St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
St. Louis de Montfort’s Mariology is often misinterpreted, just as, unfortunately, many, if not most books about devotion to Mary are misunderstood by non-Catholics, and not a few Catholics as well. Anti-Catholic Protestants (a small, fringe wing of Protestantism) often seize on these works and cite things out of context, making it appear that Catholics have practically raised Mary to the Godhead.
All things have to be considered in context: in the work they are drawn from, and in the overall context of Catholic theology and spirituality. True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin is available online, for anyone to read and study, at no cost. That allows anyone to examine the context of the entire work. When we examine this particular work of the great French saint (1673-1716) closely, in response to the exaggerated accusations, we find many passages centering on Jesus, that the critics never seem to mention (or if so, only in passing). Catholic teaching is always balanced; it never goes to extremes.
In chapter two — “In What Devotion to Mary Consists” — we find the basic outline of the saint’s position on the entire matter. These are the premises with which he begins his treatment of Marian devotion. Any critique cannot proceed without keeping these presuppositions in mind:
Basic principles of devotion to Mary
60. Having spoken briefly of the necessity of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, I must now explain what this devotion consists in. This I will do with God’s help after I have laid down certain basic truths which throw light on the remarkable and sound devotion which I propose to unfold.
First principle: Christ must be the ultimate end of all devotions
61. Jesus, our Saviour, true God and true man must be the ultimate end of all our other devotions; otherwise they would be false and misleading. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of everything. “We labour,” says St. Paul, “only to make all men perfect in Jesus Christ.”
For in him alone dwells the entire fullness of the divinity and the complete fullness of grace, virtue and perfection. In him alone we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing; he is the only teacher from whom we must learn; the only Lord on whom we should depend; the only Head to whom we should be united and the only model that we should imitate. He is the only Physician that can heal us; the only Shepherd that can feed us; the only Way that can lead us; the only Truth that we can believe; the only Life that can animate us. He alone is everything to us and he alone can satisfy all our desires.
We are given no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. God has laid no other foundation for our salvation, perfection and glory than Jesus. Every edifice which is not built on that firm rock, is founded upon shifting sands and will certainly fall sooner or later. Every one of the faithful who is not united to him is like a branch broken from the stem of the vine. It falls and withers and is fit only to be burnt. If we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us, we need not fear damnation. Neither angels in heaven nor men on earth, nor devils in hell, no creature whatever can harm us, for no creature can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Through him, with him and in him, we can do all things and render all honour and glory to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit; we can make ourselves perfect and be for our neighbour a fragrance of eternal life.
62. If then we are establishing sound devotion to our Blessed Lady, it is only in order to establish devotion to our Lord more perfectly, by providing a smooth but certain way of reaching Jesus Christ. If devotion to our Lady distracted us from our Lord, we would have to reject it as an illusion of the devil. But this is far from being the case. As I have already shown and will show again later on, this devotion is necessary, simply and solely because it is a way of reaching Jesus perfectly, loving him tenderly, and serving him faithfully.
An evangelical Protestant shouldn’t (and, I suspect, in most cases wouldn’t) have the slightest problem with what is written above about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; in fact, in the portions that don’t directly mention Mary, most evangelical Protestants would probably assume it wasn’t even written by a Catholic.
We can’t cite one thing without taking into consideration the other. Critics of the Church will seize upon single sentences of fragments of sentences about Mary (and ignore material like that above) and falsely assume that this means that Jesus is being denigrated or “demoted” — when in fact this is not the case at all.
The Catholic outlook is “both / and.” The fact that Jesus is the ultimate end of all our devotions and spiritual aspirations does not rule out the notion of human mediation (soaked in God’s grace and by that grace alone) in order to help us to approach Jesus.
But far from teaching that no Christian can pray directly to Jesus, St. Louis does so himself in the very next section:
63. Here I turn to you for a moment, dear Jesus, to complain lovingly to your divine Majesty that the majority of Christians, and even some of the most learned among them, do not recognise the necessary bond that unites you and your Blessed Mother. Lord, you are always with Mary and Mary is always with you. She can never be without you because then she would cease to be what she is. She is so completely transformed into you by grace that she no longer lives, she no longer exists, because you alone, dear Jesus, live and reign in her more perfectly than in all the angels and saints. If we only knew the glory and the love given to you by this wonderful creature, our feelings for you and for her would be far different from those we have now. So intimately is she united to you that it would be easier to separate light from the sun, and heat from the fire. I go further, it would even be easier to separate all the angels and saints from you than Mary; for she loves you ardently, and glorifies you more perfectly than all your other creatures put together.
