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There’s something about Mary

30 November, 1999

Veneration of the Blessed Mother has been a central characteristic of the Catholic tradition. Noted theologian Lawrence Cunningham sketches out some fundamental elements for a renewed, contemporary Marian devotion.

What generalizations could one make after a consideration of the following:

  • Planeloads of pilgrims flying to Croatia to receive messages from the Blessed Mother, who seemingly speaks about everything except peace in Yugoslavia;
  • Pilgrimage sites (like Lourdes) that draw hundreds of thousands every year;
  • Icons that weep fragrant oil, statues that weep tears, and ghostly images that appear on unlikely places like office-building windows;
  • Zealots who wish to name Mary as a co-redeemer with Christ;
  • Museums filled with pictures, statues, tapestries, and ceramics depicting everything from Mary’s assumption into heaven to her “fishing” souls into paradise using a Rosary for a lifeline;
  • Gang members tattooing images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on their backs as a shield against the bullets of rivals;
  • Parochial-school May crownings; novenas in honour of the Miraculous Medal or the Seven Sorrows; and the once ubiquitous Rosaries wound around the hands of the faithful at Mass or as they rest for a final viewing before the coffin is closed.

What, in short, can one say about the enormously complex – indeed, bewildering – phenomenon known as devotion to the Blessed Mother that is part and parcel of popular Roman Catholic practice?

How do we get from the sober assertions of scripture to the plethora of Marian practices that are a feature of the Catholic tradition? Is there not some truth in the critiques of those who live within the traditions derived from the Protestant Reformation that such attention detracts from Christ at best and sinks into a kind of sentimental paganism at worst?

What’s essential, what’s not?

The second thing is that many of the popular practices and devotions clustered around the figure of Mary reflect historical and cultural moments in the unfolding of Christianity that possess their own logic as well as their own cultural limitations.

And the third point: The fact that the church tolerates or even promotes a wide variety of devotional practices does not mean that they are essential parts of the Catholic faith or that they appeal to every segment of the Catholic population. In these matters there is a wide latitude of choice.

When thinking about Mary in the life of the church, one needs to distinguish what is essential and what is not. In the period after the Protestant Reformation, and largely in reaction against it, there was a flowering of Marian devotion and Mariological speculation that threatened to get out of hand by evolving too separately from the essential Rule of Faith.

In one of the most adroit moves at the Second Vatican Council, the bishops of the council refused to accept a plan proposed by some prelates to create a separate document on Mary. The council decided to speak of her as part of the larger document on the mystery of the church (Lumen Gentium).

That decision, in a stroke, realigned the church’s attitude toward the Blessed Mother by insisting that her person and her role must be seen in the light of the total Christian mystery in general and the mystery of Christ and the church in particular. Indeed, in Lumen Gentium the council professes its conviction that Mary is a model for the church: “The church, moreover, contemplating Mary’s mysterious sanctity, imitating her charity, and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will, becomes herself a mother by accepting God’s word in faith.”

Mary in the life of the Church

“When the fullness of time came,” Saint Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, “God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). Every phrase in that brief statement of faith is crucial: Christ came in the fullness of time, not at any old time, nor “once upon a time.” His birth was the culmination of a long history of longing and expectation reflected in the prophetic tradition of Israel.

Second, Paul insists that God’s son was “born of a woman.” Paul, in that simple phrase, underscores that Jesus was not an angel, not a ghost, that he did not just “seem” to be a human being but was a real person born of a real woman.

Finally, Paul says that God’s son was “born under the law,” which is to say that Jesus was a Jew. To summarize: Jesus was born in a particular moment in historical time, and he was born into a particular cultural milieu.

Everything that is crucial about our understanding of Mary derives from the simple yet awe-inspiring fact that this young woman, a child of Jewish parents who lived in a backwater province of Rome, was the instrument of all human salvation. Her “yes” to the designated will of God set in motion the whole economy of salvation.

