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

Howard Kainz

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.

  • SJM

    The holiest person I think I have ever met recently gave me a copy of True Devotion to Mary. It seems that your column just may be confirmation that it is time to read it. Thank you.

  • Matt

    Beautiful and inspiring! Thank you, Howard

  • richard

    Catholics who were brought up in a Marian devotion would have no problem in this devotion. In the end all roads lead to Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Mediator.

  • debby

    my understanding of “bond-servant” as differing from “slave” was that a person may have been purchased as a slave, often their role signified by the type of clothing worn and a pierced ear. some slaves were set free after a period of time, not unlike an indentured servant. however, some persons would become so devoted to their master that they would slit their ear (where the earring was)and become by their own choice a “bond-slave” or LOVE SLAVE FOR LIFE. out of Love they bonded themselves for the rest of their life to their master, and they let the world know by the mark on their body.
    please correct me if i am mistaken. i have always taken this as St. Paul espousing total abandonment in love to God. and didn’t St. Paul go to Ephesus where St. John and M. Mary lived before going out in mission to preach? didn’t he have some face time with Her to re-learn the Holy Scriptures he had studied as a Pharisee? i’ve been told by a devotee of St. Paul’s that he was the first Jesuit, spending 7 years with our Lady and the Apostles, being discipled before preaching, but maybe this is Tradition rather than history. in any case, i’m sure that St. Paul helped St. Louis in his devotion to Mary. Who could be more devoted to Mary than Jesus? or Jesus than Mary? what Christian – Catholic or otherwise- doesn’t want to become like Christ? i can honestly say that She drew me to Him in the Catholic Church while i was protestant and protesting Her role…..sublime Feminine genius!

  • Howard Kainz

    @debby: The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “bond-servant” as “one bound to service without wages” and offers “slave” as a synonym. So the voluntary aspect that you mention doesn’t enter into the usual meaning. But of course with St. Paul, freedom and love were paramount. A “slave of love” is something very paradoxical.

  • Lionel Andrades

    Sunday, February 19, 2012

    Invincible ignorance and the baptism of desire are not exceptions to the dogma.

    There can be no explicit, defacto, known cases of persons saved in invincible ignorance and the baptism of desire. So it is not an issue with respect to the dogma, unless, it is made an issue and made to appear as explicit and known.

    Here are the popes affirming the literal interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

    POPE PIUS IX (Allocution December 9th, 1854)

    Pope Pius IX held the rigorist interpretation of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus and also affirmed the possibility of non Catholics being saved in invincible ignorance, cases of which are unknown to us and so are not explicit exceptions to the dogma.

    Pope Pius IX was saying: (Defacto):’We must hold as of the faith, that out of the Apostolic Roman Church there is no salvation; that she is the only ark of safety, and whosoever is not in her perishes in the deluge…’ and (Dejure): ‘we must also, on the other hand, recognize with certainty that those who are invincible in ignorance of the true religion are not guilty for this in the eyes of the Lord…’

    Defacto (explicitly) everyone needs to enter the Church for salvation (to avoid Hell) and de jure (in principle) and known only to God, there could be non Catholics saved in invincible ignorance etc, ‘in certain circumstances’ (Letter of the Holy Office 1949).


    (Defacto) 8. ‘… no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church – Quanto Conficamur, Pope Pius IX 1863

    (Dejure) 7. ‘… those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments…-Quanto Conficamur


    The Letter of the Holy Office 1949 issued during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII mentions ‘the dogma’, the ‘infallible statement’.

    Here is the ‘dogma’:

    (Defacto) ‘… it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” (Pope Boniface VIII, the Bull Unam Sanctam, 1302.)

    ‘… none of those existing outside the Catholic Church… can have a share in life eternal… unless before death they are joined with Her… No one… can be saved, unless he (Defacto) remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” (Pope Eugene IV, the Bull Cantate Domino, 1441.) http://catholicism.org/category/outside-the-church-there-is-no-salvation

    (Dejure) ‘… when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire…’

    These things are clearly taught in that dogmatic letter which was issued by the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, on June 29, 1943, (AAS, Vol. 35, an. 1943, p. 193 ff.). For in this letter the Sovereign Pontiff clearly distinguishes between those who are actually incorporated into the Church as members,(Defacto) and those who are united to the Church only by desire (Dejure).- Letter of the Holy Office 1949 (Emphasis added).


    (Defacto) ‘The Church…is necessary for salvation… faith and baptism…for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church.’- Lumen Gentium 14, Vatican Council II.

    (Dejure) ‘…those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God…’ -Lumen Gentium 16

    ‘Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church…’- Lumen Gentium 16

    If one uses the irrational defacto-defacto analysis of the above magisterial texts instead of the traditional dejure-defacto interpretation it would mean the popes contradicted themselves and that Vatican Council II contradicted an ex cathedra dogma. It would be a criticism of the infallibility of the popes ex cathedra. It would also be contrary to the Principle of Non Contradiction. It is heresy to claim that there are defacto exceptions to the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

    With the defacto-dejure analysis we see that the Magisterial texts affirm the centuries-old interpretation of the Church Fathers, the saints, the popes and Councils, including Vatican Council II. This was the traditional interpretation of Fr. Leonard Feeney of Boston. This is the teaching of Pope John Paul II’s Dominus Iesus (20) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church 845,846 and also during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI in Responses to Some questions regarding certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church (2007).-Lionel Andrades
    All the popes, Church Councils including Vatican Council II,like Fr.Leonard Feeney held the ‘rigorist interpretation’ of extra ecclesiam nulla salus : invincible ignorance (LG 16) is not an exception to the dogma

  • maria rose

    Yes i agree to it in every bit for this is true that holy slavery is the fastest means of growing in spirituality.It will not be easy to embrace this devotion for umpteem number of obstcales will come up.If we prevail to the end much will be gaoned by us for ourselves and for others too.Also propagating this devotion will will require much prudence and discretion.

  • Robert

    I had read Monfort’s pledge and preparation. Afterward, I wrote out my own personal pledge based on his philosophy and what had been burning in my heart up to that time. (No, I did not do the 34-day preparation; my heart told me to pledge immediately – you may wish to check with your priest first). I recited it, left hand on Bible, right hand raised. Then I signed and dated the hardcopy. I did this because I knew it was the wise choice for me personally, the church, Mary, Jesus, all.

    I realized that 90% of my “freedom” had been just lousy licensiousness, anyway. I am now happier, more optimistic, folks enjoy my presence more, and I feel myself getting closer to Mary (with consistent study), all the better to have her help me become a first-rate slave with a first-rate heart (in time).

    If it’s in your heart, take the plunge. Yes, Christ will tighten his grip on you starting with your pledge, but He will be so gentle, gradual, and subtle doing it that you won’t even feel it!