64. In view of this, my dear Master, is it not astonishing and pitiful to see the ignorance and short-sightedness of men with regard to your holy Mother? I am not speaking so much of idolaters and pagans who do not know you and consequently have no knowledge of her. I am not even speaking of heretics and schismatics who have left you and your holy Church and therefore are not interested in your holy Mother. I am speaking of Catholics, and even of educated Catholics, who profess to teach the faith to others but do not know you or your Mother except speculatively, in a dry, cold and sterile way.
These people seldom speak of your Mother or devotion to her. They say they are afraid that devotion to her will be abused and that you will be offended by excessive honour paid to her. They protest loudly when they see or hear a devout servant of Mary speak frequently with feeling, conviction and vigour of devotion to her. When he speaks of devotion to her as a sure means of finding and loving you without fear or illusion, or when he says this devotion is a short road free from danger, or an immaculate way free from imperfection, or a wondrous secret of finding you, they put before him a thousand specious reasons to show him how wrong he is to speak so much of Mary. There are, they say, great abuses in this devotion which we should try to stamp out and we should refer people to you rather than exhort them to have devotion to your Mother, whom they already love adequately.
If they are sometimes heard speaking of devotion to your Mother, it is not for the purpose of promoting it or convincing people of it but only to destroy the abuses made of it. Yet all the while these persons are devoid of piety or genuine devotion to you, for they have no devotion to Mary. They consider the Rosary and the Scapular as devotions suitable only for simple women or ignorant people. After all, they say, we do not need them to be saved. If they come across one who loves our Lady, who says the rosary or shows any devotion towards her, they soon move him to a change of mind and heart. They advise him to say the seven penitential psalms instead of the Rosary, and to show devotion to Jesus instead of to Mary.
Dear Jesus, do these people possess your spirit? Do they please you by acting in this way? Would it please you if we were to make no effort to give pleasure to your Mother because we are afraid of offending you? Does devotion to your holy Mother hinder devotion to you? Does Mary keep for herself any honour we pay her? Is she a rival of yours? Is she a stranger having no kinship with you? Does pleasing her imply displeasing you? Does the gift of oneself to her constitute a deprivation for you? Is love for her a lessening of our love for you?
65. Nevertheless, my dear Master, the majority of learned scholars could not be further from devotion to your Mother, or show more indifference to it even if all I have just said were true. Keep me from their way of thinking and acting and let me share your feelings of gratitude, esteem, respect and love for your holy Mother. I can then love and glorify you all the more, because I will be imitating and following you more closely.
66. As though I had said nothing so far to further her honour, grant me now the grace to praise her more worthily, in spite of all her enemies who are also yours. I can then say to them boldly with the saints, “Let no one presume to expect mercy from God, who offends his holy Mother.”
67. So that I may obtain from your mercy a genuine devotion to your blessed Mother and spread it throughout the whole world, help me to love you wholeheartedly, and for this intention accept the earnest prayer I offer with St. Augustine and all who truly love you.
Then he cites a “Prayer of St. Augustine” to Jesus, that goes on for another three paragraphs. He continues in the next section:
68. From what Jesus Christ is in regard to us we must conclude, as St. Paul says, that we belong not to ourselves but entirely to him as his members and his slaves, for he bought us at an infinite price – the shedding of his Precious Blood. Before baptism, we belonged to the devil as slaves, but baptism made us in very truth slaves of Jesus.
We must therefore live, work and die for the sole purpose of bringing forth fruit for him, glorifying him in our body and letting him reign in our soul. We are his conquest, the people he has won, his heritage.
It is for this reason that the Holy Spirit compares us: 1) to trees that are planted along the waters of grace in the field of the Church and which must bear their fruit when the time comes; 2) to branches of the vine of which Jesus is the stem, which must yield good grapes; 3) to a flock of sheep of which Jesus is the Shepherd, which must increase and give milk; 4) to good soil cultivated by God, where the seed will spread and produce crops up to thirty-fold, sixty-fold, or a hundred-fold. Our Lord cursed the barren fig-tree and condemned the slothful servant who wasted his talent.
