Mary: the gaze of mercy that welcomes and renews


In the introduction to “The Glories of Mary”, Saint Alphonsus tries to emphasise the fundamental intention that inspires the work: For this reason, I leave it to other authors to praise the other prerogatives of Mary and I confine myself, for the most part, to her mercy and the power of her intercession. I have gathered, as far as I was able (and it was the work of many years), all that the Fathers of the Church and the most celebrated authors have to say on the subject. I find that the mercy and power of Our Lady are admirably portrayed in the prayer Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen) [1]. This is why in Mary, Christ has “placed our hope and the assurance of our salvation.” [2].

The ‘toil of many years’ had begun already in the early 1730s. On 13 June 1734, in fact, the Jesuit Francesco Pepe wrote: “Say how much this great Mother is to be glorified, Speak of her infinite grace without scruples … Print the book, and all to the glory of so great a Mother” [3].

The Glories of Mary was published only in 1750 by Alessio Pellecchia after overcoming many difficulties as Saint Alphonsus himself confessed to Canon Giacomo Fontana: “I send to your most reverend, my poor hindered book on the Madonna, finally released after many hardships, and after many years of toiling to collect concisely, all that is in it” [4].

The years 1730-40 were decisive for Alphonsus. Those years were, in fact, years for the clarification of his project of the missionary community. It saw its papal approval in 1749, as well as his moral proposal with the publication in 1748 of the Annotations for Busembaum, the first edition of Theologia Moralis.

This is not only a mere coincidence of time. There is a close relation between the Mariology of Alphonsus, his proposal of the Christian life and his missionary project: they clarify and support themselves reciprocally having mercy (copiosa redemptio) as their fundamental and essential hermeneutic [5].

The reflections I would like to propose to move within that perspective, guided as they are, by the pastoral situations which led Pope Francis toward the proclamation of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy: “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness” [6].

The Gaze of Mercy

Mercy determines the quality of the gaze. The merciful gaze lightens up hope, radiates sharing, opens to trust. There is a significant difference between the gaze of Jesus and that of the Pharisee Simon. In the sinner who washes Jesus’ feet with tears, dries them with her hair and sprinkles them with perfume, Simon sees only the evil that she has done: “”If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.”  Jesus, however, goes further, coming to the very heart: Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. … “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” “(Lk 7:36-50). Simon’s gaze maintains a distance, judges and is linked to the evil that has been done. But that of Jesus welcomes, awakens energy, opens new possibilities to journey forward.

Mary’s gaze is a reflection of that of her Son: it is the look of the mother of mercy, which makes us experience the healing tenderness of God. The “sweetness” of his gaze, Pope Francis further observes, is “so that all of us may rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness. No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh. The Mother of the Crucified and Risen One has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of His love” [7].

Among the most beautiful pages of The Glories of Mary are certainly counted those that Alphonsus himself devoted to the merciful gaze of Mary in the seventh chapter [8], when commenting on the invocation of the Salve Regina: “turn then those most gracious eyes of mercy toward us.” The chapter consists of a single article, to which Alphonsus gives the significant title: ‘Mary Is All Eyes to Pity and Help Us.’ Below are excerpts of some more significant passages.

The starting point is a patristic call: Saint Epiphanius calls the Blessed Mother “many-eyed,” because she is ever on the watch to help all poor creatures in this world. This is further developed using popular tradition: Once a possessed person, while being exorcised, was asked by the exorcist what Mary does. The devil in him replied: “She descends and ascends.” By that, he meant that Our Lady is constantly coming down from heaven to bring graces to men and going up again to obtain divine favor for our prayers. Saint Andrew of Avellino fittingly calls the Blessed Virgin the “heavenly messenger,” for she is constantly carrying messages of mercy and obtaining graces for everybody, for the good and for sinners” [9].

The caring look of Mary is one of maternal care: it is for all her children. St. Alphonsus reminds us using the words of Richard of St. Lawrence: ” The eyes of Mary are on the good and on sinners. Her eyes are the eyes of a mother; and a mother not only keeps an eye on her child to see that it does not fall down, but when it does fall, she picks it up again” [10].

The merciful gaze does not allow one to pass with indifference when faced with the need of the other, but it resonates in the heart, it evokes compassion. Much like the Samaritan in Luke’s parable, ” … a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (Lk 10:33-34).

