4. Mary model of faith
Mary Model of Faith
Part 1 - Model of faith Download PDF
Part 2 - Mother of God Download PDF
Part 3 - The Immaculate Conception Download PDF
Part 4 - Conceived of the virgin Mary Download PDF
Part 5 - Always a virgin Download PDF
Part 6 - The Assumption Download PDF
Part 7 - No more dogmas, please! Download PDF
Part 8 - Apparitions Download PDF
Part 1 - Model of faith
Is the Mary we are presenting in our Education programmes today the model of the faith we need so badly today? Is it in accord with the signs of the times? I was recently asked to put together a reflection on Mary and Feminism. I turned to the United States bishops’ document on Partners in Ministry, a document released as a response to women’s concerns for church and society. “Mary stands as a model for all Christians of what it means to be a partner with God in the work of salvation” even as she “is a special symbol for women” (#239-40).
Two issues are raised – the meaning of Mary in our lives as Christians today as a model of faith for all Christians and how is she a special model for women? Partnership in both church and society are underlying concerns that the feminist movement raises.
The Cautions of the Past
There is a troubling image in presenting Mary as a model of passivity and submission to male authority, a woman valued chiefly for her virginity and maternity, a woman confined to domestic and family roles. To this we can add exaltation because of her special privileges to a level of being beyond imitation by ordinary women. Devotion to Mary can become empty of moral significance for women today who are struggling to realise their full personhood. Proliferation of Marian devotions can even seem to make Mary assume equal importance with Jesus, especially when they are attached to the Eucharist and other sacraments.
The scriptural sources contain less information about the historical Mary than they do about the historical Jesus. What the scriptures record is theological reflection by early church communities after the resurrection. Mary as a symbolic figure begins in the infancy narratives and John’s Gospel.
Troubling also is the question of Marian apparitions, notably between 1850 to 1950, the Marian age. Many of them raised great fears and hopes, attracting many pilgrims. Yet they failed to stress Mary’s active cooperation in the redemptive work of Christ; nor did they stress the message of social transformation or the ending of oppression.
Often they pointed backwards rather than forwards, defensive of a pre-Vatican II faith. How can this peasant yet queen, simple Jewish girl, stately wisdom figure, happy young mother, anguished and grieving widow, liberated leader and woman of courage be a model of faith and important religious symbol for Christianity today?
Recent Feminist Discussion
Mary has been looked at with new eyes as one of the comparatively few but surely the most important of female figures in our religious history. Both theological as well as feminist criticism is important in reflecting on Mary today. An important but neglected area of the Scriptures is its Wisdom literature. Mary came to embody all the characteristics of the biblical figure of Wisdom over the course of history. One of its greatest symbols is the ‘tree of life’ that Wisdom is proclaimed as in Proverbs 3:18. By the end of that book she is the valiant woman who takes care not only of her own household but also of the poor and needy.
With the coming Year of Mercy we need to leave behind a God represented in the image of male, stern judge, warrior, omnipotent ruler, king, tyrant, demanding father. What happened when such images prevailed was that characteristics such as the tenderness, mercy, strength, and compassion of the God of the Bible were displaced by popular devotion onto the figure of Mary. Clearly then, God transcends such male and female models and metaphors and language for God must become more inclusive and various, even to seeing God as source of the finest characteristics of both sexes.
Mary as Model of Faith
A Mary for today sees her as a human figure, maturing in her journey, growing in faith, moving from uncertainty to belief in the struggles of her life. “Journey of faith” was a term used frequently by St John Paul II in referring to Mary’s life and her place in the pilgrim church. He meant Mary’s own historical movement to faith as well as her place in our lives as Christians. Our own Christian life journey has a past, present, and future. Mary is at once a little-known historical person who walked the journey to faith in Christ, and the figure of the church on its Spirit-filled pilgrim journey in time.
She was a very human person who experienced the doubts and insecurity of historical life, and came to faith in the power of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. She, like the other disciples, received the Holy Spirit and became part of the first Christian community, the first church. While faith is God’s gift, there is an action of active obedience in the receptivity of Christian faith.
Much of the Christian tradition about women, notably in Augustine and Aquinas, was built on an Aristotelian biology that is simply outmoded. Traditional distinctions such as ‘active’ and ‘passive’, ‘head’ and ‘heart’, are harmful. Justice and Christian truth demand equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. We can no longer see Mary as purely a passive human figure; her receptivity to grace must be seen as fully active. While the story of her acceptance at the Annunciation in Luke is theological reflection imagined backward to create a scene when Mary said her fiat to God’s request, it is also Mary’s active receptivity to grace in the course of her whole life. Her past, present, and future coalesce into one moment that has been importantly provocative for Christian imagination across the centuries.
Christianity, like Mary herself, is not the monopoly of scholars, exegetes, theologians, or institutional authorities. She has taken on a myriad of guises in her relation to Christ and church. An important task today is to integrate her into the social teaching of the church. The Magnificat contains much that is liberationist and provocative. Apparitions are to be judged by their inspiration into deeper faith and consistent social action. Pope Francis finished his great exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, with a prayer to Mary, calling her ‘star of a new evangelisation’ and ‘mother of the living Gospel.’ I await how she will appear in his encyclical on the environment. As a mysterious figure of autonomy and relationship she can speak of the interrelationship of all creation for there is ‘the Mary in all of us.’
Reference - Carr, A. (1989). Mary Woman of Nazareth. Paulist Press: NY. Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 July 2015.
