MARY AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH


One of the chief failures of non-Catholics --- ( I apologise for the crude terminology "non", but it is in the original document - ) -- is to assume (incorrectly), that Marian devotion is not focused on Jesus. In fact, the entire focus IS Christological!

Catholics are often insulted by this question and frequently refuse to answer it on that account. A non-response, however, is not helpful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is an extremely important question; the answer to which determines whether or not one is a Christian.

The relationship between Catholics and Mary mystifies so many non-Catholic Christians, and we are equally mystified by their strange silence about her, a silence which is awkward and uncomfortable, a silence which broken only once a year at Christmas time because ancient carols force believers to acknowledge and sing of the Virgin who became the Mother of the Messiah. Of course, not all non-Catholic Christians fall into this category: Eastern Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God is very strong; many Anglicans and Lutherans share our convictions about the Blessed Virgin, and one of the best books on the rosary was written by a Methodist minister (J. Neville Ward, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy , Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974). By and large, though, Protestants in general and Fundamentalists in particular have not followed the example of John the Beloved Disciple by making room in their homes for the Mother of our Lord (cf Jn 19:27).

In many circumstances, an honest dialogue brings to light that the problem of Fundamentalists with Mary is not so much Mary herself as the way she is presented. Such people need to be challenged forthrightly and charitably to think about Mary and to reflect on their usual silence (if not also their not-so-unusual hostility) in her regard. This presentation will seek, not to rouse Fundamentalists' sensibilities to Marian devotion, but to raise their consciousness to an appreciation of the role of Mary in her Son's work of salvation.

The teaching of the Church is clear: Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and man. No other person in heaven or on earth can take His place. The role of Mary or any other saint is to lead the believer to Christ. This subordinate form of mediation derives its meaning and effectiveness from the Lord Himself and is not something the saints possess on their own. Where, then, does Mary fit into the picture?

Throughout the New Testament one finds references to Mary. In fact, at every significant juncture in our Lord's life, one finds Mary on the horizon. When God began His plan for our redemption, He sent to Nazareth an angel, who hailed a woman as "highly favoured" or "full of grace" to be the human partner in this divine enterprise (cf Lk 1:28). When the Babe was born in Bethlehem, He came forth into our world not from heaven but from the womb of the Virgin Mary (cf Mt 1:25; Lk 2:7). As the Child was presented to the Lord in the Temple of Jerusalem on the fortieth day, the old prophet Simeon singled out His Mother Mary for special mention as a woman destined to be the Mother of Sorrows (cf Lk 2:35). Twelve years later, after another temple visit, the Boy Jesus returned with His Mother and foster father to Nazareth and was subject to them (cf Lk 2:51). It was Mary who prodded her Son into action at Cana to work His first miracle, launching Him on His public ministry (cf Jn 2:3). And it was Mary who stood by His side at the foot of the Cross and was given to John as the Mother of the Church (cf Jn 19:26f). Finally, as the Church was waiting to be born in the Upper Room, while the disciples prayed for the Pentecost gift of the Spirit, Luke tells us that Mary was in their midst (cf Acts 1:14).

Three passages of Johannine origin must be considered in greater depth, two of them already note in passing. Most serious Scripture scholars agree that John has the most highly developed theology and literary style of all the New Testament writers. The structure of John's Gospel is a masterpiece by which even the arrangement of material or the introduction of certain people advances the theological agenda of the evangelist. For example, the unnamed "beloved disciple" is generally regarded to stand as a symbol of the ideal Christian in every age who stands with Jesus to the end and beyond. Another figure of prominence, however, is the Mother of the Lord, who appears only twice (unnamed also). Her appearances are at the beginning and the end of her Son's public ministry, as the evangelist used the Hebraic device of "inclusion" to frame the Lord's earthly career. The literary figure of speech known as "inclusion" is a device whereby an incident begins and ends in the same way. Luke, for example, begins and ends his Gospel with divine intervention as a way of demonstrating the presence of the divine throughout.

