Holy Slavery?

If we were on the lookout for the most counter-cultural idea in contemporary Christianity to our obsession with freedom, a good choice might be the devotion of Holy Slavery, recommended by St. Louis Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716) in his book, True Devotion to Mary

One offshoot of this devotion has been the order of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, based in Harvard, MA, founded by Father Leonard Feeney in 1949 and re-founded by Brother Hugh MacIsaac in 1976. It is traditional, using the Tridentine Latin Mass, and operates a printing press, school, summer camps, retreats, gift shop and catechism programs.

Another religious community based on a commitment to Holy Slavery is the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. This is the community that sends out mailings advertising that they have a “different kind” of vocation crisis – namely, that their community in Ann Arbor, MI, has grown in thirteen years from four sisters to over 100, mostly in their twenties, so that they have insufficient facilities to accommodate all the applications received from young women. They are currently planning to establish priories in California and Texas.

Of course, the best-known exemplar of this devotion has been Pope John Paul II who, beneath his coat of arms, displayed the first two words of the consecration formula to Mary recommended by Montfort – totus tuus ego sum, et omnia mea tua sunt (“I am all yours and all I have is yours”).

Most Protestants and even many Catholics would be in danger of a fit of apoplexy about Christians making themselves slaves of Mary. In view of this, Montfort advises the clarification that they are “slaves of Jesus through Mary,” emphasizing the goal rather than the particular means they are choosing. 

And there are ample examples from the New Testament of slavery to Jesus.  St. Paul in Romans, Philippians, Colossians, and Titus refers to himself as a doulos, whose primary meaning in Greek is “slave.” James, Peter (in II Peter), and Jude also refer to themselves as douloi.  However, most translations of the New Testament strangely translate doulos as “servant” – even in Paul’s epistle to Philemon, which encourages a slave master to take back and treat as a brother his runaway slave who has become a Christian. The New American Standard Bible (1977 edition) does translate doulos rather consistently as “slave,” but in the case of Paul, James, Peter and Jude, uses “bond-servant.”

          Totus tuus ego sum, et omnia mea tua sunt.

The “slavery” aspect of the devotion consists primarily in one’s voluntary dispossession of spiritual goods – whatever merits that he or she has acquired, even indulgences, so that all can be distributed by the Blessed Virgin. Montfort writes, This is done easily and quickly by a mere thought, a slight movement of the will or just a few words as, ‘I renounce myself and give myself to you, my dear Mother.’” 

Astonishingly, to explain what is involved, he uses the analogy of someone selling his soul to the devil to gain worldly advantages: “It is just as if a person with equal sincerity were to say which God forbid! ‘I give myself to the devil.’ Even though this were said without feeling any emotion, he would no less really belong to the devil.”

Montfort emphasizes that this is not some new devotion he is inventing, but had been a long-standing Catholic tradition in previous centuries, and he spends several pages quoting from saints and spiritual writers who had recommended Holy Slavery. He cautions his readers, however, that the secret of this devotion should not be spread indiscriminately to those who would misunderstand.

And he predicted that the forces of evil would hinder the publication of True Devotion: “I clearly foresee that raging beasts will come in fury to tear to pieces with their diabolical teeth this little book and the one the Holy Spirit made use of to write it, or they will cause it at least to lie hidden in the darkness and silence of a chest and so prevent it from seeing the light of day.” It was 126 years after Montfort’s death that his treatise was found by accident by one of the priests in his congregation.

As incentives to making this consecration, Montfort promises that this devotion will make progress in spirituality easy for the individual Christian. His rationale is that subjection to Mary is the path that Jesus himself chose to take, and Mary, as a mother who has special knowledge of the capacities and circumstances of her children, will make sure that the crosses they bear are suitably proportioned – we might say “tailor-made.” He also promises that their spiritual progress will take place much more quickly than through the use of other methods, and that Mary will ordinarily be personally present at the time of their death.

Montfort even goes so far as to predict that the greatest saints in the history of the world will be produced by this devotion: “This will happen especially towards the end of the world, and indeed soon, because Almighty God and his holy Mother are to raise up great saints who will surpass in holiness most other saints as much as the cedars of Lebanon tower above little shrubs.”

When I hear superlatives about the power of Mary, I think of the city I was raised in, Los Angeles – the shortened form of the original Spanish title, La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora, la Reina de los Angeles, literally “The City of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels.”  (Fortunately, this full title remains in Spanish – otherwise, the American Civil Liberties Union would have been up in arms long ago.)

St. Thomas Aquinas maintains that there are almost an infinite number of angels. And Mary is given jurisdiction over them? How could a mere human be given such power? The only possible answer is a depth of humility, which leads God to communicate a plenitude of graces barely imaginable to us.

But the creation of the greatest saints? That remains to be seen.


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.