Part 2 - Mother of God
We need to capture again the meaning of the four Marian dogmas; they are more than statements of belief. They are four major affirmations about Mary. They can be, and must be, made relevant to people in their present circumstances if they are to have meaning today. They are not all from the same period; the last two came rather late in church history.
Mother of God
This title is not found in the New Testament, where Mary is the mother of Jesus; it is not until Jesus is known as God, and the union of divine and human natures in the one person is recognized, that Theotokos (God bearer) is affirmed, "If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is truly God, and therefore that the blessed Virgin is truly Mother of God (Theotokos), for she bore according to the flesh him who is Word from God, let him be anathema. (Council of Ephesus)
In recent times we have insisted more on the humanity of Jesus, rediscovering a Jesus who is very human and near to us. Christianity’s great claim is faith in a God who came and lived among us as one of us, Emmanuel, God with us. It was through Mary that the entry of God into our world was made possible. Mary leads us beyond the threshold to the very heart of Christian originality: welcoming a God who becomes human.
What is Motherhood?
It is much more than just a biological function; it allows one’s children to live and to grow, while respecting each individual’s freedom and responsibility. It demands an attitude of attending to life in relationships, allowing fruitful growth and activity. This is something we can all, hopefully, relate to. This is an ideal the Church must aspire to, to listen to all her children, even to those that might not always agree with her. Good mothers know this. Mary is not mother merely of the humanity of Jesus; she is not just producer of his human nature. She is human mother of the person who in his radical identity is God from God, light from light.
Mary and Trinity
The Gospels and Creed speak of God as Father, the first divine person. But how does the motherhood of Mary affect our sense of the Fatherhood of God? Mary at the Annunciation receives the Son of the Father, through the overshadowing of the Spirit. For this she is honoured. What was in the beginning in the Trinity, in the eternal procession of the Son from the Father, now has a new beginning in the history and fabric of the cosmos itself.
The eternally begotten Son is really brought forth into the world of creation, subjected to it. ‘Born of a woman’, Jesus would know poverty, live in surrender to God, enter into the risk of living for the Kingdom of God - and suffer the consequences. Having a human mother meant that the divine Son was not pretending to be human. He is the humanisation of the divine in the pain, darkness, and joy of human existence. In the womb of Mary, the world holds a divine reality within it; the Mother of Jesus is the Mother of God.
In giving and loving in her human maternal manner, Mary is the finest human expression of the love of the Father. She embodies a corrective to any excessive masculinisation of the divine. It is surely significant that the parental role of the Father is expressed in history through the love of a mother. No particular name, even one as important as ‘Father’ can be made such an absolute as to limit the infinity of God’s life and love. In the Hebrew language, the term for the ‘mercy’ or ‘compassion’ of God is rahamim; in its original form, rehem, it meant ‘the womb of a woman.’ It is hardly surprising then that our God shows mother love, and Mary expresses the love of a mother.
The History Behind the Dogma
The definition was the outcome of the controversy over the unity of the two natures in Christ. A theological tradition centred on Antioch in Syria had come to speak of Christ’s ‘two natures’, human and divine. But Nestorius, archbishop or patriarch of Constantinople in the early 400s, got into trouble by pursuing this ‘two-natures’ Christology to an extreme, risking losing sight of their unity. Many Christians had begun to pray to Mary as Theotokos, the bearer or Mother of God. Nestorius insisted this was wrong, for Mary was only mother of the human nature. When theologians cross popular piety, then trouble breaks out.
In 451 Chalcedon declared that even after the Incarnation there were two natures, united in one person, so what is said of one nature applies to the other. One is mother of the person, not just the nature. Hence, one could indeed call Mary the Mother of God. Pope Leo I offered a formula that incorporated Nestorius’s concern for a clear distinction between the two natures in Jesus, Christ is one Person, the Divine Word, in whom two natures, human and divine, are permanently united without confusion and mixture. Chalcedon was to go on to say that Jesus was “…born of the Virgin Mary …according to his humanity.”
It was this controversy that indirectly promoted Mariology in the 5th century. The definition of Theotokos was not a Marian definition, but a Christological one. It was intended to safeguard not the motherhood of Mary but the unity of Christ in one divine Person. But the Ephesus decision gave a major impetus to Marian devotion. The January 1st solemnity of the Mother of God, which now coincides with the octave-day of Christmas and the beginning of the New Year, was probably assigned this day because of the influence of the Byzantine Church.
The restoration of the feast to January 1 in the Roman church, owes much to Paul VI, "This celebration, assigned to January 1 in conformity with the ancient liturgy of the city of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the 'holy Mother . . . through whom we were found worthy . . . to receive the Author of life.' (Marialis Cultus, 1974).
References - Coyle, K. (1998). Mary in the Christian Tradition: From a contemporary perspective. Twenty-Third Publications: Mystic, CT.
Prevost, J-P. (1988). Mother of Jesus. Novalis: Ottawa. Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 February 2013.
Part 3 - The Immaculate Conception
This is a feast that made its first appearance towards the end of the seventh century, again influenced by popular apocryphal accounts of Mary’s own miraculous birth. A vision seen by the abbot of a monastery in Kent during a life-threatening storm, led to the choice of December 8th and promotion of devotion to the conception of the Virgin. By the 12th century theological opinion was quite divided; even that devoted champion of Mary, St Bernard, opposed her liturgical commemoration on the ground that only holy events can be so celebrated. And, he said, since Mary was conceived with original sin like everyone else, one cannot say her conception was holy. As mentioned before, the influence of Augustine’s belief that original sin is transmitted by sexual desire plays its unfortunate part.