It is interesting that John, who has no infancy narrative, does feel compelled to place Mary in the midst of events. Thus he shows her to be the one responsible for Christ's first miracle, when He responded to her firm faith, although he had already told her rather succinctly; "My hour has not yet come" (Jn 2:4). Jesus' responsiveness to His Mother in this passage has provided Christians throughout the ages with the basis for seeking Mary's intercession on their behalf.

The Lord's earthly ministry ended on Calvary, with the beloved disciple and Mary brought into a unique relationship with each other by the dying Christ. The beloved disciple, representative of every committed Christian, in that moment was given the Mother of Christ to be his own Mother. The physical maternity of Mary was thus extended and expanded to include now a spiritual motherhood of the Church, her Son's brothers and sisters. Just as she brought Christ's physical Body into the world, now she would play a role on behalf of His mystical Body (the Church). Mary did not ask for the role, nor did the Church give it to her; it was nothing less than her divine Son's dying wish for her and for His Church (cf Jn 19:26f.).

The theme of the woman who is the Mother of the Church reaches a crescendo in Revelation 12. Even astute readers are brought up short as they try to unravel the symbolism. Is the woman, labouring to give birth, Mary or the Church? The author of Revelation was so skilful a writer that both interpretations are possible, and both are probably intended. Catholic theology sees the parallels as more than a happy coincidence, for the roles of Mary and the Church overlap or intersect at many points. This is apparent by the use of "inclusion" in the Gospel of John and is equally apparent in the Book of Revelation through the double symbolism employed by the sacred author.

Catholics look at Mary, above all, as a model and guide. By her "yes" to the will of the Father at the Annunciation, Mary became the first and best Christian ever to live. Her life is a testimony to the wonderful things that can happen when the human person cooperates with the divine plan. In agreeing to be the human vessel which brought the Messiah into the world, Mary played an essential part in Christ's salvific mission. She manifested Christian humility and obedience when she responded to God's will: "I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say" (Lk 1:38). Her faith in God and her response to His will mark Mary as the first human being to accept Christ, body and soul, as she welcomed Him into her very self. The Church ever since echoes the words of Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth, as she proclaims: "Blest is she who trusted that the Lord's words to her would be fulfilled" (Lk 1:45).

Catholics seek Mary's intercession just as they seek the intercession of all good Christians, living and dead, for all are alive in Christ (cf 1 Cor 15:22). This Christian concern for one another manifested through intercessory prayer is as old as the Church. For examples of intercessory prayer in the New Testament Church, see Col 1:9; 2 Thess. 1:11; 2 Thess. 3:1; James 5:16. If we, who still si can pray effectively for one another, why not the saints in glory? The favourite prayer of many Christians to the Mother of Christ is the "Ave Maria," so often the inspiration for great musical compositions. The words are simple:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

What could a Fundamentalist find objectionable in a prayer whose roots are so biblical? The first half is a direct quote from Lk 1:28-42, while the second half affirms the divinity of Christ, the fallen state of man, human mortality, and the power of intercessory prayer.

This prayer finds its way into the Rosary, which is a meditative form of prayer, combining elements of formulaic prayer and reflection on the mysteries of redemption. Catholics do not see in the Rosary the "vain repetition of words" which Fundamentalists see because Catholics are not seeking to "win a hearing by the sheer multiplication of words" (Mt 6:7). On the contrary, the stress is not on the words but on the attitude and atmosphere of prayer which is created, allowing the believer to become lost in reflection on the divine and enabling God to speak rather than oneself.

The Mysteries are divided into the Joyful, Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, Finding in the Temple; the Sorrowful (Agony in the Garden, Scourging at the Pillar, Crowning with Thorns, Carrying of the Cross, Crucifixion; and the Glorious, Resurrection, Ascension, Descent of the Holy Spirit, Assumption, Glorification.

