Quodlibets: Mary, Mother of the Church

John Paul II says the rosary is his favorite prayer, his coat of arms affirms his devotion to Mary, and he flew off to Fatima after the attempt on his life.

At Fatima, pilgrims approach the place of the apparitions on their knees, advancing on a paved path that stretches for several hundred yards. All around, one sees what to a certain sort of mind may seem excesses of piety — I saw a young woman clothed as Our Lady of Fatima having her picture taken on the steps of the shrine — and the practices of the simple faithful at such places of pilgrimage may seem far from the mainstream of the faith. Sermons on the Blessed Virgin have been in short supply in recent years and it would be possible to think that there has been some sort of downgrading of the role of Mary.

If there has been, it can scarcely be ascribed to Vatican II. One of the most striking things about Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the church, is that it culminates in a chapter devoted to Mary. At the end of 1985, at the second extraordinary Synod, called to recapture the spirit of Vatican II, the bishops stressed the conciliar teaching that Mary is the Mother of the Church.

Since the Synod addressed misinterpretations of the Council, this emphasis can be seen as a corrective. Theologians who have been distorting the spirit of Vatican II are precisely the ones who are made uneasy by Marian devotion. But what the Council, and the extraordinary Synod, makes clear is that devotion to the Blessed Virgin is not some Mediterranean aberration or Slavic excess but is at the very heart of the mystery of the Church.

Devotion to the Mother of God, far from dividing the simple from the sophisticated, is so central to Catholic life that many saints have seen filial trust in the intercession of Mary as a sign of election and its absence ominous.

Alessandro Manzoni called the rosary the breviary of the simple but it is clear that this immensely cultivated man included himself among the simple. The visitor to Manzoni’s house in Milan will be shown the bed in which the novelist died, and pinned to the pillow is the rosary Manzoni used.

I have known converts who at first found our devotion to Mary both surprising and unsettling. It can seem a detour or worse, ascribing to a creature what can only be said of God. But devotion to Mary is based, not on confusion, but on clarity as to the role she has been chosen to play in the great drama of salvation. It would be a misguided ecumenism that would seek to obscure or play down the role of the Mother of God. It was a convert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote a poem entitled “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” writing:

Of her who not only

Gave God’s infinity

Dwindled to infancy

Welcome in womb and breast,

Birth, milk, and all the rest

But mothers each new grace

That does not reach our race —

Mary Immaculate…

Nowadays, when some theologians withhold assent to any doctrine that has not been solemnly defined, there has been weakening — if only in the rarefied atmosphere of academe — of devotion to Mary. Apparitions? Eyebrows lift in epistemological superciliousness. The Message of Fatima, all those warnings coming out of Yugoslavia, as earlier from Lourdes and La Sallete — what must be the fate of these if Sacred Scripture and the creed are examined with a workaday skepticism?

Cardinal Ratzinger, in his Report on the Faith, tells us how he moved from uneasiness concerning liturgical and pious descriptions of the Blessed Virgin to a deeper understanding of Mary’s central role in the Church. The passage suggests that a false sophistication can be an impediment not only to Marian devotion but to sound theology. It is clear that Vatican II is not only in tune with previous teaching and practice, but that it gives new emphasis to Mary as Mother of the Church, stressing her continuing role in bringing her Son to sinful mankind. Any theology that cannot accommodate this truth is bad theology.

My university is named for Mary and we have a grotto, a replica of that at Lourdes, which (whatever may seem to be the postconciliar lack of emphasis on the Blessed Virgin) continues to draw students and faculty. On this campus and throughout the Church, it will be through Mary that we Catholics will be reconciled to one another and to our separated brethren.

That is the message of Lourdes.

To Jesus through Mary.

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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