The Virgin Mary, Faith in Christ, and Ecumenism

The month of May is sometimes called the month dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. When I was a kid, that was certainly the case, and the highlight of the month in my parish was the Marian procession, with all the altar boys, first communicants and high school graduates dressed in their vestments and graduation regalia, from the school to the church, then the recitation of the rosary and Benediction.

But really the 30 days that are most devoted to the Mother of God, liturgically, happens to be from 15th of August to the 15th of September. During that “month” there are five liturgical celebrations dedicated to Mary, the most important being the Solemnity of the Assumption on August 15th, followed a week later by the Queenship of Mary. Then on September 8th we celebrate her nativity, on the 12th of September her holy name, and finally finishing with our Lady of Sorrows on the 15th. What a month for the devotees of our Blessed Mother.

And all of this celebration is not mere sentimentality or pure devotion. Mary’s role in the redemption of the human race and her role in the Church is very much doctrinally grounded, and very much connected with all the Christological doctrines. The early Church already understood her to be the Pillar of Orthodoxy, and this could not have been clearer at the Council of Ephesus, where she was proclaimed the Mother of God. She could not have truly been the Mother of God, or course, unless her Son was in fact the Son of God as well as her Son. There is simply no way of ultimately defending Christological orthodoxy without Mariological orthodoxy.

I mean, think about it. What importance would Mary have in any way for us today were not she truly the mother of this divine person whom we worship as our God made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Everything about Mary speaks to us about Jesus. As the Church Fathers teach us, it was one single decree of predestination that linked Mary and Jesus in the divine plan forever. He is the new Adam only because his mother is the new Eve. That was a favorite theme of their teaching, and it is still most enlightening for us today.

When Catholics honor Mary as their mother, they are but fulfilling the commandment that Jesus gave from the cross to John the apostle who at that moment represented us all, just as Mary represented the whole Church at the foot of the cross. God wanted us to have a mother in the order of grace just as we have a mother in the order of nature, and Mary is that mother. So our devotion to Mary is not mere devotional sentimentality, but a deep devotion based on the truth of who she is and what her great role is in God’s plan of salvation.

It has often struck me that the collapse of mainline Protestantism was inevitable once they abandoned an authentic devotion to Mary. Her role in the life of the Church is not arbitrary, and devotion to her is really not optional for maintaining orthodox faith. She is indeed that Pillar of Orthodoxy, and unless she remains in the hearts and on the lips of the faithful, sooner or later they cease to be faithful. And that seems to me to be what has happened in the past few centuries. The forgetfulness toward Mary among so many Protestants gradually led to the lessening of Christ; not at first, but over time. Devotion to Mary was an integral part of Christian culture in all the countries of Europe that became Protestant. Unfortunately, in becoming estranged from the Petrine Church of Rome, these Reformation groups became estranged from the Mother of God. It took time, but gradually faith in the Christological doctrines themselves began to wane, and today those mainline churches seem to be in terminal decline.

In recent times, I have become more and more convinced that the ecumenical dialogues with the mainline Protestant partners has become less and less productive of positive results. Some ecumenists act like the Declaration on Justification with the Lutherans, an agreement that curiously was signed without addressing some quite  serious problems raised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has now supposedly settled all the really divisive issues for unity. That’s nonsense, and it may be the worst example of wishful thinking in Church history. There are still these other little problems, you see, like the true doctrine of the Eucharist, the existence of the other sacraments, except for Baptism, the papal primacy and the doctrine of infallibility, homosexual marriage, and so on. And of course there are the widening, rather than narrowing, of teachings on moral doctrines, unless one thinks true unity can exist among churches maintaining contradictory ways of Christian life!

So while ecumenism should obviously continue, and it will, perhaps it should be mainly in terms of common, non-liturgical, prayer meetings and common works of charity and other forms of such cooperation. Personally, I would also suggest ecumenical book study groups examining things like the Marion devotions common to all Christians prior to the Reformation. These might begin by studying of the master work of Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, which gives a magnificent account of Marian devotion in the British villages and towns in the Middle Ages right up to and, in some places, beyond the break with Rome.

From these studies, perhaps both Catholics and Protestants could learn the way Mary is intimately related to our desire for greater unity among Christians, all of whom are her children, whether they are aware of it or not. Mothers are always the principle of order among their children. When her children get out of hand, the good mother knows how to straighten things out. I tend to think the same way about Mary, that only she will be able, in her motherly way, to help us overcome the divisions between Christians today. She was there at the beginning, after all, and even the Apostles learned things from her about Jesus that they would never had known without His mother.

 

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