NOTE: All of the Mysteries save the last two are focusing on the LIFE OF CHRIST!

Some non-Catholics are taken back by the practice of novenas, which have the appearance of the magical to the uninitiated. A novena is simply a set of prayers offered to our Lord, His Blessed Mother or one of the other saints, over a period of nine days, weeks or months. The number nine is not magical but takes its origins from the nine days from the Ascension to Pentecost, when the Church made the first novena as the apostles and disciples prayed for the Holy Spirit to come upon them (cf Acts 1 and 2).

Similarly, Catholics use medals and statues, but not as talismans or as objects of worship in violation of the First Commandment; rather, these things are intended to be reminders or aids to devotion which focus one's attention on prayer and the practice of virtue. It would be a rare husband who did not carry in his wallet a photo of his wife and children, not because he worships the photo or his family but because he loves his family and wishes to have a visual representation of them on his person. Nor have I ever heard a Fundamentalist take offence at the presence of statues of our country's heroes at national monuments. If the heroes of the nation can be so honoured, why not the heroes of the Church? Catholics use sacred art in exactly the same way, never fashioning "idols" for false worship (cf Dt 5:8).

Prayer to Mary, like all Marian devotion, is not an end in itself, but is intended to be a means by which one is led to a deeper union with her Son. Classical spirituality even had a Latin maxim to illustrate the point: Ad Jesum per Mariam (To Jesus through Mary). True devotion to Mary never obscures the uniqueness of Christ because Catholics know that the only command of Mary recorded in the Scriptures is one that must be scrupulously obeyed: "Do whatever he (Jesus) tells you" (Jn 2:5).

The two principal marian doctrines are grossly misunderstood by Fundamentalists and require careful explanation. Dogmas of faith about Mary are Christological and ecclesialogical in their intent. Simply put, that means that the Church sees her reflections on Mary as saying more about Jesus and the Church than about Mary herself, who joins Jesus and the Church because of her unique position in the economy of salvation.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary holds that no stain of Adam's sin touched the Blessed Virgin. That says something about Mary, of course, but it points in two other directions as well. First, it says that this privilege accorded to her was in virtue of her role as Mother of the Messiah, in order to make her a worthy dwelling for Him. Second, it is a reminder that through Christ's redeeming death and resurrection, all believers have the stain of original sin washed form their souls in the waters of Baptism. Fundamentalists become nervous with this doctrine because they think it removes Mary from the rest of humanity and raises her to the level of a goddess. They point to the fact that in her Magnificat Mary sings of "God my Saviour" (Lk 1:47), thus implicitly acknowledging her own need for redemption. Catholic theology explains this by asserting that Mary was indeed redeemed by God through "prevenient grace." This term of scholastic theology simply means that God spared Mary from sin, crediting to her in advance the benefits of her Son's redemptive sacrifice, so that she could sinlessly bear the sinless Son of God. It is important to remember that the concept of time is a human construct and that God lives in an eternal present; therefore, what sounds so strange to us is, in fact, not at all strange for Him. To deny this possibility is to limit the power of God.

The dogma of Mary's Assumption teaches that the Mother of the Lord was taken into heaven, body and soul, since no decay should touch the body of her who bore the Messiah. Christians say they believe "in the resurrection of the body", the doctrine of the Assumption merely asserts God's acknowledgement of Mary's worthiness to anticipate (from the earth bound perspective of human time, again) the fullness of salvation as both Mother of Christ and Mother of the Church.

It should be noted that one of the oldest shrines in the Holy Land is the Church of the Dormition, the spot venerated as the place from which Mary was assumed into heaven. The church dates back to the sixth century A.D., and there is evidence that the liturgical feast was celebrated as early as the fifth century. This insight is important to grasp, since some people question the validity of the doctrine because it was defined as a dogma of faith by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Again, one needs to recall that dogmatic definition only means that something was always believed but is now being solemnly proclaimed as part of the faith.