The Middle Ages never reached a consensus on the question of Mary’s conception or the legitimacy of a liturgical feast in its honour. At issue was the question of how the Virgin could have been conceived without sin when the redemption had not yet taken place? St Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas both supported Bernard. It was the Franciscan, John Duns Scotus that came up with the accepted way out, that if the Virgin was sanctified in the womb, this must have been through an anticipated application of the merits of her Son. This could effectively have applied from the first moment of her conception, preventing her from contracting original sin.
It was Pius IX, acting outside of a council but with extensive consultation with bishops and theologians, who on 9 December 1854 promulgated the definition. His action marked a turning point that made possible the formal definition of the two final dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption. It was the 19th century that created the ecclesiastical climate that became dominant in the church we live in. Both these latter dogmas were defined within the context of papal infallibility defined at Vatican I; both reflect personal papal devotion within a wider context of a believing Catholic Christianity.
The proclamation of the dogma was through a bull Ineffabilis Deus, prepared by a consultation of bishops but marked by the pope’s desire to define the doctrine. Four considerations are made. First, “the doctrine of Mary’s all-holiness is an ancient one” (but the Immaculate Conception was not part of the thinking of the Church Fathers for whom the belief that Mary was all-holy did not extend to exemption from original sin). Second, the testimony of history is appealed to, “the Catholic Church…has ever held as divinely revealed and contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august Virgin…” Again a problem is evident in ‘ever held’.
Third “this doctrine always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine”. While the appeal might be made that “because Mary was Mother of God the Immaculate Conception flows from this”, the development of doctrine is a question on which there is no unanimity. Fourth, there is an argument from hope for the church’s welfare: ‘All our hope do we repose in the most blessed Virgin – in the all fair and immaculate one who…has brought salvation to the world…in her who, with her only-begotten Son, is the most powerful Mediatrix and Conciliatrix in the whole world…”
The hope is that Mary will use her power to ensure that “Our Holy Mother the Catholic Church may flourish daily more and more throughout all the nations and countries.” While this is a comforting and pious hope and expresses trust in Mary’s aid, the theological virtue of hope has God alone as its basis, as does faith and love.
"We declare and pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the BVM, in the first instant of her conception, has been, by a special grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, preserved and exempted from every stain of original sin, is revealed by God, and consequently is to be believed firmly and inviolably by all the faithful". (Ineffabilis Deus).
In proclaiming the Immaculate Conception as a ‘revealed truth’ on 8 December 1854, Pius IX left the ‘how’ revealed open. It was left to theologians to show the harmony with Scripture on Mary. It is impossible to link this proclamation to a particular text; it is Mary’s exceptional holiness that the dogma shows as the case from her first moment of conception. She always enjoyed God’s favour and was the most blessed of women.
What it Means
The term is not about the virginal conception of Jesus, still a popular misunderstanding among many Catholics. Nor is it teaching the manner of Mary’s own physical conception. What the teaching upholds is that Mary, from the first moment of her conception, was preserved from original sin. Her holiness, which is clear from the Gospel portraits of her, is the basis for such a dogma, a holiness unimpaired by original sin.
As a term ‘immaculate conception’ is quite alien to the thought patterns and world view of 1st century Judaism for whom any conception and birth was a cause for rejoicing; it was a sign of God’s favour. Unlike the motherhood and virginity of Mary, there is no scriptural basis for the Immaculate Conception. It reflects a very strong Christian belief and devotion, held to against opposing theologians and bishops.
Interest in the doctrine waned until early in the 19th century when Catherine Laboure claimed to have had a vision of the Immaculate Conception, standing on a globe, with rays of light shining from her hands spread outward to the earth. The vision was surrounded by an oval frame on which appeared the words: O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. This became the miraculous medal, and stimulated renewed interest in the doctrine as well as demands for its definition.
Gregory XVI (d.1846) would not accede to these demands, but Pius IX immediately began proceedings leading to the definition, consulting 603 bishops, of whom 56, including the bishop of Paris, opposed the definition. On Dec 8th 1854, the definition was given. This was followed by other Marian apparitions; in 1858 there was a series of appearances near Lourdes, in France, to the 14 year old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who was given the name I am the Immaculate Conception. Another apparition occurred at Fatima in Portugal in 1917; Pius XII was particularly devoted to Our Lady of Fatima, and consecrated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1942, and went on to define her bodily assumption in 1950, perhaps the logical conclusion to a life begun free from original sin and lived free from its effects.
Where are we at?
My concern in these articles is to do justice to the fullness of the tradition regarding Mary. What is this doctrine trying to say to people of our day? The bull of definition itself stands in serious need of rewriting. It came in an era of rationalism and secularism, as well as expressing the concerns of the pontificate of Pius IX. My intuition would be that its unintended effect was to make Mary so unique as to be unapproachable rather that one of us and one with us, Mother of the Church and Mother within the Church. Add to that a dogma that removes her from us in the Assumption, our next topic, and we are faced with the crisis that Vatican II attempted to address: bring Mary back to the Church in a manner that speaks to people today.
Reference - Tavard, G. H. (1996). The Thousand Faces of Mary. Michael Glazier: Collegeville, MN.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 June 2013.
Part 4 - Conceived of the Virgin Mary
Concerning the biblical origins of this traditional belief in the Blessed Virgin, two points need to be noted:
- Only the virginal conception of Jesus is directly mentioned in the New Testament;
- As a result, for the New Testament, the emphasis is placed not so much on Mary nor on the virginity as such, but on Jesus and the great new event dignified by the virginal conception.
