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The Pondering Heart: Notre Dame’s Special Consecration to Our Lady

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The start of each academic year indicates a season of rejoicing in new beginnings. The commencement of this academic year, however, also invited the Notre Dame community to engage in a year-long process of remembering. On November 26 of this year, our community will celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of Notre Dame. This will be a year of celebration, a year of honoring and remembering those who have gifted us with Notre Dame. Standing out amidst the countless individuals who have contributed to the foundation and growth of our university are Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and Fr. Edward Sorin, one of the first Holy Cross priests and founder of our university. As we begin this year of thanksgiving and remembrance, it seems appropriate to give special attention to these two holy men, both of whom carried within them a deep love for the holiest of women, Notre Dame, Our Mother.

In a letter addressed to the Holy Cross priests, brothers and sisters on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1852, Fr. Sorin recalls his arrival at Notre Dame ten years prior, “A deep and unspotted covering of snow was then spread over land and water, and forcibly brought to their minds the spotless Virgin, who seemed already to have taken possession of these premises.”[1]

So moved by his perception of the Blessed Mother’s presence, he consecrated the entirety of the university to her:

At that moment, one most memorable to me, a special consecration was made to the Blessed Mother of Jesus, not only of the land that was to be called by her very name, but also of the Institution that was to be founded there . . . I presented to the Blessed Virgin all those generous souls whom Heaven should be pleased to call around me on this spot, or who should come after me.[2]

This passage is certainly striking for those of us who live, study and work at Notre Dame today, for we find ourselves included in Fr. Sorin’s consecration. For Sorin, Mary was a living presence—her intercession was called upon, noticed, and celebrated. In his sermon written for Fr. Sorin’s funeral, Archbishop Elder wrote that Sorin “had not only a love, but a chivalrous devotion to the Blessed Virgin. He would willingly speak of her many times a day.”[3]

This “chivalrous devotion” was shared by the Congregation of Holy Cross at large, particularly by its founder, Blessed Basil Moreau. A son of the Sulpician school of spirituality and immersed in the devotional practices of French Catholicism, Moreau was deeply devoted to the Blessed Mother, even going so far as to devote his priesthood to her: “If I am alone in my ministry I shall make a fiasco of whatever task is entrusted to me, but if the Blessed Virgin has a hand in it, I can hope for everything.”[4] His assured trust in Mary, especially under the title of Our Lady of Sorrows, was an active component of his spirituality for the rest of his life, even, and especially, amidst his suffering through a period of spiritual darkness that corresponded with doubt regarding the survival of his fledgling Congregation, for at the end of his life, he asserted, “They have done well in consecrating me to the Blessed Virgin.”[5]

Who is this Mother whom Notre Dame’s founding fathers knew and loved so devotedly? And how might she be inviting us to turn to her, in an intentional way, during this anniversary year and beyond? I would like to suggest that Our Lady invites us to come to know her pondering heart, her “impressions of grace”, and her deep sorrow, and through these meditations, to discover the abiding joy which may spring from a new-found or rediscovered trust in her intercession.

The Pondering Heart

In the opening lines of his sermon on the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Moreau invokes Luke 2:19: “Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” This verse appears in the midst of the Nativity story, and reveals Mary’s reaction to the visit of the shepherds, who have just communicated to Mary the message of the angel: “Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:11). Moreau treasures the image of Mary’s pondering heart and upholds it as a model disposition for all who seek to know Christ and grow in love of Him: “In its chaste depths, Mary treasured faithfully every least thing she saw and heard of the Savior to make of it the habitual subject of sublime meditation and to nourish the flames of her charity on it.”[6]

Moreau illumines the deep sensitivity of the heart of Mary, who, out of love, attended interiorly to the life of her Son in all of His joy and pain.[7] In addition to exhibiting great sensitivity, Moreau believed that the heart of Mary encompasses the deep mystery of God, for in pondering the life of her divine Son, she ponders the mystery of God’s plan for redemption, so much so that “the heart of Mary resembled a sanctuary filled with mysterious obscurity.”[8] In accepting and nurturing this obscurity, Mary surrenders the temptation to grasp for an objective understanding that would placate some kind of lust for control, choosing instead to demonstrate enormous trust in the love and work of the Lord.

