True Devotion: The Book and the Practice
In 1861 just a century ago a young French missionary was imprisoned like a bird in a cage in Indo-China, scene of so much trouble today. For two long months he was actually chained in this cage, daily expecting and hoping for martyrdom. Some of his companions had been tortured and killed in a brutal manner. Finally, he too was martyred by beheading.
Today we honor this young priest as Blessed Theophane Venard. Many of us have read the fascinating account of his life and his interesting letters.
Blessed Theophane had a tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the day before he died he consecrated himself to her according to the formula of St. Grignion De Montfort, using his own blood to sign the consecration.
Many persons today feel that True Devotion, the book written by St. De Montfort and the devotion recommended by him, is too little known even by priests and is too little recommended. They feel this way because of the tremendous popularity of True Devotion among the laity; because it is so highly recommended by popes, bishops, theologians, and spiritual writers; because it is so valuable in the guidance of souls; because it is an unexcelled means of holiness for clergy, religious, and laity alike; and because it is often misunderstood. They are certain that True Devotion is not only for saints and that it is not only for the last moment of life.
The book, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, was discovered in an old chest in 1842, some 126 years after the death of St. De Montfort. Today, in more than 130 editions and in many languages, True Devotion is known throughout the world.
The Legion of Mary, for example, strongly suggests De Montfort's devotion to its regular and auxiliary members. Some time ago, the editors of Inter Nos, a special bulletin for lay officers of the Third Order of St. Francis, mailed out a copy of The Secret of Mary (an abridged version of True Devotion) with the suggestion: "Perhaps a careful reading of this little booklet will change your life as it has the lives of many already."
Don Sharkey, lay author of The Woman Shall Conquer and many other books, calls De Montfort's devotion "the key to understanding the role of the Blessed Virgin in the modern world."
True Devotion, the book and its practice, has certainly been approved in an eminent degree by our recent Supreme Pontiffs. In July, 1903, as ninety-four-year-old Pope Leo XIII lay on his deathbed, he renewed the act of consecration to our Blessed Lady, the essence of True Devotion. He begged St. De Montfort, whom he has beatified in 1888, to help him. Previously he had granted a plenary indulgence to those who make True Devotion's act of consecration to Mary.
In 1904 the new Pope, Pius X, wrote an encyclical to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception. Beforehand he re-read True Devotion. His encyclical Ad Diem Illud echoes beautifully the strains of St. De Montfort's book. Pope St. Pius later said, "I heartily recommend True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, so admirably written by Blessed De Montfort, and to all who read it grant the Apostolic Benediction."
Pope Pius IX once said that Blessed De Montfort's devotion to Mary was the best and most acceptable form of devotion to our Lady. Pope Benedict XV called True Devotion "A book of high authority and unction."
Pope Pius XI practiced True Devotion from his youth. He once admitted he knew the book's contents almost by heart. Pope Pius XII said, "The force and unction of the words of Mary's servant (St. De Montfort) have not only touched, but have captivated and converted many souls." It was Pope Pius XII who canonized St. De Montfort on July 20, 1947.
Persons noted for their sanctity who practiced True Devotion, besides the popes mentioned and Blessed Theophane, include Matt Talbot, the reformed Irish drunkard, and Edel Quinn, zealous Legion of Mary envoy who died in Africa in 1944.
In years past, Cardinal Vaughan of England, Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, and Cardinal O'Connell of Boston all strongly recommended True Devotion. In our own day, among others, the liturgist and foe of Communism, Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, advocates St. De Montfort's path to Jesus through Mary.
Among theologians Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange devotes many pages of his book The Mother of the Savior and one full chapter of Volume II (The Three Ages of the Interior Life) to the treatment of True Devotion. "Even religious who have taken solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience can make this offering (St. De Montfort's) which will introduce them further into the mystery of the Communion of saints," he writes.
Father Tanquery spends four pages in his classic The Spiritual Life explaining True Devotion. Trappist Eugene Boylan in his book, This Tremendous Lover, intended primarily for the laity, says, "There is no better exponent of true devotion to Mary than Grignion de Montfort."
In his chapter "Consecration to Our Lady" in The Spiritual Life of the Priest, Father Boylan says, "Devotion to our Lady being so important for the priest, both for his own spiritual life and in his apostolic ministry, it is only right that we should examine the form of devotion which St. Louis Grignion de Montfort expounded in the True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin and in The Secret of Mary . . . Whatever we may think about the style there can be no question about either the sublimity or the soundness of the doctrine."
Father Frederick Faber, Don Chautard (The Soul of the Apostolate), Fathers Winfrid Herbst, Richard Ginder, and William G. Most are other clerical writers who highly recommend True Devotion, as do lay writers Baroness De Hueck, Eddie Doherty, and the recently deceased invalid, Mary Ellen Kelly.
