Devotion to Mary flourished in Middle Ages, continues today
By Father Paul Turner
Special to The Catholic Key
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on Mary.
Throughout the remainder of church history, devotions to Mary underwent a similar progression. By the second century, Mary's image appeared in the catacombs as a subject of early Christian art. In baptismal creeds new disciples were asked, "Do you believe in Jesus who was born of the Holy Spirit and of the virgin Mary?" By the 4th century her name appeared in a Eucharistic prayer, and Ambrose extolled her in a series of writings as the model of Christian virginity.
At the Council of Ephesus (431), the church acknowledged Mary as "Mother of God," a title that provoked no small debate. How could God have a mother and still be God? Her title reflects the dual nature of Jesus - fully divine and fully human. She is the human mother of the human Jesus, who was also the divine Son of God. Her title, "Mother of God," confessed beliefs about Jesus and his mother. This important title inspired the rebuilding of St. Mary Major Church in Rome, a basilica dedicated to Mary under this new title, which is inscribed in bronze on its front doors.
Before long the liturgy of the church began to celebrate events in Mary's life. By the 6th century in some parts of the Christian world the birth of Mary was celebrated on Sept. 8 and the annunciation on March 25. By the 7th century there is evidence for the assumption on Aug. 15. The conception of Mary and the presentation in the temple were celebrated by the 8th century. So the early devotional practices to Mary were rooted exclusively in the public worship of the church. They used the Scriptures as their primary source, though they filled in a few other key events (her conception, birth and end of life) not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but logically a part of Mary's story.
In the Middle Ages, devotion to Mary took a more pietistic turn. Relics allegedly associated with Mary's life turned up around the Christian world. Because of the belief in the assumption of Mary, no relics of her bones were taken seriously. But several churches claimed to have samples of her milk and her hair, her garments, comb, wedding ring, and portraits of her painted by St. Luke. None of these could possibly be verified today, but belief in them was so strong in the Middle Ages that entire churches were constructed to enshrine items regarded as precious relics.
During this period several devotional prayers arose. The Hail Mary, the rosary, the angelus and the Litany of Loreto all gained popularity.
During the Protestant Reformation, these devotions were criticized. Protestants questioned the practice of calling on the saints in prayer to intercede. They believed these habits obscured the unique role of Christ, the one mediator. Catholics maintained a strong belief in a lively communion of saints, and devotional practices to Mary and the saints continued to proliferate.
By the 19th century, perhaps in sincerity, perhaps as consolation amid the disquieting scientific observations of the Enlightenment, pilgrimages to Marian shrines increased. The Catholic Church has acknowledged the appearances of Mary at places like Tepeyac in Mexico, Lourdes and LaSalette in France, and Knock in Ireland. In the 20th century pilgrimages to Fatima flourished after children testified to visions of Mary there. Prayers pertaining to Our Lady of Fatima, whose feast is May 13, turned May into a month of Marian devotions, like October.
Others have claimed to see visions of Mary, but the church has exercised caution with private revelations and has even forbidden public devotions at certain shrines, like those in Necedah, Wisconsin, and in Bayside, New York.
The Second Vatican Council
As part of the renewal of the church, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) examined Marian devotions and reconnected them to the Scriptures, the sacraments and the church.
Significantly, the council did not compose a separate document about Mary, but included her within the context of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium. Contrary to the expectations of those awaiting a document that slalomed down the mountainous hierarchy of the church, Lumen gentium opened with a chapter on the mystery of the church and then plunged into a description of the entire people of God. Only in that context did the council describe the hierarchy, noting its place within the entire people. Chapters on the laity, the call to holiness, religious, and the pilgrim church followed. Then, at the very end, in chapter 8, the council concluded its document on the church with its tribute to Our Lady. The Catechism of the Catholic Church relies heavily on this chapter for its presentation of Mary (964-975).
Chapter 8 of Lumen gentium is rooted in the Bible. It describes Mary's role in the plan of salvation, revealed in the New Testament and foreshadowed in the Old. Only then does the constitution look at Mary's relationship to the church today and the devotional practices that believers so highly prize. She exemplifies the church the constitution describes.
Lumen gentium concludes by requesting Mary's intercession "until all families of people, whether they are honored with the title of Christian or whether they still do not know the Savior, may be happily gathered together in peace and harmony into one People of God, for the glory of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity."
Mary for a new millennium
The new millennium has begun with threats that terrorize the world. The United States refuses to characterize the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath as a battle between the Christian and Muslim religions, but these events show the high cost paid when people of different nations and beliefs live in isolation, greed and envy, rather than the altruism that seeks a common good at personal sacrifice.
In 1571, Christians interpreted their bloody victory over Muslim forces as proof that Mary had intervened. Today Christians seek other models for recognizing Mary as Queen of Victory.
In the Scriptures, she is a complex person: quiet in the events leading up to the birth of Christ, yet active in her questioning; accepting of her role in salvation history, yet aware that God had put down the mighty and lifted the lowly; concerned about the image of Jesus during his ministry, yet prodding him to turn water into wine; called full of grace and blessed among women as an individual, yet entrusted with the care of the church at the cross. In the Bible, Mary chose the path of nonviolent evangelization, even as she shouldered the hard work of prayer and service.
Devotions to Mary are essential to Catholic piety. To outsiders, Catholics observing these practices sometimes appear martial, superstitious and blind to the advances of scientific inquiry. To Catholics, devotion to Mary derives from our belief in the communion of the saints, and it recognizes most profoundly Mary's special role as Mother of God, mother of the church and model of the Christian life.
Healthy devotions affirm the kind of person Mary is in the Bible, a symbol of God's justice, a woman devoted to her vocation, a woman of prayer, yet a woman of unparalleled service as mother and disciple. Devotions work best when they are balanced between prayer and service. Those who pray without serving and those who serve without praying have missed the path of discipleship.
Good devotions are rooted in the Bible, supported by the liturgy and oriented to service. Then they will truly honor the mother of divine grace, the mother of chaste love, the mother of good counsel, the virgin most wise, the virgin most powerful, the virgin gentle in mercy, the mirror of justice, the throne of wisdom, the cause of our joy, the glory of Israel, the vessel of selfless devotion, the gate of heaven, the morning star, the health of the sick, the refuge of sinners, the comfort of the troubled, the help of Christians, the queen of the angels, the queen of patriarchs and prophets, the queen of apostles and martyrs, the queen of confessors and virgins, the queen of the rosary and the queen of peace. Her name is Mary.
For additional reading, see Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, 1964; "Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers" (Washington: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988); Michael Walsh, Dictionary of Catholic Devotions (New York: HarperCollins, 1993); "Mary, Blessed Virgin, I (In the Bible)" and "Mary, Blessed Virgin, Devotion to," New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition (Washington: Thompson-Gale, 2002). And, of course, the Bible.