Pope Francis has continually encouraged us to pray to Mary during this time of the coronavirus pandemic. He reflected in his letter on April 25 that, “Contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.” In his historical prayer service March 27, the pope brought to St. Peter’s Square one of his favorite images of Mary, Salus Populi Romani — Health of the Roman People. This is the icon that Pope Francis frequently visits for prayer at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome before and after he visits other countries for a pastoral visit. He always leaves a bouquet of white roses at the image.
The icon is traditionally attributed to St. Luke the Evangelist, who was a Greek physician and an artist. In the image, Mary is elegantly draped in a blue robe, holding the infant Jesus, who in turn is holding a jeweled book of the Gospels. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great is believed to have had this icon of Mary processed through Rome to stop a plague which was spreading through the city. In the icon Mary is looking directly at the viewer with a loving and intent gaze.
It is very fitting for us to have this image of Mary, so precious to Pope Francis, before us especially on Sept. 15, as we celebrate the feast of our Lady of Sorrows. Mary knows our difficulties and sorrows, no matter what they may be, because she was so closely associated with Christ in his suffering. Mary helps us to understand that the Lord is always with us, also in suffering, and enables us to overcome even death itself through his cross and resurrection. As she does this, she is truly our healing reminding us of what true health is all about.
Mary exemplifies the teaching of Christ in regard to living a healthy and full life. She did this by always listening to the word of God and observing it. As she directly looks at us in the icon so beloved by Pope Francis, she reminds us that her Son, whom she so lovingly holds in her hand, speaks his word to us through the Gospel, which he lovingly holds in his hand.
Mary reminds us that a healthy life consists in being humble. Her life is one that is a model of what it means to be humble. Humility is essential for our health. We need to know who we are as Mary knew who she was. We are made in the image and likeness of God, each with a unique identity, and are called into an individual relationship with him. It is that relationship which gives us freedom and joy in our lives. Like Mary, we need to look away from ourselves and to look to God for our fulfillment. We rely upon him, not upon ourselves.
As no other, Mary knows that true health is found in prayer. Prayer is at the core of our lives for it enables us to grow in our relationship with God. Prayer helps us to know the Lord better and to put all things in proper perspective. As we get caught up with so many worries and concerns in our lives, taking time for prayer enables us to face these in a manner that helps us grow in true happiness.
Finally, as Mary looks at us, she reminds us that we need hope. Mary was a woman filled with hope. She had hope in what seemed to be the most hopeless situations. As she stood beneath the Cross and felt the pain of her Son’s heart being pierced with a lance, she did not give up hope. She knew that God would be faithful to his promises and she stood faithfully at that Cross in her darkest hour. In all of the many difficulties that face our lives and our society today, we need the virtue of hope. That hope must be centered on the sanctity of each and every individual life from the moment of conception in the God-given dignity of family life and on the respect that we should have for all persons, especially the ill, vulnerable, the poor and those in need. Hope does not disappoint but always gives life.
As we look to Our Blessed Mother and she looks to us, may she give us the grace of listening to the word of God, of humility, of prayer and of hope so that in the words of Pope Francis, “Contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.