Although the church has never offered a dogmatic formulation on the virgin birth, of Jesus from Mary, it does consider this belief among its dogmas. Only Matthew and Luke give us an account of the conception, birth, and, in Luke, the early life of Jesus. These narratives were the last part of the gospels to come into being, and they are not on the same historical level as the narratives that tell us of the public life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Yet two gospels present a virgin birth as a completely miraculous act of God; both versions of the infancy differ so much in detail that their discrepancies are in fact irreconcilable. But the two of them, independently, are interested in the conception of Jesus by his virgin mother as a sign of divine grace and choice. The truth they express is that Jesus’ origin was in God and that he was God’s Son and Messiah from birth. Mary is mother of the Messiah through an extraordinary action on the part of God.
If the genealogy of Matthew is unconventional with its mention of four women, then so is Mary’s conception of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit and her own ‘Yes’ to God’s plan for her life. In God’s sovereign initiative a mother is chosen for the Messiah. In the early church there was a Docetic (only seeming to be real) notion that the Messiah, coming from heaven, would appear as an adult. Matthew and Luke refute this with details about his birth and infancy. Mark insists that Jesus was the member of a human family.
Mary and Joseph are ‘betrothed’, a far more binding relationship than ‘engaged’. Customs in Israel regarding betrothal differed; girls were betrothed shortly after puberty, and after a year took up residence with their husbands. They live in Bethlehem (different in Luke) where the child is born. Only on their return from Egypt do they move to Nazareth. Sexual intercourse in Judea during betrothal was frowned on by stricter rabbis, but was widely accepted as it transformed the betrothal into full marriage.
If Mary had lived in Judea her pregnancy would have been no cause for blame if it was known that Joseph had visited her. Only if he denounced her would she be subject to stoning for adultery. If they lived in Galilee, Nazareth (Luke’s picture) then premarital intercourse would have been against the customs. Mary would have been more liable to blame and punishment.
Matthew shows us that the condition of Mary was fully accepted by Joseph. He trusted the message of an angel in a dream. Through this prophetic experience he understood the uniqueness of the conception of Mary’s child as both intended by God and foretold by Isaiah (7:14), though the original reference was to the birth of a child to the new wife, the young woman, and King Ahaz. In the writings that Matthew knew (the Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinical writings) a ‘virgin birth’ referred to a conception that had taken place before there was any evidence of fertility. The virgin mother and child image was important for Matthew’s community as a reminder of a loving God, faithful to God’s promises, and bringing in a new time for the world.
In Matthew’s account, Mary is constantly associated with her child, as in the visit of the magi. Joseph acts as designated protector of both, as in the flight into Egypt, the return, and for the first time, the choice of Nazareth as place to settle. Joseph is the leading figure in Matthew; the annunciation of the angel is to Joseph, as are the dreams which shape much of the action. Joseph then abstained from having sexual relations with the child’s mother, as though she was under sacred taboo until the birth of her God-given child.
A reminder is in order;every gospel is a post-resurrection proclamation of Christian faith. This gospel gives considerable stature to Mary; unlike in Matthew, she is the centre of action. Mary is presented as the first to hear the gospel. She does not fully understand the meaning of events, but in pondering ‘these things in her heart’, she seeks to understand their meaning. The heart of his infancy narrative is the annunciation to Mary, set between the annunciation to Zechariah and Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. The angel’s annunciation to Mary is concerned with the greatness of Jesus.
“How can this be since I am a virgin?” alt. “I am not knowing a man?” It is unfair to expect the scriptures to do more than they are meant to do. Knowledge of preceding annunciation and birth stories spread throughout the Bible gives an indication of what is happening here. Too often this question is taken as a biographical statement of Mary’s puzzlement. Wishing to avoid the banal explanation that she did not know how children were conceived, fourth century church Fathers argued that Mary had already taken a vow of virginity. This came in line with a growing post New Testament tradition that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life. Such an intention at the time of her betrothal would have invalidated any marriage to Joseph and be quite contrary to Judaism.
In accordance with the Bible’s own annunciation patterns what we are dealing with here in 1:34 is an objection that is a standard feature of the literary form. Zechariah did the same: “How can this be since I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” In Mary’s case, it offers the angel a chance to explain that the conception will be virginal and to give the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The angel’s words to Mary, especially the language about ‘Son of God’ and ‘Messiah’ dramatise vividly what the church had to say about Jesus after his resurrection and during his ministry after his baptism. This Christology has been carried back to Jesus at the very moment of his conception in his mother’s womb.
The incarnation points to the mysterious origins of Jesus in God. What is special about him cannot be explained by human parentage alone but is due to God’s creative initiative. Mary’s virginity speaks of her holiness, of her being receptive to the Holy Spirit. It is this focus that is the important stress in the account rather than the absence of sexual relations. Jesus is ‘born according to the Spirit’ (Gal 4:29). This is one area in which a distinction needs to be made between what belongs to the essential content of faith, and what belongs to a secondary level.
References - Brown, R. et al. (1978). Mary in the New Testament. Fortress/Paulist Press: NY.
Coyle, K. (1998). Mary in the Christian Tradition: From a contemporary perspective. Twenty-Third Publications: Mystic, CT.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 May 2013.
Part 5 - Always a Virgin
Theology and Physicality
This belief about Mary’s perpetual virginity comes from tradition rather than Scripture or even from a definitive council. Only the virginal conception of Jesus is directly mentioned in the New Testament, where the emphasis is placed not so much on Mary or on virginity as such, but on Jesus and the great new event signified by the virginal conception that prefigures his birth. The first question we have to ask is why do Matthew and Luke give us such an account of the origins of Jesus? What message are they giving us? The secondary topic is the perpetual virginity of Mary.
