When Karol Józef Wojtyła was 9 years old, he lost his own mother, and he was raised by a very devout father. From an early age, St. John Paul had a beautiful devotion to our Blessed Mother as mother, and he relied on her maternal care, protection and encouragement. At his parish Church he would pray devotedly to the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He and his father made pilgrimages to the nearby shrine of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, particularly on the feast of the Assumption. The Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa with the icon depicting the Blessed Mother holding the Child Jesus had a profound influence. Since the 1300s, the Polish people have venerated this icon and invoked the prayers of our Blessed Mother for her maternal protection, especially in difficult times. His devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa was evident during his pontificate: On his first trip to Poland in 1979 after his election as Pope, St. John Paul visited the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. He said, “The call of a son of Poland to the Cathedral of St. Peter contains an evident and strong link with this holy place, with this Shrine of great hope: totus tuus (“I am all yours”), I had whispered in prayer so many times before this Image” (June 4, 1979).
St. John Paul II never hid the influence of a great French saint on his strong Marian devotion. As a young worker at the Solvay factory during World War II, he discovered Mary’s role by reading True Devotion to Mary, by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. Karol Wojtyla grew up close to Mary from his earliest childhood, but when he entered the seminary, he thought it might be better to take a step away from her. He admitted later that he feared that his devotion to her would take away from the adoration due to Christ.
“But thanks to Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort,” he wrote in 2004 in the Letter to the Religious of the Montfortian Families, “I understood that authentic devotion to the Mother of God is truly Christocentric (…). Reading True Devotion marked a turning point in my life. I say a ‘turning point’ although it is a long inner journey that coincided with my clandestine preparation for the priesthood. I realized (…) something fundamental. It happened that the devotion of my childhood and even my adolescence to the Mother of Christ gave way to a new attitude, a devotion coming from the depths of my faith, as from the very heart of the Trinitarian and Christological reality.”
The motto Totus Tuus, inscribed on St. John Paul’s papal coat of arms, is directly inspired by the spirituality of St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. This is what he confirms in that same letter of 2004: “These two words express total belonging to Jesus through Mary: ‘Tuus totus ego sum, and omnia mea tua sunt,’ writes St. Louis-Marie, and he translates it: ‘I am all yours, and all that I have belongs to you, O my lovable Jesus, through Mary, your holy Mother’ (Treatise of True Devotion to Mary, no. 233). This saint’s teaching had a profound influence on my Marian devotion and my own life.”
St. John Paul II found in the Blessed Virgin Mary a true mother. He threw himself in her arms and let Mary put him close to her Son. This is something we might want to learn and imitate from St. John Paul and from many other saints: having a trustful, tender devotion to our Mother in heaven.
The beautiful hymn “Ave Maris Stella” from the ninth century says in one of its stances “Monstra Te Esse Matrem,” which means “Show yourself to be our Mother.” This is a prayer we can say today and every single day of our lives. We need Mary to “mother” us, to protect, intercede, and bring us closer and closer to Jesus.