At the time of the Reformation Catholics and Protestants argued about the place of Mary in the Church. The Protestants argued that Catholics treated Mary as another God, and that devotion to Mary was not found in Scripture. Mary continued to have a central place in Catholic devotion.
In today’s more peaceful relationships between Catholics and Protestants both sides generally agree about the significant things that the Scriptures do say about Mary. They are summarised in a hymn in which the first line of each verse read ‘There is nothing told about this woman, except that she….’ The verses go on to say that an angel had called her blessed, that she had given birth to Jesus, that she searched for three days for Jesus after leaving Jerusalem, that she was there when Jesus turned water into wine, that she stood by the cross while Jesus was dying there, and that she was praying with the disciples when the Holy Spirit came on them.
The bare bones of these stories amount to a great deal. Central to them is that Mary gave birth to Jesus, through whom God joined our world. Her part in Jesus’ story makes her blessed. In Luke’s Gospel she is also described as the perfect disciple of Jesus. When the angel invites her to give birth to Jesus, she answers with a simple yes. At Cana she tells the caterers to listen to what Jesus tells them. She stays with Jesus in his suffering and her bewilderment, and she waits patiently for God’s life to come in the midst of death.
In the early Church Jesus was the centre of attention, but Christians also became interested in Mary. Her place in the Gospel was highlighted when deeper questions were asked about Jesus’ relationship to God and to human beings.
After much heated debate the Church insisted that Jesus is really God and really human. If Jesus is the Son of God, it follows that Mary must be called the Mother of God in giving birth to Jesus. That she was a virgin when she conceived Jesus was seen as a symbol of Jesus’ divine origin. That she carried Jesus in her womb was a symbol of his human origin.
This focus on Mary as the Mother of God encouraged people to pray to her and to imagine her life before the Gospels. Painters represented her at the blessed end of her life; as she stood by Jesus’ cross; with the newly born Jesus and the shepherds in the stable; and as surprised by the angel when asked to give birth to Jesus. Through such paintings and prayers Mary took hold of Christians’ imagination. They could explore her joy in giving birth, her motherhood, her wonder at God’s presence with the angel and her grief at seeing Jesus’ savage death. By entering Mary’s experience they could also find God present in their own joys and sufferings.
Catholic thinkers also reflected on Mary’s beginnings and her end. They argued that if God’s joining us in Jesus was dependent on Mary’s decision, she must have been completely free in her decision from the sinfulness and moral confusion that clouds our hearts and minds. This belief was later enshrined in the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Catholics also reflected on the end of Mary’s life on earth. They argued that as the Mother of God she must now enjoy the risen bodily life with Jesus that awaits all the faithful when Jesus comes again. This belief was embodied in the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into heaven.
Mary in Christian life
Although Mary’s place in the thinking and life of Catholics has been explored, defended and defined by Councils, Popes and preachers, it has been shaped by the devotion of ordinary Catholics. This devotion in turn has prompted further reflection. It has taken many forms. In Australia today many people pray the Rosary and wear scapulars.
In relating to Mary, Catholics focus on different stories in the Gospels – the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel, the Visitation to Elizabeth and particularly her presence by the cross. Ancient and contemporary artists have left us wonderful images to illustrate these stories.
Mary plays different parts in Catholics’ devotion to Mary. She is most often seen as our mother. Mary’s part as mother of Christ, and so as mother of Christ’s body, the Church, flows into personal devotion to Mary as our mother who offers sympathy, a love that survives whatever shipwreck we have made of our lives.
People also relate to Mary as the person who most closely followed Jesus’ example and lived a life totally devoted to doing God’s will. Mary’s total freedom and her virginity in giving birth to Jesus has also made Mary a model of chastity for many people: she understands the complexities of sexuality and married life while living faithfully her own calling. Both her motherhood and her womanhood are reflected in more recent statues that represent a visibly pregnant Mary instead of portraying her as a prepubescent girl.
These statues echo the contemporary discomfort with a church all of whose authorities and leaders are male. Mary is seen as a strong woman, as someone who hungers passionately for justice in the world, when the small people will be raised up and the powerful thrown down. She is the Help of Christians in our worldly struggle for justice as well as in our inner life.
