By: Fr David Stewart SJ
Generations of Catholics have long known the month of May as Mary’s month. Ignatian spirituality provides us with a wonderful way of combining the Pope’s First Intention of this month, “that Christians in Africa, in imitation of the Merciful Jesus, may give prophetic witness to reconciliation, justice, and peace”, with our particular devotional focus this month. St Ignatius recommends, in his Spiritual Exercises, that we take our petitions to Our Lady and ask her to present them to her Son who in turn will present them to the Father. It is a particularly intense form of prayer in the Exercises, sometimes known as the “Triple Colloquy”. And when we pray this way, placing ourselves as far as we can inside the mystery of the Trinity, we try always to be mindful that our prayer is not meant somehow to change the mind or intentions of God; rather, it is very likely to change us, if we are open to having our hearts touched and our own intentions changed. We might even become more like Mary, who knew Jesus better than any of us. She expressed the fullest possible answer to prayer than any of us could ever experience when she said, “be it done to me according to your word”. Few of us are able to make that prayer; most of us hold something back.
Soon after she made that great prayer, and the angel left her and her unique ministry commenced, Mary made another great prayer that has become known as the Magnificat, from its Latin opening word. It has been correctly described as a prayer of reversals, turning the established values of the world upside-down so that our world might resemble more closely what God’s dream for it, for us, once was even though we have corrupted it since. The values of the Magnificat are an imitation of the Merciful Jesus, cited in this month’s Intention. It is a prayer for “prophetic witness to reconciliation, justice and peace” just like the Pope’s First Intention offered to us this month. Could we pray for that intention, this month, with Mary and as the Holy Father asks, together approach her Son, who is Mercy?
As we reflect, with Mary, on this month’s First Intention, we might note that it is not just a suggestion that we pray for reconciliation, justice and peace, in Africa as for any place on earth, as if we could ever do so without any personal challenge to ourselves to act for these things too. We can, even if for most of us the African continent is a faraway place that we’ll never visit. For Africa, a rich, huge but troubled continent, contains so much difficulty and genuine challenge to humanity, and most people probably think of words like famine, apartheid, war and conflict, tribalism and, sadly, genocide whenever the continent is mentioned. But as the story in this month’s “Living Prayer 2017” points out, there are wonderful examples of reconciliation too. A school principal speaks for many when he asserts that “anger and revenge will not achieve anything; patience with each other leads to peace.” Similarly, for us, stereotyping and writing off the whole of Africa and all its peoples as a lost, “dark” continent, will achieve nothing at all but if we recognise the real progress made there, the many efforts towards reconciliation and peace and adopt a more merciful attitude, we will have begun to give that prophetic witness that the Pope asks for.
It’s not just in May that we can focus on a particular angle of our faith. Indeed, almost every point of the church’s year there is some devotion, or angle on our faith and practice, that we can follow and these are all a help to us, so it’s maybe a little unfortunate that many of us think only of Advent and Lent when it comes to liturgical special seasons. May is one among many; Mary gets honoured again in October, while there are so many other seasons, such as Eastertide, which continues into this month this year, and next month is, of course, specifically dedicated to the Heart of Christ. We Catholic people have evolved these devotional times and practices; hardly any of them were decreed by bishops, cardinals or Popes (and certainly not by committees!). We’ve always done this because we know that all things and all times speak of God and because what is beyond our immediate perception is yet real and deep. We sometimes call this our Catholic sacramental imagination. God is revealed in all these times and places, as God is to be found in the nations and cultures of Africa. God calls us to reconciliation, justice and peace there too and this month’s reflection asks us to consider, not if we have a part to play in this, although so far away, but how. Pray this intention, as Pope Francis will do himself this month, and offer it to Jesus through Mary, and we will be shown how!
Prayer and Scripture Moment: to bring Mary into your prayer, as described above, by pondering her generous response in the Annunciation (Lk.1:26-38) and then her great response, a little later on, after she had been reflecting on these things with her cousin – the subversive set of intentions of the Magnificat (Lk.1:46-55).
Personal reflection moment: what words, phrases or concepts come to mind when I think of the African continent? Am I possibly too caught up in the negative images that abound? Have I taken the trouble to inform myself of the huge potential, and the progress already made, in human development and in the reconciliation, justice and peace that this month’s Intention advocates? Perhaps I, or my ancestors come from an African country; do I stay with old images, perhaps old conflicts, which could so easily become hardened attitudes or prejudices, or do I actively support more optimistic attitudes – in myself, in others? And there are refugees to consider; they should never be far from our thoughts and our Christian service. So many of those come from parts of Africa.
Let me also reflect on my attitude to refugees this month. Do I say and do enough to oppose the government’s unfair treatment of people who are destitute, whose only crime is to have tried to escape persecution and poverty? Or do I take the easy way out, aligning my thinking with “official” policies? How would Mary’s Magnificat look if I turned to it in the context of refugees, from Africa or from elsewhere? Might I even recall that, soon after she uttered that great reflection, Mary herself would become a refugee?
A suggested Daily Offering: (from the Living Prayer booklet of the Pope’s Prayer Network 2017):
Merciful Father, I thank you for the gift of a new day. May the prayers of the Virgin Mary bring us protection this day and freedom form sin, that we may share the joy of the Gospel with others. I offer you this day for the intentions of Pope Francis for this month.
We still have a few copies of the 2017 Living Prayer booklet; order on email@example.com