There is no scriptural intention of devaluing the normal God-given means of conception and birth, but a clear theological message is being sent that no human power could cause the Son of God to become human; Jesus Christ comes to us, completely and utterly as God’s gift, from the God we call ‘our Father’ and ‘Holy Spirit’– or he comes not at all! If we stop only at the physical level of the teaching we get into questions that were never part of the original inspired Scriptures, e.g. women as seed bed and men as suppliers of the full genetic material, i.e. the ancient understanding of conception. Or how did the baby emerge without the rupture of the hymen, virginity during childbirth? The gap between the world of Mary and our own can only be bridged with caution and sensitivity.
Tertullian, an influential early theologian, resisted the idea of perpetual virginity; there was even a saying that went as far as to say that perhaps because the message of the angel was heard by ear, the child was born through the ear. No wonder St. Jerome would have none of what he termed the ‘delirious nonsense’ of the popular Protoevangelium of James, with its image of elderly Joseph and Jesus’ half-brothers. We will gain far more appreciation if we look to the spiritual symbolism behind the tradition rather than focus on the physical details! This will get us nearer to a critical and neglected aspect of the teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity.
When Jesus gave us his beatitudes, one of them was “Blessed are the clean of heart,” better translated as, “Blessed are those of undivided heart.” As first disciple of Jesus, Mary stands foremost as one whose undivided heart was centred on her Son, virginity of heart (and body). We all know what is to be torn between many different desires. The theological concern of the text is the fact that Mary’s virginity speaks of her holiness, of her being receptive to the Holy Spirit.
Israel is called ‘Virgin Israel' to symbolise her sacredness. The holiness of a people becomes focussed in one person, Mary, the new Daughter Zion. The involvement of the Spirit in the account should remind us of the creative power of the Spirit at work ‘in the beginning.’ The creative Spirit stands at the beginning of the Old Testament and now is at work in the birth of the New. God wills a renewed creation in Christ and the creative Spirit is at work again.
From Womb to Tomb
There is an integrity about the Christian message and our God. The Resurrection is its most critical aspect (1 Cor. 15:13-14). The God we believe in brings life out of empty wombs and empty tombs. The gospel begins with a barren Elizabeth and a virgin, Mary. Both represented a state of unfulfilled potential in the mentality of the times. It is because of the lives of Jesus and Mary that the virginal state of life entered Christianity as something to be honoured and lived with faithfulness (and not a little difficulty!) If some of this sounds true for fidelity in married life also it is because both married life and single life stand before God as equally noble forms of life.
Behind this teaching lies a whole unfortunate complex of thinking on original sin, that Jesus could never be conceived in the normal human way while it was held that original sin was communicated by procreation (Augustine). Then Jesus was preserved from it by the absence of a human male parent. Karl Rahner asked that questions involved in the virgin birth be thought afresh and that a distinction be made between what is the essential content of faith and what belongs to a secondary level.
Church Fathers and Church Councils
What was not affirmed in Scripture certainly featured in following postbiblical literature, notably the second century Protoevangelium of James. Mary’s virginity was extended to virgin before, during, and after birth, that Mary remained a virgin all her life. Now we have the Protoevangelium’s account of the brothers and sisters being the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage (hence the statues of Joseph, an elderly carer for the young mother, and the absence of the husband of Mary from the canon of the Mass until after 1961 and regrettably, his absence from the recent ones until Pope Francis’ directive!). With the flexibility given to Hebrew language, Jerome says they were cousins of Jesus. Among the Church Fathers, Athanasius, Augustine and Cyril joined their support for the perpetual virginity of Mary with that of Jerome.
The universal acceptance of Mary’s perpetual virginity came to be widely accepted from the third century on. By now consecrated virgins had become established as a special state in the Church, and Mary was presented to them as their model in holiness. The Council of the Lateran (649) mentioned the virginity of Mary. The Council of Constantinople II (553-554) twice referred to Mary as "ever-virgin."
This is a doctrine for which there is no convincing evidence other than it is a tradition of the Church. It involves the virginal conception of Jesus and the perpetual virginity of Mary. The gentle and respectful conclusion of Fr. Raymond Brown, at the end of his work on the ‘Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus’ serves as a caution: ‘as we discuss Mary’s virginity, we must assure all those ordinary people in our churches, the ‘little people’ who happen to be God’s people, that in our quest we ‘experts’ have not forgotten that we too must obey the biblical injunction (Luke 1:48) that all generations, even this ‘nosey’ generation, shall call her blessed.’
References - Brown, R. (1973). The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Paulist Press: NY.
Brown, R. et al. (1978). Mary in the New Testament. Fortress/Paulist Press: NY.
Coyle, K. (1998). Mary in the Christian Tradition: From a contemporary perspective. Twenty-Third Publications: Mystic, CT.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 April 2013.
Part 6 - The Assumption
“The law of prayer is the law of belief” is a saying that owes much to Augustine and the theological battles of the fifth century. It implies the basis of doctrines can be seen in popular consensus as shown in liturgical celebration, of feasts in honour of Mary. Pius XII appealed to this when he defined the Assumption of Mary.
Two dogmas clarify one another; the Assumption declaration alludes to the Immaculate Conception, Mary, immaculate Mother of God, always a virgin, after having completed the course of her earthly life… The text is interesting for what it does not say: how the Assumption took place, or if Mary really died as her Son did? What does the dogma tell us? That Mary is already part of the new and definitive world of the Resurrection. The power of Jesus’ Resurrection came to seal her earthly existence; Mary is called to and is for us a sign of full communion with God. Like her we are called to the resurrection of body and soul. The Assumption tells us the importance of the body, destined also to rise. The dogma was defined at the end of a decade that saw millions die in WWII; the atrocities of the holocaust; the rise of atheistic existentialism.
Assumption and Resurrection
The Assumption sends us back to the Resurrection of Christ who opened the way to life. Being first, he brought victory over death. When we assert that we believe in the resurrection of the body, we believe in the passage from death to life, that like Mary, we are caught up into the victory of Christ, the firstborn from the dead.
Mary’s Assumption is not in the Scriptures; but because of the early belief in Mary’s extraordinary holiness and her place in God’s plan, it was believed that she who was exceptional all through her life, must have had an exceptional final destiny. It took 500 years for the Assumption to take on a form free of the bizarre and legendary details in the apocryphal writings, lilies in the tomb, the apostle Thomas coming back late from India to see the body; late for the Resurrection appearance of Jesus, he is late for the Assumption. In the East, from the 6th century, there was a feast of the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin, the All-Holy One. The feast reached Rome around the middle of the 7th century.
This was proclaimed a dogma of faith by Pius XII in 1950, in the words, By the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own, we proclaim and define it to be a dogma revealed by God, that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary Ever-Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.
There are no details about her death, how she died. All the dogma is saying is that she completed salvation, now sharing in the fullness of the resurrection, which God promised all peoples, when God raised Jesus from the dead. Christ as the first-fruits and then, after the coming of Christ, those who belong to him, the point of the second reading on the feast of Mary’s Assumption which depends totally on Jesus’ resurrection. She has passed beyond death and judgment to the glory she now enjoys. It is what we, by God’s mercy, hope to eventually enjoy.
Vatican II emphasized the unity of Mary’s bodily and spiritual glory in heaven; the Assumption is of ‘body and soul’. It is the whole person that will be saved. At death, every person receives a transformed body (not the corpse left behind) and is taken entirely into eternal life, since the soul cannot be separated from the body. Mary was sinless; yet she was not exempt from the final transformation in death. Physical death is not punishment; it belongs properly to the human life that God wills for humankind. After all, Genesis tells of a tree of life before the Fall!
From Early On
Our earliest discussion on Mary’s death is in the writings of Epiphanus (died 403). He gives two possibilities: either she died or did not; he does not know which. From the 6th century we have writings which speak of the Assumption of Mary rather than her Dormition or ‘falling asleep’, writings only translated after the dogma was defined. They say, It was fitting that the most holy body of Mary, the God-bearing body, the receptacle of God, which was divinized, incorruptible, illumined by divine grace and full of glory…should be entrusted to the earth for a short while and be raised up in glory to heaven, with her soul pleading to God. The Greek triad of virginity, grace and incorruption are connected. The East held the feast and the doctrine from early on; in the West, doubts were expressed by Jerome and Augustine.
Her Place with us
Is the Assumption the final step in taking Mary away from us, after the Immaculate Conception showed how different she was from us? The Visitation gives a different picture from virginity, grace and incorruption. It is of two pregnant women, reaching out to touch the new life that is present in the rounding bellies of each one. It is too easy to place Mary in her Assumption as beyond human reach, on her heavenly pedestal as Queen, different and beyond us. The Gospel readings won’t let that happen because they are about earth, pregnancy, labour pains, birth, life, death, and social transformation as the rich and powerful are pulled down from their thrones, the lowly are exalted, the hungry are fed, and the rich are sent empty away.
Her place with God
Crowned and glorious, closely associated with the Trinity, caused the Protestant psychologist, Carl Jung, to state that a woman had become the fourth member of the Trinity, thus raising the feminine to the level of the divine. I would rather see all humanity, women and men, raised with her, Mary, woman and mother, to participate in the Godhead. In the body of Mary, glorified, material creation begins to participate in the risen body of Christ. Mary’s Assumption anticipates not only the resurrected body of all Christians but the redeemed state of the whole cosmos which is at present subject to decay.
In Mary’s Assumption, what is material and beautiful on our earth, as well as what is authentically human, is promised immortality. Perhaps a more appropriate first reading for the Assumption (rather than a passage that originally meant the twelve tribes of Israel as well as the community of the Church based on the twelve apostles - the woman giving birth to the Messiah), would be from another part of the Apocalypse, “A new heaven and a new earth.”
Our Place with her
I believe that there is always a “So what?” issue in any dogma. What does all this mean to you and to me? In the middle of a century that saw terrible loss of life, the murder of six and a half million Jews, wars beyond human nightmares, ecological destruction, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the continued violation of what is feminine, the Church asserted that in a woman, Mary, Mother of God, we find the ultimate meaning of the whole of reality. Her body is sacred. So is the body of every woman and man on this earth. Her destiny is assumption. It is our destiny and that of our world. Rejoice in the Assumption, for it is God’s promise of life and transformation of all that is worthwhile. Mary’s Assumption does not take her away from us. It places her right at the heart of our own journey. She is a reminder of where we are going. Her being proclaimed the greatness of the Lord; so does our own.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 July 2013.
Part 7 - No More Dogmas, Please!
This article is a response to a request to reflect on the call for new Marian dogmas. It is based on a conviction that rather than go down new paths we need to give life to the truths about Mary we already have, to let them speak anew into our 21st century church and faith. We need first to consider some issues surrounding dogmas and second listen to what the church says about a renewed approach to Mary.