All this proves that he wishes to receive some fruit from our wretched selves, namely, our good works, which by right belong to him alone, “created in Jesus Christ for good works”. These words of the Holy Spirit show that Jesus is the sole source and must be the sole end of all our good works, and that we must serve him not just as paid servants but as slaves of love.
He makes clear in sections 72 and 73 shortly afterward, that Mary is far below Jesus:
72. . . . Our Lady gave us the same example when she called herself the handmaid or slave of the Lord. The Apostle considered it an honour to be called “slave of Christ”. Several times in Holy Scripture, Christians are referred to as “slaves of Christ”.
The Latin word “servus” at one time signified only a slave because servants as we know them did not exist. Masters were served either by slaves or by freedmen. The Catechism of the Council of Trent leaves no doubt about our being slaves of Jesus Christ, using the unequivocal term “Mancipia Christi”, which plainly means: slaves of Christ.
73. Granting this, I say that we must belong to Jesus and serve him not just as hired servants but as willing slaves who, moved by generous love, commit themselves to his service after the manner of slaves for the honour of belonging to him. Before we were baptised we were the slaves of the devil, but baptism made us the slaves of Jesus. Christians can only be slaves of the devil or slaves of Christ.
Now, he will go on to say many things about Mary that will sound scandalous to Protestant ears and even the Catholic ears of those who need to receive more education about Catholic Mariology and how it all fits together in the overall picture. But note how the saint qualifies, in order to make the distinction between Mary and Christ clear:
74. What I say in an absolute sense of our Lord, I say in a relative sense of our Blessed Lady. . . .
75. Following therefore the teaching of the saints and of many great men we can call ourselves, and become, the loving slaves of our Blessed Lady in order to become more perfect slaves of Jesus. Mary is the means our Lord chose to come to us and she is also the means we should choose to go to him, . . . Mary’s strongest inclination is to unite us to Jesus, her Son, and her Son’s strongest wish is that we come to him through his Blessed Mother. . . .
The mediatorship of Mary is a vastly misunderstood doctrine of the Church. It horrifies many Catholics, as well as virtually all Protestants who hear about it. But if it is understood against the biblical backdrop of things like Paul’s own mediatorship (see chapters 18 amd 19) it is not at all the terrible and allegedly grossly “unbiblical” thing it is too often made out to be.
One common problem with many people who object to the Catholic Marian doctrines (that is, the “Catholic Mary”), is that they are unfamiliar even with the basic outlines of historic Marian theology (going back to the early Church and the Bible itself). Yet they will jump right into St. Louis or St. Alphonsus de Liguori: books that present a very advanced, nuanced Mariology. Of course that won’t be understood at first, because the person has not learned about the underlying premises upon which they are based.
But as we have seen above, and in my similar treatment of St. Alphonsus in the next chapter, the neglect of context itself is one of the big methodological problems at hand.
One citation from the book that is particularly objectionable to Protestants is the following, where St. Louis was discussing Mary‘s secondary mediatorial role:
83. It is more perfect because it supposes greater humility to approach God through a mediator rather than directly by ourselves. Our human nature, as I have just shown, is so spoilt that if we rely on our own work, effort and preparedness to reach God and please him, it is certain that our good works will be tainted and carry little weight with him. They will not induce him to unite himself to us or answer our prayers.
In the context before and after, St. Louis is concerned with the most effective, highest level of approach to Jesus that a Christian can have, and he believes that is through Mary, our Lord’s mother. There are deeper and deeper levels of Catholic spirituality. He is writing about the highest level, but recognizes that most Christians will never understand this, let alone practice it, by stating in the preceding section:
82. Thirdly, we must choose among all the devotions to the Blessed Virgin the one which will lead us more surely to this dying to self. This devotion will be the best and the most sanctifying for us. For we must not believe that all that glitters is gold, all that is sweet is honey, or all that is easy to do and is done by the majority of people is the most sanctifying. Just as in nature there are secrets enabling us to do certain natural things quickly, easily and at little cost, so in the spiritual life there are secrets which enable us to perform works rapidly, smoothly and with facility. Such works are, for example, emptying ourselves of self-love, filling ourselves with God, and attaining perfection.
