Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
February 25, 2001
A new look at Marian devotion
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Several months ago, I visited a Catholic bookstore to see what books it might have to offer about Mary, the Mother of God. To my amazement, while the store had several shelves of books about Mary, virtually all of them were about apparitions.
There were no books available that would help Catholics learn about the richness and depth of our Church's teaching about the mother of Jesus. I took this as a sign that Mary has, in effect, been brushed to the sidelines, a source of the fantastic and incredible, but out of touch with our daily lives of ordinary discipleship.
Yet this is not the wish of the Church. In 1974, Pope Paul VI wrote a letter (Marialus Cultus) asking for a renewal of Marian devotion. This renewed devotion, he said, should be biblical in nature, support traditional Catholic teaching, be respectful of those with different beliefs, and always bear in mind that the Church's teaching on Mary is linked to its teaching on Jesus.
The pope also warned against false forms of Marian piety which credulously and curiously focus on reports of miracles, are overly sentimental or which indulge in external practices without internal conversion.
At a year 2000 Marian international congress in Rome, a leading Marian theologian, Father Salvatore Perrella, said widespread claims of Marian apparitions are a sign of spiritual thirst, but they are also often signs of an immature faith. People sometimes act as though Mary were omnipotent and they forget that the reason we honour Mary is that she is the first disciple, leading us always to Jesus.
I believe that a great love for and devotion to Mary still exists among Canadian Catholics but that it is largely underground, living in the hearts of tens of thousands of people, many of whom frequently pray their rosaries. But this love and devotion is often unhitched from knowledge of the fullness and beauty of the Church's Marian teaching.
For love to flourish and grow, there must be knowledge of the one loved. Devotion can increase through a deeper understanding of Mary herself.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) came at the end of a long period of intense Marian devotion. The council fathers wanted to speak about Our Blessed Mother, but they were at first unsure of how to do so. After discussion and controversy, they voted narrowly against preparing a separate document on Mary and in favour of including a Marian theme in the council's document on the Church (Lumen Gentium).
To some, this might seem to be a relatively minor decision. But actually it signalled a major shift in how the Church would understand Mary. Over more than 1,500 years, there had been a growing tendency to emphasize Marian privileges — her perpetual virginity, her Immaculate Conception, her bodily Assumption into heaven. Mary was treated as being more and more as someone separate from the Church, as a being more like God than like ordinary human beings. This was not the Church's official teaching, but it was the undertone of a style of devotion and praise for Mary that emphasized the great splendour of her holiness.
The Church's shift to an emphasis on what Mary shares with the rest of humanity does not imply a denial of any of the Church's doctrines. Rather, it is a call to recover their true meaning.
Her Immaculate Conception, for example, was not meant to be a doctrine that treated Mary as a demi-god. Rather, it is a sign of the divinity of God's Son, the blessing of salvation which the Father offers to all and of our inability to find salvation by our own devices. In this doctrine, we find a sure sign of our radical dependence on God alone — a sign that stands against the attitude of technological society that "For humanity, everything is possible."
For Protestants, the emphasis on Mary's privileges has been a major barrier to Church unity. They interpreted the Catholic position as treating Mary more like God than like other human beings. And when Catholics talked of "praying to" Mary, Protestants saw this as a clear sign of Mariolatry.
Moreover, the emphasis on Mary's privileges allowed Catholics to see her as someone who had little to teach us. Mary could answer our prayers but because she was conceived without sin, she knew little of the struggles with temptation that we sinners face regularly.
Vatican II has put Mary back in perspective on both these counts. It saw Mary as "in" the Church and clearly as one of the redeemed, rather than as an upstart co-redeemer. For Catholics, Mary began to be seen as the first disciple, our mother in faith who, through her intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit, shows us the way to holiness.
Through Lent and up to Pentecost, I will examine the Church's teaching on Mary in a way that is faithful to the tradition and which, I hope, also allows us to see Mary more clearly as our sister and our mother leading us to her Son.
True Marian devotion is a perennial font of renewal in the Church. Accepted apparitions can be one aspect of that devotion. But even they are not an essential part of that renewal. What is essential is that we get to know Mary and let her show us how to be better disciples of Jesus, her Son.
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