Church authority has an obligation to strive for pastoral reasons to make the way to salvation less onerous. Faith must remain a reasonable act as well as a graced act. The two last doctrines have a chequered history: the Immaculate Conception was totally unknown to the Fathers of the Church and was explicitly rejected by major theologians in the Middle Ages: Saints Bernard, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure. Rome forbade the term, Immaculate Conception, in 1644, declaring that one should talk of the Conception of the Immaculate Virgin. It is the virgin who is immaculate, not the biological phenomenon of her conception. As for the Assumption, the stories that tell of this are of apocryphal origin.
The Orthodox Church was not prepared to accept the definitions of these doctrines; the consensus of Anglican and Protestants was against their formulations. It is never good to deepen the separation between Christian believers. The very manner of making dogmas changed between the French Revolution and the 19th century; when Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception it was the first time that a bishop of Rome acted without the support of a council to define a doctrine as being essential to the Catholic faith, adding one more stone to the defensive wall against the perceived assault of the modern world on the church.
While there was a consultation of bishops prior to the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception (1854) the dubious element was the pope’s already publically known desire to define the doctrine. The most disturbing feature was not the preparation, which was thorough, nor even the way it was proclaimed, though it is generally better for a dogma of faith to be proclaimed in council as expression of the universal church than by the bishop of Rome speaking ex cathedra. The problem lay in the bull itself, Ineffabilis Deus.
“The Catholic Church …has ever held as divinely revealed and as contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august virgin” just does not apply to the early or even the middle times in the church. The appeal is made to liturgical practice which again has a late starting point. “This doctrine always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine”. The development of doctrine becomes a controversial theological issue.
The papal bull, Munificentissimus Deus: The most bountiful God, in which Pius XII defined the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption was promulgated in 1950 on the Feast of All Saints. For the pope the Assumption of Mary flows from her Immaculate Conception, with both connecting to her mission as Theotokos, ‘God bearer.’ As the Immaculate Conception was a pure, undeserved gift, so was the Assumption. The end balances the beginning. The two dogmas are then seen to underline the separation of Mary from the ordinary conditions of life in the people of God.
Unlike the 1854 definition, no attempt was made to find the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption in the Scriptures. While the wording asserts Mary’s Assumption “is based on the Sacred Writings,” no attempt is made to identify the exact place. It is entirely on tradition that the text bases the doctrine.
Pius XII believed the definition of the Assumption tallied with the needs of the church at the mid 20th century, and interpreted these needs in light of his experience and piety: World War II, the Communist Party in Italy, the rise of the Soviet Union, existentialism. The definition owes much to the personal piety of the pope: “the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived.”
The two modern definitions about Mary that were made in the Catholic Church stand in need of rewriting. Such a rewriting ought to be done ecumenically, in such a way that the whole Christian tradition contributes to it. The point is not to renounce one’s own tradition but to incorporate and own the insights of others. Certainly this will be a slow process and may be the ultimate test of ecumenical commitment. Mary as a Woman for Others is a treasure that Catholicism has to share with her Christian children in other denominations.
Not a Path to go down
Given this background of how we got to the two dogmas of recent times where to from here? The early dogmas in the church centred around Christ and Trinity as core to Christian belief. Paul VI laid down four guidelines to shape the future direction for Mariology: Scriptural, ecumenical, liturgical, and anthropological. The drive to have Mary declared Mediatrix or Co-Redemptrix founders significantly on the first (and second) principle.
It violates Scripture: “There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5). The two most recent dogmas did not violate Scripture; they just were not in Scripture. It would not be fair to the memory of Mary to spend two thirds of a bull of definition trying to explain what we are not saying and one third of what we are saying about Mary’s unique contribution to her Son’s role as Mediator and Redeemer.
Such titles are expressions of personal piety; they should not be taken literally lest they seem to detract from the unique and universal mediatorship of Christ. It is dangerous to place a mediator between Christ and the faithful, or between the faithful and Christ, as though to suggest that we cannot reach Christ without his mother’s mediation. Mary can stand with us as we turn to Christ our mediator. That was Vatican IIs gift in giving her back to us as Mother of and in the Church. A major topic for ecumenical dialogue among Christian believers and churches will be the significance of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, for the Christian faith.
Mary, an Ideal to Aspire to
Through history Mary has been shaped by the imaginations of many generations of Christians. She has been the ideal of the discipleship to which the Church aspires. Every age has unconsciously formed its image of Mary according to its own ideal of discipleship. What would our 21st century ideal of a church with the face of Mary look like? Like a good mother listening to all her children, not just those who agree with a particular ideological position? Taking seriously the Word of her Son in Scripture? Ministry for service rather than power, prestige, and position? On the side of her forgotten and betrayed daughters and sons? Hearing John Paul II’s reminder that the Church was Marial before it was Petrine? After the most bitter battle of Vatican II the chapter on Mary, which says more about her than any previous council, ended up in the document on the Church, Lumen Gentium. That is the context for future reflection and direction.
References - Coyle, K. (2005). Mary the embodiment of God’s love: A historical perspective, in Landas, 19:1, 36-56. (Journal of the school of theology, Philippines).
Tavard, G. H. (1996). The Thousand Faces of Mary. Michael Glazier: Collegeville, MN.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 August 2013.
1. How well do we understand the Marian dogmas we have?
2. What sense do they make to the world today? (Relevance to our generation).
Part 8 - Apparitions
Their Place in the Order of Things
We need to remember the distinction in Christian theology between truths that are essential and primary (necessary for everyone) and truths that are accidental and secondary (real truth that takes its importance only in relationship to more essential truth). It can be true that the Blessed Virgin appeared at a given shrine, but that truth in no way has the same importance as does the central truth of the Incarnation. The truth of a Marian apparition is an accidental truth, not universally prescribed, but one that you can choose (on the basis of temperament, taste, background, culture, or time) either to respond to or not. There is a negotiability here, not about whether or not it being true, but about whether or not it is something to which we should attend.