The devotion that I propose to explain is one of these secrets of grace, for it is unknown to most Christians. Only a few devout people know of it and it is practised and appreciated by fewer still.
Note the qualifiers: it is not “either/or” (as if no one can pray to Jesus, as the author did himself, not much earlier in the book), but “good, better, and best,” spiritually speaking. Thus, he uses comparative language: “the best and the most sanctifying,” “so in the spiritual life there are secrets,” “one of these secrets of grace,” etc. Right after the offending section, he wrote:
God had his reasons for giving us mediators with him. He saw our unworthiness and helplessness and had pity on us. To give us access to his mercies he provided us with powerful advocates, so that to neglect these mediators and to approach his infinite holiness directly and without help from any one of them, is to be lacking in humility and respect towards God who is so great and holy. It would mean that we have less esteem for the King of kings than for an earthly king or ruler, for we would not dare approach an earthly king without a friend to speak for us.
In the next section, he goes back to the Christocentric emphasis:
84. Our Lord is our Advocate and our Mediator of redemption with God the Father. It is through him that we must pray with the whole Church, triumphant and militant. It is through him that we have access to God the Father. We should never appear before God, our Father, unless we are supported by the merits of his Son, and, so to speak, clothed in them, as young Jacob was clothed in the skin of the young goats when he appeared before his father Isaac to receive his blessing.
He goes on to teach about having a mediator in order to reach Christ as well, who is our advocate with the Father. Is this some heretical or unbiblical thing? It is not at all. In fact, prayer itself is such a mediation. We routinely go to others and ask them to pray for us. We tend to go to people whom we regard as particularly spiritual or righteous people, to do so (and Protestants do the same).
The elders of the church serve as intermediaries. Prayer is an intermediary force, and a means of forgiveness. We confess to one another and pray for one another and that leads to healing. The righteous man prayed and it was more powerful than others’ prayers: he could even stop the rain for over three years, and start it up again. People help others, bringing back sinners, and it is said that they “will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).
That’s all mediation. If a righteous person has more effective prayer, it makes eminent sense to go to the most righteous creature who ever lived, the Immaculate Mary. She still exists; she is more alive than ever, and is aware of earthly events, just as Hebrews 12:1 talks about the “cloud of witnesses” observing us from heaven, and just as we see the souls under the altar in heaven praying (Revelation 6:9-10), and “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders” (Revelation 5:8) and angels (Revelation 8:3-4) offering to God “the prayers of the saints.” It’s all perfectly, explicitly biblical.
One could go on searching for “Jesus” or “Christ” in the work and find many more statements of proper priorities and emphasis. To cite just one more:
120. As all perfection consists in our being conformed, united and consecrated to Jesus it naturally follows that the most perfect of all devotions is that which conforms, unites, and consecrates us most completely to Jesus. Now of all God’s creatures Mary is the most conformed to Jesus. It therefore follows that, of all devotions, devotion to her makes for the most effective consecration and conformity to him. The more one is consecrated to Mary, the more one is consecrated to Jesus.
If there is anything St. Louis is not doing, he is not setting Mary against Jesus, let alone above Him. The end of all his Marian devotion is “being conformed, united and consecrated to Jesus” – something no Protestant could ever object to. Protestants may not like the means, but the ends are beyond all dispute.
Moreover, it is clearly a principle that we help each other in the Body of Christ, not just through prayer but through other works of penance. If we observe the Apostle Paul in this regard, we see this quite clearly:
2 Corinthians 1:5-7 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
Galatians 6:17 Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
2 Timothy 4:6 For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. (cf. Philippians 2:17; 3:10)
Therefore, if Paul’s sufferings help the spiritual life of other Christians, even unto salvation (2 Corinthians 1:5-7) certainly the intercessory prayer and love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who never sinned, and who bore our Lord and Savior and raised Him as a child, have powerful effects as well.
If Paul’s penances and his own use as a channel of grace and salvation are legitimate (see chapter 18), so are Mary’s prayers and mediatory work, by the same token. If hers are invalid; so are Paul’s. It’s all scriptural, and it seems to me that all of these things are perfectly consistent with each other.