You may have noticed that during his visit to the United States, whenever Pope Francis set foot in a church — before he did anything else — he carried a bouquet or vase of flowers to a side chapel devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
His entourage of cardinals would cool their heels on the other side of the chapel’s altar rail while the Holy Father placed flowers before the sacred image or statue and silently contemplated her image.
He did this again and again, in every church he entered.
Even after his 9-day trip, and a long overnight flight back to Rome, when all of the journalists aboard his plane were eager to rush home or to their hotel rooms , Pope Francis went straight to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to thank Mary for his trip with a bouquet of flowers.
As a convert to the faith, this puzzled me. I wasn’t brought up attending annual “Queen of May” crownings, which always seemed quite foreign to me and something, perhaps, intended for children. While I understood the importance of venerating Mary, I struggled with the concept of giving material gifts to an artistic representation of her.
So, on Sunday morning, on Pope’s last day in the United States, after Mass in my neighborhood church in Washington, D.C., I decided to pay Mary a visit. I’d previously noticed older women, mostly Filipinas, do it, so I knew where to go. I knelt down before the statue of Mary holding the child Jesus and peered up at her. Expecting to see nothing but cold white Plaster of Paris, I was startled to see that she was looking right at me, with a motherly, caring expression and with her free hand open as if in invitation.
Of course! These images created by artists are meant to startle us, and stir our imagination so that we can properly contemplate Mary as our mother. I can be exceedingly dense – the great museums of the world are filled with just such guides to prayer. That’s what they were created for – not just to make us feel cultured. They remind us that She is our mother, and Jesus’ mother, and the right response is reverence. What a good son Pope Francis is to bring her flowers.
I decided to talk to some other good children and find out what moves them to give Mary flowers.
Margaret Rose Realy, a Benedictine Oblate and author of A Garden of Visible Prayer told me that she offers flowers to Mary in gratitude:
“My flowers to Mary are in gratitude for her role that began my (our) salvation. They are also given in gratitude for the smaller compassions of a mother — something I am not and something that lacked in my childhood,” she said.
“She mothers with little lessons. My pleadings to understand bring her grace, and she wraps me in the arms of love and kisses my forehead gently with hope and encouragement,” she added.
And why give flowers? “We hold out our symbol of gratitude, flowers from God’s gift of nature, and in our hearts respond love for love full circle. Sometimes I need the tactile and visual to connect with what is beyond my humanness, beyond our world. To offer an earthly gift that is beyond words and prayer. A child’s expression of gratefulness for a good mom, who wants only what’s best for our souls.”
She too was struck by the Pope’s reverence. “When I see Francis doing this in churches and shrines around the world, I think he is honoring his mother wherever he goes!”
Blogger Joanne McPortland of Egregious Twaddle (says she puts flowers before Mary at home, “Because she’s Mom. Because I grew up with May crownings and never had flowers to bring, so I do it now.”
Pat Gohn, author of Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, told me that she has a statue of Mary in her home that she brought back from a pilgrimage to Fatima.
“Often when I buy flowers for our home, I place a simple bud vase before our statue of Mary as a thank you for her many intercessions for me and loved ones. It is also a little gesture or token of my affection for her. When I see flowers before her image, I’m reminded of her love for me and that love brings much beauty and hope to my life,” she said.
The gift of flowers reminds her of Mary’s motherhood, she said, “I remember when my own children were little they would bring me handfuls of dandelions or daffodils that grew in our yard. I always received these gestures of love with admiration and smiles toward the heart of my children. I’m still Mary’s child and like St. John, I try to make a home for her in my home. (See Jn 19:27) This physical reminder — the statue and the flowers in my home — are symbolic of the spiritual reality of my relationship with Mary.”
The homilies and addresses Pope Francis gave while in the U.S., provide a wealth of material for further reflection and inspiration. In the same way, the example of his simple and frequent homage to Mary, our Mother, leaves me much richer than I was a week ago.
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll — Do You Offer Flowers to Mary?
Zelda Caldwell is managing editor of Aleteia’s English edition.