Circular Letter: Fall 2015
The Army in Battle Array
Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon,
bright as the sun, terrible as an army in battle array? (Cant 6:10)
This verse, from the Canticle of Canticles, is commonly understood as referring to the Blessed Virgin. The birth of the Mary is like the dawn of a new creation which ends the darkness of the night, the old creation, which was devastated by the sin of disobedience of our first parents. What was supposed to be an imperishable creation was subjected to corruption by the envy of the devil. But “behold, I make all things new,” says the Lord. He, who intends to create a new heaven and a new earth, created this wonderful child, like a new garden into which the Tempter was not allowed to enter.
But while we admire the beauty of the immaculately conceived child, let us not forget that this same phrase goes on to describe Mary as an army arrayed for battle. In this vein, St. Louis de Montfort wrote:
[Mary] must shine forth in grace, in order to animate and sustain the valiant soldiers and faithful servants of Jesus Christ, who shall do battle for his interests. Mary must be terrible as an army ranged in battle, principally in these latter times. It is principally of these last and cruel persecutions of the devil, which shall go on increasing daily till the reign of the Antichrist, that we ought to understand that first and celebrated prediction and curse of God, pronounced in the terrestrial paradise against the serpent; ‘I will put enmities between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed.’ (True Devotion to Mary, 50.
St. Louis then goes on to write: God has established only one enmity – but it is an irreconcilable one – which will last and even go on increasing to the end of time. That enmity is between Mary, his worthy Mother, and the devil, between the children and the servants of the Blessed Virgin and the children and followers of Lucifer. Thus the most fearful enemy that God has set up against the devil is Mary, his holy Mother (True Devotion to Mary, 52).
In our present age, we find ourselves in the middle of the battle that rages between the Woman and the serpent, as violence against Christians escalates throughout the world; as nations reject the natural law regarding marriage; as countless unborn children are “legally” murdered; as religious rights are being systematically denied. Other manifestations of the battle (at times is bloody and at times not) could fill pages. What is important is that we are on the correct side. Jesus once declared the “he who is not with me, is against me” (Mat 12:30). In the language of St. Louis de Montfort, we need to choose whether we want to be the children and the servants of the Blessed Virgin or the children and the instruments of Lucifer.
Mary’s central position
Without denying or diminishing in the least the fact that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God is source of all grace and salvation, Sacred Scripture clearly points to the central position that Jesus has given to His mother in the great battle for the salvation of souls. The enmity between the Woman and the serpent did not begin in the Garden of Eden. There exist indications that the antagonism goes back to the beginning of time. The vision of St. John recorded in the 12th chapter of the Apocalypse speaks of two opposed signs that appeared in heaven. The first is the sign of the Woman. The second, which seems to have been provoked by the first, is the sign of the dragon, who sweeps a third of the stars from the sky with his tail. This passage has been understood by some theologians as a revelation of the initial trial of the angels. The fact that there breaks out a battle between the followers of the dragon and St. Michael and his angels, which brings about the casting of the rebellious angels from their places heaven gives a clear indication that this passage treats of the original trial, which was never repeated.
The first sign that appears in the heavens manifests God’s plan of bringing the whole of creation into its perfect beatitude of glory through the instrumentality of the incarnate Word of God. In response to this revelation, the angels had to accept the mystery of the Incarnation and all of the consequences that are essentially linked to God’s becoming man. One of the chief consequences of the Incarnation is the divine motherhood of Mary. This signifies that not only would Jesus Christ be exalted in dignity above all the choirs of angels, but also his mother would be Queen of Heaven and Earth. It is impossible for us to fathom fully the mystery of iniquity which was involved in the highest angel’s rejection of God’s plan. But there are indications that he revolted not only against Jesus, but against Mary. The apostle-visionary describes the fall-out of the initial battle in heaven in these words: “So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child… Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 12:13,17). The fact that St. John does not simply say that the dragon pursued those who hold the testimony of Jesus, but rather “the children of the Woman”, confirms the importance of Mary’s role in the on-going battle.
