ROME — Mary is a mother who helps Christians grow, face the difficulties of life and use their freedom to make lasting commitments, Pope Francis said.
Marking Catholics' traditional celebration of May as the month of Mary, Pope Francis led the recitation of the rosary May 4 at the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
After the service, he went to the steps of the basilica to greet thousands of people who were unable to get inside, and he asked them to say three Hail Marys "for me, because I need it." He also led the crowd in chanting "Viva la Madonna" (Long live the mother of God).
At the beginning and end of the service, Pope Francis venerated the basilica's famous icon of Mary "Salus Populi Romani" (health of the Roman people).
In a reflection after the recitation of the glorious mysteries of the Rosary, Pope Francis said there are three primary ways in which Mary, as a mother with "great and tender love," promotes the healthy growth of Christians.
Like a good mother, he said, Mary "wants her children to grow and to grow well; for that reason she teaches them not to give in to laziness," but to take responsibility for their actions, to commit themselves to projects and tasks, and to hold on to their ideals.
"She helps us to grow humanly and in the faith, to be strong and not give in to the temptation of being men and Christians in a superficial way, but to live with responsibility, always reaching upward," the pope said.
Also like a good mother, he said, Mary does not try to shield believers from every difficulty, but gradually teaches them how to face and overcome problems.
"A life without challenges does not exist; and a young man or woman who does not know how to face challenges," he said, simply will be "spineless."
"Like a good mother, she is close to us so that we never lose the courage to face the adversities of life, to face our own weaknesses, our own sins," Pope Francis said.
With her example of saying "yes" to God's plan for her life and with her encouragement, he said, Mary also helps Christians make lasting commitments, using their freedom to do good and to follow God's will.
Freedom "certainly isn't doing everything we want, allowing passions to dominate us, moving from one experience to another without discernment, following the fads of the moment; freedom doesn't mean throwing everything we don't like out the window," he said. True freedom is the ability to say "yes" to what is good and to make "definitive choices."
"How difficult it is in our time to make definitive choices," the pope said. "The ephemeral seduces us. We are victims of a tendency that pushes us toward the provisional, as if we wanted to remain adolescents."
"We must not be afraid of definitive commitments, of commitments that involve and have an effect on our whole lives," the pope said. "In this way our lives will be fruitful."