Under Our Lady's Mantle
Swords unsheathed and held aloft, Fourth Degree Knights stood on guard as a framed image of Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception was carried in procession to the altar of St. Eugene de Mazenod Church on March 29.
In his homily, Father Adam Filas said that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the first Christian, the first believer in Jesus, adding, “We welcome her with open hearts and open minds.”
Father Filas, a priest of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and a member of St. Eugene de Mazenod Council 12916, is pastor of the Brampton, Ontario, church, which he calls “very Marian-oriented.” Located within the Archdiocese of Toronto, St. Eugene Church consists largely of Polish parishioners and includes shrines of Our Lady of Ludźmierz and St. John Paul II, who was deeply devoted to Mary.
It is little wonder, then, that Father Filas, his fellow Knights and the parishioners warmly welcomed the image of the Immaculate Conception, which is at the heart of the current Knights of Columbus Marian Prayer Program.
Through this international initiative, hundreds of blessed copies of the Marian image are traveling from council to council within each jurisdiction. Over the course of the two-year program, which was launched last August, Knights have been facilitating thousands of prayer services for councils and communities, celebrating Mary’s pivotal role in the Church in a unique way. It is the 16th Orderwide program using a sacred image as its centerpiece, together gathering some 16 million people in prayer since 1979.
DECADES OF DEVOTION
Past Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant initiated the first Marian Hour of Prayer 35 years ago, two years after taking office, in order to help renew devotion to the Blessed Virgin and to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. According to Dechant, the pilgrim virgin statue of Our Lady of Fatima inspired the form that the program would take.
“When I was a young man in Kansas, we looked forward to the Our Lady of Fatima program, which had a statue that went from parish to parish,” he said. “It built up a lot of devotion to Our Lady from the late ’50s to the ’70s.”
Dechant believed that the Fatima program could be adapted in a wonderfully effective way by the Knights. Instead of using statues, they would use a number of traveling paintings. And aware of Pope John Paul II’s close relationship with the Blessed Mother, the Supreme Council formally requested that the pope bless each copy, a tradition that continues today.
The image chosen for the inaugural program was Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas.
“By picking Our Lady of Guadalupe, we really tied together Mexico and the Philippines and the United States,” Dechant explained. “It helped us create a great international bond under Our Lady, and it just took hold.”
The images of Our Lady were passed from council to council, where a special hour of Marian prayer was held in the presence of the image. Redemptorist Father John V. McGuire, then-director of the Order’s Catholic Information Service, was charged with developing the first prayer service. Father McGuire was, according to Dechant, “a great writer and very pragmatic,” and continued to assist drafting and revising subsequent programs.
Since Mary is honored under a wide range of titles and images throughout the Church, there has never been a shortage of icons for the Knights to choose from.
Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, in his 2004 annual report, observed, “Our Marian prayer services, which over the years have used various depictions of Our Lady from many countries and traditions, reflect the rich cultural and ethnic heritage of the Knights of Columbus.”
In all but three of the 16 Orderwide prayer programs, Marian images have served as centerpieces, ranging from the familiar images of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Our Lady of Częstochowa to lesser-known Madonnas, such as Our Lady of Pochaiv and Our Lady of Charity. (Editor’s note: Additional information about the individual prayer programs are included in the timeline beginning on page 8.)
In each case, participants everywhere have enthusiastically embraced the program, even when the featured image is relatively unfamiliar to their culture. For example, in Poland during the 2011-12 program featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe, 30,000 people visited the image in the city of Rzeszów alone.
“The faithful came to me and said that Our Lady came to visit them because they did not have the money to travel to Mexico,” said Father Janusz Kosior, chaplain of St. Hedwig the Queen Council 15268 in Rzeszów. “They thought of it as their holiday, and they made a pilgrimage from different areas of our province.”
In the Philippines, where the Immaculate Conception was declared patroness in 1942, the current program is being received with open arms. “The Blessed Virgin Mary has always had a special place in the spiritual journey of the Filipinos,” said Anthony Nazaro, state secretary of Visayas. Following last year’s devastating typhoon, he said that the prayer program has been “a source of strength for many and a refuge for those who experience difficulty.”
LEADING US TO CHRIST
The current Marian Prayer Program, which was launched at the 131st Supreme Convention in San Antonio in August 2013, for the second time features Mary as the Immaculate Conception. To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec, the image chosen for the program is a reproduction of a painting that hangs above the main altar at the basilica-cathedral in Québec City. Sister Mary of the Eucharist, a Sister of Charity of Québec, composed the colorful image after a fire at the cathedral destroyed the original 18th-century painting in 1922.
At the inauguration ceremony of the current program, now-Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, archbishop of Québec, addressed those assembled: “May Our Lady accompany our Church and all the members of our Order all over the world. Like her, we want to be open to the Holy Spirit and available to accomplish God’s plan in today’s world.”
Communal as well as personal intentions play an integral part in the prayer service. Members of Council 12916 in Brampton, for instance, offered prayers for respect of the life from conception to natural death. District Deputy John Rafacz of Ontario District #103 included thanks for answered prayers when kidney failure had threatened his life eight years ago.
Grand Knight Slavek Piskorski said that he prayed for global peace and “unity within families so that they will stay strong and healthy,” adding that the parish also hosted workshops for couples and families around the time that the pilgrim image was at the church.
Whatever their intentions, the Marian Prayer Program “brings people together to serve the Church, to celebrate and to worship,” said District Deputy Terrence Long of Ontario District #43. “It brings Knights together, families together, the community together,” he added, underscoring the Order’s ability to foster unity and devotion.
Indeed, the Marian Prayer Program remains one of the most visible and popular spiritual initiatives sponsored by the Knights.
“This is fundamental evangelization,” said Past Supreme Knight Dechant. “I think that the Knights have helped an awful lot in bringing people back to the faith and to the rosary. And, of course, the traveling Madonna has played a significant role. With so many councils participating, that’s a tremendous program.”
Over the years, the rosary-centered program has developed so that Knights can organize a prayer service with or without a priest. The current program booklet contains a Liturgy of the Word, intercessions and Marian hymns and prayers, including instructions on praying the rosary. Pope Francis’ homily from the Solemnity of the Assumption, Aug. 15, 2013, is also included, in case a bishop, priest or deacon is not leading the service and preaching a homily of his own.
The prayer program at St. Eugene Church was adapted and incorporated into the March 29 Mass, which celebrated Founder’s Day and included prayers for the cause for canonization of Venerable Michael McGivney.
Father Filas blessed the image of the Immaculate Conception with incense and expressed in his homily the hope that those present might turn in prayer to the Blessed Virgin as their mother. She intercedes on our behalf, helping us to imitate Jesus to overcome temptation and sin, he said.
“Experiences of Marian devotion bring conversion,” said Father Filas, adding that when we follow Mary, “We become better people, live better lives and become joyful witnesses of Christ in this world.”
RUANE REMY is a reporter and youth editor for The Catholic Register, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Toronto.