A modern approach to Mary

Scripture November 2013 Kieran Fenn fms Pope Paul VI’s 1974 encyclical on devotion to Mary (Marialis Cultus) made significant changes in the way the church honours Mary. Some Marian feast…

A modern approach to Mary Archdiocese of Wellington

Kieran Fenn fms


November 2013

Kieran Fenn fms

Pope Paul VI’s 1974 encyclical on devotion to Mary (Marialis Cultus) made significant changes in the way the church honours Mary. Some Marian feast days, particularly those with doubtful historical basis, have been trimmed; others such as Mary Mother of God on 1 January, have taken on greater significance.

In the past when the congregation felt excluded from worship because of language and a liturgy that was more the work of the priest than the people, devotions such as rosaries and novenas filled a spiritual gap.

Today such practices are to be left outside the central act of the Eucharist. These practices from the past create the danger that the Lord’s Memorial Rite, instead of being the culmination of the meeting of the Christian community, becomes the occasion, as it were, for devotional practices (MC#31).

It is a mistake to recite the Rosary during the celebration of the liturgy, though unfortunately this practice still persists (#48).

Many devotions have been in decline over the last 45 years. Marian theology has been enriched, but the depletion of devotion has had the most impact on Catholic consciousness and sensitivities. Devotions have always been a matter of personal preference, while Eucharist is communal. Marian devotions have filled a role that liturgy should have played in people’s lives.

Mary and devotions

Litanies, rosaries, novenas and prayers to obtain favours, characterised Marian piety. These are good in themselves, but they risk promoting superstition and making Mary a grace dispenser rather than a total person.
Devotion to Mary goes beyond simply asking for heavenly favours.

Pope John Paul II, in his address of 29 October 1997, warned that true devotion to Mary consists neither of fruitless and passing emotion, nor in a certain vain credulity. Rather it proceeds from true faith by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God and are moved to a filial love toward our mother and to the imitation of her virtues (from Lumen Gentium #67).

To discourage idle speculation about stories of apparitions, common in recent years, Pope John Paul said sentimentalism and believing everything, ‘are obstacles to authentic Marian devotion’. The true test of devotion to Mary lies in imitation of her virtues.

Genuine Mariology is a matter for both head and heart. There is no room for a piety that neglects study or a study that neglects piety. In the Eastern world, one was not a theologian unless one was first a mystic. The great Benedictine ideal is the love of learning and the desire for God; this produced some of the greatest saints and devotees of Mary.

When we read through a series such as this, both head and heart are engaged. I hope we can learn to value and understand Mary more and seek sources to enrich our love for her. We seek to know what might be the current thinking and writing in the church on Mary. We cannot know a person until we know about that person.

Mary and anthropology

Often in life we find ourselves challenged by the experience of another culture. When reading the Bible, we need to be aware that it came from a culture vastly different from our own – that of the Mediterranean of the early first millennium. It is tempting to read the Bible through the eyes of our own cultures, and miss some of the more significant cultural elements of the time of Jesus and Mary.

The Philippines brought home to me the challenge the Gospel is to culture. My first experience of the Feast of the Santa Nino was standing between two street children at Mass. I could not help but compare the state of these children with that of the richly clad child of the devotion.

One can honour some cultures for their deep devotion to the Madonna and child, but the poverty of the children of the country must tear at the heart of our good Mother Mary.

When apparitions of Mary speak of the pain of such children, living in the misery of such places as the Payatas rubbish dump of Manila, then mobilise the whole church to action, we may well hear of a mother within the church, not above or outside it. The Mary of the future may well take on a prophetic role within culture.

Mary and social justice

Women have shared the experience of being among the most economically oppressed; Mary is a symbol of the work for social justice, especially through her powerful song of social protest, the ‘Magnificat’.

The Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), meeting at Puebla Mexico in 1979, deemed the Magnificat a call for action on behalf of marginalised and exploited people and warned that ‘It is a betrayal to interpret this prayer (only) at a spiritual level.’

The prophet of the poor, Mary represents their hope as a woman who has suffered and been proved  right – Mary of Guadalupe, for example.

Further cultural questions arise from the recognition of the humanity and Jewishness of Jesus and Mary. Did the Christian neglect of the essential Jewishness of Jesus and Mary contribute to the death of six million Jews in Nazi Germany, a predominantly Catholic and Lutheran country? Geza Vermes in Jesus the Jew (1973) was the first to seriously tackle such a presentation. How do we react to that beautiful Maori Madonna? Why did Catholics in the Philippines have such difficulty in accepting Mary portrayed as a Filipina? As a Jewish woman, she would have more closely resembled one of them than the white European images.

Bishop Yap’s insistence in 1954 on a change in depiction produced the beautiful picture of Our Lady of the Barangay. Does the portrayal in art of a European Madonna link to such cultural values as beauty and power – Mary as the most beautiful and powerful of women? Are these values that Mary herself would want ascribed to her? Are they the qualities we find for her in the Gospels?

The most holy comes down from her pedestal, dons simple clothes, and, as one of them, empowers the poor. It was her picture and statue that stood with the people of the Philippines through two bloodless ‘people power’ revolutions that overthrew the corrupt leadership of Marcos and Estrada. Faith in Mary gave a nation the strength to resist oppression and bring liberation. This is the Mary our times need, the Mary of the Magnificat.

Devotion to the Blessed Virgin must also pay close attention to certain findings of the human sciences… The picture of the Blessed Virgin presented in a certain type of devotional literature cannot easily be reconciled with today’s lifestyle, especially with the way women live today (MC#34).