Brenda Schwartz once found Catholic reverence for Mary unsettling. She wasn’t raised Catholic. It was her devout German Catholic father-in-law who took her aside and explained that Catholics don’t worship Mary but that she’s there to help.

Shortly before the birth of her first son in 1989, Schwartz, a longtime member of St. Pius X Parish in Northwest Portland, needed to reach out to Mary for an urgent request. She’d never done that before. Mary came through, in what Schwartz calls a miraculous way.

Twenty years later, she became intrigued with Portugal and Fatima and joined the local World Apostolate of Fatima. As a member of the apostolate, Schwartz keeps the First Saturday Devotion — a devotion revealed by Our Lady at Fatima. Mary asked the faithful to go to Mass, confession and say the rosary every first Saturday of the month for five consecutive months.

“I really felt Mary’s hand in the whole devotion,” says Schwartz. “She wants us to embrace all of the sacraments.

“People don’t realize that Mary wants you to have the fullest relationship with her son that’s possible.”

Schwartz insists that Mary can help develop that relationship.

“That a mother’s love — wanting to share that son with all of her children and making sure you’re on the right track and deepening your devotion to her son.”

Marian devotion

Mary is the first of the apostles, says Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Divine Worship Office for the Archdiocese of Portland.

Mary is different from every other human being because she was born without original sin and she was given the special vocation to be the mother of Jesus.

“That’s why we place her at that level,” adds the monsignor. Placing Mary in such esteem has caused confusion for some over the years. As Protestantism grew after the Reformation, Protestant beliefs became almost anti-Marian.

The lack of Marian devotion is a “reaction to what was perceived as placing Mary in a position that she was not — placing Mary in a position on the level with God or Christ or the Trinity, which is not the case in Catholic theology at all,” says Msgr. O’Connor.

“If you really love something, you tend to talk about it. You tend to tell people about it. You tend to get excited about it. And it’s the same with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Just a lot of Catholics are in love with Our Lady and so when you talk to Catholics, it’s a big part of our lives,” he adds.

Nearly all of the great saints had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother, says the monsignor.

“They see the power in efficacy in her prayers. She’s a great intercessor for us,” he says. “Her influence in salvation history has been so powerful and been so manifest that you can’t ignore it. Look at what happened in Lourdes. Look what happened it Fatima.”

The monsignor himself became entranced by the apparitions at Fatima when he was a teenager. He says he was a young pagan when a friend invited him to go to a lecture on Fatima. It was a boring Friday night, so he agreed.

“So we went and were smacked by this message of Fatima.”

Msgr. O’Connor has been touched by the message ever since. In addition, priests tend to have a Marian devotion because of their relationship to Christ and Christ’s relationship to Mary.

When St. John Paul was a young man and his mother died, he ran to a nearby church, kneeling before the statue of Our Lady. “You’re my mother now,” the former pope is believed to have said. St. John Paul began wearing a brown scapular not long after.

Proof

Eric Walter, a member of St. Mary Parish in Eugene, was baptized Catholic on his 50th birthday. Until then, he hadn’t fully believed in God. As an engineer, he felt he needed more proof.

“Boy, did the Lord give me that proof. He flooded me with proof,” says Walter.

Walter had heard about the Blessed Mother when he was coming into the church. He’d hear about her being an intercessor. Walter thought he needed all the help he could get.

One New Year’s Day, he was sitting in his car in the empty parking lot outside the adoration chapel. Rain was pouring down. He sat in silence, afraid to go into the chapel. Walter was facing things he had done in his past. He broke down crying and couldn’t budge from the driver’s seat. Suddenly, he heard the biggest bell he’d ever heard in his life — far louder than any local church bell. He stopped in his tracks.

A woman’s voice spoke. She told Walter to go to the adoration chapel and bring his fears to the feet of her son.

“I realized it was the Blessed Mother who led me to the Lord,” he says. “I really think she has helped me throughout my conversion.”

Walter has had a strong Marian devotion ever since. He’s been on the board of directors for the World Apostolate of Fatima for years.

