Declan Marmion SM reflects on Mary as the model of faithfulness and generosity in following Christ. He stresses the need to see Mary as a disciple and pilgrim of the early Church who was called to sanctity and to action.
From the middle of the 1960s onwards, the Catholic Church underwent a major upheaval due to the Second Vatican Council. The Council, presided over by the ailing Pontiff, John XXIII, would have lasting effects on every aspect of Church life, including our understanding of Mary.
Vatican Council II
In its document on the Church, the Council speaks of Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation. At the outset it acknowledges and honours Mary as being truly the Mother of God and of the Redeemer. At the same time she is of ‘the race of Adam’ and is one with all. human beings in their need of salvation. Following St. Ambrose, the Council went on to affirm that Mary is a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ.
When it comes to Mary’s role in the life of the Church, the Council stresses that there is but one mediator between God and humankind, namely Jesus. Mary’s co-operation with God lies in her assent to become the mother of God. ‘She conceived, brought forth, and nourished Christ, she presented him to the Father in the temple, shared her Son’s sufferings as he died on the cross.’
Moreover, Mary was not merely a passive instrument in the hands of God. When she heard the Word of God, she acted upon it.
Model for all Christians
Pope Paul VI would later express similar sentiments in his teaching on devotion to Mary. He wanted to present her in a way that would strike a chord with the men and women of today. Mary is a model for all Christians, the Pope maintained, because she is also a disciple who heard the word of God and was faithful to it. Her ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’ coincide with her becoming a mother.
Unfortunately, Mary’s ‘fiat’ has sometimes been interpreted as a timid and passive reaction to an amazing word of God. But that tells us more about the interpreters who were usually male! Far from being a timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent to others, Mary was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions (Lk 1:51-53).
In a similar vein Pope Paul VI offered a number of guidelines for the right ordering and development of Marian devotion. Firstly, every spirituality must have a biblical imprint. Devotion to Mary is not an exception to this. The texts of prayers and songs are to draw their inspiration and wording from the Bible.
Secondly, Marian devotions should harmonise with the liturgy and with the liturgical seasons. The Eucharist is not to become the occasion for devotional practices (e.g. the recitation of the Rosary) since the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of these.
Thirdly, the Pope urges Catholics to be ecumenically sensitive and to avoid any exaggeration that could mislead other Christians about the true nature of Catholic teaching. We distinguish here between that worship or adoration that is reserved to God alone and the appropriate veneration accorded to Mary.
And finally, it is pointed out that the Church, while rejoicing at the continuity of Marian veneration, does not bind itself to ‘any particular expression of an individual cultural epoch or to the particular anthropological ideas underlying such expressions.’ In other words, times change and some kinds of devotional literature cannot be easily reconciled with the way men and women live today. The challenge therefore in a situation where women and men in many countries and denominations share responsibility and power in the public, ecclesial and private spheres is to develop a new way of looking at Mary and to see what we can learn from her way of living the Gospel.
If Vatican II refrained from issuing a separate document on Mary but instead placed her within its teaching on the Church, then this fact should guide our understanding of Mary today. Christ is the sole Redeemer, and the Church is the assembly of all those who believe in him and witness to him in the world. Within this community of believers Mary has a preeminent role as the faith-filled Mother of Jesus. Catholics are no longer encouraged to view Mary in splendid and glorious isolation but as one who like us struggled to discern where God was leading her and how best to respond to God’s call to her in the concrete situation of her everyday life.
As the Council stated, Mary conceived, brought forth, and nourished Christ; she shared her Son’s sufferings as he died on the cross. In a wholly singular way Mary co-operated with her Son’s work of our redemption. In all of this it is God who prepared her to be the mother of the Saviour, by whom she was herself redeemed.
Fellow disciples and pilgrims
Prior to Vatican II, Catholics often tended to view Mary and the saints as somewhere between Jesus and ordinary believers. The saints, it was thought, had special influence with Jesus and could obtain spiritual benefits when asked.
Without wishing to denigrate such prayer of petition, we should note that it gave the impression that Mary and the saints were at a complete remove from the general body of believers. Instead, it would be better and more faithful to Christian tradition to see Mary and the saints as fellow disciples and pilgrims. Mary and the saints are not to be situated between Jesus Christ and believers, but are with their sisters and brothers in the one people of God. What we share with the saints is a common humanity, a common struggle, and a common faith.
Sister in faith
It is clear that theologians today are distancing themselves from traditional and stereotypical images of Mary as a passive, sexless and subordinate woman. Rather, feminist, liberation and political theologians have retrieved a view of Mary as a strong, resourceful, suffering woman and a sister in faith. Latin American theologians in particular have tried to see the practical and political significance of Mary and the saints in the midst of suffering and oppression.
Mary is perceived as a model of political sanctity – combining an attentive listening to the Word of God with practical action. There is a counterpart to Mary’s continual ‘yes’ to God and to God’s plan; it is her ‘no’ to all forms of injustice and oppression. She is a herald of liberation proclaiming in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that God’s justice will prevail over evil.
The words of this famous hymn of praise, John Paul II tells us, have a prophetic content. Mary was aware of the recurring Scriptural theme: ‘God hears the cry of the poor.’ She then indicates how God deals with the proud and the arrogant: ‘He has routed the arrogant of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.’
A woman of the people
Thus we can see Mary as a woman of the people, in solidarity with those who are oppressed by an occupying force; as a refugee fleeing with her new-born child from the tyranny of a murderous ruler; as a bereaved mother of a victim of an unjust execution. This is the woman of strength, who experienced poverty and suffering, flight and exile. And these are the situations which cannot escape the attention of those who would wish to live the Gospel after the manner of Mary.
In this way Mary can become a spiritual resource for those who struggle against injustice in our Church and in society. Mary’s voice calls us not to resignation but to action: evil must be resisted, injustice rectified.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2000), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.