The Nobel Prize-winning writer Octavio Paz once quipped that the Mexican people, after five centuries of experimentation, have come to believe only in two things: the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery. Having been raised by Mexican immigrants in this country, I cannot testify to my ancestral nation’s enthusiasm for games of chance with hopeless odds. However, I can definitely attest to the devotion — sometimes superficial, sometimes deep — that most people of Mexican heritage have toward the Virgen Morena (the Dark Virgin).
My grandmothers have always had at least ten images in the house of just the Virgin of Guadalupe, not counting all of the other crucifixes, statues of Saints Joseph and Jude, and countless other articles of religious kitsch. Even at the folksiest of Spanish Masses, there are songs to the Virgin of Guadalupe that serve as the religious soundtrack for any childhood in the Mexican barrio. I have even known evangelical Protestants who long ago rejected the Faith of their ancestors, only to still carry pictures of la Guadalupana in their wallets — perhaps as a “good luck charm,” or perhaps as a reminder of the home they left long ago in pursuit of a better life.
So when some in the Church criticize certain Catholic societies for being too “hung up on Mary” and not enough on her Divine Son, I am not necessarily the best person to respond to their criticism. I can’t relate to the argument — nor, I suspect, could many other Catholics: From the Virgin of Czestochowa in Poland, to the Virgin of Lujan in Argentina, to Our Lady of Prompt Succour here in New Orleans, having “your own Virgin” has been formative to how Catholic peoples think of themselves, how they form an identity, and how they approach the mystery of God Himself. Devotion to the Virgin Mary is not “optional” — or, to put it another way, it is not something that you can ignore. It is so ingrained in your psyche that even if you hate the Church and despise God, images of God’s tender Mother continue to haunt you and influence how you see family, love, and the feminine in an increasingly secularizing world.
It is perhaps the lack of a Catholic imagination that can sometimes lead American Catholics to shake their heads at the “Christo-paganism” that goes on in other places. American Christianity tends to be exclusionary and deeply suspicious of the historical imagination. This goes back to the founding Puritan myths that have all been ingrained in us from elementary school forward, and they inform how we tend to see the person of Jesus Christ. The American Jesus is a-historical; our relationship to Him is one of a “personal Lord and Savior.” The American Jesus is isolated, iconoclastic, and deeply independent, not at all given to hollow sentiment toward tradition or the customs of family.
Of course, you could make this vision fit in nicely with various passages of the Gospels, and even some of the writings of the saints. Such hostility toward religious atavism is not even exclusive to Christianity: From the Buddha’s attack on Vedic Hinduism to Mohammed’s breaking all the idols in the Kaaba, “sophisticated religion” cares little about “tradition” if it does not put the autonomous believer into direct communion with the divine.
Like arguments for Protestantism and sola Scriptura, such ideas fall short when we penetrate more deeply into the essence of the Church itself. For it is only in the Church that we really come to know who Christ really is. Here, the axiom of St. Augustine is pertinent: For this Doctor of the Church, the mystery of Jesus Christ as Incarnate Word of God is incomplete without the history of the Church: Caput et corpus, Christus totus (the head and the body, the whole Christ). The life of the Church, guided by the Spirit of Christ, is just as much a part of Jesus as the man who walked Galilee 2,000 years ago. The Catholic view of Christ and history, then, is far from exclusionary. The life of every Catholic, every saint and sinner struggling throughout history, is in its own way the story of Jesus: God’s Word manifesting Himself in the world.
Thus, to be Catholic is not simply to become grafted into an institution in the here and now, but it is also an assent to the being of the Church as it comes down to us from history. In the experience of the Christian people, the motherhood of the Virgin Mary given to us by Christ on the Cross is not a sentimental add-on to the Faith, but part of its very essence. Mary takes care of us like any mother does. She has held back hostile armies, cured the sick, or perhaps just found us work. There is no apostolic Christianity where Mary is not present, no ancient Church where prayers to her are not said. A dream of Christianity sans Mary is like a dream of Christianity without the Cross. For without her, there would have been no Body to be offered on it for the life of the world.
The Catholic faithful have known for two millennia the deep significance of the gift of Mary’s motherhood. We have come to know that being a Christian does indeed entail a “personal commitment,” but that commitment always takes place in a continuum of history and within a language of devotion. Being a Christian means being part of a family; it means being taken into a way of life that has been going on for centuries. To use another Augustinian axiom: Unus christianus, nullus christianus (one Christian is no Christian). No greater sign exists of this than Mary herself, the most important member of God’s own family and the icon of the Church Universal.
Are there questionable attitudes in traditionally Catholic societies that border on syncretism? I would say yes, but devotion to Mary is not one of them. In my own studies of popular belief in Mexico, one finds devotional cults to Pancho Villa, the Grim Reaper, and even to heads of garlic. Many of these religious phenomena lead to all sorts of un-Christian behavior. But even in the midst of the extravagancies of “folk Catholicism,” devotion to Mary everywhere brings tenderness, meekness, and the closest thing to real religious fervor that many people will have. For if you know you have a Mother in Heaven watching you, wouldn’t you try to behave better? Indeed, more love for Christ’s mother seems only ever a good thing. And to all those who think it distracts too much from the devotion that we should have to her Son: I am sure He doesn’t really mind.
So can we have too much Mary? I will stick to what I know, and that is another old Latin axiom: De Maria numquam satis. Of Mary, there is never enough.