Once more, we see a Christological and eccesialogical dimension. The reward given ultimately in virtue of her divine maternity. It likewise points toward the resurrection of the dead, which is the hope of the whole Church.

Mary's privileges are promises. What God has done for her, He is willing to do for all the other members of His Son's Church. Mary's experience is unique only from the temporal point of view, in that the experience of salvation (her Immaculate Conception) and the experience of resurrection (her Assumption) are possible for all believers. In the most basic terms possible, the difference between Mary and the rest of the Church is that her possession of these gifts is present and real, while ours is an event of the future, for which one hopes and prays.

Fundamentalists' denunciations of Catholic teaching on Mary become particularly strident on the question of Mary's perpetual virginity. No Christian who takes the Scriptures seriously can doubt Mary's virginity up to the birth of Jesus, since the Gospels are so clear on this point (cf Mt 1:18; Lk 1:34). However, the Church teaches that Mary was a virgin not only when she conceived the Lord in her womb but for the rest of her life.

Jimmy Swaggart and other Fundamentalists contest this point, however, claiming that "anyone with even cursory knowledge of the Bible is therefore hard-pressed to accept the Catholic position that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life." He points to Matthew 1:24f., which state that Joseph did not know Mary until she bore Jesus, arguing that this is "implicit indication that Joseph did not know Mary until Mary delivered Jesus, but that he did afterward" (Jimmy Swaggart, "A Letter t My Catholic Friends,"The Evangelis, January 1983, page 13). Swaggart's conclusion, however, is faulty, since the word "until" is defined by Webster's Dictionary as: "up to the time that" but also "when or before." The word "until" implies no action afterward in either standard English or biblical usage. For example, 2 Samuel 6:23 says that "no son was born to Michol, the daughter of Saul *until* her dying day." One can no more argue that the use of "until" by Matthew implies Mary's having a child after the birth of Jesus than one can say that "until" indicates that Michol had a child after her dying day.

In addition to his erroneous conclusions based upon Matthew 1:24f., Jimmy Swaggart claims that "the Bible plainly lists the children of Joseph and Mary, conceived and born after Jesus' birth." He cites Mark 3:31-33, which refers to Jesus' "mother and his brothers," in defense of his position. Were Swaggart to move beyond a "cursory" understanding of the Bible, however, he would realize that the same word used for brothers in the passage (and others) is also rendered as "brethren" elsewhere. A deficiency in Hebrew and Aramaic makes it difficult to discern whether the word carries the connotation of blood brother, cousin, or some relation between the two in any one passage. One cannot prove that Mary had other children from the Gospel accounts for this reason.

But why does the Church make such an issue over Mary's perpetual virginity? First of all, because it is a matter of preserving the truth. The Church has always taught that Mary was a perpetual virgin. This information can be gleaned from many sources, but especially from the earliest liturgical prayers in which reference is made to "the Virgin." If Mary had not remained a virgin until death, why speak of her after the birth of Christ as such? If one has an uncle who is a bachelor, he is rightly referred to as one's "bachelor uncle." If he marries and thus ceases to be a bachelor, calling him a "bachelor uncle" would be senseless. In the same way, the early Church spoke of Mary as "the Virgin" precisely because of the belief that she lived and died a virgin. When this teaching was questioned in later centuries, we find the addition of the adverb "ever." Thus do the Creed of Epiphanius (c. 374), the Second Council of Constantinople (553) and the Lateran Council (649) all speak of the "ever-Virgin Mary." Augustine, Jerome and Cyril of Alexandria followed the same usage, as did Protestant reformers Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.

The doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity is not a statement that sex is bad, but it is an important statement regarding Mary's single-heartedness and the uniqueness of her vocation. She was called to be the Mother of the Messiah; no other work could surpass it, and hence it was fitting that no other fruit should come forth from the womb which carried the Redeemer of humanity. With no proof for other children born to Mary, and the weight of 20 centuries of Tradition to the contrary, the burden rests on those who would deny Mary's perpetual virginity.