As mentioned above, the text from the Canticle of Canticles describes Mary in military terms. Her strength is like that of an army in battle array. We are familiar with the fact that the Bible portrays Mary’s love, humility and silent contemplation. These are traits often held up for imitation by the faithful. But her strength, though equally evident in the Gospels, often receives little or no attention from commentators. Mary of Nazareth is a strong woman who faithfully and humbly serves the Lord in the most extreme situations, particularly when she accompanies her Son to His death. While it is difficult to imagine her as anything but prostrate on the ground in grief at the sight of her Son crucified, St. John explicitly states that Mary stood at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). This fact underlines her strength in uniting herself to His supreme sacrifice, accepting the will of the Father. At the foot of the Cross, she consummated her declaration of being “the handmaid of the Lord.” In this sense, Pope Pius XII extolled the strength of Mary:
Mary is beautiful in herself as the moon, radiates her brilliance as the sun; but against “the enemy” she is formidable; terrible as an army arrayed for war. As we rejoice and exalt her today, God knows how we would like to forget the difficulties of the times in which we live….There is the “enemy” even at the very doors of the Church, threatening souls. And behold, another aspect of Mary: her power in combat….Mary, sinless, has crushed the head of the corrupting serpent. When Mary approaches, the demon flees – just as darkness dissipates when the sun rises. Where Mary is present, Satan is absent; where the sun shines, there is no darkness. (Pope Pius XII, Talk given on December 8 1953)
It is not only in her being immaculately conceived that she is at enmity with the dragon. But it is also in her entire life being oriented to humble obedience that she contradicts the initial cry of mutiny: “I will not serve!” In this, Mary gives a perfect example of how the faithful can participate in her being as frightening as an army in battle array before the rebellious hosts of hell.
The vision of the Woman in chapter 12 of the Apocalypse has also been taken as referring to the Church. This explanation does not conflict with the interpretation of the Woman symbolizing Mary, considering that she is the model and image of the Church. Pope Francis spoke of this relation:
[The Church] is a true mother who gives us life in Christ and, in the communion of the Holy Spirit, brings us into a common life with our brothers and sisters. The model of motherhood for the Church is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in the fullness of time conceived through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Son of God. Her motherhood continues through the Church, who brings forth sons and daughters through baptism, whom she nourishes through the Word of God. (Pope Francis, General Audience, Sept. 3, 2014)
In fact, the concurrence of these two manners of understanding this vision points to an important link between devotion to our Blessed Mother Mary and the proper respect and devotion due to our Holy Mother the Church. In this sense, when the Apocalypse says that the dragon is in pursuit of the children of the Woman, we can see that it is speaking of the faithful members of the Church on earth.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the Church in the battle with the enemy of our salvation. She too is an essential consequence of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God. The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation for the entire world (cf. Lumen Gentium,48). How can we have assurance that the Bible is the inspired word of God? How can we know if an interpretation of Scripture is correct? How can we discern whether a custom is in conformity with apostolic Tradition? The answer to all such questions is the fact that Christ has given us the Church, constructed on the rock of St. Peter. But the Church is not simply an abstraction, reducible to a set of definitions and dogmas, which can be written once and for all in a book. Rather, she is the instrument of the Holy Spirit to bring about the continual living presence of Jesus Christ in the world. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, Jesus remains present through His Church in the celebration of the sacraments (above all, the in Eucharist), in the action of His ordained ministers, in the proclamation of the Word of God and in the midst of those who gather in His Name.
Further, the living Magisterium of the Church is the instrument of the Holy Spirit to offer continuous guidance to the People of God and to all men of good will. Pope Benedict XVI taught that there is an intrinsic unity in the last statements of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church” (cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p. 333). When we proclaim our faith in God, the Holy Spirit, we not only declare our faith in His proceeding eternally from the Father and the Son. We also proclaim our faith in His salvific mission in the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, wherein He acts continually on earth through the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.
