Place. The Message.” I am simply in awe of his achievement.
I urge you to visit Marian Helper and read Felix Carroll’s outstanding writing, his historical analysis, and the depth of his understanding of the message and miracle of Fatima – all in just a few very readable pages.
Mary’s final appearance in the Gospel – the other bookend in the story of salvation – occurs in silent vigil at the Foot of the Cross (John 19:22-23): “‘Behold your Mother!’ And from that moment the disciple took her into his home.” When ,I wrote my post, “Behold Your Mother! 33 days to Morning Glory” on These Stone Walls (PART 1) (PART 2), it was posted in many places on social media including Reddit. Recently, a young man and university student posted a comment on it there:
“I finally get it! I am a college student and a lifelong Protestant. I never understood the Catholic connection to Mary until I read this. Thanks to this I finally understand Mary and her place in the life of faith.”
If you haven’t already done so, honor the Century of Fatima by joining the Association of Marian Helpers to receive Marian Helper magazine in either electronic or print format. In ways more than I can count or convey, the Marians have helped to restore my priesthood and my faith.
And as for Our Lady of Fatima, I echo the college student I described above. Thanks to Felix Carroll and Marian Helper, I finally get it. I knew a lot about Mary, but I never really knew her. This is why I chose my title for this post. This is “How I Met Your Mother.”
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share a link to this post with others. And you may honor the Fourth Commandment this week with these Mother’s Day posts from These Stone Walls: