By Father Joseph DeFrancisco
The Catholic faith community has traditionally observed the month of May as one of thanksgiving, devotion, admiration and celebration of Mary, mother of God, named at the Council of Ephesus, Theotokos. Growing up Catholic I remember hearing my mother give her annual mandate on April 30 that beginning May 1 we would pray the rosary every evening after supper, “for the conversion of Russia.”
In my Italian-Catholic world Mary was considered the fourth person of the Blessed Trinity. Were my parents devoted to Mary? No. They “worshipped Mary.” She was the first “divine” person we turned to for anything. The only person in the celestial kingdom who really had the power to answer prayers was Mary. This bias toward Mary, mother-goddess, was a huge challenge to me throughout my theological studies.
A respected theologian, Mary Aquin O’Neil, in an article published several years ago wrote, “There is no question that the Marian theological tradition needs critical examination. What needs to be developed is this: in the figure of Mary, Christians are given the redeeming image of God in female being, an image that is salvific for both men and women.” Before, during and after Vatican Council II there were theologians and ecclesiastics who seriously considered publishing a document claiming Mary to be “Co-Redemptrix.”
The very thought of creating a new doctrine caused opposition on all sides. The council Fathers decided to immediately take up the question of Mary’s role by including her in the very first document passed, the Document on the Sacred Liturgy, encouraging all Catholics to venerate Mary within the several Marian liturgical celebrations throughout the sanctoral cycle. This did not satisfy those who believed that Mary had a critical role to play in the history of salvation and it was then taken to new heights.
Mary would be added in a significant way to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. According to council historians, the vote on this document was the closest of any presented at the council. Ultimately, the council Fathers declared unequivocally that by Divine Predestination, Mary is to be wedded to the mystery of God’s Incarnation, the Mystery of The Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, and the Mystery of Redemption.
Having read through this Dogmatic Constitution once again I believe theologians have still not addressed the concerns of many theologians calling for a re-examination of Marian theology.
In the same Constitution on the Church, the nature, role and mission of Mary follows upon a beautiful spiritual exhortation on our universal call to holiness. The entire Pilgrim People of God are invited to participate in the whole and universal Church under the power of the Holy Spirit. Is there any human being who has modeled this intimate union with the Holy Spirit more perfectly than Mary?
The power and enduring value of Mary’s model and presence in the Church is her contemplative silence in the presence of the mystery of the Holy Spirit guiding her in an often tumultuous faith-journey in bearing the gift of God’s Son in the world, seeing him through peril and danger, watching painfully those who rejected and belittled his mission and ministry. Finally, she silently suffered at the foot of the cross, witnessing the gross injustice and evil of humankind. Would it have been more efficacious for the Church if she wrote her own Gospel, her life memoirs, her autobiography?
I believe the power of her life and message comes from her contemplative silence, which spoke very powerfully in allowing the Holy Spirit to orchestrate the work of sanctification in the Church. Through Mary’s constant presence and example, along with the Apostles and the holy women who supported Jesus, the Holy Spirit was able to blossom the Church into existence and slowly evangelize the world. I can pinpoint the moments in history where the Church has faltered, has undergone corruption and stagnation, all because something other than the Holy Spirit was empowering the Church.
It is my conviction that the future of the Church, in desperate need of healing, reconciliation and renewal, needs to resurrect Mary’s womanhood and motherhood as an appropriate theological symbol and image of our humanity wedded to the power of the feminine Haggia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, gracing us with the possibility of transcending our human limitations and need to be in control.
Simply meditating on the New Testament Scriptures, one could conclude that Mary was from the time of Pentecost a true “charismatic.” Her graces of woman, mother, Mother-of-God and disciple all stem from her consistent choice of allowing the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit to guide and grace her life. This is the preeminent model that our Church desperately needs at a time of crisis.
I conclude my reflections with quotes from the works of St. Ambrose, frequently cited in the section of the Role of Mary in the Church: “Our Mother of God is a prototype of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union to Christ. Through her faith and obedience she gave birth to the very son of the Father … The Church, in contemplating her hidden sanctification, imitating her charity, and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will, by receiving the Word of God in faith, now herself becomes a Mother.” (St. Ambrose, Expos.LC.X)
(Fr. DeFrancisco is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)