Today we celebrate our patronal feast, La Festa di Maria Santissima della Civita. What is at the heart of our feast is an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is an image we have come to know so well: Mary’s hands raised in prayer and adoration, her infant Son seated upon her lap.
The history of that image dates back to nearly apostolic times, finding its roots in the region of Antioch, later known as Constantinople. This beautiful image, lost and found down through the centuries, was finally re-discovered in the 8th Century, more than 1200 years ago, on July 21, 796.
It was then that the deaf and mute herdsman from Itri, that small Italian village, followed a wandering ox to a field atop Mount Civita and came upon the tree that held in its branches that image of Maria Santissima and the child Jesus. Suddenly he was cured and ran back into the town to declare the great things God had done for him.
And so it is this image that, down through the centuries, has gathered together the people of Itri, and subsequently their descendants—so many of you—who have come to settle here in the Knightsville section of Cranston.
As we sing each year with great solemnity during this week of celebration in the beloved hymn Evviva Maria:
Immagine santé che gente raduna.
The holy image that gathers the people.
Of course, that sacred image comes to us from none other than St. Luke himself. Again, as we sing each year:
San Luca dipense l’amabil’ ritratto.
St. Luke painted this loveable portrait.
It is fitting that this painting should come to us from St. Luke, for it is that “dear and glorious physician” who always paints for us the most beautiful portraits of Mary in the New Testament.
The portrait of the Annunciation—that great visit of the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary announcing the child to be born—is found only in Luke.
And the Visitation, which we heard today on our patronal feast, Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, are found only in St. Luke’s Gospel.
In his encyclical on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Redemptoris Mater, John Paul the Great links these two beautiful portraits together. He says that both the Annunciation and the Visitation, together, reveal to us the greatness of Mary as one who both receives the gift of God, and responds to that gift in faith:
“Both of these texts reveal an essential Mariological content, namely the truth about Mary, who has become really present in the mystery of Christ precisely because she “has believed.” The fullness of grace announced by the angel means the gift of God himself. Mary’s faith, proclaimed by Elizabeth at the visitation, indicates how the Virgin of Nazareth responded to this gift.”
—Redemptoris Mater, # 12 (emphasis his)
As we heard in the gospel today, Elizabeth proclaims:
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.
Mary’s Motherhood, therefore, is not just a physical act; it is first and foremost an act of faith. The great Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Leo the Great, tell us that Mary conceived Christ in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb.
This is something that we find all throughout the life of Mary. She is constantly conceiving Christ, and then continually giving birth to Him in this world we live in. Even at the hour of His death, Mary stands at the foot of the cross and gives her “Yes” to God. She continues to receive that gift of God which is Christ her son, and by faith she offers Him to the world and participates in His radical gift of Himself for the salvation of us all.
We, as followers of Christ, and as men and women who look to Mary as our Blessed Mother, are called to do the same. We are called to constantly receive the gift of God, in silence and in prayer, and through our faith and our assent to Him, to give birth to Christ; to give flesh to Him in the world we live in.
I think that all of us are quite familiar with the extraordinary life of service and compassion that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta exemplified in our own lifetime. Yet few people know of her total dedication to the spiritual life and prayer as the top priority for herself and her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity.
Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta would insist that they begin each day with Mass, and then spend one hour minimum before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament before they ever went out to serve the poor. She would say to them:
Until we can learn to recognize Jesus here in the Eucharist, then we will never be able to recognize Him in the lives of the poor.
Today, on this feast of Maria Santissima della Civita, how is God challenging us to imitate Mary, and Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, in receiving the gift of God in silence and in prayer, and then to respond to that great gift through lives of service and love?
In the year 796, that deaf and mute herdsman from Itri saw an image of Mary and her son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, which healed him. He went in haste to announce that image and the message of Jesus and Mary to all who would listen. May we bring that same message to a world that desperately longs to hear it.