This is what Mary did at Cana (Jn 2:1-5). St. Alphonsus reminds us referring to St. Bernardine of Siena: ” This compassion which she felt for those in affliction was well shown at the marriage feast of Cana, …. When the wine failed, according to Saint Bernardine of Siena, without being asked, Mary acted to save the situation. Moved to pity by the embarrassment of the bride and bridegroom, she intervened with her Son and obtained the miraculous conversion of the water into wine” [11].

This merciful gaze is no less visible in Mary with her assumption into glory. Far from it: “The proverb “Honores mutant mores” “High station makes one aloof” does not apply to Mary. With worldlings it is different. Once they have achieved a certain amount of prominence, many become proud and forget their friends of other days. But not Mary. She is happy to use her high position to help us all the more” [12].

The universality of the mercy of Mary, is made explicit by Alphonsus, comparing her along with St. Bonaventure, to the light of the sun: ” And so he adds that “as the splendor of the sun surpasses that of the moon, so does the compassion of Mary, now that she is in heaven, surpass the compassion that she had for us when in the world.” In conclusion, he asks: “Who is there living in the world who does not enjoy the light of the sun? And on whom does the mercy of Mary not shine?” [13].

In this way, Alphonsus can conclude with Saint Bernard: “Mary has made herself all to all and opens her merciful heart to all, that all may receive of its fullness: the slave, his freedom; the sick, health; the afflicted, comfort; the sinner, pardon; and God, glory. She does this, says Saint Bernard, so that there may be no one who does not share in her warmth” [14].

This is why in the prayer that ends the Chapter, Alphonsus addresses Mary in the following terms: “O greatest and most sublime of all creatures, most holy virgin, I salute you from this earth, a miserable and ungrateful rebel against my God, who deserves punishment rather than favors, justice rather than mercy. O Mary, I do not say this because I doubt your mercy. I know that the greater you are, the more you glory in being kind. I know you rejoice that you are so privileged because you are thus enabled to help us poor abandoned creatures. I know that the greater the poverty of those who have recourse to you, the more you exert yourself to protect and save them.” [15].

Alphonsus makes of the gaze of mercy, a fundamental and distinctive criterion for his missionary project. His missionary community, in fact, springs from the response to the call of the abandoned: it cannot pass by with indifference, with the excuse of other preoccupations. But it echoes in the heart – setting it anew in its way. At the end of a long process of drafting norms, Alphonsus outlined, in these terms, what should specify the Redemptorist community:

“The intent of the priests of the Most Holy Savior is to follow the example of our common Saviour Jesus Christ, to commit themselves mainly under the obedience of the Ordinary so as to help in rural areas amidst those most destitute of spiritual help. It will be established like the Congregations of Priests of the Mission, and of the Pious Workers and Oratorians. But with the absolute distinctiveness of always having to locate their churches and houses outside the town and in the midst of the diocese, so as to be able to move with greater agility for the missions in the surrounding countryside; and so as to convey more easily than it is convenient for the poor to rush to hear God’s word and receive the sacraments in their churches” [16].

For the Redemptorist community, the gaze of mercy is at the root of every missionary dynamism. In fact “the members of the Congregation must be tireless in seeking out people who are more deprived of spiritual help, especially the poor, the powerless and the oppressed…. The Redemptorists can never be deaf to the cry of the poor and the oppressed, but have the duty to search for ways of helping them, so that they themselves will be able to overcome the evils that oppress them. This essential element of the Gospel must never be lacking in the proclamation of the word of God” [17].

The gaze of mercy over the human fragility is also the basis for the Alphonsian moral proposal. Alphonsus himself emphasizes it when he remembers his “conversion” from the rigoristic perspectives presented during his time in formation:  “following that, in the course of missionary work, we found that the benign judgment is commonly supported by numerous persons of great honesty and wisdom … we have therefore carefully weighed the reasons and we realized that the rigid judgment not only has a few patrons and followers – those committed more to speculation than to perhaps listening to confessions – but it is also less likely, if you sift the principles, and all the more, surrounded on all sides by difficulties, anxieties and dangers. On the contrary, we found that benign judgment is commonly accepted. It is much more likely than the opposite, in fact, most probably and, according to some, not without a very serious morally certain foundation.” [18].

