By Mitch Finley
“My Queen, My Mother: A Living Novena — A Marian Pilgrimage Across America” by Marge Steinhage Fenelon. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2019). 135 pp., $14.95.
“Our Lady of Charity: How a Cuban Devotion to Mary Helped Me Grow in Faith and Love” by Maria Morera Johnson. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2019). 110 pp., $14.95.
Some wit once quipped about Christmas, “Ah, yes, the only season of the year when Protestants can’t avoid talking about Mary.” There may be some truth to this. However, Catholic readers are likely as Protestant readers to find these two books both inspiring and informative when it comes to nourishing a healthy, theologically balanced attitude toward Mary.
Any Protestant who only looks at the books’ covers is likely to feel reaffirmed in the opinion that if Catholics don’t literally “worship” Mary, they at least skate altogether too close to it. Anyone who takes the risk of actually reading a chapter or two of either book, however, may find it difficult to talk about Mary only during the Christmas season.
Marge Steinhage Fenelon’s “My Queen, My Mother” begins with fine explanations of what “pilgrimage” and “novena” mean. Her discussion of these traditional Catholic concepts will help many Catholic readers to nourish a healthy adult devotion to Mary and abandon any quasi-magical perspectives they may have.
At the same time, these introductory discussions will help any Protestant readers to begin letting go of misunderstandings of Catholic veneration of Mary they may have lived with for many years. Indeed, the deeply scriptural character of these concepts may surprise and challenge readers from both camps.
The core chapters of “My Queen, My Mother” focus on nine (hence, “novena” meaning “nine”) of the many Marian shrines in the United States. The author visited all nine of these shrines, and she explains the history and unique character of each one, offers suggestions for making a “spiritual visit” to each, and concludes with questions for reflection and discussion.
In an appendix, Fenelon explains briefly how to pray the rosary and provides the words of each of the rosary’s prayers including the “Fatima prayer” with its petition to “save us from the fires of hell” and the “prayer to St. Michael” with its petition to protect us “from the wickedness and snares of the devil” — prayers this reviewer would prefer to label “optional.”
Too, including these prayers unremarked upon may constitute a missed opportunity to briefly discuss the metaphorical and analogical nature of religious language (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 40), a topic many Catholics could benefit from knowing more about.
This is to quibble, however. “My Queen, My Mother” is a solid, beautifully written book that deserves many readers. Also, it would make a valuable addition to parish libraries and belongs on the reading list of any parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program.
Maria Morera Johnson’s “Our Lady of Charity” is a remarkable book about the Cuban-American author’s life with Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba. The author was brought as a child from Cuba to the United States in 1965 by her parents, and growing up with Our Lady of Charity was part and parcel of her everyday family life.
“Whenever my mother referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary,” Johnson writes, “she did so lovingly and with an affectionate diminutive, the ‘virgencita.’ In this way, Mary was always present in our home, a part of the family.”
Recounting her first return to Cuba in 2015, on the occasion of the visit to that island-country by Pope Francis, Johnson narrates the origin and development of devotion to Our Lady of Charity. She does so in a way that is thoroughly Christian and Catholic, theologically complete and balanced.
“I want to introduce Our Lady of Charity to her North American children,” Johnson explains. “Devotion to Mary under this lovely title comes at a time when our society, and our world, should revisit her message of love. We can turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary as our model for living this call to love. She never fails to show us the true love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
“Our Lady of Charity” is a book to cultivate an adult Catholic faith, to renew one’s devotion to Mary by getting to know her through a special devotion nurtured for many generations by the Cuban people. In the author’s words: “Our Lady of Charity … watches over all her children even though they are scattered far and wide. It’s what a mother does.”
Mitch Finley is the author of more than 30 books, including “Surprising Mary,” “What Faith is Not” and “The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers and Those In Between.”