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Theological Point
Francis’ choice, which is entreaty over praise

The litany of Mary comforting migrants

 La litania di Maria conforto dei migranti  DCM-011
02 December 2023

That motherhood is a theological theme is beyond doubt; after all, it cuts across different theological fields such as anthropology and Mariology, biblical theology and ecclesiology. Can the same be said of “migrant motherhood”? Which is to ask: is there a theological way of seeing that permits us to focus on one of the tragedies of our time. Indeed, as always when it concerns women, it is a multifaceted tragedy. It is difficult to forget the images of mothers as they see their newborn babies die at sea, of babies who are born on rescue boats, or even of mothers who, in order to save them, hand over their babies to someone who has managed to find a place on a boat; what can theology say about all this?

As is often the case, it is first necessary to turn the question –and perspective- upside down, and ask, what can the drama of migrant motherhood say to theology? This is one of the great, overwhelming tragedies of our time, which can be added to others that have become permanent, such as war and hunger, and which, as believers, deeply challenges us. We know well how much humanity’s cries of pain are often a source of scandal for those who have believed and hoped that God is capable of listening to the cries of his people and truly knows their sufferings, as he told Moses (Exodus 3:7). Of this scandal, which translates into revolt and rejection, the pages of the great literature of all times are bursting.

It is perhaps possible, however, to follow other paths. On the other hand, it would be better to say more modestly paths. I will mention two, knowing full well that it is in no way a question of proposing solutions, not least because at times it can become almost blasphemous to pretend that reflection on God can become a sort of drug that has, moreover, a topical action.

The first suggestion with which to commence comes to me from reading a now decidedly outdated book, Sisters Rejoice: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and Luke-Acts as Received by First Century Philippian Women. This is of the kind that are hard to forget because they forced a decisive conversion of the writer’ point of view. The author, Lilian Portefaix, a biblical scholar at the University of Uppsala, proposes that we look at Paul's letter to the Christians of Philippi from an entirely new perspective; namely, of the women of that city and, in particular, of women for whom motherhood represented a tragedy. Paul announced the joy of salvation, but they experienced motherhood as a social destiny from which they could expect nothing but pain and death. It is estimated that in the first century, the average life span of a woman was very short and the main cause of death was childbirth, not to mention how much this also affected the lives of all the other women, even very young ones, who had to cope with extremely difficult family situations. So what does it mean to proclaim the gospel to those whose lives are immersed in tragedy?

A second cue comes to me from Pope Francis’ decision to introduce three more invocations into the long list of Lauretan litanies, in addition to Mother of Mercy and Mother of Hope, he wanted to include Solacium migrantium (Comfort of Migrants). This invocation was added to those that celebrate Mary not for what she is (Mother, Virgin or Queen), but for what she can do. It is not a praise, but an entreaty. It cannot come as a surprise when one considers the fact that the history of this pontificate dramatically intersects with the history of a migratory phenomenon of unprecedented proportions. What does it mean, however, that Mary can be invoked not only as Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Consoler of the Afflicted, Help of Christians, but also as Comfort of migrants?

For some, the answer goes back to the exemplarity of Mary who, according to the Gospels of the origins with which Matthew and Luke introduce their Gospel narrative, would herself have been a “migrant”. In fact, the former presents her to us, together with Joseph and the newborn child, travelling to Egypt to escape Herod’s violence and the latter describes her as always travelling, either to Elizabeth’s house or to Jerusalem to obey the census.

Perhaps, however, when he wanted the long list of Lauretan litanies to include the entreaty to Mary as the comfort of migrants, Pope Francis hoped above all that whenever, wherever in the world, the Rosary would be recited, Mary's universal motherhood might remind believers that the suffering of migrant mothers is a sign that brands this age of ours. Can we invoke the comfort of migrants from Mary and close our hearts, our borders, our churches?

by Marinella Perroni