Despite the human factor, which can be quite scandalous at times, our faith necessarily holds that the Holy Spirit acts in and through the Church in every age as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1Tim 3:15). It is especially by pointing to the (occasionally shameful) human limitations of Church authorities that the dragon and his followers have been most effective in dividing the Church. Who can trust that the Holy Spirit is going to speak through this or that particular Pope, considering his personal life, considering his lack of education, considering that he follows the wrong philosophy or theological school of thought? How can we trust the decisions of a Council of the Church that was influenced by this or that heretical theologians? How can we accept a liturgy that was designed by a bishop who was prejudiced by negative influences? This is the area in which our trust in the capacity of the Holy Spirit can be tested to the extreme. But in all such considerations, the only possible response is trust, not in men, but trust in the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit.
“Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.” (Mk 5:37)
Considering the centrality of the Church, this is the most crucial point at which our trust will be tried and therefore it is the area in which we need to be especially vigilant. It is interesting to note that in the spiritual classic by Lorenzo Scupoli, the first principle that he presents in The Spiritual Combat is the need for distrust of self and trust in God. It is here that we find the initial wound that the temper inflicted upon our human nature. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches concerning original sin:
Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness. (CCC 397)
The first step of giving in to the tempter’s attacks consists in letting trust in our Creator die in our hearts. Given the fact that the objective norm for discerning God’s voice in our life comes ultimately to us through the agency of the Church, the place where the death of trust will have its most devastating consequences is when it is directed towards the Church.
We must never forget that the unmistakable symbol of our Christian faith is the Cross. The Cross, which represents the central truth of our Creed, teaches us that the crucifixion of the God-man, the greatest sin committed in the history of the universe was transformed by Jesus Christ into the source of all grace and salvation; that the ugliest act of malice was occasioned the most beautiful act of love. God was capable of taking the worst of human evil and converting man’s will through grace into the best of Divine Goodness. It is from this truth that we derive the confidence to assert with absolute assurance that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). We have the trust to know that “for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). Neither the plotting of powerful and influential men nor the malevolent designs of the devil can confound God’s plan. Even if the “smoke of Satan” has made its way into the Church, we can be certain that the Holy Spirit always has a strategy to replace it with the sweet-smell of incense. If we focus our attention too much on the human elements in the Church, we are in danger of losing our trust in the Divine Agent Who is guiding all things according to His plan.
Respect for Legitimate Authority
The Old Testament offers lessons that remain valid for the New Testament Church. One story which revealed God’s quick justice is when Aaron and Miriam, the brother and sister of Moses, began to question the supreme authority of Moses: “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2) The formal motive for their raising this question was their envy of Moses; the material cause or occasion was the altogether human issue of the seemingly problematic “Ethiopian” wife that Moses chose to marry. The consequence for having raised this question is that Miriam was stricken immediately with leprosy. The severity of the punishment is explained by the fact that envy is the greatest sin against fraternal charity and envy of the spiritual goods of another is a sin against the Holy Spirit. After pride, which is directed against God, envy is the greatest sin because it militates directly against love of neighbor. Leprosy causes loss of sensitivity in the body, just as rejecting Church authority can cause spiritual numbness in the soul. Just as leprosy exposes the one afflicted to the danger of physical injury (having removed the protection of feeling pain), the questioning of legitimate Church authority places a person in the precarious position of being separated from the only objective source for the discernment of revealed Truth in the world.
