17 May 2018
A new feast to honor Mary as Mother of the Church will be observed the Monday after Pentecost. Marian devotion is widespread among Christians around the world. Here, an altar server prepares for the liturgy near a statue of Mary in a Syriac Catholic church in Stockholm, Sweden. (photo: Magnus Aronson)
On 8 March this year Pope Francis initiated a new feast to honor the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. The feast — which will be observed on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday — will honor Mary as Mother of the Church. Monday 21 May 2018 will be the first observance of this feast in the Catholic Church.
The number of titles given to Mary in the Roman Catholic Church almost goes beyond counting. Some, like Mother of God (Greek: theotokos) are extremely ancient, while others like Mother of the Church seem more recent. In a sense,”Mary, Mother of the Church” is a title both ancient and recent.
Looking back, we find that mention of ”Mary, Mother of the Church” is rare in Catholic history. In 1895, Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical ”Adjutricem populi” (“Helper of the People”) referred to Mary as “Mother of the Church and Queen of the Apostles.” But we rarely hear mention of that title again until the Second Vatican Council.
There, it appears in the Vatican II document ”Lumen Gentium” (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 21 November 1964). After dealing with the church from almost every aspect, the bishops at the Council decided to add a chapter (VIII) on “Our Lady.” Although the Council does not give him credit, the German theologian Hugo Rahner in 1944 showed that Ambrose (ca. 340-397), bishop of Milan and a Church Father, saw in Mary a type/image of the church. The Council refers to Ambrose and this teaching and develops it.
The title ”Mary, Mother of the Church,” as understood by Vatican II, is extremely important. The church at the same Council committed itself, among other things, to ecumenism — to the work of restoring unity to Christians. The Council was aware that there have been and continue to be different attitudes towards Mary among Christians. Protestant Christians have sometimes disapproved of Marian devotion, seeing it as taking away from the unique role of Christ. Some have even seen the devotion as idolatrous.
Vatican II was aware not only of the deep importance of devotion to Mary, but also aware of some of the excesses that had grown up over the centuries. The Council “strongly urges theologians and preachers … to be careful to refrain as much from all false exaggeration as from too summary an attitude in considering the special dignity of the Mother of God” (LG par. 67). It reminds the faithful “that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith.” (ibid.)
This title recognizes that faith, and recognizes Mary as the mother of all Christians. Her maternal embrace enfolds all under mantel. Modern popes have used the term repeatedly; since 1964, the title ”Mary, Mother of the Church” has been used by every pope since Pope John XXIII.
But it wasn’t until now, with this new feast, that Pope Francis has given it expression in the devotional life of the church.
Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox Christians — people with whom CNEWA works closely — have a great devotion to Mary. However, it is a devotion that is different — though no less intense — from that of Roman Catholics. We’ll explore more of that in the coming weeks.
It would be easy to believe that Pope Francis has just added another Marian feast to a liturgical calendar that is perhaps already overburdened with such feasts (a cursory reading of the liturgical calendar shows 15 Marian feasts a year). However, that is not the case. In fact, by instituting this feast, Pope Francis has countered a certain centrifugal force in Catholic Marian devotion. This centrifugal force can unmoor Mary from Christ, placing emphasis on specific geographical locations, acculturations, etc., which have at times occurred. ”Mary, Mother of the Church” focuses attention on Mary and her role within the church (very similar to the theology of Ambrose) and links her closely — indeed, inseparably — to Christ.
In the next two weeks we will look at how two ancient traditions — Catholic in the west and Orthodox in the east — revere and honor Mary, Mother of the Lord and Mother of the Church. Each tradition can enrich and also act as a corrective to the veneration of Mary among Christians.
Tags: Catholic Mary