As a spiritual son of Moreau, Fr. Sorin embraced Mary’s pondering heart through frequent meditation on the Rosary. Archbishop Elder recounts the following story:

When he [Sorin] visited the Holy Land a few years ago . . . he was almost continually occupied with the Rosary. His companion in travel made attempts to talk with him about what they had seen; but he quietly shook his head and said: “I am in the Holy Land; I want to entertain myself with the life of Our Lord, in company with His Blessed Mother.”[9]

As a devoted child of the Blessed Mother, Fr. Sorin learned to experience the profundity of the events of Jesus’s life by accompanying Mary in prayer. In practicing the pedagogy of Mary’s heart, his own heart was prepared to receive Christ’s splendor, even amidst what appeared to be “mysterious obscurity.”

This pondering amidst obscurity points to something which may appear obvious, but is nonetheless worth noting. Unlike her Son, who is fully human and fully divine, the Blessed Mother is only human. Mary did not have full knowledge of the divine will, and this reality actually magnifies the glory of the trust she demonstrated in her pondering. Fr. Kevin Grove, C.S.C. writes that “Mary’s immaculate and sorrowful heart is the heart of one person, a woman, Mary, whose own pondering, time and again, remains the model and example, revealed by God, of how to relate to and love God.”[10] Though shielded from Original Sin through her Immaculate Conception, Mary, like each one of us, remains a creature, that is, one created by God and totally dependent upon Him. Like each of us, she is dependent on the redemptive sacrifice of her Son. As we must “live and move and have our being” in Him, so must she place her trust in the child who lived and moved within her (Acts 17:28). Her miraculous trust, drawn from and sustained by the redemptive power of her Son and existing within the confines of her humanity, is accessible to each one of us, her adopted children.

The Sorrowful Heart, “Impressed by Grace”

As members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Blessed Moreau and Fr. Sorin identified with the cross of Christ in a profound and personal manner. Moreau chose Our Lady of Sorrows, or Our Lady of the Seven Dolours, to intercede as patroness of his Congregation.[11] In order to understand his profound devotion to the Sorrowful Mother, however, we must first consider the locus of her sorrow, the heart which was “impressed by grace.”[12]

Think of the impressions of grace Mary’s heart must have received during the nine months the incarnate Word passed in her chaste womb . . . Think of the way holiness developed in Mary’s heart during the thirty years of daily and mutual confidences between her and her dear Jesus.[13]

Here, Moreau presents a striking image and offers a new interpretation of “Mary, full of grace.” Mary is not only filled with grace, that is, filled with the presence and workings of God, but her very heart is impressed with grace. One might imagine her heart dotted with craters, each one an imprint of Christ’s words and actions, carriers of grace. While these ‘craters of grace’ certainly embody moments of joy shared with Jesus, we are assured by Simeon that many of these impressions carry deep pain and anguish, for in beholding Christ, he promises Mary that “you yourself a sword will pierce” (Luke 2:35).