Not every exercise of authority in the Church, of course, concerns the magisterial authority which Christ entrusted to St. Peter and the Apostles. He also charged them with the regular pastoral authority (What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven), which regards also the normal social order of the Church. Many of the laws which regulate Church life and practice (for example, regulating the liturgical feasts of the year, setting up parishes, appointing officers) do not deal directly with matters of faith and morals. As in every legitimate society, we evidently owe allegiance and reverence to the successors of the Apostles and their collaborators. Even if one of their decisions in such matters be based upon misinformation, the duty remains to show respect for the authority, despite our disagreement with the decision. We have an example of this in the life of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, who had a profound sense of reverence for the authority of the Church. When officials in Rome received false reports about Padre Pio, he was ordered by the Holy See to desist from all activities except the celebration of the Mass, which was to be in private. The mayor of San Giovani Rotondo, learning of the decision of the Church, wrote a letter which he intended to have printed in defense of the saintly priest. But when Padre Pio read the letter, he grabbed the mayor by the throat and shouted: “Satan, go and throw yourself at the feet of the Church instead of writing this foolishness! Don’t oppose your Mother!” (Francis Mary Kalvelag, Padre Pio the Wonder Worker, p. 63). How well Padre Pio understood the saying, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” God tried Abraham directly, calling for the sacrifice of his son; God is also free to ‘send’ us trials through natural disasters, the defects of our brethren or by misinformed directives of our superiors. We do well to surrender to these out of loving reverence and submission to God. We are reminded once more of St. Paul’s words: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Rom 8:28)
This illustration from the life of Padre Pio does not preclude the possibility of offering fraternal correction or constructive criticism toward those in authority in the Church, even as St. Paul chided St. Peter for acting out of human respect (cf. Gal 2:14). The saints have been known to offer strong exhortations to members of the hierarchy, reminding them to be faithful to their sacred duties and correcting their deviations from sound doctrine or proper conduct. The Church suffers when her members yield to the temptation of covering-up scandalous behavior or heretical teachings which harms individuals or the common good. But it also suffers from corrections that are offered without due discernment and discretion. She suffers most especially from denunciations that are offered without a love that edifies. Criticism that undermines trust stands self-condemned. Considering the difficulty that many people have in distinguishing between individual members of the hierarchy and the Church as a divine institution, great caution is needed so that our censure not be construed as “opposing our Mother” or questioning the capacity of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church despite the human element.
The very sad fact is that so many schisms have occurred and continue to occur due to misguided harsh criticism in judging authorities in the Church and identifying this with Church authority. While we have the perennially valid, unchanging teachings of the Church to help serve as a standard of judgment, we should not be quick to presume that someone is contradicting the deposit of faith just because the language being used may seem different or unfamiliar. The nature of the apostolic Tradition is that it is a living reality, always finding new expressions to convey the invariable truth of revelation. God has always used human expression, with all its limitations arising from cultural, scientific and literary factors, for the sake of communicating His will. Indeed, outside of the beatific vision, God can only reveal Himself to creatures by making use of created reality, which under the influence and light of the Holy Spirit are understood supernaturally. We have to see beyond these limitations and not allow them to distract us from the eternal truth being expressed through them. Otherwise, we may be guilty of sowing dissention among the flock and distrust in those to whom Christ has entrusted his Church.
If we aspire to be faithful servants and valiant soldiers of Jesus Christ, and children and servants of the Blessed Virgin, then we must imitate their humble obedience, trust and love. If we aim to follow the banner of the Sweetest and Immaculate Heart of Mary, then we must learn to refrain from the reproaches and bitter statements that undermine trust in ecclesial authority. The splendid army in battle array, which causes hell to tremble is formed by men and angels, united through the bond of charity. Few things incite fear in the enemies of God as much as a unified Church. Therefore we pray that harsh and hasty reproach be removed from the hearts of all the faithful so that with our Heavenly Queen we may serve for the salvation of souls. In this spirit, we pray in the words of St. John Bosco:
Mary, most powerful Virgin, You are the mighty and glorious Protector of the Church. You are the marvelous Help of Christians. You are awe-inspiring as an army in battle array. You have destroyed heresy in the world. In the midst of our anguish, our struggle and our distress defend us from the power of the enemy, and at the hour of our death receive our soul into heaven. Amen.
Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC
The texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission.
©2021 Opus Sanctorum Angelorum Inc.
Back to Meditations Index →