Homily of His Excellency the Most Rev. Charles John Brown D.D.,
Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines
February 24, 2023 | San Sebastian Cathedral Parish, Diocese of Tarlac
Your Excellency, the Most Rev. Enrique V. Macaraeg, D.D., Bishop of Tarlac, brother bishops who have come from near and far, far and wide to be with us this afternoon in this beautiful Cathedral of San Sebastian here in Tarlac, my brother priests, religious men and women in consecrated life, lay faithful, parishioners, members of the Diocese of Tarlac:
For me as your Apostolic Nuncio, it gives me a huge amount of joy and happiness to be with you this afternoon, in this beautifully decorated cathedral, to celebrate the Pontifical Canonical Coronation of Our Lady, Nuestra Señora De La Merced, Queen of Tarlac City: Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of Ransom. She has come only a few hours ago from her shrine here in Tarlac City, here to the cathedral to accommodate this massive crowd of devotees. In order that together we can undergo and conduct this beautiful Pontifical Coronation which has been authorized by the Holy See. This coronation takes place under the authority of Pope Francis himself. Pope Francis who has such a deep love for Our Lady, and also a deep love for the Filipino people. So, let me say one more time, for me as his representative here, it gives me so much happiness to be with you this afternoon.
Like Children Bringing a Flower to Our Mother
Brothers and sisters, we this afternoon are like children bringing a flower to our mother. I'm sure, as I look out at the cathedral this afternoon, there are many mothers here; and I'm sure all of your hearts as mothers are touched when your son or daughter gathers a humble flower and brings it to you as a sign of his or her love for you as the mother of that child. I think Our Lady is experiencing that same tender love for us this afternoon. She sees us here on earth, re-enacting her coronation in heaven in our own splendid way, in our own beautiful way. Like children bringing flowers to Our Lady, we celebrate, we re-enact what took place when Our Lady, after her blessed assumption (which we celebrate in August on the 15th) goes into heaven and is crowned Queen of the Angels and Saints, Queen of Heaven and Earth: The Fifth Glorious Mystery.
Freed from the Chain of Slavery
This afternoon we will place a crown on Our Lady, and also a crown on the Santo Niño, the Child Jesus whom she holds in her left hand; but brothers and sisters, that's not the only imagery that we will see this afternoon in this glorious coronation, this Pontifical Coronation authorized by the Holy See. Because there's another symbol that I believe will be brought in procession, and will be placed on Our Lady's image. Of course, as I said, the two crowns: one for Our Lady and one for the Santo Niño; but also, we will bring up a chain with leg irons on it. What does this signify? A chain which will be placed in her right hand. This chain is a symbol, actually, it's an image of the shackles or the fetters, the chains of slaves. “The chains of slaves.” Because the original devotion to Nuestra Señora De La Merced goes back some 800 years. Back to the time when Spain and France were confronted by non-Christian armies, Islamic Armies coming from North Africa, armies that were conquering Spanish and French Catholic towns; and when these non-Christian armies conquered the towns, all the men, women, and children will be taken as slaves, and brought into North Africa as slaves. They would be subject to all the cruel, degrading, and difficult life of slaves.
Now, rich people in those times who were taken as slaves would have relatives in Europe, who would then pay for them to be ransomed, for them to be freed. Rich people who were taken as slaves from some of these towns that were conquered by non-Christians were able to pay, have their relatives pay the slaveholders, the non-Christian slaveholders, to let them come back home to their families. What about the poor people? The normal people who didn't have money? Whose brothers and sisters, and fathers, and children were taken as slaves? They had no way of paying the slaveholders in North Africa to bring their families home. With such a deep sorrow for them, we can only imagine.
So what happened? A holy priest in Barcelona named Peter Nolasco had the inspiration of starting a religious order that would gather money in Europe, and go into non-Catholic North Africa, with the money, gathered to ransom the poor Christian slaves: to pay for them, to pay for their freedom, to buy their freedom, and bring them back to their families in Europe. This was the origins of the Mercedarian Order, the Order of Nuestra Señora De La Merced. The chain that she will have in a moment in her hand is a symbol of the liberated slaves. The slaves who have been freed by the charity of their brothers and sisters, by the Mercedarian priests who went with money that they had collected in Europe, to ransom them, to pay them, to buy them back, these slaves, and bring them back home. So, they could be with their families and practice their Catholic faith.
