Paul Cartwright testifies to the intercessions of Mary in his life
Having to preach to the Society of Mary about Mary is always an exciting prospect, but what do you tell a group of people about someone whom they know intimately? But of course, I’ve made a great assumption there, because yes, we all know the being and life story of Our Lady, but do we all see her in the same way?
I should have remembered the ABC of investigation from my previous life as a police officer—assume nothing, believe no one, check everything. I suppose it could also be a blueprint for when we are dealing with archdeacons and bishops, present company excepted of course!
As we look around church today we see many different generations from all different backgrounds, called to be here, as we join in worship with the Queen of Heaven. I wonder what called you here today, and as you join each other in prayer what do you hold in your hearts? Whatever it is, Our Lady is here to intercede with us and for us.
I first fell in love with the Mother of the Church when I was around 11 years old and I was being prepared for confirmation. We were considering what it was to be full of grace and the example that Mary gives us as to how we should live our lives. We considered the Catechism of the Catholic Church and how Mary’s ‘complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity.’ (CCC, 967)
This young woman, not much older than the majority in our confirmation class, was chosen by God to be the mother of our saviour and was such a great example to us all. I wanted to be like her—I wanted to point to Jesus and to love him as much as a mother loves her child. This was exciting stuff and the beginning of a love affair which I still have today. Our Lady has been with me through both happy and sad times in my own life. Through contemplating her life, she has helped me to celebrate my joys and survive sadness.
I’ve learnt to love the rosary, and I’ve experienced direct answer to prayer. When I was panicking in my GCSE music listening exam and the next question to pop up was about the Beatles piece Lady Madonna—what a godsend that was; she certainly was Our Lady the Untier of Knots at that point! Or when I was praying the rosary on Sunday, 5 October 2003 after leaving my wife with severe back ache to go to church. I remember praying for Debbie that evening as we prayed the rosary, only to return home to find my wife going into labour with our first child Benjamin Jude, albeit a few weeks early. Debbie’s labour certainly wasn’t the same as how Our Lady’s labour is described in Isaiah 66.7 where it says: ‘Before she was in labour she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son.’ But what we did benefit from is the example that Mary Our Mother gave us for family love. The birth of my children changed my life. Yes, it’s true, I didn’t used to be as tired as I am now, but more importantly they taught me about unconditional love. This was something that on reflection I didn’t really understand about Mary, the Queen of Families. I knew that she loved me, but I couldn’t understand why she should, as sometimes I wasn’t always as close to her son as I should be.
Unconditional love means totally loving another person to their core, regardless of what they do or fail to do. It’s something that for the majority of us is learnt and practiced. For new parents it’s something that most experience as soon as they lay eyes on their new child, but eventually it may move on to be a conscious effort to love the person, regardless of circumstances. Jesus gave us his mother as she stood at the foot of the cross. He passed on to each one of us the love which he experienced throughout his life. Our Lady of Charity, refuge of sinners, walked alongside him, caring for him as any mother would, with that unconditional love in her immaculate heart.
This understanding is confirmed in the book of Revelation 12.17 where it says the ‘woman’s’ [Mary’s] offspring are those who follow Jesus.’ That’s us! She is our mother, and we experience the same unconditional love from her that her son received because we are his brothers and sisters, and her children.
As Agatha Christie once wrote in one of her short stories: ‘A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.’ I wonder, when did you last tell the Queen of Martyrs that you love her? When have you reflected to her that unconditional love which she has for you? Was it when you called upon the intercession of Our Lady of Guidance, or Our Lady of Light, or maybe Our Lady of Peace? Whenever you have called her and whatever name you have given her, she will have heard and answered.
Ten years ago this year, I called upon the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, and Our Lady of Good Health, during the fantastic Society of Mary Pilgrimage in September 2008. I travelled to France even though I was exhausted through chemotherapy, but of course I was carried along by prayer. As many of you will know, I had been diagnosed with an aggressive leukaemia in April that year, and I had been placed into remission, although there was still a trace of the minimal residual disease in my bone marrow—in layman’s terms, not all of the cancer had gone and there was still microscopic amounts in my bone marrow. My little boy was five, and my little girl was one, and although I trusted in God, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t frightened. If ever I needed the intercession of Our Mother of Perpetual Help it was then.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams was also on pilgrimage there, and in one of his sermons it felt like he spoke directly to me, as no doubt it did to many others. He said: ‘Our prayer here must be that, renewed and surprised in this holy place, we may be given the overshadowing strength of the Spirit to carry Jesus wherever we go, in the hope that joy will leap from heart to heart in all our human encounters. And that we may also be given courage to look and listen for that joy in our own depths when the clarity of the good news seems far away and the sky is cloudy.’
Whilst there I took in the waters, with the prayer in my heart that I would be healed. and that my fears would be calmed. I walked by the grotto, looking at the Statue of Our Lady, and prayed the rosary. I heard my friends who had been ordained deacon that year proclaiming the gospel in the international Mass, even though they were Anglican. I was cared for by friends, priests, deacons and monks who had been there during my illness. But above all, I knew that the love of God and Our Lady was enfolding me. How do I know that, you may ask; well my next bone marrow biopsy was clear, and I’ve been clear from that day: a tangible way in which my family have experienced the Glory of God.
After getting the all clear I remember saying to my training incumbent Canon Marshall, ‘I don’t believe it,’ and in his gentle way, as you can imagine, he replied, ‘well you should.’ But of course, it should have come as no surprise as the Queen of All Saints intercedes for the people. We only have to look at John 2.2–10 where Jesus responds to his mother’s request for help and he performs his first miracle at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Once again, Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Health of the Sick, had walked alongside me, just as she did her son Jesus. ‘Mary’s role in the Church is inseparable from her union with Christ and flows directly from it.’ (CCC, 964)
And so, brothers and sisters, it is right that we are here today to celebrate this May Devotion. We don’t have to worry about the ABCs of investigation, for you have heard evidence from a primary witness. Whatever called you here and whatever you hold in your hearts, know that your prayer is heard. It is right that we love and remain in love with Mary Our Mother, Comfort of the Afflicted, the Mystical Rose, and that we reach out to her, calling her many, many names, throughout our land and the world. For she walked with her son throughout his life, remaining with him throughout all time, and she does the same thing for us, her children, this day, bringing us close to him.
Mary Queen of the Universe, pray for us. Amen.
Canon Paul Cartwright SSC is the Vicar of St Peter’s Barnsley.
This sermon was preached at the Society of Mary’s May Devotion.