(This is a reflection I wrote as a make-up assignment for Mariology class we had for deacon formation.)
I have ongoing discussions with my father concerning the Blessed Mother. The discussion (or sometimes, the argument) is due to the emphasis many people place on rosaries and other Marian devotions to the exclusion of other types of traditional Catholic devotion and liturgy, such as Liturgy of the Hours. He seems to take delight in probing me about various devotions, titles used for the Blessed Mother, and various statements made by theologians and churchmen of the past. While I sometimes find these interchanges frustrating, they’re also quite useful and instructive because many of the issue he brings up are matters that have been, at one time or another, of doctrinal import. In addition, many of the questions and concerns are the very questions that converts from Protestant or post-Protestant faiths often ask and with which they struggle most when considering conversion to the Catholic faith.
Of course, first on the list foremost is the whole issue of honoring Our Lady at all, not to mention the requests for intercession. I think a lot of Protestants, in particular, get hung up (as my father certainly does) on the language we use when we discuss things Marian. Do we pray to Mary? Yes, we do, but Catholics do not equate prayer with worship. I’ve attempted to explain the differences between latria, hyperdulia, and dulia before, but these distinctions don’t really get to the root of the issue, which is whether we treat Mary as if she were Divine. I had a discussion with a young man as I was flying to Israel. (He was on his way to Europe on a mission trip with Calvary Chapel.) I explained that we use the word “pray” in the same sense that the word was used in early modern English—to mean “entreat” or “request.” When we “pray” to Mary, we’re not worshipping her but asking for her assistance in the form of her own prayers. This point often leads to a discussion of whether prayers of saints are any more efficacious than our own, but the notion that we worship Mary is usually put to rest.
One of the points many Catholics and Protestants alike miss is the scriptural basis for so many of the Marian traditions of the Church, particularly in the Old Testament. A theme first invoked by Saints Justin and Irenaeus is that of Mary as the new Eve (in light of St. Paul’s identification of Christ as the new or Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:45). While Eve (whose name means “mother of all the living” according to Genesis 3:20) disobeys God and brings sin and death into the world, Mary’s obedience undoes the knot of original sin (original disobedience) to allow Christ to bring new life into this world. As the Mother of Jesus, she is the mother of our spiritual life, hence the true Mother of all the living. In her capacity of Mother of all living, Mary represents our Mother the Church. Giving birth to Christ, the head of the body, she mirrors and images the Church as our spiritual mother. As Hugo Rahner notes in Our Lady and the Church, the early Church Fathers saw this connection so clearly that their theology frequently makes allusions to the Church in its language about the Blessed Mother, Mary. In many instances, speaking of Mary is speaking of our Mother the Church. As Scott Hahn notes in Hail Holy Queen, even Mary’s role as Queen of Heaven finds its roots in the role of the queen mother of Ancient Israel (1 Kings 2:19). So rather than being some pagan tradition as some non-Catholics would like to paint it, the queenship of Mary comes straight out of the Davidic court.
I had another opportunity to discuss this close association in light of some controversy my father raised concerning a statement by St. Bonaventure, which called Mary the gate through which salvation comes to us. The language came from a devotional work by Bonaventure, The Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What often confuses many people is that devotional language, which is often poetic and full of symbol and allusion, is not necessarily theological. While Bonaventure meant to highlight the Blessed Mother’s role as God-bearer and co-redemptress (by virtue of her obedience to and assistance with God’s plan), the language praises Mary as one whose actions made salvation possible. Understood properly, this language is not problematic. Taken out of context without the proper theological understanding, confusion and suspicion can result.
One issue that always surprises me is when people dispute the validity of calling Mary the Mother of God. In part, I’m sure this confusion is due to the rather poor Christological understanding most Catholics and Christians have been given in the last 60 years. Despite the history of the question and the settling of the dispute at the Council of Ephesus, people still seem to think that the title Mother of God somehow puts the Blessed Mother above the Trinity. Yet, the reasonableness of this doctrine is so transparent, so simple, that it’s hard to dispute without falling into error: Jesus Christ is one person with two natures; Jesus Christ is God; Mary is the mother of the person Jesus Christ incarnate; therefore, Mary is the Mother of God. The precise theological formation that led the Church to this position (that things attributable to Jesus Christ are thus attributable to God) rarely helps, but a simple syllogism seems to work. I even heard John Martignoni use this same explanation on his radio show the other afternoon, and it seemed to be the key to helping a non-Catholic understand the teaching. I only wish all teachings of the Church were so simple to present.
With many Marian doctrines, it really helps to stress how everything accorded to Mary is done to magnify and point to Jesus Christ. Any honor given to her is given because she cooperated with God the Father to bring the Son into the world. Anytime we seek her intercession, she says, “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). As with any devotion, Marian devotion is supposed to prepare us to take a greater part in the Body of Christ, particularly through the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As paragraph 1675 of the Catechism notes, popular piety and devotions extend the liturgical life of the Church but do not replace it. In 1676, it goes on to say that such practices need to be sustained and supported pastorally, and sometimes purified and corrected to help our brothers and sisters to “advance in knowledge of the mystery of Christ.” I like how Sr. Rosalind Moss explains Mary’s role. Sr. Rosalind (a convert from Judaism via Evangelical Christianity) describes the Blessed Mother as the ultimate Jewish mother: “Come here and let me tell you about my Son.”