Invoking Mary as Helper in Dire Need

Light and Life – July-Aug 2020, Vol 73, No 4 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province

Invoking Mary as Helper in Dire Need

By Fr. Richard Schenk, O.P.

[A native of California, Fr. Richard Schenk OP is a member of the Western Dominican Province. After studies in Santa Barbara, Berkeley and Munich, including post-graduate work on the edition of medieval texts, he taught philosophy and theology in Berkeley, Eichstaett and Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany. He directed centers of philosophical, theological and cultural research in Hannover, Germany, and Washington, D.C. From 2011-2014 he served as president of the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt. Now semi-retired, he continues to write and to teach part-time in Freiburg, Germany, and Heiligenkreuz, Austria, while helping with Newman work and the Dominican church in Freiburg.]

“What we do through others, we somehow (aliqualiter) do through ourselves.” Thomas Aquinas found in this casual observation from Aristotle’s Ethics an insight that he could use to unravel in good part several of the theological puzzles around the human goals of nature and grace and his own pioneering interpretation of charity as friendship. In a far more pedestrian sense, it is also true of several of “my” contributions to Mariology, that they stemmed from the initiative of others.

To be a novice of the Novice Master Fr. Thomas Aquinas Feucht O.P. at St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland in the early 1970’s meant not just reading and hearing about but also working on occasion for his beloved Light & Life. I had managed for most of the novitiate year to keep from him the knowledge that I had done a bit of off-set printing in the summers prior to my vestition, yielding the privilege of printing the issues to more capable student hands, but in the summer, with the students out on their summer assignments, I finally had to confess that I could access the press and use it to complete an overdue issue featuring Mariological articles. When I was sent to Munich a few years later for theological studies, I was invited by my doctoral director, the acknowledged Mariologist Leo Scheffczyk (1920-2005), later Cardinal Scheffczyk, to become his last academic assistant before his retirement. I was also “invited” by him after the end of his and my official service at the university to continue to work with him (quasi as his Sancho Panza) on a number of Mariological projects, including the six volumes of the Marienlexikon (1988-1994), which he was editing with the noted church historian, Remigius Bäumer. In addition to a good bit of proof-reading, I was able to revise or author just over thirty articles, including original entries on the Mariological themes in the writings of St. Thomas, Karl Rahner, and C.G. Jung (in this last case, together with my former teacher at St. Albert’s, Fr. Antonio Moreno, an expert on Jung). So I was not all that surprised when recently Fr. Joseph Sergott, Promoter of the Rosary Confraternity and current editor of Light & Life, asked what I might contribute inter alia to the Marian themes of this publication.

That Mariological Lexikon co-edited by Scheffczyk contains a long and informative article on the history and theology of the so-called “Litany of Loreto”, written by Walter Dürig, for many years professor for liturgical theology in Munich and director of the “Georgianum”, the residence there for graduate student priests where Joseph Ratzinger and many others had resided during their university studies: (“Lauretanische Litanei. I. Geschichte. II. Theologie”, Marienlexikon, St. Ottilien, EOS 1992, Vol. 4, pages 33-42, followed by a concise discussion of the iconography of the litany, authored by G. Nitz, 42-44). The article would likely be of considerable interest to today’s readers of Light & Life.

Dürig distinguishes there the successive series of invocations, as they had developed from Marian meditations on the Litany of All Saints several centuries prior to the use of the meanwhile independent litany at the shrine of Loreto in the sixteenth century. Dürig refers to several of the older manuscripts that show the Litany at various stages of its genesis from the eighth to the twelfth century. Several of the groups of invocations can be named after the initial word by which they invoke Maria: the twelve invocations of Mary as mother, the five invocations of the Blessed Virgin, the thirteen invocations of Mary linked to visible symbols (like the mirror of justice or the seat of wisdom). Prior to the dozen invocations of Mary as Queen, there is a smaller group of four invocations that Dürig calls the invocations of Mary as helper in times of dire need (“Nothelferin”). Together with the introductory (and seemingly the oldest) three invocations, this last named group is also the shortest, but arguably it is one that merits our particular attention: Salus Infirmorum – Health of the Sick; Refugium Peccatorum – Refuge of Sinners; Consolatrix Afflictorum – Comforter of the Afflicted; Auxilium Christianorum – Help of Christians.

