ROME – Recently the Bavarian city of Augsburg found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight when a Chechen refugee now living there was fined $1,500 by a local court for reposting an article on his Facebook page published by Germany’s public broadcaster about how ISIS fighters obtain weapons.
Mokhmad Abdurakhmanov posted the Deutsche Welle article and accompanying photo in March 2018, which the court held violated a 2014 German law against displaying the ISIS logo. The ruling came despite the fact that Deutsche Welle has not been fined for the original photo, and that 79 other people reposted the piece without any legal fallout.
“Why me?” Abdurakhmanov is now asking – and, frankly, it seems an entirely reasonable question.
From a distance, the Augsburg fracas seems a metaphor for Europe’s ongoing struggles to manage its massive new refugee population, often seeming caught between uncritical welcome and exaggerated fear.
For Christians, Augsburg is also historically a source of ambivalence because it was the setting of the 1530 “Augsburg Confession,” the influential statement of Lutheran beliefs articulated in 28 articles which became the Magna Carta of the Protestant Reformation. (Geographically that’s fairly ironic, since Bavaria is traditionally among the most Catholic of Germany’s 16 federal states and the birthplace of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.)
Today, ecumenically minded theologians and church experts on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide would say there’s a way of reading the Augsburg Confession to which both traditions can assent. That was the spirit of a 2017 joint statement from the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which asserted that “it has become clear that what we have in common is far more than that which still divides us.”
Still, as long as Christian history is studied, Augsburg will be synonymous with division and religious conflict.
Oddly enough, all this comes to mind in light of another aspect of Augsburg’s story: It is also the home of the famed image of “Mary, Untier of Knots,” which is so near and dear to the heart of Pope Francis.
The image was painted by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner, a German artist who was born and died in Augsburg, sometime around 1700, meaning 170 years after the Protestant manifesto was adopted in the city. It’s displayed in the local church of St. Peter am Perlach in the center of town.
The painting depicts Mary standing on a crescent moon surrounded by angels and crowned with twelve stars, while the Holy Spirit appears as a dove hovering overhead. In her hands, Mary holds a long, knotted rope which she unties. Her feet rest on the head of a knotted snake, representing Satan.
There’s even a miracle story attached to the devotion, which goes like this.
In the early 17th century, German Nobleman Wolfgang Langenmantel and his wife, Sophie, were having marital problems. They went to a Jesuit priest for counseling, and, at one point, Wolfgang handed the priest his wedding ribbon used to bind the couple as a symbol of unity. According to the tradition, the priest asked Mary to “untie the knots” of the marriage, at which point the ribbon loosened, untied, and became extremely white. The couple reconciled, and the story inspired the painting a few decades later.
(Actually, the painting was commissioned by the Langenmantel family as an altarpiece.)
Famously, a young Jesuit named Jorge Mario Bergoglio came across the image while studying in Germany in 1986, after having been removed as a seminary rector in Argentina due to internal conflicts within his Jesuit order. Perhaps influenced by that background, he adopted “Mary, Untier of Knots” as his personal Marian devotion and promoted it upon his return to his native country.
By all accounts, Bergoglio was massively successful. It’s become popular across South America, where it’s known as the Virgen Desatanudos. Dozens of churches have been dedicated to Mary under that title, and common people in the region bring what an expert in religious sociology has called their “small problems” to her as the Untier of Knots – stress over a job interview or a family problem, for instance, or worries about a romantic relationship.
A 2001 article in the Guardian reported that in the streets of Rio de Janeiro at that time, one could even buy “Untier of Knots” starter kits containing a novena, a prayer sheet, a string of beads and a bracelet.
Bergoglio remained attached to the devotion throughout his career. Prior to becoming Pope Francis, he had the image of “Mary, Untier of Knots” engraved on a chalice he gave to Pope Benedict XVI. He also has a reproduction of the famed image in a Vatican meeting room where he often receives visiting dignitaries – earlier this month, he and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti were photographed together under the painting.
Here’s a thought: Given Augsburg’s historic profile as a center of a profound cleft in global Christianity, and its more recent reputation for symbolizing the European refugee crisis, perhaps Francis could publicly entrust both ecumenism and integration of migrants and refugees to Mary, Untier of Knots, and encourage prayer to Mary under that title on both fronts.
It might not make much difference, especially given that Christian division and the refugee crisis are hardly the “little problems” in which Mary, Untier of Knots is believed to specialize.
Still, it’s also hard to know how it could hurt. Given that Benedict XVI is one of Bavaria’s most famous native sons, such a nod of the cap to Augsburg could also express continuity – which, in a roundabout fashion, might also help untie the knot in Catholicism represented by recurrent attempts to pit the two popes against one another.
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