Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
A very significant turning point in Marian piety and devotion occurred with the Second Vatican Council’s renewal and reform of the liturgy. A decade later, Pope Paul VI issued a remarkable Apostolic Exhortation on Marian devotions ‘Marialis cultus’ in 1974. In this landmark document, Pope Paul VI provided guidelines that are as relevant today as they were when first proposed more than 40 years ago. Among the important points in that papal document, we find the following:
- Every element of the church’s prayer life, including Marian devotions, should have a biblical imprint. The texts of prayers and songs should draw their inspiration from the Bible and be ‘imbued with the great themes of the Christian message.’ This means that they should be free of pious sentimentality and of the temptation to view Mary as more compassionate than even her Son, who is our one and only Redeemer.
- Marian devotions should always harmonize with the liturgy. Novenas and similar devotional practices, including again the rosary, are not to be inserted, hybrid-style, into the very celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharistic celebration is not simply a backdrop for private prayer.
- Marian devotions should always be ecumenically sensitive. ‘Every care should be taken to avoid any exaggeration which could mislead other Christian brethren about the true doctrine of the Catholic Church.’ There should never be a doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus Christ is our sole Mediator with God.
- ‘Devotion to the Blessed Virgin must also pay close attention to certain findings of the human sciences.’ This means that the picture of the Blessed Virgin that is presented in devotional literature and other expressions of piety must be consistent with today’s understanding of the role of women in the church and in society.
We must see Mary once again for who she is: not only the Mother of God, her most exalted role in the mystery of Redemption, but also as her Son’s disciple par excellence. When she heard the Word of God, she acted upon it. As the Apostolic Exhortation noted, she was ‘far from being a timidly submissive woman.’ On the contrary, ‘she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions.
Only when Marian piety is liberated from what Pope Paul VI called a ‘sterile and ephemeral sentimentality’ can there be any real hope for a renewal of authentic Marian piety in our time. For many people who do not have the luxury, privilege, money, time or perhaps desire to delve into serious Scripture studies, their only encounter with the Word of God might be through the liturgy or popular piety and devotion.
Let’s consider three important moments of Mary’s life not easily understood and try to discover new meaning and relevance for us. While Marian devotion remains strong in the church, the Immaculate Conception is a complex concept that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful. Many people still wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. In fact, it refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favour, was without sin from the moment she was conceived. The main stumbling block for many Catholics is original sin. Today we are simply less and less aware of original sin. And without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, God was present and moving in Mary’s life from the earliest moments. God’s grace is greater than sin; it overpowers sin and death.
When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he referred explicitly to the biblical story of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel’s salutation, “Hail, full of grace,” is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin. No other human being collaborated in the work of redemption as Mary did. The Early Church wanted to explain in a plausible manner how God’s Son could be ‘completely human, yet without sin.’ Their answer was that the mother of God must have been without sin.
What happens to Mary happens to Christians. We are called, gifted and chosen to be with Jesus. When we honour the Mother of God under the title ‘Immaculate Conception,’ we recognize in her a model of purity, innocence, trust, childlike curiosity, reverence, and respect, living peacefully alongside a mature awareness that life isn’t simple. It’s rare to find both reverence and sophistication, idealism and realism, purity, innocence and passion, inside the same person as we find in Mary.
The second moment of Mary’s life is the Incarnation. Through the virginal birth of Jesus we are reminded that God moves powerfully in our lives too. Our response to that movement must be one of recognition, humility, openness, welcome, as well as a respect and dignity for all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Through the Incarnation, Mary was gifted with the Word made Flesh.
The angel didn’t ask Mary about her willingness. He announced, ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.’ God didn’t ask Mary for permission. He acted ‘gently but decisively’ to save his people from their sins.
The virgin birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its saviour must come from outside.
The Church celebrates Mary’s final journey into the fullness of God’s Kingdom with the dogma of the Assumption promulgated by Pius XII in 1954. As with her beginnings, so too, with the end of her life, God fulfilled in her all of the promises that he has given to us. We, too, shall be raised up into heaven as she was. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God’s. Through her Assumption, Mary was chosen to have a special place of honour in the Godhead.
Mary’s life can be summed up with four words that are found in the Gospels: ‘Fiat,’ in her response to the angel Gabriel; ‘Magnificat,’ as her response to God’s grace at work in her life; ‘Conservabat,’ as she cherished all these memories and events in her heart; and ‘Stabat,’ as she stood faithfully at the foot of the cross, watched her Son die for humanity, and awaited the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus‚ mission.
God calls each one of us through scripture in complete love and grace, and the response of the obedient mind is ‘fiat: let it be to me according to your word.’ We, too, celebrate, with our strength, the relevance of the word to new personal and especially political situations: ‘magnificat.’
We ponder in the heart what we have seen and heard: ‘conservabat.’ But Scripture tells us that Mary, too, had to learn hard things: she wanted to control her son, but could not. Her soul is pierced with the sword, as she stands ‘stabat’ at the foot of the cross. We too must wait patiently, letting the written Word tell us things that may be unexpected or even unwelcome, but which are yet salvific. We read humbly, trusting God and waiting to see his purpose unfold.
(CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Vida Nueva)