Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion
by Mark Miravalle, S.T.D.
Far from being a comprehensive treatment of mariology (the study of the theology of Mary), the goal of this work is rather to synthesize Marian doctrine and devotion so as to serve as a basic introduction for both the parish study group and the college classroom, for both the inquiring non-Catholic and the longstanding Catholic. For a more extensive work on Marian doctrine and devotion rather than this concise Marian catechism, I would recommend Mariology, the three volume American work, edited by the late Juniper Carol, O.F.M. (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1955-61), or the Irish work by Fr. Michael O'Carroll C.S.Sp., Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, (Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1983).
We find ourselves in the midst of a Marian reawakening. But any authentic devotional renewal to the Mother of Jesus must be firmly rooted in the authentic doctrine regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary. I pray that this work will in some small way help to provide the proper doctrinal and devotional foundation to what many of our contemporaries see as a climax of our presently designated "Age of Mary."
Mark Miravalle, S.TD.
The second extreme regarding the person and role of the Blessed Virgin is what we can call Marian defect. This means to minimize the role of the Blessed Virgin. What is meant by minimizing the role of Mary? This would be to ascribe to Mary the role of being only a "good disciple," a "sister in the Lord," a mere "physical channel of Jesus," but nothing beyond these.
Unfortunately it is this second extreme that is encountered more widely today. This extreme also violates the revealed truth of the role of the Blessed Virgin, for Mary is revealed, as we will to talk about, both as intercessor and as Spiritual Mother. And to deny Mary the role of Spiritual Mother is to deny that aspect so central to her own identity and to her relationship with Christ and His Body, the Church.
As we shall see, examples of Mary's role as intercessor and Spiritual Mother are clear in Scripture in such places as John 2:1 at the wedding of Cana, where Mary intercedes for the first miracle of Jesus; as well as in John 19:26, where at the foot of the Cross Mary is given the role of Spiritual Mother of John, the beloved disciple, and all later disciples of the Lord.
We can find both of these extremes, Marian excess and Marian defect, referred to in a statement from the Second Vatican Council regarding the proper balance of Marian devotion:
The Council points out that there is one twinfold source of God's revelation to humanity. The first aspect of this one twinfold source is Sacred Tradition. Sacred Tradition comprises the oral truths of God transmitted to the apostles and their successors (the pope and the bishops in union with the pope) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Vatican II describes Sacred Tradition in the following way:
The Second Vatican Council strongly points out that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture must receive equal reverence as aspects of God revealing Himself to humanity for our salvation. This understanding of the unity of Tradition and Scripture is very important in mariology (the study of the doctrine ofMary). For many of the truths that God has revealed about the Mother of Jesus are strongly contained in Sacred Tradition. But each Marian doctrine will also be mirrored at least implicitly in the apostolic preaching that came to be written down and today is known as the New Testament.
Now the role of safeguarding this deposit of faith in Scripture and Tradition is given to the Magisterium of the Church, the official teaching body. Again from Vatican II we read:
So, the Magisterium has the unique responsibility of safeguarding the deposit of faith that Christ gave to His Church which is guided by the Holy Spirit.
But why is a discussion about Divine Revelation so crucial to the doctrine and devotion of the Blessed Virgin Mary? To summarize in a single statement we could say that: "Marian orthopraxis is based on Marian orthodoxy." "Orthopraxis" is a Greek word which means the right practice, or correct devotion. "Orthodoxy" means the right or correct doctrine. Now when we apply this to mariology, devotion to Mary will be authentic only when it is based on authentic doctrine that comes from the Word of God entrusted to the Church. Marian devotion then will be authentic and, as such, an instrument of grace and ultimate union with Jesus Christ, only when it avoids both Marian excess and Marian defect. And to avoid extremes in Marian devotion, we must build our veneration of Mary soundly on authentic doctrine about Mary. This we receive from the Tradition and Scripture, as safeguarded by the Magisterium. The truth of Christ and His Church is the only legitimate foundation for a balanced and legitimate devotion to the Mother of Jesus. In short, we can say that true devotion to Mary is based on the true doctrine about Mary.
On this journey of Marian doctrine and devotion we will begin by discussing the nature of devotion to Mary and its origins in the first centuries of the Church. In Chapters Two and Three we will examine the doctrine of the Blessed Virgin as found in the sources of divine revelation and as taught by the Church's Magisterium. After we have a solid understanding of authentic Marian doctrine, we will then examine the expression of authentic devotion to Mary. This will include chapter treatments on the Rosary, the greatest Marian prayer; consecration to Jesus through Mary, the crowning of Marian devotion; and Mary's message to the modern world through Marian private revelation. We will end with a discussion in "defense of Mary," responding to basic objections both to the doctrine and to the devotion of the Blessed Virgin.