In that sense, at least, Mary represents humanity’s role in the saving plan of God. And for that reason, as early as the second-century writer Saint Justin Martyr, it has been commonplace for the Christian tradition to parallel the obedience of Mary to the disobedience of Eve, just as Paul did the same for Adam and Jesus, the “second Adam,” in his letter to the Romans.

The God-bearer

The doctrine of the theotokos is absolutely crucial because it links Mary to Christ and, upon reflection, reveals the further truth (affirmed as the Second Vatican Council) that Mary is also a type of the church: Just as Christ was revealed in time by the human agency of Mary’s maternal activity, so the church (typically referred to as a mother) continues to bring forth Christ in the unfolding course of history. Even subsequent doctrinal statements about Mary’s Immaculate Conception or her Assumption into heaven derive finally from the fuller meaning of Mary as God bearer.

Multitude of Marian devotions

A useful observation made some years ago by the late German theologian Karl Rahner might provide a framework for answering that question. Rahner argues that different ages looked to Mary to express values that were of intense concern to the culture of the time.

The exaltation of Mary’s virginity exercised the imagination of the early church when, following the period of the martyrs, asceticism was so highly valued.

The tremendous flowering of Marian devotion in the Middle Ages reflected the exaltation of women under the influence of the courtly love tradition. Think, for example, of the pure devotion of Dante for Beatrice, who guides Dante to a vision of God through the intercession of Mary.

The emphasis on Mary who stays the hand of a judging Christ in the late Middle Ages reveals much about the anxieties of popular religious belief about sinfulness and punishment.

Finally, the Marian renaissance of the 19th and early 20th century (marked in the West by the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the Assumption in 1950) is, at least in part, a direct challenge to the erosion of traditional religious beliefs in the post-Enlightenment period.

Popular devotion to Mary

Some of these diverse expressions gave popular shape to many practices that almost seemed to have defined popular Catholicism. There was a time when a rare Catholic did not possess a Rosary even if the devotional Rosary as we know it today became widespread only from the 15th century.

Various forms of Marian devotion have permitted an outlet for those who wish to express a sense of the transcendent in other than masculine terms. Such devotion also allowed flexibility for the religious imagination to focus on symbols to intensify deep religious longings: the heart of Mary loving and pure, the sorrows of Mary like the sorrows of every mother, and so on.

For better or worse there has been a sea change in Marian devotion in many parts of the post-Vatican II church. To be sure, traditional elements remain for an older generation of Catholics as well as for younger Catholics who wish to rediscover something they feel was lost as they grew up in the post-conciliar church.

For another element in the church, devotion to Mary is a way to identify themselves as not being “liberal” – a stance fortified by Pope John Paul’s intense devotion to Mary. In the mind of such folks, to be devoted to Mary is to affirm simultaneously a devotion to the papacy. This attitude strikes me as both very odd and very sad.

New appreciation of Mary

Some years ago the feminist scripture scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza wrote that for many Catholics in the past, intense devotion to Mary was a fundamental experience of the transcendent and that many people experienced God as feminine in their veneration of the Virgin. That experience, of course, could be a mixed blessing if, in tandem with it, the masculinity of God was experienced as distant, judgmental, and authoritarian.

There are, in fact many ways in which a new appreciation of Mary might bring some balance into these skewed perceptions. It is for that reason that many have felt the need for a new approach to theological reflection about Mary.

He has exalted the lowly

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones. And exalted those of low degree. (Luke 1:51052)

The graced power of the lowly, then, is why “henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (1:48). As liberation theologians meditated on Mary’s magnificat, they began to see her life’s story in the light of her liberating hymn. One evidence of that has been powerful new prayers such as a litany that does not invoke the praises of the 16th -century Litany of Loreto – with its moving images of Mary as House of Gold and Tower of Ivory – but instead draws pictures that might come from the newspapers of today:


      Mother of the homeless
      Widowed Mother,
      Mother of a political prisoner,
      Mother of an executed prisoner, Unwed Mother,
      Seeker of sanctuary, First disciple,
      Pray for us.

