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 May 11, 2009   •   VOL. 47, NO. 9   •   Oakland, CA

The Virgin Mary today — taking another look

Devotion to Mary is alive and well today. It has been so throughout the Vatican II postconciliar era. A strong and genuine interest in Marian doctrine and devotion indicates that Mary’s role in the Church is a timely topic among active Christians. Witness the many publications and conferences, the resurgence in sound devotions, and improved preaching and catechesis.

This statue of the Mary holding Jesus, with a bear cub at her feet, has a prominent place in Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Who is the model? Jesus himself, Son of God and Son of Mary. Mary must always be understood in relation to Jesus.

Vatican II

It is foolish and uninformed to assume that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had de-emphasized the importance of Mary in the economy of salvation. This is a grossly mistaken notion. Quite the contrary is the fact. The evidence for this is clear and adequate, not to say overwhelming.

Vatican II set Marian matters in balance again. The Council Fathers moved to correct excesses and to vitalize indifferent and sterile attitudes. Chapter eight of the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (“Lumen Gentium”) is the most extensive and intensive Church teaching statement ever issued about the Mother of Jesus.

Norm for devotion

Even before Vatican II, the liturgy was declared the norm and model for Marian devotion by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter On the Sacred Liturgy (“Mediator Dei,” 1947).

He identified the Catholic approach to Marian devotion as a “sign of predestination” because authentic devotion to the Mother of Jesus requires such fidelity to God’s will and inspires such hope in the promises of Christ the Savior.

In the postconciliar period, Pope Paul VI enlarged and specified that norm in his apostolic exhortation on Devotion to Mary (“Marialis Cultus,” 1974).

In the pre-Vatican II years, the major current of interests, movements, and trends in Church revitalization and renewal embraced the Bible, the liturgy, the role of the laity, prayer — and Mary and her role in the apostolate were intertwined with all of them.

The 1918 Code of Canon Law, in treating the prayerful invocation of the saints, counseled the faithful above all to give filial devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (c. 1276). Simply check the programs and literature of those years.

A rapid review of basic information may refresh our understanding and appreciation in situating Mary in the mystery of Christ and of the Church.

‘Proceeds from true faith’

Devotion to Mary “proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to recognize the excellence of the Mother of God, and by which we are moved to filial love toward our Mother and to the imitation of her virtues” (“Lumen Gentium,” n. 67). It comprises “the duties of redeemed mankind toward the Mother of God, who is Mother of Christ and Mother of the faithful” (“Lumen Gentium,” n. 59).

We generally recognize three elements in devotion to Mary:

1) veneration, or the reverent acknowledgement of the dignity of the holy Virgin Mother of God;

2) invocation, or calling upon her for her motherly and queenly intercession; and

3) imitation, which may take such forms as dedication, consecration, and service.

Particular prayer practices

In addition to devotion in a generic sense, there are devotions to Mary; that is, particular practices of prayer and veneration. These include both liturgical practices (feasts, votive Masses, litanies) and non-liturgical practices (the rosary, the scapular, private prayers) — the “various forms of piety which the Church has approved” (“Lumen Gentium,” n. 66).

The singular veneration of Mary is based on her special role in God’s plan. By grace she is the Mother of God-made-Man. Associated in the mysteries of Christ’s earthly life, she remains by her presence with the glorified Christ “inseparably joined to the saving work of her Son” (Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” n. 103).

Fidelity to God’s will

The first evidence of response to the dignity of the Mother of Christ is found in the New Testament, the very origin and foundation of sound doctrine and devotion. She is part of the pattern of salvation. She is part of the pattern of salvation history.

She is totally involved in the mysteries of the Savior’s life. The Gospels proclaim her divine and spiritual maternity in the Nativity narratives, and this is found indirectly in Galatians 4:4.

Elizabeth hails Mary as “Mother of my Lord” in Luke 1:43, meaning “queen-mother of the messiah-king” probably the oldest Christian greeting of praise to the Mother of Jesus.

John’s accounts of Cana and Calvary show her role as archetype of the believing Church. So do the “difficult sayings” on keeping God’s word in Mark 3:35 and Luke 11:28. Chapter eight of “Lumen Gentium” cites these and other Biblical texts.

Continuity of history

A survey of Church history from apostolic times to the present reveals an interesting development of Marian studies and cult in line with Christology and ecclesiology.

In the Vatican II postconciliar years, Church documents offer ample indication that Marian studies and devotion are alive and active. Take note of Pope Paul VI’s “Marialis Cultus”; the 1973 joint pastoral letter of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Behold Your Mother, Woman of Faith”; Pope John Paul II’s Marian Year encyclical letter, “Redemptoris Mater” (Mother of the Redeemer), 1987; and the Marian Year instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education, “The Virgin Mary in Intellectual and Spiritual Formation,” 1988.

All of us are called to renew our filial homage to Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer and of the redeemed. This is part of the very fabric of the Christian way of life — a way that John Paul II calls “Marian Spirituality” (Mother of the Redeemer, 1987).

(Marianist Brother John Samaha is a retired religious educator who worked for many years in the catechetical department of the Oakland Diocese. He now resides in Cupertino.)


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