Let us commence our journey of Marian doctrine and devotion with the most complete ancient Marian prayer recorded and dated at approximately 250 A.D. It is known as the Sub Tuum Praesidium ("Under Your Protection"):
We fly to your patronage,
Devotion to Mary and Its Beginnings
What is Devotion to Mary?
To answer this question we must first make a basic theological distinction. Adoration, which is known as latria in classical theology, is the worship and homage that is rightly offered to God alone. It is the acknowledgement of excellence and perfection of an uncreated, divine person. It is the worship of the Creator that God alone deserves.
Veneration, known as dulia in classical
theology, is the honor due to the excellence of a created person. This refers to the excellence exhibited by the
created being who likewise deserves recognition and honor. We see a general example of veneration in events like
the awarding of academic awards for excellence in school or the awarding of the olympic medals for excellence in
sports. There is nothing contrary to the proper adoration of God when we offer the appropriate honor and recognition
that created persons deserve based on achievement in excellence.
Under the category of veneration we see the honor and reverence that the saints rightly receive. Why? Because the saints manifested a true excellence in the pursuit and the attainment of Christian holiness, and in light of this excellence, Our Lord grants the saints in Heaven an ability to intercede for those on earth who are in the process of pursuing holiness. This is a basic principle of the mystical body of Christ and the communion of saints.
St. Thomas Aquinas points out a further truth regarding veneration of the saints. The devotion a person has to God's saints does not end with the saints themselves but rather reaches ultimately to God through the saints. This is an important element in properly understanding authentic Catholic devotion to the saints. For to give honor to the saint who has excelled in loving union with God is also to honor the object of his loving union: God Himself.
For example, if you offered special hospitality to the children of your long-time friends, then ultimately you are offering a sign of love to your long-time friends themselves. This is analogous to the veneration of saints. When we honor those who spent their life pursuing intimate union with God, we are also ultimately honoring God who is the object of their love.
In short, we can say it is pleasing to God and, ultimately, it gives Him glory when we honor those who excelled in love of Him. This is true about honoring the Mother of Jesus because of her special role in union with the Lord.
Within the general category of veneration we can speak of a unique level of veneration, an exalted level of honor that would be appropriate for honoring a created person whose excellence rises above that of every other created person. It is in this special level of veneration, classically called hyperdulia, that we find the proper devotion ascribed to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Hyperdulia or special veneration of Mary remains completely different and inferior to adoration that is due to God alone. Devotion to Mary is never to rival in nature or in degree the adoration proper only to God. While veneration of the Blessed Virgin will always be inferior to the adoration given uniquely to God, it will always be superior and higher than devotion given to all other saints and angels.
This distinction between adoration and veneration and the unique veneration due to Mary is discussed by the Second Vatican Council. (Note the word "cult" as used in the text is interchangeable with "worship," referring here to veneration.):
First of all, Mary was granted by God a fullness of grace. From the greeting of the Angel Gabriel in the words, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Lk 1:28), we get an indication of God's special gift to Mary at the moment of conception. Mary received God's gift of being free from Original Sin from the first instant of her conception, preparing her to be the fitting Mother of the Word made flesh. This unique gift allowed a plentitude of grace for the Virgin, since this fullness of grace was not limited by a fallen nature.
All the other saints, on the other hand, have shared excellently in grace, but they did not have a plentitude of grace, due to the limitations of their fallen nature. Even St. John the Baptist, who was sanctified in the womb, as tradition tells us, started with a fallen nature, and then it was sanctified in utero. But St. John was not conceived with a nature like the Blessed Virgin's nature, a nature free from all stain of sin. Only a nature free from all stain of sin allows for a full plentitude of grace. Mary's fullness of grace rightly calls for special recognition and devotion. Secondly, and most significantly, Mary alone had the privilege of being Mother of God the Son, Jesus Christ. The theological term is theotokos, which is Greek for "the God-bearer." Giving flesh to the "Word made flesh" grants Mary an excellence and a dignity beyond any other creature. We can imagine the intimate union and the spiritual effects of having God physically present in us for nine months and of giving Jesus His human nature. Because Mary as true Mother gave to Jesus what our mothers gave to us, a nature like her own, she is rightly the Mother of God.
Theologians have explained this by saying that the Blessed Virgin Mary alone had an "intrinsic relationship with the Hypostatic Union." We remember that the Hypostatic Union is the union of the divine nature and the human nature in the one divine person of Jesus. Only Mary, of all creatures, had an interior and crucial role in Jesus' taking on human nature to become our Redeemer. Mary alone had an interior and essential participation in the Incarnation. This should not be underestimated, for to underestimate the role of Mary in God becoming man is also to underestimate the significance of God becoming man - the greatest event known in human history.