We might look at that last phrase, “first disciple” to be reminded that Mary is a model for every Christian and not just for women. When we follow the course of her life – from the acceptance of the Word of God at the moment of the Annunciation through the birth, childhood, and public ministry of Christ to her faithful witness at the foot of the cross and her presence in the upper room on the eve of Pentecost – we see Mary as one who lived with the Word of God in fidelity.

For that reason we can cry out with Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, who sensed the meaning of Christ even before his birth: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42)

How do we best demonstrate that Mary is “blessed among women” and continue to fulfil the gospel mandate that “all generations” shall call Mary blessed? Certain fundamental elements would have to include the following:

1. Mary in the liturgy

The invocation of Mary’s name in the liturgy also reminds us that we have her, now in eternity with God, as a hope filled sign of our own resurrection. That approach helps us, as Rahner insisted, to get a full grasp of the doctrine of the Assumption: Mary is, by anticipation, what we all hope for, namely, to be raised and placed with Christ.

In a sense, the different ways in which Mary has been honoured over time – as amiable, loving, pure, listening, etc. – can be seen as ways in which the Christian faithful have attempted indirectly to articulate their experience of transcendent through “feminine” categories.

One could argue that the folkloric notion of Mary staying Christ’s avenging arm, as theologically inept as that might be, could also be read as an attempt to soften the unremittingly masculine character of biblical religion. In other words, paying attention to what is said of Mary might be a way to decode what people are saying about God.

2. Honouring the name of Mary

The “Hail Mary,” after all, is a prayer based on scripture. There is a post-biblical tradition of prayers in honour of Mary going back to as early as the late second or third century, the most famous of which being a fragment found on a third-century papyrus in Egypt that reads:

Under thy mercy, we take refuge,
Mother of God. Do not reject our supplications
in necessity, But deliver us from danger. (You) alone chaste,
(You) alone blessed.

3. Treasuring Mary in art

Veneration of the Virgin and evidence of that veneration should be part of every church because the significance and place of Mary is part of the Catholic tradition. Obviously, good taste is desirable here, because good art is a kind of scriptural exegesis and a catechetical tool, while bad art is an obstacle to belief.

The many devotions, artistic images, and liturgical and non-liturgical practices are all vehicles to insist upon and underscore the radically historical character of our common Christian faith: A real woman gave birth to a real child who entered history as both son of God and son of Mary. To ignore the Virgin is to ignore the deepest meaning of Christology as it has been articulated in the Catholic tradition.

4. Mary in the light of Christ

The obsession with visionary experience may even reflect a kind of pious rationalism that is, in the end, an erosion of faith (e.g., this or that vision proves the truth of faith). It is well to keep in mind that one of the greatest mystic of the church, Saint John of the Cross, warned frequently about the dangers of “extraordinary” spiritual phenomena.

The acid text for any such purported experiences is always this: Do the experiences enhance the love of God, are they in harmony with the gospel mandate of evangelization, and most importantly, are they “received” by the believing community and its appointed authorities?

To keep our regard for Mary in alignment with the mystery of Christ might well serve as an unexpected ecumenical gift: a way for the reformed tradition to see the Catholic and Orthodox devotion to Mary as a way of preaching Christ. Such a way seems unlikely if we give too much credence to extravagantly excessive forms of Marian piety.

At the same time, we must allow the greatest possible latitude for Marian devotion and practices, even when they are not the kind for which we have a natural sympathy. One mark of catholicity is the elasticity with which the church permits, tolerates or even encourages many forms of religious practice. With the criteria articulated in the previous paragraphs in mind – and aware that no Catholic is bound to accept the truth of private post-apostolic revelations – the authentic Catholic attitude ought to be: Let a hundred flowers bloom!