Public and Private Revelation
No one has the right to make public revelation out of private revelation. ‘Public’ revelation means those truths revealed to the inspired writers of the New Testament, and they have a definite completion date, by common theological consent, as the death of the last apostle. There was no new revelation to come, which means that revelations to individuals (popes or peasants) through apparitions of Christ (Sacred Heart or Divine Mercy) or the virgin, or saints, are purely private, with one valid purpose, to confirm the faith or spirituality of the individual/s involved or to confirm for the wider faithful that which is already the subject of ‘public’ revelation.
It is dangerous to assume that what happens in human history does not depend on responsible communitarian and social action and responsibility but upon miraculous intervention mediated by Mary, that salvation is her work. We have no right to make an ideology out of an apparition, nor use it to drown out other voices in the church, thus obliterating the very meaning of the word ‘catholic.’ It is too easy to forfeit that the Holy Spirit speaks through more than one avenue in the church.
Those that became famous and universally recognized are Guadalupe (1531), La Salette (1846), Lourdes (1858), and Fatima (1917). At Medjuggore (1981) Ivan Dragicevic, reiterated the call to daily conversion with five weapons against Satan – prayer with the heart (such as the Rosary), fasting, reading the Bible, monthly confession and frequent Holy Communion. Turning to Mary for help and mercy has been a constant in the Church, particularly from the Middle Ages onwards as devotion to Mary became an even more integral part of Catholic life.
Popular religion is intensely human and emotionally charged, yet tends to be uncritical in accepting propositions of faith. The relationship between the believer and God or Mary tends to be a contractual one. In return for prayer, penance, or the fulfilment of a vow, God bestows favours. With the growing enthusiasm for Marian apparitions, it is important to link them with pilgrimages. Let us reflect what a comparatively recent phenomenon apparitions of Mary really are. For most of history pilgrimages were to tombs of saints; Thomas a’ Becket (12th century) being a particular favourite that led to the classic Canterbury Tales. We also have Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. Pilgrimages represented a ‘tear in the veil’ separating heaven and earth. Often they became a means of nearing God on the part of those who were outside the official channels of access to the holy. Perhaps this still applies today for those who find access to the holy through apparitions rather than, unfortunately, through the liturgical channels that they may feel alienated from.
Caution is always called for; 210 apparitions were reported between 1928 and 1971, none of which received church recognition. Of those that had received earlier recognition care must be taken, even with them. La Salette has Mary saying that she gave the people six days to work and reserved the seventh for herself. That is the prerogative of God rather than Mary. Fatima’s vision of ‘souls falling into hell like leaves from the trees,’ can be taken as sending the greater mass of humanity to hell and taking away from the redeeming power of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Such a pessimistic line may well owe more to the last Sunday’s homily heard by the children that a revelation from God via Mary. No study has ever been done on the social, cultural, and psychological conditioning of the visionaries.
Sites of pilgrimages represent a ‘tear in the veil’ that separates heaven and earth. One purifies oneself by penance and travel. The pilgrim visits a holy site or shrine, where often magical beliefs abound: beliefs in relics, images, and the efficacy of water from sacred springs, but these only benefit the pilgrim who has had a conversion of heart. When a pilgrimage site becomes established, it operates like any social institution: liturgies and devotional services for an increasingly large group of pilgrim tourists. The literature surrounding Marian apparitions tends to be devotional and apologetic, defending and publicising what the authors believe to be appearances of Mary. Scholarly writings about apparitions are scarce, making the topic of apparitions a difficult one.
There is no definitive church teaching about what happens during an apparition. The church has always taught that the faithful are not required to believe in apparitions or their historicity; official church approval, which is limited to comparatively few apparitions, does not mean that the faithful are required to believe in the apparitions or in their historicity. They are private revelations that do not add to or embellish the deposit of faith. They are to be respected if they inspire people to deeper faith and consistent social action, to be judged by their fruits: love, justice, and peace.
Even when a private revelation has spread to the entire world, as in the case of Our Lady of Lourdes, and has been recognized in the liturgical calendar, the Church does not make mandatory the acceptance either of the original story or of the particular forms of piety springing from it. US Catholic Bishops statement.
Some apparitions are linked to a long tradition of healing shrines; others have been powerful messages of liberation for under-privileged and oppressed people. Guadalupe comes immediately to mind. Apparitions are usually experienced by the poor, mostly poor women, and the young, and the theophanies are described in great detail. Could the appearances to women of all ages be an expression of a voice or voices not being heard by the institutional church but forcing its way through the charismatic dimension of the church? Apparitions are expressions of the charismatic element in the church; it is this feature that tends orthodox religion to be ambivalent about them.
Constant features in apparitions that keep appearing are Mary as healer and restorer of faith; the claim of miraculous cures at Marian shrines still persists, especially at Lourdes. Another constant is Mary as an intercessor between heaven and earth, pleading with God on our behalf, influencing God’s judgments. Last century at Fatima she became instrumental in Pius XII’s criticism of communism and the prayers for the conversion of Russia. Yet similar prayers were lacking against Nazism, and are lacking against the ravages of unbridled capitalism, recent target of Pope Francis.
Reference - Coyle, K. (1998). Mary in the Christian Tradition: From a contemporary perspective. Twenty-Third Publications: Mystic, CT.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 September 2013.
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