From the Publisher: The Air We Breathe

Nothing puzzles Catholics more than the attitude of our separated brethren toward the Blessed Virgin Mary—and vice versa, of course. For that matter, many converts tell cradle Catholics that the greatest obstacle to their conversion was the Church’s teaching on Mary. Or at least what they conceived that teaching to be.

In the newspapers the other day there was a picture of Pope John Paul II with Sister Lucia, one of the seers of Fatima, and the accompanying story made reference to the “secrets of Fatima.” And of course Medjugorje has become a frequent item even in the secular press, with references to daily revelations and major secrets. It would be pardonable if someone were to think that our main interest in the Mother of God is to find out what is going to happen next. There was and is an inordinate amount of curiosity about what the third secret of Fatima is all about. In his famous interview of 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger, asked if he had read the document containing this secret, said, in a seemingly laconic way, that he had. Why not publish it? Because we would be accused of sensationalism, was his reply. That whets one’s curiosity, of course, but a whetted curiosity is not always a healthy thing to have.

In her novel Robinson, Muriel Spark has her narrator, a recent convert, confront several instances of shock at the alleged Mariolatry of Catholics. January—that is her name— handles these with the wit and reverence Spark aficionados have come to expect. Tourists often profess themselves startled and scandalized when they witness Italian and Spanish devotion to relics, to the saints, especially to Mary. Belloc even suggested that there was a meteorological fault line which explained the breach in Christendom, the cold- blooded reformers falling to the north of the line, the orthodox getting the sun and sea and all those wonderful processions, shrines, and devotions. And above all a robust devotion to the Mother of God.

If devotion to Mary were a matter of trying to obtain privileged predictions of what lies around the corner of time or simply paraliturgical hoopla to which the rule de gustibus could not apply, it ought to put people off. But Marian devotion is not a matter of disposition or geography or Mediterranean excess. Finding out what is the solid basis of the veneration of Mary by the Church has been for many the key to their conversion.

Take two things, the rosary and Lumen Gentium.

Manzoni called the rosary the breviary of the simple, and this was not a put-down. If you visit his house in Milan and look into the bedroom where the great writer died, you will see his rosary pinned to his pillow. Telling one’s beads is a meditation on the great mysteries of the faith. The annunciation, Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, Christ’s birth, the presentation in the temple and the finding of Jesus in the temple—these joyful mysteries put before the mind and imagination the drama of the incarnation and the hidden life of Christ. The sorrowful mysteries—the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion—present the drama of our redemption. The resurrection, ascension, descent of the Holy Ghost, followed by the assumption and the crowning of Mary as queen of heaven and earth, the glorious mysteries, round out the Christian message. Dwelling on these great chapters of the faith is not a vacation from revelation, but an immersion in it.

Of course the two prayers that make up the rosary are biblical in origin, the Our Father and then the Hail Mary, the first half of which consists of passages from Luke: the angelic salutation, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you,” and Elizabeth’s greeting on Mary’s arrival: “Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

Hillaire Belloc was a ferocious Catholic who, during one of his campaigns for a seat in the House of Commons, pulled out his rosary and shook it before a crowd, telling them he said it every day and if this upset them they should find a candidate as bigoted as themselves. (There is another marvelous story of Belloc standing in the back of the church during the Mass and fending off an usher urging him to take a pew. The man persisted and finally Belloc burst out, “God damn it, leave me alone.” Whereupon the usher said, “Excuse me sir. I didn’t know you were Catholic.” It is the daily recitation of the rosary I’m after, and by a man of great sophistication and learning. Simple or learned, Catholics for centuries have put it at the center of their devotions, cherishing its vivid reminders of what it all means.

A few years ago some non-Catholic graduate students at Notre Dame asked me what would be a good thing to read to get a sense of what Catholicism is all about. How would you answer that question? It occurred to me to recommend Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church. As it turned out, this was an inspired choice. We read the document together, talking and arguing our way through the chapters—the mystery of the Church, the people of God, the hierarchy, the laity, the universal call to holiness in the Church, the religious life, the pilgrim Church’s destiny beyond—culminating in Chapter VIII on the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a remarkable document which locates the role of Mary in the history of salvation in such a way that devotion to her, far from seeming a tangent or option, emerges as in the very mainstream of the Christian message.

One of the major tasks of Catholics is, to put it negatively, not to get in the way of those outside the Church who should be in it. That’s everybody, of course. Sometimes this sound rule is taken to justify soft-pedaling or being silent about Mary. This is a great mistake. As Lumen Gentium makes clear, the mother of our Redeemer is also the mother of the Church, that is, of all believers. Mary is the way Christ came to us, and we go to Him through Mary. The teaching of the Church on Mary is, when seen in the context of such a document as Lumen Gentium, a powerful attraction. Saints have said that devotion to Mary is a sure sign of salvation. For cradle Catholics, of course, Mary has been there all along, not as a problem, but as someone to whom we naturally turn, as Christ wants us to. “Son, behold your mother. Mother, behold your son.” Gerard Manley Hopkins marvelously conveyed the naturalness of Catholic devotion to Mary in a poem called “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe.” Here are the final lines of that poem.

Be thou then, O thou dear

Mother, my atmosphere;

To wend and meet no sin;

Above me, round me lie

Fronting my froward eye

With sweet and scarless sky;

Stir in my ears, speak there

Of God’s love, O live air,

Of patience, penance, prayer:

World-mothering air, air wild,

Wound with thee, in thee isled,

Fold home, fast fold the child.


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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