Ave Maria: The Mystery of a Most Beloved Prayer is a new book of Pope Francis homilies, addresses, and exchanges on the Blessed Mother. The editor of Ave Maria, Gary Jansen of Image Books, has edited book projects in English by both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Jansen talks about why a new book released today, just a day before the penitential season of Lent begins, on the Hail Mary prayer could be powerful at this time of scandal.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why do you write in your note to readers that it is “with great reverence that Image Books” publishes this book?
Gary Jansen: There’s something very special and holy about the pope’s new book on Mary. It just had a different feel to it than other Pope Francis projects I’ve published at Image Books over the years. Maybe it’s because the book is about the Virgin Mary, and I have great devotion to her. But I’m really happy with how the book came out: from the pope’s words to the translation by Matthew Sherry to the beautiful jacket to even the typesetting of the pages. The end product is just gorgeous. It feels to me like a prayer.
Lopez: What’s the mystery of the Hail Mary?
Jansen: Well, that’s what the book is about. The pope goes through each line of the Ave Maria, or the Hail Mary, and reflects on the significance of grace, God’s presence, and what it means to be blessed, to name just a few of the ideas here. What drew me to this manuscript was that we often take some things in our life for granted. The pope asks us to slow down a little, reflect on Jesus’s mother, and spend some time examining what we are saying when we really pray this prayer.
Lopez: People may find themselves confused and disappointed and angry at Pope Francis. Why might they read this book anyway?
Jansen: I get it. I too feel at a loss sometimes. This is a very sensitive time in the history of the papacy and the Catholic Church. But I feel like this book is a way of recognizing our feelings and also focusing on what is good, true, and beautiful about our faith. And one of the people who is good and true and beautiful is Mary. This shouldn’t negate what’s been going on in our Church; I do think it’s important for us to simultaneously hold Jesus and the Holy Family in our hearts as much as possible. It may not cut down on the confusion or the disappointment, but I do believe it helps us to make Spirit-filled decisions about what to do next.
Lopez: Others may not get the Mary thing and might have a sense that Catholics have a disordered relationship with Mary. Is this book for them, too?
Jansen: Yes, I think it can be. If you really love someone, then you can often learn a lot about that person from his or her mother. The same holds true for Jesus and Mary. If as Christians Jesus is supposed to be the center of our lives, then we can get some really great insider information from the woman who was with him when he was born and when he died. Though Mary only appears a few times in the Bible, we believe that Mary never leaves Jesus’s side, just the way a son or daughter may travel the world and his or her mother still remains connected to them. A mother might not be with her children every minute of every day, but a mom is still present spiritually and emotionally. Mary can share that closeness with us.
Lopez: What is all of this untying of knots we’ve been asking Mary to do since Francis turned up on the scene?
Jansen: Ever just feel tied up in knots? Confused? Angry? Feel that rock in your stomach? Well, there is a devotion that the pope loves very much called Mary, the Undoer of Knots. Essentially, a devotion is a special prayer and meditation. The pope has popularized this devotion and we can see that just like a mom who helps us get the knot out of our shoelaces when we are children, Mary can help us undo the knots that often trip us in life.
Lopez: Are there words of Francis in this book that have impacted you? That you will be praying with during Lent?
Jansen: I do love what the pope says about how we can change our lives by trying to be in constant dialogue with God, to always put God first in all that we do, even in our professional lives. When we do so, we live like Mary. Mary, the pope says, lived a beautiful life. We make our lives beautiful by living close to God.
Lopez: In one of the exchanges of the book, Pope Francis says that “holiness is letting God do it.” Can it really be that simple? Can one start there and then move on to the Catechism and Scripture and the Summa Theologia?
Jansen: Can it be that simple? Yes. Is it easy? Not at all. Society at large drills into us that we need to be in control of things as much as possible. And that makes sense. If you can’t control your spending or your temper, you’re going to get yourself into a lot of trouble. But we can experience new levels of freedom from worry if we turn the big problems over to God and ask not for a magic trick to solve everything, but a big dose of inspiration to help us make good decisions about how we lead our lives, our families, our country, and our Church.
Lopez: The Holy Spirit plays an early role in this book. Is that important and by design?
Jansen: Going back to your earlier question about “the Mary thing,” I do think it’s important to realize that Mary is not someone to be worshipped but someone to be treated with honor. Just as we should honor our mother and father, it would do us good to honor others’ mothers and fathers as well. The Holy Spirit is that guiding presence of God that filled Mary with a grace to do God’s will. Mary and her beautiful life, then, become an example of someone who fully accepts the Holy Spirit into their life. If we could fully accept God into our lives, if we could fully accept the Holy Spirit into our lives, just think about how differently we would do the things we do.
Lopez: How can Mary keep us moving forward in holiness in this time of scandal in the Church?
Jansen: I like to think of Mary at the foot of the Cross. She’s there watching her son suffer, and in her own suffering she remains steadfast and stays with her son Jesus. And I think there’s a lot to learn there. We need to stay as close as we can to Jesus, even during this time of suffering, and not leave his side. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be sad or angry. I’m sure Mary experienced all those emotions when her son was dying in front of her. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action; it means when we do take action, we do so with Jesus by our side.