Pope John Paul II remembers Alphonsus as responsible for ‘the renewal of moral theology; through contact with the people he encountered in the confessional, especially during his missionary preaching, he gradually and with much hard work brought about a change in his mentality, progressively achieving a correct balance between rigorism and liberty’. It is an equilibrium dictated by the mercy that John Paul II himself saw synthesized in some “wonderful words” of the Theologia Moralis of Alphonsus: “…it is certain, or must be considered certain, that it is not necessary to impose anything on people under pain of grave sin unless the reason is evident… Considering the fragility of the present human condition, it is not always true that the narrowest way is the safest way to direct souls; we see that the Church forbids both excessive liberty and excessive rigor” [19].

The gaze of mercy not only allows us to be challenged by the call of the little ones and the poor, but it enables us to listen to the Spirit who works in them and to participate in the joy of Christ: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (Lk 10:21).

It is a perspective underlined by Pope Francis: the poor “have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties, they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them” [20].

Interpreting the human fragility first of all as ‘illness’, Alphonsus stresses that the truth has to be considered and proposed as a medicine: it is not enough that it responds to the illness, but it is necessary that it will be applied in the light of the effective possibility of the person. It is enough to recall his response to those who thought that the confessor should in any case and always admonish the penitent: “he should certainly teach the truth, but only that which serves, not that seeks to damn the penitents.” And that is because his ministry is “an office of charity, established by the Redeemer only for the good of souls” [21].

Embrace the heart in order to make new

Mary’s gaze of mercy invites us to turn with trust to her: it makes us feel welcome despite our limitations and our incoherent way of life; it opens the heart to trust and set out new paths. Her maternal care is given us by the Father so we will never doubt about his forgiveness: we can experience the anticipation of his embrace that enables the prodigal son to return really home: “So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Lk 15:20). [22].

Mary’s welcoming mercy is the constant feature of The Glories of Mary: “When Mary sees a sinner at her feet begging for mercy, she does not concentrate on the sins with which he is burdened, but rather on the intention with which he comes. If he comes with the proper good intention, even though his soul be black with sin, she welcomes him, and like a loving mother, does not hesitate to heal all the wounds of his soul. For Mary is not merely called, but actually is, the Mother of Mercy. She makes herself known as such by the spontaneous love and tenderness with which she helps all who turn to her.” [23].

It is precisely this welcoming mercy that looks at the intention and not what has been done; which opens one to conversion and growth in goodness. This really concerns a “truth of great consolation for souls tenderly loved by Mary Most Holy, and for the poor sinners who wish to be converted” [24]. When in fact “a sinner, though he may not have given up his sin, endeavors to mend his ways and, for this purpose, seeks the help of Mary, this good mother will not fail to help him and make him recover the grace of God” [25].

The errors committed should not lead us to doubt Mary’s welcoming mercy: “… a sinner is hated and despised by everybody. Inanimate creatures—fire, air, and earth—would like to punish him and take revenge on him for dishonoring their Lord whom the sinner has despised. But when the wretch turns to Mary, does she turn away? On the contrary. If he goes to her for help and is ready to mend his ways, she embraces him like an affectionate mother. And she will not rest till by her powerful intercession she has reconciled him to God and restored him to grace” [26].

“Mary is proposed by Alphonsus as a salvific proclamation par excellence: the word that says that God is mercy; the word that recalls that, in Christ, God reaches down to all, even to the most miserable; the word of forgiveness that opens the heart to take a decision of love for a new life; the word that makes the truth – a path on which to proceed confidently and according to the possibilities, to the fullest. And all this in a manner that is understood and experienced even by the poorest and most abandoned” [27].

From this conviction springs the generosity of Alphonsus in promoting Marian devotion among the people. It is significant what is written by his first biographer A. Tannoia: “The innovators, said Alphonsus, pass off as insulting to God, devotion to Mary Most Holy, denying her mighty and powerful intercession; but it is up to us to show how beneficial she is for the people, what she is with God, and how grateful I am to God to see her honored” [28].