If pilgrimages, novenas, the recitation of the rosary, and so on enhance the devotional life of people, such activities must not be ridiculed or discouraged. At times in the history of the church, as Cardinal John Henry Newman pointed out in the 19th century, the simple piety of the lay people guarantees orthodox belief even before the bishops are able to formulate that belief in orthodox terms. Newman, of course, was speaking of the belief, later defined in the fifth century, that Mary was the “God bearer” (theotokos). John of the Cross was a great poet, and he once wrote a little quatrain for the feast of Christmas. In those four lines he gathered in the great mystery of Mary’s part in human redemption and, at the same time,, provided a rationale for honouring her with our own devotion:

The Virgin, heavy
With the Word of God
comes along the road.
If only you will shelter her!

To understand the deep truth that little poem encapsulates is to take the first step toward a renewed Marian devotion, suitable for our own age and for the Christian community as a whole.

This article appeared in the Irish Redemptorists’ publication Reality (May 2001), reprinted with permission from U.S. Catholic Magazine, Claretian Publications.

Devotion to Mary must be seen in the light of the mystery of Christ. The church rightly expresses caution about purported apparitions, visions, Marian locutions, and so on precisely at the point were they become vehicles for anxiety, ideological clubs to beat present-day culture, or centres for aberrational religious behaviour.We should treasure and enhance the artistic tradition of Mary that goes all the way back to the art of the catacombs. Too many of our contemporary churches (to say nothing of our homes) are visually undernourished. I believe every church ought to have a place where an icon or sculpture of Mary with the Christ Child is displayed both as a place of devotion and as a place where a parent or relative might take a child to talk about Mary and her child.Prayers honouring the name of Mary and invoking her intercession ought to be part of the repertoire of every Christian beginning with that most quintessential of prayers, the “Ave Maria.”We should pay more attention to the invocation of Mary in the celebration of the liturgy. Not only do we recall her name in our eucharistic prayers, but we also celebrate her feasts, which form part of both the universal calendar of the church and its regional variants. To name Mary, the saints, and the angels is to affirm the great “cloud of witnesses” who make up the entire body of believers. To name Mary is to remind ourselves in the liturgy that we celebrate what has happened in our common history.One fresh approach to Mary derives from feminist theologians influenced by liberation theology. Liberation theologians have put a strong emphasis on Mary’s hymn in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke (1:46-55). The Magnificat, after all, draws a picture of Mary identifying herself with the lowly of the earth, contrasting that lowliness with the rich who will be judged by the poor ones – the biblical anawim – who will inherit the kingdom.Rahner insisted that newer understandings of Mary would derive from the experience of women in society. Feminist theologians in particular, and feminists more generally (I have in mind Marina Warner’s influential if slightly tendentious book Alone of All Her Sex), have sharply critiqued the picture of Mary both because her motherhood is detached from her sexuality and because of the overly strong theological emphasis on Mary’s compliance, which seems almost like passivity.Each of those stages – and the above list is only partial – brought with it popular forms of devotion, different kinds of liturgical innovations, the hallowing of pilgrimage sites and the erection of architectural monuments, the founding of confraternities, sodalities, religious communities of men and women, as well as a bewildering array of religious art and artifacts.What does this dogmatic fact have to do with the bewildering multitude of different Marian devotions (to say nothing of some of the more extravagant speculations of “Mariologists”) that dot the historical landscape of Christian – mainly Catholic – history?The single most fundamental doctrinal statement about Mary was the definition at the Council of Ephesus in 431 that affirmed Mary as theotokos – “the God bearer.” That definition flowed directly from the desire of the church to navigate between those who saw Christ as more human than divine and the opposite faction whose exaltation of Christ’s divinity, in effect, diminished his humanity. The Orthodox tradition of icons in which Mary presents the child to the viewer or points to him – icons known as “She who points the Way” – are a visual statement of the truth of the God-bearer doctrine accepted at the Council of Ephesus.By placing Mary within the context of the life of the church, the council made a crucial move to emphasize something very fundamental about Mary in the scheme of divine revelation: Mary is unintelligible unless she is seen as the specific means by which the Incarnation of Jesus took place and how it subsequently unfolds in the life of humanity.The first thing to say, of course, is that Mary has an honoured place both in the witness of sacred scripture and in the liturgical, doctrinal, and devotional life of the Christian tradition.

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