Appearances of Mary
Some devotion to Mary centres on her claimed appearances to Christians. Through history there have been many such claims, often in disturbed periods for society or church. As a rule church authorities initially respond with scepticism, and test the character of the people to whom Mary appears and the message attributed to her before approving public devotion. The devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, to our Lady of Fatima and to our Lady of Guadeloupe are three of the best known and loved in our own day.
Catholics are not obliged to accept the reality of these appearances or to practice the devotions associated with them. The test of their helpfulness is whether the conversation and the actions that they promote reflect the Jesus of the Gospels, and so God’s face. This is certainly the case at Lourdes, where many sick people come, often attended by young people who help them to bathe. It represents a God who wants to heal us and to attend to each other’s wounds.
Where the stories of Mary's appearances emphasise the threat of punishment and of world catastrophe, they may encourage an anxiety that takes attention away from trust in the God who loves us and has triumphed over evil.
Praying to Mary
In Catholic life, too, devotion to Mary takes many forms. Central to all of them is speaking to her in prayer. This conversation can take as many forms as do our other conversations: wondering, praising, making requests, chatting or complaining, for example.
Some Christians find praying to Mary difficult, either because they believe we should pray only to God, or because they think that when we pray we are speaking only to ourselves.
Prayer to Mary has its roots in God’s joining us in Jesus. In becoming human, God wants to engage with us in human ways. God wants to be present in our imagination as well as in our mind, wants us to respond bodily as well as spiritually, and to be included in our conversations with others as well as in our direct prayers to him.
This can happen because God is found everywhere in our world, and because all things point to God. God’s presence is like the sun at sunset. We cannot see it but its light shines on the clouds and lights up our world. In the same way, we cannot see or comprehend God, but God’s light shines on all the people, things and encounters in our world so that we meet and respond to God in the people and events of our world and also in our own inner conversation. Indeed we can know God and hear God’s word to us only through created things, including our thoughts and images, and above all through Jesus’ life and teaching which test all our other thoughts about God.
So our prayer – the inner reflections and musings and conversations, as well as those which we speak aloud, – is where we are in contact with the God who lies over the horizon. Our prayer is a human activity, an inner conversation, but it is also illuminated by God’s light. We find God’s invitation there and when we respond God’s spirit prays within us.
So whether we pray directly to God as our Father, to Jesus, to Mary, to canonised saints or to our own personal saints, all our prayers and conversations – what we say and what we hear said back to us – are places that are illuminated by God’s presence. In prayer we always speak within ourselves, but not just to ourselves.
Many prayers to Mary draw on the words of Scripture. Some people prefer to use set forms of prayer like the Hail Mary. But for most Catholics prayer is also often colloquial. They talk to Mary as a companion who understands the challenges of living in a family, of being perpetually busy, of relating to difficult people, of coping with God’s silence, of keeping up a strong front to encourage others who depend on us while feeling desperate ourselves.
Some people imagine Mary as older than themselves, as a mother. Others imagine Mary as a woman of their own age, or of the age they imagine themselves to be when they pray – sometimes considerably younger than their real age. For some the conversation is solemn and the language is formal and respectful. For others Mary is a thoroughly modern young woman whose wisdom is wry and conveyed through irony as well as through exhortation.
Whether our prayer to Mary is solemn or playful, its point is to lead us to the God who lies beyond the horizon and whose face is reflected most truly in Jesus. Catholics are sometimes accused of making Mary into a substitute for God or into a person who can twist a hard-nosed God’s arm. Certainly we can all be guilty of that from time to time. But devotion to Mary commonly focuses people on God’s love, and in praying to Mary we deepen our relationship with God. Through Mary we allow God into our anxieties and neuroses and find a space where we find God.
At the heart of the Gospel stories of Mary is joy at the promise of a birth that will make all the difference in the world to our lives. That joy was tested during Jesus’ journey with us and particularly in the brutal ending that seemed to snuff out all the promise. But Mary hung in with Jesus and her agony at his dying was transformed into joy at his rising. Mary encourages us to live out of hope and joy even in the many dyings of our lives.
View the reflection questions and activities for 'Explorations: The place of Mary in the Church’ here