For Pope Francis “closeness, openness to dialogue, patience, cordial acceptance that does not condemn” are indispensable attitudes for a valid evangelization. «The Church is called to always be the open house of the Father … We frequently behave as controllers of grace and not as facilitators. But the Church is not a customs house, it is the paternal house where there is room for everyone with his tiring life “

For Pope Francis “approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental” [29] are the indispensable attitudes for a valid evangelization. “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. …Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” [30].

For Alphonsus, welcoming mercy constitutes a distinctive point of evangelical dynamism of his community. It is at the basis of its location, its structure and its rhythm of life for “it conveys more easily that it is convenient for the poor to rush to hear God’s word and receive the sacraments in their churches”

Allowing everybody to personally meet the missionaries in the sacrament of reconciliation would be, therefore, the fundamental criterion for determining the length of a popular mission. For Alphonsus, Tannoia recalls, “…even in the small places with few souls, they stayed for fifteen days; but in the large and populated cities, it was for twenty, and twenty-two days, and sometimes the whole month. ” He wanted, in fact, that “all the people would have confessed to us”’. Therefore “he did not go out for the Mission if he did not have subjects in numbers proportionate to the place; and in large Missions, he would bring eighteen, and twenty, and sometimes more” [31].

To experience the welcoming and converting embrace of the Father should be the fundamental concern, above all, of the confessor: “The confessor, in order to fulfill the role of a good father, it must be full of charity. And first of all, this charity must welcome all – the poor, rough and sinners… when they are approached by anyone of that kind, they clasp him to the heart and are as pleased as a hunter who has taken his prey, seeing themselves as having the good fortune to snatch a soul from the devil. They know that the sacrament has been given not for pious souls but for sinners… They know what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come not to call the just but sinners.” Mk 2:17. So putting on the bowels of charity, as the Apostle urges, the more they find a soul caught in the mire of sin the more they call on charity in order to call him to God…” [32].

The privileged expression of that welcoming is listening: “Now the confessor must show even more charity listening to him. He must be careful not to show impatience, boredom or surprise at the sins he tells. If, however, he shows himself hard and shameless in speaking of many grave sins, giving no indication of horror or repentance at them, then it is necessary to make him understand their gravity and their great number in order to shake him from his mortal lethargy with some correction” [33].

Listening means looking at the perspective of a person and not from the point of view of the formulations and rules. This is not to legitimize the fragility, but to bring out the possibilities of healing and journeying which are already being anticipated by the Spirit.  Only in such a way, the truth comes forth effectively as ‘healing’” [34].

So we will understand, as emphasized by the Pope Francis, that without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur.[50]  The priests must remember that the confessional must not be a torture room but the place where the mercy of the Lord urges one to do the best possible. A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings” [35].

Evangelizing it is always a matter of the heart: a heart that welcomes, shares, listens, opens life to a different reading, makes the heartburn anew. Like it was with Jesus with his disciples on the road to Emmaus (cf., Lk 24:13-35). Regarding the maternal mystery of Mary, it is a constant call for this need: a call that even the most fragile can experience as a hope.

Then, an authentic conversion will be possible. In Foglietto, where he summarizes “the things most needed for common benefit” which must characterize missionary preaching, Alphonsus writes:” We must be convinced that conversions made only because of the fear of divine punishment are of short duration; it only lasts for how long the force of that fear persists; but when the fear is lacking, the soul remains weak for the sins committed, at every new pull of temptation, they easily fall again … The main task of the preacher of the mission has to be this, that in every preaching, he must inflame the listeners with holy love” [36].

The merciful gaze of Mary supports and encourages. Alphonsus continues, “the mission must likewise often stimulate devotion to the Divine Mother. This devotion is not one of those that are called simple supererogation (doing more than requires to be done), as many saints and all spiritual masters indicate. She is considered necessary for eternal salvation, not an absolute necessity, but at least a moral necessity. Thus a bad prognosis is made by one who lives habitually averse to such devotion.”  He concludes with St. Bernard: “There is much cause of fear for the salvation of the one who has little regard for the devotion to the Blessed Virgin and neglects to obtain her intercession – since he, according to St. Bernard – closes the channel of graces necessary for salvation. And this is what, above all, that the preacher must inculcate” [37].

