Mary of Nazareth

Her Heart is the Gate of Heaven

‘All generations shall call me blessed.’

By J. A. Gray

J. A. Gray is a writer and editor, and most recently served as communication manager for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Luke the Evangelist tells us that young Mary of Nazareth gave her fiat without reserve when she learned from an angelic messenger that God intended to favor her as the mother of the Messiah. But as she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be,” the angel added some welcome family news: “Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son, in her old age,” he said, “for nothing is impossible with God.”

“May it be done to me according to your word,” Mary replied, and then set out “in haste” to visit Elizabeth. When Elizabeth welcomed her with a chant of praise for the “mother of my Lord,” Mary in reply sang out her Canticle, rejoicing poetically that God had “looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness,” and “All generations shall call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”

GBJD10 Florence. Italy. The Annunciation (ca. 1442), fresco by Fra Angelico. Museo di San Marco.

Mary was prophetic: For 2,000 years, all generations have indeed called her blessed. She may not have foreseen, at this early moment, the other part of her destiny – that all generations would be calling upon her for help, healing and guidance, petitioning her ceaselessly to be our mother, too, to accompany us and nurture us as she had her son.


ROME, ITALY – MARCH 25, 2015: The Immaculate Conception paint by Phillip Veit (1830) in church Chiesa della Trinita dei Monti.

“Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother,” said Jesus to Mary and John, just before he died. Mary’s motherliness doubtless encompassed the whole community of followers in Jerusalem; and we’re told that when the apostle James, in about A.D. 40, was fruitlessly preaching in Spain, his courage was restored by the appearance to him of Mary, who became known there as Our Lady of the Pillar.

Her vocation as mother of the Church began early, tradition tells us, and a prayer to Mary survives on a papyrus scrap from Syria, dated to about A.D. 250, invoking Mary as “theotokos,” the mother of God. Pope St. Paul VI in his encyclical “Marialis Cultus”, declared, “Mary of Nazareth … was far from being a timidly submissive woman.” The reminder is hardly needed. We know her, from the Gospels alone, to be a woman of intellectual power and spiritual integrity – her prime characteristic, shown repeatedly, is that she ponders things thoroughly and reflects on them deeply.

Mary is with Jesus and his disciples through every phase: his life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and the “tongues of fire” visitation of the Spirit. She reliably demonstrates authority (Jesus himself “was obedient” to her), persistence, insight and self-possession. To the wine-short wedding staff in Cana she said serenely, “Do whatever he tells you,” placing the outcome in her son’s capable hands. On her visits to her children throughout the world, she calmly, indeed regally, but with motherly gentleness, issues instructions for our welfare, as she did at Tepeyac in 1531, at Laus in 1664, at La Salette in 1846, at Lourdes in 1858 and at Fatima in 1917.


The Archdiocese of San Francisco, founded in 1853, has always seen itself as a child of Mary. Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany was a Spanish Dominican priest with a deep devotion to and dependence upon the Blessed Mother, as expressed in the Dominican prayer: “Mother Mary, preacher of the Word, fill the hearts of your daughters and sons with the same zeal which you possessed in bringing the Word into the world.”

In 1854, Archbishop Alemany built a large red brick Gothic cathedral and named it St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and in 1863 he founded a college that he also named for St. Mary (it is now in Moraga). Decades later, when a larger cathedral was needed, Archbishop Patrick Riordan built it at Van Ness Avenue and O’Farrell Street and named it in honor of St. Mary of the Assumption. This cathedral served from 1891 until its tragic destruction by fire in 1962, and its loss led to a decade of planning and constructing a new cathedral. This striking building – unprecedented, unique and commanding – sits at the corner of Geary Boulevard and Gough Street, and in 1971 was blessed as the new St. Mary of the Assumption.

This new St. Mary’s Cathedral, now celebrating a half century of service, was described biblically by Archbishop William J. Levada (1995–2005), as evoking “the tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant” during Israel’s journey from slavery into freedom. The building, he said, signals that “God has pitched his tent” among us. And God’s mother is with us: within St. Mary’s Cathedral, sculptures guide the worshipper or visitor through her life from childhood to her assumption into heaven.


Archdiocesan history is rich with Marian observances. In 1962, Father Patrick Peyton’s Rosary Rally filled Golden Gate Park with › prayer, and in 2011 the Rosary Rally was revived as an annual October event. Since 1994, the Cruzada Guadalupana has been a December tradition, with thousands processing to the cathedral for Mass, rosary and communal gathering. In recent years, our engagement with Mary has achieved a new depth and intensity, inspired and guided by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone. Highlights of this eventful period include:

2017: Consecration to the Immaculate Heart. The archbishop consecrated the archdiocese to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, and urged us to “live the consecration” by praying the rosary, penance, fasting and Eucharistic adoration.

2018: Mass of the Americas. This acclaimed Mass, honoring Mary as patroness of the Americas, was first celebrated on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, and was a simultaneous tribute to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (the patroness of the United States) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patroness of both Mexico and all the Americas). The Mass, composed by Frank LaRocca under the aegis of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, continues to be celebrated nationally and internationally.

2020: Pandemic lockdown and social struggle. In a toxic time – of contagion, death, economic distress, fierce contention in politics and bans on social activity and religious worship – we had frequent recourse to Mary, with rosaries prayed online, as well as rallies and processions and petitions to “free the Mass.”

Free the Mass was an effort to open churches during the pandemic that asked for Mary’s intercession. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Archdiocese of San Francisco)

“Her heart is the gate of heaven.”

On Aug. 15, 2021, the solemnity of the Assumption, Archbishop Cordileone celebrated a special Mass for the 50th anniversary, and in his homily – on “The Vocation of a Cathedral” – he explained that a cathedral has one preeminent purpose. Yes, it is the mother church of the diocese, it contains the bishop’s “cathedra” and it is a pastoral center.

But above all, he said, the cathedral is “constructed and adorned with art and beauty for one purpose: to celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass, when our Lord once again becomes the Bread of Life, and to reserve His Presence in the tabernacle. We invest huge resources and great love and devotion for the truth about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” He continued, “The beauty and holiness of this majestic structure, which has stood here for 50 years, reflects well this vocation, as have her predecessors throughout the history of our archdiocese.”

As all generations have done, we come to Mary in order to be with Jesus. On the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in October 2017, when he first consecrated the archdiocese to Mary, Archbishop Cordileone concluded his homily with this lovely image, drawn from the Litany of Loreto: “Her Immaculate Heart is the door … through (which) we walk from the darkness of sin and death into the light of Christ’s truth and mercy. … Her heart is the gate of heaven.”