True Devotion to Mary, according to De Montfort, is twofold. It consists in consecration complete dedication to Mary and, even more necessary, in the faithful living of that consecration. Rightfully lived, it means a total dependence upon, a total abandonment to Mary. True Devotion is a way of life, an habitual attitude by which we live and act in Mary. It is a short way to perfection and a royal road to heaven.
The goal and purpose of True Devotion is union with Christ. In his book De Montfort writes, "Jesus Christ our Savior, true God and true man, ought to be the last end of all our other devotions, else they are false and delusive."
St. De Montfort considered his form of devotion to Mary the most perfect he knew of. While many saints, popes, theologians, and spiritual writers recommend True Devotion as an exalted form of devotion to Mary, Pope Pius XII, in his allocution at the canonization of St. De Montfort, made clear that "true and perfect devotion to Our Blessed Lady is not so intimately tied up with various forms that any one of them can claim a monopoly." There are, then, other devotions to Mary embracing essentially the same ingredients as St. De Montfort's.
"True Devotion," in the words of St. De Montfort, "consists in giving ourselves entirely to our Lady, in order to belong entirely to Jesus through her. We must give her (1) our body . . . (2) our soul . . . (3) our exterior goods of fortune, whether present or to come, (4) our interior and spiritual goods, which are our merits and our virtues, and our good works, past, present and future. In a word, we must give her all we have in the order of nature, grace and glory; and this we must do without the reserve of so much as one farthing, one hair, or one least good action; and we must do it for all eternity . . . "
Because True Devotion is so sublime, so demanding, its practice raises various questions in the minds of those who hear it. For example, who should practice such an exalted devotion?
Garrigou-Lagrange feels that not all persons should be advised to practice True Devotion. He feels it is fitting only for "truly pious and fervent souls, at first for a time, from one feast of the Blessed Virgin to another, then for a year," and then later, for one's whole life.
Other authorities are not quite so reserved in suggesting the practice of True Devotion. Says the Legion of Mary Handbook (p. 207): "Lest some should be inclined to think that this Devotion can be practiced only by persons of advanced spirituality, it is important to record that it was to souls just emerging from the bondage of sin, and to whose darkened memory it was necessary to recall the elementary truths of the Catechism, that St. Louis Marie de Montfort spoke of the Rosary, of devotion to Mary, and of the Holy Slavery of Love."
In his preface to the revised edition of True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cardinal O'Connell of Boston wrote: "It is my happy privilege to recommend it (True Devotion) to everyone, following therein the example of our late Holy Father of blessed memory, Pius X . . . It is our conviction that a wider diffusion of this work . . . will draw from every walk of life to a greater interior perfection and a fuller development of Christian piety."
In explaining the nature of True Devotion, St. De Montfort himself says, "I speak particularly to the poor and simple, who, being of good will, believe more meritoriously . . . "
Many today suggest the practice of True Devotion even to children. There are, however, different degrees of understanding this consecration and of fulfilling it.
In his Three Ages of the Interior Life Garrigou-Lagrange speaks of three degrees of devotion to Mary of which total consecration is the third and most perfect. St. De Montfort himself is aware that not all will benefit fully from True Devotion. "Some will stop at what is exterior in it," he says, "and will go no further, and these will be the greatest number.
"Some, in small number, will enter into its inward spirit; but they will only mount one step. Who will mount to the second step? Who will get as far as the third? Lastly, who will so advance as to make this devotion his habitual state? He alone to whom the spirit of Jesus Christ shall have revealed this secret . . . "
Who, then, should make this consecration to Mary? Hardly those who do so for imperfect or worldly motives. Hardly those who have little or no intention of using it as the means of perfection that it is. Yet, we ought not demand the fullest understanding of True Devotion before we permit someone to practice it, at least for a time.
Father Richard Ginder, writing in Queen of All Hearts magazine, says, "From personal experience, I must say that True Devotion is not an infused sort of thing. It is acquired through long practice. While I wouldn't yet own that I am truly devout in the sense understood by St. Louis De Montfort, I do know that the past few years have seen a steady growth of intensity, of fervor, of confidence in the omnipotentia supplex of our Blessed Mother."
This consecration should not be made lightly, without consultation, prayer, and study, but any sincere person who will attempt to live up to it should be encouraged to do so.
Some spiritual writers feel that De Montfort's devotion is so powerful that Satan himself takes a hand in raising doubts concerning it. Among the many questions asked about it is, "Is True Devotion necessary for salvation?"
