24 May 2018
Apparitions of Mary are a relatively recent phenomenon, occurring primarily in the West, but they have served to popularize devotion to the mother of Jesus. This stained glass window at St. Mary Church in Manhasset, N.Y., depicts Mary appearing to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France, in 1858. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In continuing our reflections on Mary, Mother of the Church, a new Marian feast initiated by Pope Francis, we will be comparing how Christians in the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (primarily Byzantine Orthodox, here) churches revere Mary.
While CNEWA works closely with Eastern churches in much of the world we serve, our mission is also to help build bridges between East and West. Understanding Marian devotion can serve to add more planks to that bridge.
This week, let’s look to the West.
First, a little history: In the earliest days of Christianity, the role of Mary was primarily, if not exclusively, as the virgin mother of Jesus. She is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; never mentioned by name in John’s Gospel and never mentioned at all in the other books of the New Testament. This is not surprising since the kerygma — the Good News, the preaching and message of early Christians — was about Christ.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a Western Father of the Church, is one of the major theologians of the West in the first five centuries of Christianity. He produced a tremendous amount of letters, sermons, biblical commentaries and theological treatises. As A. D. Fitzgerald notes in “Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia,” Augustine never dedicated a separate treatise to Mary, “nor did he advocate a Marian devotion in any of his collected works.” Although Mary is the subject of intercessory prayer in Egypt as early as the second century, Augustine never addresses Mary as a subject of intercessory prayer.
Indeed, in the early centuries of the Western church, Mary’s role was secondary and subordinate to that of Christ. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared that Christians could rightly call Mary theotokos, “Mother of God,” something that had been common among the Syriac-speaking Christians. However, in calling Mary theotokos, Ephesus was concerned more with saying something about Christ than about Mary. In calling Mary theotokos, ”Mother of God,” the Council was stating that in the person of Christ, humanity and divinity were so closely united that what was said of his humanity could also be said of his divinity and vice versa. Nevertheless, the title gave impetus to devotion to Mary in the church.
The Middle Ages gave rise to the troubadour tradition, which paid great and romantic honor to the “pure woman”; coupled with this was the rise of the mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, which made devotion to Mary increasingly popular. Theologians and preachers from the 12th through 14th centuries — such as Sts. Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Bonaventure, Aquinas and Duns Scotus — all wrote and preached a great deal about devotion to Mary. As a result, during this time, Mary became a very important theme in theological treatises, sermons and, significantly, art. A new “theology of Mary” — Mariology — was developed which dealt with the person, titles, privileges and reverence due the mother of Jesus.
So intense — and, at times, extreme — was the Medieval reverence for Mary that the Protestant Reformation reacted to it negatively. Devotion to Mary was judged by the reformers to be unbiblical, diminishing the centrality of Christ, and was considered by some of the reformers to be idolatrous.
At the beginning of the modern era, a new Marian phenomenon began to emerge in the West — the apparition. The mystical suddenly became visible. Mostly, but not exclusively, in Western Europe, apparitions of Mary began to be reported. We find apparitions at Guadalupe (Mexico 1531), LaSallette (France 1846), Lourdes (France 1858), Knock (Ireland 1879), and Fatima (Portugal 1917), which gave rise to intense and widespread devotion to Mary. With most of these apparitions, the center of attention situated Mary in a particular geographic and cultural context.
As we noted last week, Vatican II (1962-1965) recognized the importance of reverence for Mary and also of correcting some of the exaggerations and at times abuses that had grown up around some Marian devotions. Also, by dedicating itself to ecumenism (i.e., the work for Christian unity), the Catholic Church took seriously some of the criticisms of the Reformation.
In our own day, the church thus situates reverence for Mary in the context of the saving work of God in Christ, which is always at the center of Christian faith and life. Recognizing the importance of local pilgrimage sites, the church underlines that Mary is the Mother — not just of a particular geographic locale or culture — of the entire church.
Pope Francis’ recent institution of a new Marian feast — Mary, Mother of the Church, observed the Monday after Pentecost (21 May this year) — is the fruit of the work of Vatican II, finally giving liturgical expression to an idea as old as Ambrose but as modern as Paul VI.
Next week, we will look at how devotion to Mary evolved in the traditions of Orthodoxy.
Hailing Mary, Part 1 — Mary, Mother of the Church
Tags: Catholic Church history Mary