Holding the rosary

Alicia Garcia, a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in North Portland, joined the Legion of Mary in 2004.

Garcia’s mom loved Mary. She still remembers her mother saying the rosary all the time, sometimes while moving on her knees across large churches.

As a young woman, Garcia recalls going to a church in Chicago to pray a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help with her best friend. What Garcia didn’t realize was that her friend was praying for her to find a husband. And when the friend got married, Garcia met her husband.

“I always tell people I met my husband through Our Blessed Mother,” she says.

The couple married, moved to Portland and then joined the Legion of Mary together. Garcia’s devotion became stronger over time and from being in the legion.

At one point Garcia was sick, so sick that she would hold her rosary constantly, seeking the Blessed Mother’s intercession.

“It was nice to have her during that time,” says Garcia. “I look back and don’t think I could have gone through it without her help. I know she was with me during that time.”

Mary Nordlund, a longtime member of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland, grew up a cradle Catholic but never said the rosary much at home. Her devotion to Mary wasn’t strong. But today she is a member of the local World Apostolate of Fatima.

Norlund’s spirituality got more Marian as she listened to Mater Dei Radio. She found herself at a Marian conference she heard about on the station.

She started praying the rosary daily — a requirement of members of the apostolate — and fell in love with the Blessed Mother. She cherishes the rosary and the angelus prayer, which brings into focus Mary’s humility and acceptance of the Lord’s plan. Norlund lists the prayer among her favorites.

As a small child in the Philippines, Melba Ganaban’s greatest influence was her paternal grandmother.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help from Mama Mary because she is our Mother,” Ganaban’s grandmother would tell her. Those words stuck close to Ganaban’s heart.

“Every time I need guidance, especially in the family, I always go to Mama Mary for help and intercession,” says Ganaban, a member at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Southeast Portland. “She’s always there for me, answers my prayer and gives me comfort and consolation. I’m very close to her.”

A mother’s love

Looking back on his upbringing, Servite Father Donald Siple, rector of the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, The Grotto, recalls his mother carrying her rosary beads with her everywhere. When she got a new purse, they were the first things in the bag. Her beads saw the baptism of her five children, their first Communions, their confirmations, their weddings and Father Siple’s ordination.

“What I learned from her is Mary wasn’t just this beautiful statue on a ledge. She was a confidant. She was an intercessor. And I think often — I got this sense from my own mother — that Mary was the mother that she could rely on.”

Mary was always an example of someone who endured life, always knowing that God was there, says the friar.

“What Mary teaches us in the church more than anything else is how to be faithful to the faithful God,” says Father Siple.

“Throughout the entirety of her life — with the joys and the sorrows and everything in between — Mary had this wonderful ability to surrender to the power of God’s faithfulness that he promised to be with his people.”

Mary is not just a Mother in heaven. There have been hundreds of Marian appearances or visions of Mary on earth. Only a handful of these appearances, however, have been fully investigated and approved by the Vatican as official Marian apparitions. Among the most famous Vatican approved apparitions are Fatima, Guadalupe and Lourdes.

When Mary appears to the faithful, she often appears as one of the local people. In Mexico, for instance, she appeared in the form of Aztec royalty.

These visions have lasting effects. The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe led to a massive conversion in Mexico. The apparitions at Fatima in 1917, which included the famous Miracle of the Sun when newspapers reported accounts of the sun dancing across the sky in front of a crowd of 70,000 people, brought forth devotions that are still widely practiced today. Even unapproved appearances have strong effects.

“In appearing as one of the local people, she’s reminding us — God is reminding us — in those apparitions that ‘I’m very close to you,’” says Father Siple. People have a deep connection with mothers. The attraction in Marian apparitions is the mother’s love.

“What she brings in these apparitions is this incredible, humble sense of faith,” says the friar. “And we need examples like that.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org

Learn more

Download a copy of the Parish Book of Marian Devotions, published by the Archdiocese of Portland, at go.sentinel.org/2KYvR4S.