The answer, of course, is "No." While Mary is the Mediatress of all graces, while devotion to her is, in general, certainly helpful, formal devotion to Mary is not necessary for salvation, whether the formal devotion be St. De Montfort's consecration or any other. Like baptism of desire, which can flow from an implicit desire to do all that God wishes, an implicit devotion to Mary can suffice for salvation.
Again and again in his book St. De Montfort uses the term "slavery." Some readers object to this terminology. But the slavery St. Grignion speaks of isn't a slavery of brutality or of suffering. St. De Montfort's is a willing slavery, a slavery of love, an absolute dependence upon Mary. Properly understood, it is something to be desired. It expresses, as no other term does, our complete consecration to Jesus through Mary.
If we practice True Devotion and give everything to Mary, are we free to formulate our own prayer intentions? In other words, if we give the value of all our actions to Mary, may we, for example, pray for our deceased relatives and friends?
We are not only free to do so; it is good and occasionally necessary to pray for our own intentions, with a proper understanding of our dependence upon Mary.
St. De Montfort himself says, "This practice does not hinder us from praying for others whether dead or living, although the application of our good works depends on the will of our Blessed Lady. On the contrary, it is this very thing which will lead us to pray with more confidence . . . "
A similar manner of acting is true as far as making spiritual bouquets is concerned. We can make them as we would have made them before consecrating ourselves to Mary. We simply mentally annex the condition: "so many Masses, rosaries, ejaculations, etc., according to the degree Mary wishes them applied in this case."
As St. De Montfort tells us: "We make the offering of this devotion only according to the order of God and the duties of our state." All that is done is applied, for example, "without interfering with the obligations of a priest who, by his office or otherwise, ought to apply the satisfactory and impetratory value of the Holy Mass to some private person."
When a priest offers a Mass for his own private intention, he again should make it "according to the intentions of Mary" for such and such a person, "if it be Mary's will." Here, again, we reverence the knowledge and love of Mary. We ask her to apply our prayers for us, knowing full well that she can and will apply them better than we can ourselves.
Can we pray to the other saints if we practice this devotion? We can and should. In our vocal prayers, too, we pray to the person to whom the prayer is addressed, for example, to St. Joseph, or to one of the other saints. We may and should give a mental glance or a thought to Mary as we begin our prayers, but she doesn't have to be explicitly mentioned in every prayer formula we recite.
True Devotion to Mary is not a barrier, an obstacle, to union with God. On the contrary, it is a great means of intensifying and hastening our intimacy with God. We may not understand perfectly at first how to live our consecration to Mary in all respects, but with a little study, prayer, and consultation, our devotion to Mary will become the asset it is intended to be.
If a priest or a lay person who practices True Devotion wants to make a will, he considers his obligations to his heirs as he believes our Blessed Lady would see them. If he has obligations to living relatives, if a family quarrel would be caused, for example, by a lay person giving too much to charity, the person is free to make the will as prudence and dependence upon Mary demand.
Those who practice True Devotion have given everything over to Mary. They now act only as custodians of her possessions, but they act as prudent stewards and dispose of their goods as they properly should according to their station in life.
The same principle applies to religious brothers or sisters who wish to practice True Devotion. They are free to make this consecration without any special permission of their superior, but they make it in accordance with their vows and the duties of their state of life.
St. De Montfort and his followers suggest certain practices, for example a novena, in preparing for the practice of True Devotion and in carrying out its consecration. The consecration itself is the essential part, however. The accidental practices which accompany it can and should be used if easily possible. But where they might conflict in any way with what is required by one's rule or duties of life, accidental practices can be omitted.
If You Are Interested . . .
True Devotion is something serious. It should be studied before being adopted. The advice of experts should be sought as to its practice. (This is where some priests fail; they are not equipped to give proper advice on True Devotion to their penitents, for example.) Nevertheless, True Devotion does not bind under pain of sin and it may be retracted at will. Because it is something sacred, however, it should not be taken up or discarded lightly.
One of the best treatments of True Devotion by a modern theologian is the chapter "St. Louis de Montfort's Consecration to Mary" in the excellent book Mary in Our Life by Rev. William G. Most (revised edition, Kenedy, New York). This book has been translated into German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to give some indication of its value and popularity.
The Montfort Fathers, Bay Shore, New York, have a catalogue of publications from small pamphlets to books answering further questions concerning True Devotion. They also publish Queen of All Hearts magazine dedicated especially to the spread and better understanding of their founder's devotion to Mary.
Even if it should happen that we feel that True Devotion is not for us, that this total consecration does not fit our particular temperament, we should realize that it does fit the needs of many. We should know and understand True Devotion well in order that it may be a source of great good for others.
© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.
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