In the years since Dürig’s article, the once neglected treatise of Thomas Aquinas on “religio” in the Summa Theologiae (ST II-II 80-100) has become increasingly studied and debated. Part of the reason for this new interest are still open questions on the relationship between Christian and non-Christian religions, between theological and moral, infused and acquired virtues, between grace and nature. These complex questions go beyond the scope and possibilities of this article. But three central theses on prayer that Thomas developed here help us begin to gauge the importance of these four Marian invocations. 1. Religion is a paradigmatic act of justice. Although many who do not know how to pray can show us nevertheless what true justice is, they cannot show us that particular fullness of true justice that consists in religion as reverencing God (“religio” as a powerful and the most transcendent part of that “potential whole” which is justice), the reverential acknowledgement of God, from whom all goods come that we have ever received or could ever hope for and, above and behind them all, God himself. 2. Prayer, especially interior prayer, is the paradigmatic act of religion. 3. Prayers of petition, at their core an “interpres desiderii”, an articulation of the dire needs of ourselves and others, are key to understanding all forms of prayer. They are not just about our needs, but about God, who is thereby acknowledged and reverenced as the ultimate and unique fulfillment of all that we desire most. Turning to God in our and others’ need is a paradigmatic act of prayer. Religion, a paradigm of justice. Prayer, a paradigm of religion. Petition and intercession, a paradigm of prayer.

Salus Infirmorum – Health of the Sick. Dürig cites an important manuscript from Paris around the year 1200 to show that the invocation, “salus infirmorum”, belongs to the earliest stages of the litany, recognizing in Mary a trusted intercessor in times of sickness. To appreciate Mary’s role in bringing this plea for the fullness of life and the restoration of health before God, we need to recall what it means that Christ himself became our “salus” precisely by bearing our infirmity. Here, too, another text by Thomas Aquinas can be of particular help. In the brief but foundational prologue to the Christological culmination of his Summa Theologiae, Thomas brings in the three sentences of this prologue seven references to Christ as our “salus” and “salvator” (ST III, prol.) It might well be that God’s eternal providence has predestined Christ from all eternity to be the Omega point of all evolution towards universal perfection, but we, who are not the World-Spirit, first and foremost understand the reality and importance of Christ not as a strategy for the optimization of the universe but by seeing in him and his vicarious sufferings the unique grace of “salvation”, the only “salvaging” of the many particular, nondivine, yet rightly cherished and endangered goods that are ours and our loved ones. Christ becomes our “Salvation” and our “Savior” not just by his divine perfection and omnipotence but by his fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Is 53: 4-5). Christ, bearing for all eternity the marks of our woundedness, is our primordial salus and salvator.

The invocation of Mary as helper in our direst needs expresses our confidence that she effectively intercedes as our “interpres desiderii”, praying with and for us in reverence for the Savior as the source of our salvation. And like the Savior, she does this as a disciple who has shared in his affliction. Not just in John 19, but already near the beginning of Luke (Lk 2, 34f.), the Gospels point to this share by Mary in the strength and the infirmity of the Savior: “Simeon blessed them
and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” It is due both to her attention to the Savior and to her share in his and our infirmity that she can be invoked as “salus infirmorum.”

Refugium peccatorum – Refuge of sinners. The moment of solidarity that Mary shares with the Savior and those seeking salvation is clearer here in a formulation of this invocation that Dürig shows to be at least as old: Refugium reorum, Refuge of the accused. “Reus” can, but need not, refer to someone who has incurred guilt. A famous principle of jurisprudence regarding the burden of proof includes such a nuance: “In dubio pro reo”, “In cases of doubt, the decision must be for the accused”, who might possibly be innocent. Again, the paradigm of accepted accusation is Christ. From the beginning of his ministry among the sinners coming to John for baptism, well through his death under Pilate’s inscription, which was designed as a mockery and accusation of the futility of Jesus and his people’s covenant, “Jesus of Nazareth, Jew-King”, Jesus, though innocent, shared in solidarity the pain of accusation. “And they made his grave with the wicked” (Is 53:9). It was against such accusations of the futility of faith and hope that he became our Advocate and promised to send “another Paraclete”, the Holy Spirit, who as the soul of the Church enables all Christians to be “paracletic” against the external and internal voices that try to tell us that our hope is mere folly. Under the Cross, Mary endures in unbroken hope the sting of this written accusation and becomes for the accused, the innocent and the guilty, a refugium reorum, a refugium peccatorum, the mother of a paracletic Church, a defender of hope in God’s love for us. It is this share in the paracletic mission of Christ and his Spirit as continued in the Church that invites us to invoke Mary and to seek in prayer, religion and justice to join her as the “Consolatio afflictorum” and the “Auxilium Christianorum“. It is also one of the profound truths of intercessory prayer: “What we do through others, we somehow do through ourselves.”

Novena: The Assumption of Mary


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