By Corrine Winter
The day after this edition of the Messenger is published we begin the month of May, a month traditionally associated with devotion to Mary, with May processions and crownings, with living rosaries and home “altars” holding statues and bouquets. It is a month during which we often hear the question from several perspectives: “What is the state of Marian devotion in the church today? What does the church say about Mary?”
Any response to those questions must take into account the diversity found within the church today. A legitimate and, indeed, inspiring diversity exists within the principle that Christ is the one mediator of salvation and Mary should to be honored in light of her relationship with him.
In the prayers of the liturgy and in the cycle of feasts and commemorations we find Mary presented in proper relationship with Christ and with the church. Mary is mentioned within the Eucharistic prayer and remembered in special ways on the Solemnities of the Immaculate Conception, the Divine Motherhood, the Annunciation and the Assumption as well as a number of lesser feasts and commemorations. During Advent and Christmas, she appears frequently in the readings in her role as the Mother of Jesus.
Within Catholicism, we find diversity even within the liturgy. For example, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, used by Byzantine Catholics, includes a short prayer before the Marian Icon as well as other commemorations in the Eucharistic celebration. Moreover, the Roman Missal allows for local celebrations of chosen feasts that have special meaning for people of the area as long as they are not chosen over major feasts of the whole church such as those of Holy Week.
Catholic tradition also includes a wide variety of prayer and spiritual practices that can support a spirituality grounded in the liturgy and especially in the Eucharist. There are Franciscan, Benedictine, Ignatian and many other approaches to meditative and contemplative prayer. There are silent retreats, preached retreats and retreats that emphasize shared reflection and prayer among participants. One can find books of Catholic litanies and devotional prayers that would take hours to read through. The richness of this tradition provides for individual Catholics to find ways of prayer that support their personal relationship with God and with the church. When it comes to Mary, we find in the tradition many titles, many images, many different kinds of prayer including the Hail Mary, the Memorare and a number of litanies to name a few.
In thinking about Marian devotion beyond the liturgy, we need to bear in mind that they are a matter of choice and do not define a person’s status as a “good” Catholic. One active and devoted Catholic may recite the rosary daily while another may pray it very seldom or not at all. One may have a special devotion to Mary under one of her titles such as Immaculate Heart, Our Lady of Fatima or Mother of the Americas. Another may know little about those titles. One may make a pilgrimage to one of the sites of Mary’s apparitions; to Lourdes, Guadalupe or many others. Another may pay no attention to those accounts. Some are not aware that the Catholic Church does not require a Catholic to believe in private revelations. Therefore, one may even consider the apparition accounts and associated devotions unimportant to one’s faith and prayer and still be a strong Catholic.
At the same time, one who finds great inspiration in a devotion to Mary, in an account of her apparitions, or in a feast such as Our Lady of Czestochowa that is celebrated only in certain locations ought not be considered on that account to be old school in her or his thinking as long as the devotion does not detract from participation in the liturgy or the focus on the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. A number of cultures are marked by popular Marian devotions that are celebrated with great enthusiasm and pageantry as expressions of the people’s Catholic identity.
I would hope that as we enter into the month of May all Catholics might find opportunities to understand and appreciate perspectives on Mary that are different from our own. The role of Mary in the church ought to be a source of unity and not of argument among Catholics. But that doesn’t mean that we all have to think about it in exactly the same way.