If you look at the chain and the shackles, we say “fetters” in English, the leg irons that are to be placed in Our Lady's hands, you will see that the shackles are open. They're not closed. Which means that a slave has been released. It's a symbol of release. It's a symbol of salvation. It's a symbol of freedom. A beautiful symbol that is placed in the hands of Our Lady; and Our Lady was the patron of this work. We see so many things in this beautiful story: we see the compassion, the solidarity, we can say the synodality of the Christians in Europe, for the poor enslaved brothers and sisters, suffering as slaves in non-Catholic lands. That desire to bring them back so they could be together with their families. All of this happens because of Our Lady's inspiration. Our Lady who inspired St. Peter Nolasco to do this beautiful work.
Freed from the Chain of Suffering
So, for us, the image of the chain and the open shackles is an image of release, an image of freedom, an image of liberation. I think on a spiritual level, we can reflect very deeply on this. Because when Our Lady goes back to her shrine, many people will come and pray to her. Many people will bring the chains of their sadness, the chains of their worries, the shackles of their sorrows, all the things that constrain them, that limit them, that bind them, that keep them in bondage. They will come and pray in front of Our Lady, and when they see those chains with the shackles opened, they will know that Our Lady is able to work miracles for us. If we trust in her, and if we trust in what she has in her other hand, her left hand: Jesus.
What happened in the Gospel today (Jn. 2:1-12)? Mary and Jesus were at a wedding feast in Cana. They were running out of wine, which would have been a big humiliation for the family that was sponsoring the wedding. When everyone is celebrating and then there's no more wine, and Mary noticed. “Mary noticed.” That is so important for us. Mary is watching. She sees like a good mother. She watches and sees, and she intervenes with her Son. Asking Jesus to do something. Then she tells the waiters, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn. 2:5).
That is what the Santo Niño says to each of us who come and pray in front of Our Lady, Nuestra Señora De La Merced. Baby Jesus is there in her arms, being presented to us, next to the shackles that have been opened. [The] baby Jesus in her arms is the one who works miracles, and Mary is telling us, “Do whatever he tells you.” If you do whatever He tells you, all will be well. Your shackles will be broken, your chains will be released.
Mary, the Untier of Knots
Pope Francis has a great devotion to a similar image of Mary: Mary, the Untier of Knots, Mary who Undoes Knots. This beautiful image of Mary, carefully undoing a knotted cord. You know, our sins, our worries, our difficulties, become so knotted sometimes, and Mary is the one who unties those knots. Our fears, our preoccupations, our worries can be like chains around us in times, and Mary is the one, through Jesus, with Jesus, because of Jesus, who opens those chains, releases us, and allows us to live and to love. Because she is our mother, and she loves us more than we can imagine. She is watching us today. She is telling us today, “Behold, I am your mother. I will take care of you; but trust in me, and do whatever Jesus tells you. Follow Jesus and all will be well.”
That doesn't mean we won't have difficulties. We will. We will have difficulties; but when we have them, come to Mary, come to Our Lady. Exhibit to her, show her your problems. Let her, in her own maternal way, as she did at Cana, resolved the problem. And she does, in her own maternal way. Never really pushing herself forward as the center of attention, but in her silent maternal way, releasing us from our bondage, because of her Son.
So, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, for me as the Apostolic Nuncio, gives me so much happiness to be back once again in the wonderful Diocese of Tarlac. With your Bishop, Enrique Macaraeg, and my brother bishops to crown Our Lady, and to ask Our Lady to watch over us, to protect us, to be a mother to us, to help us do whatever Jesus asks us to do.
May God bless you!
Transcribed by Joel V. Ocampo
Photos by Lorenzo Atienza Photography on ACSP Facebook page