In her willingness to assume these grace-filled impressions of sorrow by accompanying Jesus to the bitter end of his passion, the Blessed Mother, through her maternal love, demonstrated a supreme fidelity to Christ, and it is this fidelity which Moreau and Sorin strove to match. In a sermon on Mary’s compassion, Moreau invites his readers to imagine themselves on the road to Calvary, accompanying Jesus and Mary: “Jesus raises his eyes and meets those of his mother. Their hearts also meet and speak more than their mouths, which probably remain silent in sorrow.”[14] In accompanying the Sorrowful Mother through this meditative prayer, we come into contact with the aching body and bleeding heart of Christ, the most perfect manifestation of divine love. Moreau concludes the meditation with the Stabat Mater, asking Mary to “make me share in the intensity of your sorrow that I may weep with you.”[15] Mary shows us how to “weep well.” She teaches us to weep when Jesus weeps, to allow ourselves to be moved, sometimes to severe anguish, by the weight of the world’s sorrows. She does not shield us from pain, but invites us to accept sorrow and ponder it in our hearts while remaining attentive to the promise of the resurrection, and considering our own call to be peacemakers who assist in ushering in the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, by equating Mary with the “tabernacle of God, the Ark of the New Covenant . . . the source from which flowed the river of life,”[16] Moreau identifies Mary with the ancient Israelites’ tabernacle, and testifies to her privileged personhood in whom God truly dwells. In an 1885 letter, Fr. Sorin similarly emphasizes the privilege of Mary: “Through Mary salvation came to this world: such was, and forever will be, the channel through which the Divine grace is to flow to us.”[17] Thus the heart of Mary is as much a place of hope as it is of sorrow, for in pondering the sorrows of Jesus with Mary, our eyes are opened anew to the magnificence of His resurrection.

Joyful Trust in Her Intercession

New Eve, here is your family. You are, henceforth, alone the true mother of all the living. You have borne all these children in your sorrow, and I wish you to love them even as you have loved me . . . Most happy children of Adam, know your new mother . . . have recourse to her in all your needs. If her womb did not bear you, her heart has given birth to you in this great house, and if anything could equal my tenderness for you, it would be her own.[18]

In this poetic passage, Moreau offers a meditation on John 19. Jesus, in his final moments of life, peers down to look upon his mother, Mary, and John, his beloved disciple. In the midst of his redemptive action, Jesus offers the human race an additional gift, the maternal care of his own mother. Jesus invites us to “behold our mother,” to pay attention to her, to notice her movements in the Gospel and in our own lives of faith, for it is she who bears to us the blessed fruit of her womb.

It is through their constant orientation toward the face of their pondering, grace-filled, powerful and sorrowful mother that Blessed Moreau and Fr. Sorin were able to persevere in their respective missions. In 1852, a decade after the founding of Notre Dame, Fr. Sorin wrote to his fellow religious: “After God, we owe all this to the Blessed Virgin Mary . . . For these ten years the Blessed Virgin has watched over our infancy with most tender and motherly solicitude. Through her efficacious protection, we have passed unharmed amidst dangers without number.”[19] In fear and uncertainty, confusion and doubt, our Holy Cross fathers lived with an interior peace, knowing that their work was God’s work, and that his mother was also their mother. In imitation of Mary, Fr. Sorin exercised a tremendous trust through the boldness of his consecration. By consecrating our university to its namesake, Fr. Sorin implicitly renounced any claim to the sufficiency of his own strength, vision and zeal, choosing instead to entrust his work, his students and his prayer to the mother of Christ for the glory of God. Thanks to Fr. Sorin’s foresighted consecration, each of us has been given the gift, and responsibility, of a personal relationship with the mother of Jesus, who seeks always to guide the movements of our hearts, minds and bodies to the mission of Christ.