Fr. Sabatino Majorano CSsR (Province of Naples)

Translated from the Italian by Fr. Piotr Chyla CSsR (Province of Warsaw)


[1] The Glories of Mary. Introduction, in The Glories of Mary – Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori. A New Translation from the Italian – Two Volumes in One. Revised Edition. Liguori Publications, Liguori, Missouri, 2000. p. xxv
[2] Ivi, The Author’s Prayer to Jesus and Mary, p. xxi
[3] S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori, Carteggio, a cura di G. Orlandi, vol. I, Roma 2004, 324.
[4] Lettere, vol. I, Roma 1887, 177.
[5] Cf. As indicated in «La teologia morale nell’insieme del pensiero alfonsiano», in Studia moralia 25 (1987) 79-103; «Misericordia e teologia morale: il contributo della visione alfonsiana», in S. Wodka (ed.), Inauguration of the Alfonsianum Academic Year 2014-1015, Roma 2015, 45-63.
[6] Misericordiae vultus, no. 2.
[7] Ivi, no. 24.
[8] The Glories of Mary…, 116-122
[9] Ivi, 116
[10] Ivi, 116
[11] Ivi, 117
[12] Ivi, 117
[13] Ivi, 117-118
[14] Ivi, 118
[15] Ivi, 122
[16] Spicilegium Historicum CSSR 16 (1968) 385; cf. S. Majorano, «”Idea” dell’Istituto», in D. Capone – S. Majorano, I redentoristi e le Redentoriste. Le radici, Materdomini 1985, 349-424; «Testi regolari anteriori al 1749», in F. Chiovaro (a cura), Storia della Congregazione del Santissimo Redentore, vol. I/I. Le Origini, Roma 1993, 431-451.
[17] Constitutions and Statutes CSSR, Roma 1986, St No. 09.
[18] Dissertatio scholastico‑moralis pro uso opinionis probabilis in concurso probabilioris, in Dissertationes quatuor pro usu moderato opinionis probabilis, Monza 1832, 77-78.
[19] Spiritus Domini, in AAS 79 (1987) 1367-1368.
[20] Evangelii gaudium, no. 198.
[21] Praxis Confessari, Chap. XVI, point VI, n. 110, in Opere, vol. IX, Torino 1861, 415; cf. A. V. Amarante, «“Pratica del Confessore per ben esercitare il suo ministero”», in Studia Moralia 45 (2007) 349-376; S. Majorano, «Sant’Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori: il confessore “officio di carità istituito dal Redentore solamente in bene delle anime», in Chiesa e storia 1 (2011) 285-306; «Il metodo del dialogo di salvezza», in Orientamenti pastorali 61/5 (2013) 35-44.
[22] “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy…” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 3).
[23] The Glories of Mary, Chap. I, § IV. The paragraph has as its title: «Mary Is the Mother of Penitent Sinners ». 116
[24] Ivi, Avvertimento al lettore, 12-13.
[25] Ivi, cap. I, § IV, 25
[26] Ivi, 27
[27] S. Majorano, «La teologia morale nell’insieme del pensiero alfonsiano», in Studia moralia 25 (1987)102.
[28] Della vita ed istituto del Venerabile Servo di Dio Alfonso M.a Liguori, tomo I, Napoli 1798, 316.
[29] Evangelii gaudium, no. 165.
[30] Ivi, no. 47.
[31] Op. cit., 308.
[32] Pratica del confessore, cap. I, § 1, n. 3, Frigento 1987, 5-6. In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis notes: « “Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance. Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again.” (n. 17).
[33] Pratica del confessore…, no. 4, 7.
[34] With regard even to situations of family fragility, the Final Relatio of the Extraordinary Synod in 2014 stressed that “We must welcome people in their concrete existence, learn to support further study, encourage God’s desire and willingness for them to feel fully part of the Church even in those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most varied situations. The Christian message has always, within it, the reality and the dynamics of mercy and truth, which converge in Christ” (no. 11). Therefore, “every family should first be listened to with respect and love as companions on the journey, as Christ was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus” (no. 46).
[35] Evangelii gaudium, no. 44.
[36] Selva di materie predicabili. Appendice, punto I, n. 1, in Opere, vol. III, Torino 1847, 288.
[37] Ivi, punto II, n. 1 e 4, 289 e 291.

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