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More than a Motto

Understanding the ‘Totus Tuus’ of St. John Paul II

By Jason Godin

The Church celebrated the feast day of St. Louis Mary Grignion de Montfort on April 28. A missionary priest who preached on Marian piety in early 18th-century France, Montfort greatly influenced the path taken to the priesthood by Karol Wojtyła, known now as the pope from Poland, St. John Paul II. This week presents a unique moment to appreciate how the Marian piety of Montfort influenced John Paul II, and how that same devotion to the Mother of God can also deepen our own faith.

For over 26 years, John Paul II placed his papacy under the mantle of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His episcopal motto “Totus tuus” (Latin, “completely yours”) was a statement of his service. The Holy Father placed it routinely in the top margins of his writing documents. His papal coat of arms, emblazoned in blue, crowned and crossed in gold, and marked with a golden capital “M” in its lower right corner, also symbolized the intensity of his Marian devotion. Consequently, it raised eyebrows when in Gift and Mystery (Doubleday, 1996), a book that celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, John Paul II confided that earlier in his life: “I began to question my devotion to Mary, believing that, if it became too great, it might end up compromising the supremacy of the worship owed to Christ” (page 28).

A scholar as much as shepherd, young Wojtyła naturally looked to books to better understand the traditions and teachings of the Church on Mary. The future saint turned to True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin by Louis de Montfort. “Yes, Mary does bring us closer to Christ,” the Holy Father explained in Gift and Mystery, “provided that we live her mystery in Christ” (29).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that saints serve as models of faith; they are men and women who “practiced heroic virtue” and “lived in fidelity to God’s grace” (828). They also “share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today” (CCC, 2683). In True Devotion, Montfort presents Mary as part of the plan of God that we must also follow: “It is through the Blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus Christ came into the world, and it is also through her that he must reign in the world” (1).

As defined by Montfort and applied in many ways by John Paul II, devotion to Jesus through Mary introduces mysteries of faith that can ultimately enrich our own lives. Saying “yes” to God invites nobility in humility. Charity gives birth to acts of model mercy. What Christ tells us in prayer transforms trying into doing. The foot of the cross becomes a base of operations, a point of departure for shining bright flames of faith into a world where too many women don’t even get to know their sons because of abortion, and too many sons find the dignity of taking their mother into their home as too great a hardship.

Totus tuus” is more than a motto. It is a proposal to pause for interior reflection, to surrender sin for true freedom, and to better prepare for an eternity with Jesus through spending time with Mary in prayer. It summarizes with two words what the Church has taught about the Blessed Virgin Mary for two millennia. And, most important for all, it provides a sure path to peace because it rests ultimately in God alone.