“I presented to the Blessed Virgin all those generous souls whom Heaven should be pleased to call around me on this spot, or who should come after me.”[20] How do we, the students and faculty of Notre Dame, respond to this generous gift of Fr. Sorin, this consecration to our Blessed Mother? If the relationship of our university to its namesake is to be a true and fruitful one, we must be willing to consider how the character and goals of our study and our professional endeavors might be guided and challenged by the living witness of Mary. In imitation of her pondering heart, we must commit ourselves to frequent, prayerful reflection on the work of our hands, minds and hearts, and open ourselves to receive God’s grace and allow it to impact us. This may require a willingness to be  “distracted” or even “derailed” by our grace-filled findings; it may mean being open to changing our plans as a natural response to our openness to being re-formed by God, who cries out to us in human suffering. To study, teach, and work under the mantle of Mary will be to respond attentively and generously to human need, “They have no wine,” and to proclaim with our lives: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:3, 5). In imitation of her, we are to attend to what is needed while maintaining a recollected spirit. Practically speaking, this may mean doing less for the sake of being more. It may mean “limiting” ourselves for the sake of devoting our efforts to the good with greater clarity and focus. On the other hand, we may, at times, be asked to surrender more of our time and energy than we’d like. At the very least, the gift of our common consecration asks that we lay down our clamoring for certainty and prestige, and reorient our priorities to more closely resemble those of Mary, whose own concerns are united to the Lord’s. It is in this frequent, humble offering that we will encounter freedom, authentic fulfilment, and a lasting sense of belonging:

What a source of abiding joys for our dear family to feel that none here is left an orphan where all can so readily meet the eyes of their living Mother . . . through which innumerable blessings continually come down upon her beloved children.[21]

May this year be a time to embrace our Blessed Mother, gifted to us by Christ. May it be a time to receive, from her hands, the abiding peace of Christ. In our pondering and marveling, our bitter weeping and grateful laughter, may we turn to her in love and embrace her with trust.

Featured Image: University of Notre Dame’s replica of the Grotto at Lourdes, 1 May 2012, Photographer: Michael Fernandes; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 3.0.

[1] Edward Sorin to the Congregation of Holy Cross, December 8, 1852, in Circular Letters of the Very Rev. Edward Sorin, CLP2-1852, University of Notre Dame Archives, 272.

[2] Ibid. (emphasis added)

[3] “The Sermon delivered by Archbishop Elder of Cincinnati,” Notre Dame Scholastic, 11 November 1893, University of Notre Dame Archives.

[4] Bernard Mullahy, C.S.C., “The Spirituality of the Very Reverend Basil Anthony Moreau,” Bulletin of the Educational Conferences of the Priests of Holy Cross 16, no. 3 (1948): 11-12.

[5] Ibid., 53.

[6] Basil Moreau, “The Immaculate Heart of Mary,” in Basil Moreau Essential Writings, ed. Kevin Grove, C.S.C. and Andrew Gawrych, C.S.C. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2014), 167.

[7] Ibid., 172.

[8] Ibid., 168.

[9] “The Sermon delivered by Archbishop Elder of Cincinnati.”

[10] Kevin Grove, C.S.C., “A Pondering Heart: The Immaculate Conception and the Sorrowful Mother in the Theology of Basil Moreau,” in Mary on the Eve of the Second Vatical Council, ed. John C. Cavadini and Danielle M. Peters (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 240.

[11] Mullahy, “The Spirituality of the Very Reverend Basil Anthony Moreau,” 47.

[12] Moreau, “The Immaculate Heart of Mary,” 171.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Basil Moreau, “Meditation on the Mystery of the Transfixion or Compassion of the Blessed Virgin,” in Basil Moreau Essential Writings, op. cit., 290.

[15] Ibid., 291.

[16] Moreau, “The Immaculate Heart of Mary,” 171.

[17] Edward Sorin, January 7, 1885, in Circular Letters of the Very Rev. Edward Sorin, CLP1-1885, University of Notre Dame Archives, 206.

[18] Moreau, “The Immaculate Heart of Mary,” 174.

[19] Sorin to the Congregation of Holy Cross, December 8, 1852, 273-4.

[20] Ibid., 272.

[21] Edward Sorin to Fathers and Brothers of Holy Cross, October 27, 1868, in Official Letters and Father General of the Congregation of Holy Cross, CLO1-1868-10-27, University of Notre Dame Archives.

Colleen Halpin

Colleen Halpin is a Church Life Intern at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, who is researching Marian devotions, spirituality, and consecrations throughout the 2017–18 academic year. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and is now a senior at the University of Notre Dame, studying Mathematics and Theology.