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Pope Francis and the Mother of Mercy


Bishop Michael C. Barber, S.J.

Pope Francis venerates an image of Mary on the feast of the Assumption at Castel Gandolfo Aug. 15, 2013. (CNS photo/Giampiero Sposito, Reuters)

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been pope for less than 24 hours when, on the morning following his election, he called for a car to take him across the city. The first place the bishop of Rome chose to visit outside the Vatican was the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the first church in the West dedicated to the Mother of God. Once inside, Pope Francis venerated the image of Mary under the title Salus Populi Romani (Salvation of the Roman People), patroness of the city of Rome.

Of mysterious origins, this image of Mary was originally carried in procession by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, as he and the people of Rome prayed to Mary for deliverance from the plague. Notably, “salus” can also be translated as “health,” and on a second visit to the basilica 40 days after his election, Pope Francis spoke of Our Lady’s concern for the health of her children.

“Mary is the mother, and a mother worries above all about the health of her children,” Pope Francis said. “Like a buona mamma [good mom],” he added, “she helps us grow, to confront life, to be free.”

Over the past five decades as a Jesuit priest, bishop and now pope, the Holy Father has expressed a tender devotion to the Blessed Mother under various titles, from Our Lady of Luján to Mary, Undoer of Knots.

Father Bergoglio once told the Jesuits in his care, “The magisterium will tell you who Mary is, but it is our believing people who will teach you how to love Mary.”

Expressed by simple piety grounded in rich theology, Pope Francis’ filial loyalty to Our Lady is a matter of both the head and the heart.


The roots of Pope Francis’ devotion to and theology of Mary can be traced to his Jesuit vocation. When the pope speaks of the central mysteries of our faith, we Jesuits listen to his words as eagerly as everyone else, and we can’t help but say to ourselves, “I know where he got that!”

Young Jorge Bergoglio’s spirituality and devotion were formed in the training he received to become a priest in the Society of Jesus. The Holy Father underscored this fact last summer during an interview with reporters on his flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro: “I feel Jesuit in my spirituality, in the spirituality of the Exercises, the spirituality, that which I have in my heart. I haven’t changed my spirituality, no. Francis, Franciscan, no. I feel Jesuit and I think like a Jesuit.”

Just what are the “Exercises” that the pope mentioned? The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius comprise the meditations of the 30-day, strictly silent, guided retreat that all Jesuits — including Father Bergoglio — make twice in their lives.

As a young priest, Father Bergoglio was appointed by the father general to be novice master, which meant he also preached the Spiritual Exercises to the young men beginning their Jesuit formation. They say that if you want to know something well, teach it. It is in this retreat, in these Exercises, that we find the main source of Pope Francis’ Marian devotion.

In the course of the retreat, St. Ignatius frequently directs the retreatant to “converse with Our Lady” in a warm and familiar manner. We are told to ask her for what we desire. Then St. Ignatius tells us what to ask for: “I will ask her to intercede with her Son for the grace to feel sorry for my sins” or “that I may be placed under his standard.” During these 30 days, St. Ignatius directs us to ask for many things, but one theme in particular recurs continually: “I will ask Our Lady to place me with her Son.”

Father Bergoglio incorporated this request to Mary into his own ministry. In a profound talk given while serving as a Jesuit superior in Argentina, the future pope said, “We need to pray to the Blessed Virgin, so much loved as she is by our people, that she should be willing to place us with her Son, and also thereby, in this simple request, to recover our identity as men of the Church.”

Since his election, Francis has continued to preach on this Ignatian theme. In October 2013, he said, “Mary points to Jesus. She asks us to bear witness to Jesus. She constantly guides us to her Son Jesus, because in him alone do we find salvation. He alone can change the water of our loneliness, difficulties and sin into the wine of encounter, joy and forgiveness. He alone.”


Together with the traditional Jesuit devotions to Our Lady of Montserrat and the Madonna della Strada (Our Lady of the Way), the Holy Father has long shown his personal devotion to Mary under three titles: Our Lady of Luján, patroness of Argentina; Our Lady of Aparecida, patroness of Brazil; and perhaps his favorite, Mary, Undoer of Knots.

Archbishop Bergoglio often used to assist in the pastoral ministry of the pilgrims coming to Our Lady of Luján’s shrine in Buenos Aires, including celebrating Masses, hearing confessions and providing spiritual counseling. As a member and president of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, he would often go to meetings at the Marian shrine of Aparecida in Brazil. He returned there last July for World Youth Day and was visibly emotional — shaking actually — as he reverenced the Black Virgin’s statue.

With such flourishing Marian shrines in Latin America, it is unusual that Father Bergoglio imported a devotion from faraway Germany to his homeland. Sent abroad for studies following his ordination, Father Bergoglio discovered a painting of the Blessed Virgin titled “Undoer of Knots” in Augsburg and brought a postcard copy back to Argentina.

The history of the devotion is traced to 1615 when a couple on the verge of divorce went to see a Jesuit priest, known for his Marian devotion, for counseling. The couple brought their white wedding ribbon, which, according to Bavarian custom, had been used to tie their hands together as a sign of unity during their nuptial Mass. Praying fervently that the couple’s problems would be resolved, the priest took the ribbon and held it up before an image of Our Lady and proceeded to untie the ribbon’s knots. As the last knot came undone, the ribbon miraculously glowed whiter, and the priest took it as a sign of Our Lady’s favor. The couple stayed together, and a painting was later commissioned to commemorate the event.

Years later, Bishop Bergoglio asked that copies of the painting be displayed in churches and chapels throughout the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. As cardinal, he had a chalice made with the image of Mary, Undoer of Knots and, in an act of particular tenderness and devotion, presented it to Pope Benedict XVI following the German pope’s election.

I believe this particular title of Mary appeals to Pope Francis because he was constantly helping people with relationship issues during his priesthood. This year on St. Valentine’s Day, Pope Francis spoke off the cuff to 25,000 engaged couples in St. Peter’s Square: “We all know the perfect family does not exist. The perfect husband does not exist, and the perfect wife does not exist.” Then, the punch line: “Let’s not even talk about perfect mothers-in-law.” The crowd roared.

Pope Francis has clearly shown that he is in touch with common people and our everyday problems. And he knows where we should take these difficulties: to Our Lady.

Addressing a crowd in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 12, 2013, he said, “We know one thing: nothing is impossible for God’s mercy! Even the most tangled knots are loosened by his grace. And Mary, whose ‘yes’ opened the door for God to undo the knot of the ancient disobedience, is the Mother who patiently and lovingly brings us to God, so that he can untangle the knots of our soul by his fatherly mercy.”

If you, like me, are suffering from some difficulties — some knots — in your life, do what Pope Francis does: Go to Mary. Ask her to place you with her Son. Ask her to untie your knots.

MOST REV. MICHAEL C. BARBER, S.J., was appointed the fifth bishop of Oakland, Calif., by Pope Francis in May 2013 and ordained to the episcopate later that month. He is a member of Christ the Light Council 15191 in Oakland.