Some non-Catholic Christians express concern over Catholic involvement with visions or apparitions. Such occurrences are not easily accepted by the Church, but the Church also believes that "nothing is impossible with God" (Lk 1:37). If God could reveal Himself or send intermediaries to do the same in both the Old and New Testaments (even after the Lord's Resurrection; see Paul's encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:3ff, and Peter's vision of an angel leading him from prison, Acts 12:7), why should this be out of the question today? Any apparitions approved by the Church (whether of our Lord to St. Margaret Mary or of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes or Fatima) have a remarkable similarity of theme; there is no new revelation but the restatement of the heart of the Gospel message: "Reform your lives and believe in the Gospel!" (Mk 1:15). This is no more and no less than the message of most fundamentalist preachers!

Interestingly enough, the Church does not require Catholics to accept such apparitions as necessary for belief. The same is true of the use of m als, scapulars, novena, etc. All of these things available to Catholics if they help foster a life of faith but are not mandatory practices.

Some Fundamentalists, citing passages like John 2:4 or Mark 3:3ff, contend that Jesus did not venerate his Mother and perhaps actually repudiated her. Nothing like that can be gathered from the Scriptures. On the contrary, as a good Jew and loyal son of the covenant, Christ took seriously the divine commandment to "honour thy father and thy mother." Hence, we learn that after his being found in the Temple, He returned to Nazareth and was obedient to Mary and Joseph (cf Lk 2:51). Beyond that, any passage which appears in some way to diminish Mary's role is found, upon closer examination, to increase her prestige because Jesus used such occasions to downplay mere physical claims to fame and set them in the broader context of spiritual discipleship. Mary thus had a twofold right to honour: first, as Mother of the Lord; second, as one who heard God's Word and reflected on it in her heart (cf Lk 2:19).

A great deal of time and space has been spent in discussing the place of Mary in the life of the Church. The subject heading also included "the other saints." What about them? First of all, it is good to observe that the task was to consider "Mary and the other saints." In other words, Mary is a saint. This means she was a human being like us (albeit specially chosen and honoured by God). Therefore, what has been said about devotion to her, or recourse to her intercession, applies to the other saints as well.

The Church honours certain men and women with the title of "saint" because their holiness warrants it but also because the Church on earth can benefit from their example. Patron saints for various professions or nations are holy people who are offered to believers as models worth of emulation. Feast days of saints are opportunities to celebrate throughout the year Christ's victory over Satan in the lives of His Chosen People. Such a devotion reminds us that God is glorious in His saints (cf 2 Thess. 1:10), and that every Christian is called to be a saint, even if never publicly honoured by the Church through the process of canonization. The universal call to holiness is celebrated each year on Nov. 1, All Saint's Day, as the Church honours all the holy men and women of every time and place (most of them known only to God) who stand before the throne of the Lamb (cf Rev. 7).

To answer the critical question, then, we Catholics do not worship Mary and the other saints. We accord them special honour because of their lives of faithful witness, and we seek their intercession before the Lord as all believers in heaven and on earth unite their prayers to the perfect prayer of Christ.

Mary is a sign of hope for Christians. Wordsworth put it poetically and almost biblically when he spoke of her as "our tainted nature's solitary boast." In Mary, God returned humanity to the innocence of Eden; thus she is a sign and promise of what the Lord will do for all who follow her example of fidelity.

In the Scriptures, Mary prophesied that "all ages to come shall call me blessed" (Lk 1:48). Catholics consider it a privilege to fulfil that prophecy, for one cannot ignore this woman, lest one risk distorting the Gospel itself.

-= Bro. Bill Leaming, S.D.V. =-

Saturday, January 16, 1993 at 8:22 am, Newark, NJ

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