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The saint who inspired John Paul II and a former gangster

St John Paul II greets the World Youth Day crowd in Czestochowa, Poland, in 1992 (CNS)

St John Paul II died ten years ago, on 2 April 2005. This anniversary came into my mind because, to mark the date, there have been various YouTube videos of his election to the papacy, the assassination attempt, his death and his funeral. So I watched the moment he first came onto the famous balcony at St Peter’s on 16 October 1978 and greeted the huge crowds waiting there, quoting the words of Christ: “Do not be afraid!”

Then, after the attempt on his life in May 1981, I watched the papal car speeding through St Peter’s Square to the Gemelli Clinic, flanked by weeping bystanders. This was followed by his final appearance on the papal balcony at the end of March 2005 when, no longer able to speak, he blessed the crowds below before being wheeled back to his deathbed. And then there was the extraordinary occasion of his funeral, presided over by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Ratzinger, during which I heard the voice of Katie Couric, the US TV presenter, asking for the late Pope’s devotion to Our Lady to be explained to her.

She would not have known that the leitmotif of his long and extraordinary papacy was contained in two words: his papal motto – “Totus Tuus”. This past Lent I have been rereading the Gospels in the edition published by Navarre University in 2000. In the editors’ notes for John 19:27 (“Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!”), which I read in Holy Week, it states “John Paul II constantly treats Our Lady as his Mother. In bidding farewell to the Virgin of Czestochowa [on 6 June 1979] he prayed in this way: ‘Our Lady of the Bright Mountain, Mother of the Church! Once more I consecrate myself to you in your maternal slavery of love. Totus Tuus! I am all yours!'”

For those who might think the vocabulary of “slavish” devotion to Our Lady a prime example of Catholic excess and Mariolatry, I should explain that this language, along with the papal motto, comes straight from a saint not widely known – St Louis de Montfort, 1673-1716. His most famous book, the centre of his apostolic endeavours, is titled The Secret of the Rosary. After the Mass itself, St Louis believed that the Rosary was the most powerful weapon against evil that Christians could employ. With this in mind, the CTS has just published a new edition of the 33-Day Consecration to Jesus through Mary, inspired by de Montfort. At only £2.50 it is well worth buying in order to become better acquainted with this devotion and to learn why it was so important to St John Paul II.

Indeed, in the introduction by John Pridmore, a former London gangster and criminal who had a conversion experience aged 27 and who is now a fulltime Catholic evangelist, we read that “The late Holy Father…stated that through reading this consecration his life was transformed. He said ‘This Marian devotion has since remained an integral part of my interior life and of my spiritual theology.'”

Pridmore explains that each of the 33 days consists of an opening prayer, a scripture reading, an excerpt from the writings of St Louis, a reflection and various prayers. It is recommended to complete the consecration on a Marian feast. Thus the booklet gives a convenient list of possible dates to start; for instance, if you begin on April 10 (the next possible date) you will conclude on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima on May 13. This was the date of the attempted assassination in 1981; St John Paul II believed it was through the intervention of Our Lady of Fatima that he escaped death on that occasion, saying later that “in everything that happened to me that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.”

The 33-day consecration isn’t arduous or time-consuming, considering all the ways one wastes time during the day, but it does require regular commitment. Pridmore, who knows more than most people what it means to be attracted to evil, advises praying for the grace of perseverance “because in spiritual warfare the enemy will try everything to rob you of these incredible graces.” It hardly needs pointing out that we live in dark times: they feature the actual martyrdom of thousands of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, and the increasingly virulent attacks on Christians in the West who dare to raise their voices, however politely, against the diktats of our secularist culture. I am going to start the consecration this Friday, April 10. Why not get hold of a copy of the CTS booklet and do the same?