Feast of the Assumption


Statue of our lady with a crown of 12 stars, in Attard (Malta)
Statue of our lady with a crown of 12 stars, in Attard (Malta)

At a parish church where I often go on a Sunday, we have a big Portuguese community. And in the Church, they have put up a big statue of Our Lady of Fatima. It’s a statue of our lady Queen of Heaven, so the statue has an enormous gilt crown, a big red heart (which glows in the dark after you put the lights out) and a small white plastic rosary. And every Sunday, they put an enormous number of flowers and candles around it. And on special Marian feast days, they put extra ornaments on it – I guess – just so that she knows they care. And, to be honest, I’ve never been especially fond of it. Coming from where I do and the culture in which I have been brought up, I have never felt entirely comfortable with the flamboyant and (if the Portuguese will forgive me) rather sentimental side of Mediterranean Marian devotion.

But, about three weeks ago, some drug addicts broke into the church, looking for things to steal – not, I have to say, an unusual event in this particular part of North London. And, for reasons that doubtless made perfect sense at the time, they chose to nick the gilt crown and the big red glow-in-the-dark heart, though not the rosary.

Our Portuguese community was first aghast, then shocked, then grief-stricken and then angry. It was only with some difficulty that we explained that Our Lady’s honour would not be best served by conducting some private investigations at the local homeless night shelter.

But it was only afterwards that I looked at the statue – and I think looked at it properly for the first time. It is now the life-size statue of a small slight young woman, wearing just a simple white head-dress and carrying a set of cheap plastic rosary beads. She is not particularly tall, or elegant or good looking – or indeed particularly anything at all. If anything, she looks a little simple and not particularly clever young woman. But, clustered around her, are still the burning candles of the pious Portuguese. And – just for a moment – I think I might just have understood what the feast of the Assumption is really all about. It is about Mary – and perhaps many other young women – who, with a little prayer, a lot of generosity and truly stupendous human goodness – make the Presence of God truly present in this world. And it makes me think of several other young women I meet in my work with homeless people, who go out onto the streets to reach out to homeless people and try to help them in whatever ways are possible. I notice that many of them seem to work longer hours than normal; get paid less than most; never seem to get married; but seem a lot happier than most. I told one of them once not that she was a holy woman. It upset her greatly. She doesn’t like to think of herself as holy – she just is.

The Portuguese community have yet to decide what they will do with their statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Don’t tell them I said it, but I hope they leave her just the way she is – a plain, ordinary simple young woman who did the most extraordinary thing and the most everyday thing of making Jesus real in the world. I think any of us could light a candle to that.

Paul O'Reilly SJ