An ecumenical perspective on the role of Mary
In the Second Vatican Council’s revision of the liturgical calendar, the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord was renamed the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. This shift was ecumenically appropriate and emphasized Mary’s role in salvation history and Scripture as Theotokos, the God-Bearer or the Mother of God. The council participants were reacting to the many devotions that had been placed upon Mary with no direct connection to Scripture. Instead, they pictured Mary as a real human person, a poor, first-century Jewish woman living in a patriarchal society controlled by an oppressive world power, the Roman Empire.
Extolling Mary as Mother of God highlighted her role as a human mother who faced all the tribulations of motherhood: an unusual pregnancy, the entire birthing process, feeding and caring for a baby, nurturing a child both physically, mentally and emotionally, watching him search for his identity and vocation, and finally enduring his death as a common criminal. The traditional Marian devotional excesses placed little emphasis on the human Mary struggling to discern and actively cooperate with God’s will for her in the context of a patriarchal and oppressive society. It placed little or no emphasis on her prophetic call for justice for the poor and oppressed, expressed powerfully in her prayer of thanksgiving to God, her Magnificat.
The excesses placed Mary on a pedestal, far removed from the human condition and the messiness of life. She was consistently pictured as the sinless one who quietly and humbly acquiesced to God’s request to be the mother of the messiah. For her acquiescence, God blessed her with special graces and favors not granted to any human being. She was soon imaged as more than human, (“our tainted nature’s solitary boast” as recounted in William Wordsworth’s “The Virgin”) and upon her death she was exalted as Queen of Heaven. Much of the excesses had no scriptural basis and became the key reason why Protestant reformers rejected Marian devotion doctrinally because it lacked scriptural grounding. They also eliminated devotional practices, renaming churches and destroying statues, shrines and art work devoted to Mary.
As we continue to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is important to understand the current status of Mary from an ecumenical perspective. Devotion to Mary became a significant Catholic identity marker from the Post-Reformation to the Vatican II.
The chasm between Catholic and Protestant churches widen as Catholic devotion to Mary developed in ways that were problematic for Protestants. Marian devotions grew significantly with the founding of new religious orders named after Mary, the multiple worldwide apparitions of Mary in the 19th and 20th centuries such as Lourdes and Fatima, and the proclamation of two infallibly defined yet scripturally doubtful Marian dogmas, namely the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the Assumption of Mary into heaven in 1950.
During the council, a major battle ensued among its participants over the issue of Marian titles and devotion. One group insisted on heaping more honors on Mary by issuing a document solely on Mary. The other group, more attuned to the Mary of Scripture and to ecumenical relationships, desired to present Mary as a disciple, a member of the Christian community who, as one of us, models what true discipleship entails. The issue was resolved by devoting Chapter 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”) to Mary. In that she was portrayed as a Jewish peasant woman of faith who struggled to attune herself to God’s will and actively cooperate with it throughout her life.
Pope Paul VI, in 1975, issued an encyclical on Mary, Marialis Cultus (“To Honor Mary”) in light of the waning devotion to Mary. He warned against Marian devotional excesses based on outmoded ideas from the Middle Ages and the Post-Reformation. Devotion to Mary was still relevant but had to be adapted to the perspectives of the modern world. Paul VI outlined five characteristics of good Marian theology. It has to be:
Connected to the church’s liturgical life
Anthropological – attuned to the modern understanding of the human person
Theologically centered – God focused.
These guidelines attracted many Catholic and Protestant churches and theologians to re-look and re-think their understanding and relationship to Mary. Today, there is much work being done ecumenically to reinvigorate devotion to Mary in its modern world context, and to situate Mary in her scriptural role as one of us, a disciple who models ideal discipleship.
Celebration Publications January 2018