In short, the Blessed Mother gave the "carne" to the Incarnation. She gave flesh to the "Word made flesh" who "dwelt among us" On 1:14). Only the Church in its fullness can ponder the unfathomable depths of how closely united Mary was, and is, with her divine Son.
Just having the physical presence of Jesus in the womb of Mary for nine months is like having the Eucharist constantly present within a person for nine complete months, constantly sanctifying its human tabernacle day and night by its spiritual and physical presence.
All other saints, even St. Joseph, no matter how closely associated with the Incarnation, had at best an external relationship with God becoming man for our salvation. (More will be discussed concerning the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Divine Motherhood in Chapter 2.)
The third reason for an exalted devotion to the Mother of Jesus is Mary's perfect obedience to the will of God throughout her life on earth. Mary's fiat, her yes to the will of God, was her response to God's will and not only at the Annunciation (cf. Luke 1:38) but throughout her earthly life. By cooperating with her God-given enmity against Satan prophesied in Genesis (Gen 3:15), her complete opposition to the serpent and to his seed of sin, Mary never said no to the manifest will of God during her earthly life. It is for this reason that the Council of Trent, the universal council of the Church in the sixteenth century, declared: "No justified person can for his whole life avoid all sins, even venial sins, except on the grounds of a special privilege from God, such as the Church holds was given to the Blessed Virgin" (Council of Trent, DS, 833). Only one creature was given this special privilege to commit neither Original Sin nor personal sin during her earthly life. Because of her perfect obedience to God's will, she is the perfect model of all Christian virtue. She is the perfect model not only of obedience but also of humility, of faith, hope and charity. She is referred to as "Model of the Church" as well as "Mother of the Church." Because of her being the perfect model of Christian virtue Mary properly deserves both our special devotion and our special imitation.
For these three reasons and several more, the Blessed Virgin rightly receives a singular and unique place of special devotion in the Church which is higher than that of the saints and angels, but always humbly below the adoration due to God alone. This is summarized in the words of Vatican II:
Since God has willed that the Blessed Virgin has such an important role in the work of God becoming man and saving the human family, devotion to Mary then is not arbitrary nor is it extraordinary. Devotion to Mary is, rather, an ordinary part of the Christian journey to Christ and eternal salvation. Pope St. Pius X, the pontiff at the beginning of the twentieth century, confirms this truth about the singular privilege of Mary being not from necessity, but nonetheless from the manifest will of God:
As is true of so many of the aspects of our faith, including our very salvation, the role of the Blessed Virgin and the proper devotion that comes as a result of her role are not from necessity, but rather from the manifest will of God whose divine ways are perfect. God did not have to use the Blessed Mother either in terms of the Incarnation or in terms of Redemption. But the fact of divine revelation is that it was God's will that Mary has this central role. And because it was God's will, it calls for an appropriate response by the human family: a response of special devotion to the woman and mother chosen to be at the heart of the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption.
Devotion to Mary is not on the same level as a preferred devotion to an individual saint, like
St. Jude, St. Therese or St. Francis, as valuable and praiseworthy as devotions to individual saints are. Rather,
devotion to Mary is beyond devotion to all other saints, and it should be a universal step on the path to Christ,
since her role in Jesus' becoming man and saving humanity had a universal impact on the world.
Therefore, not from necessity but from God's manifest will are derived both Mary's role in salvation and our appropriate corresponding devotion to her.
Historical Beginnings of Devotion to Mary
Mary in Scripture
Enmity means a complete and entire mutual opposition. Since the seed of the woman is Christ the Redeemer, then the woman must also refer to the Blessed Virgin who, with her Son, has complete enmity against Satan and against sin.
The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 speaks of the "Virgin-Mother of Emmanuel": "Therefore the Lord himselfwill give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel." Later in Isaiah, Emmanuel is referred to as the future Savior of His people (Is 8:8-9).
We have the prophecy of Micah 5:2-3 which foretells the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem from a woman who will "bring forth" the "ruler of Israel":
The mother, introduced so suddenly in Micah and so specifically designated without a husband, conveys, according to the commentaries of several mariologists, the same virginal sense as we see in Isaiah 7:14. The fact that she is so strongly and clearly designated as a woman without a husband represents at least an implicit reference to that same virgin birth.
Numerous other models or types of the Blessed Virgin Mary are present in the Old Testament. Pope Pius IX, in his dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, refers to several of these Old Testament types of Mary which were recognized by the early Church Fathers themselves. Mary was seen as the Ark of Noah built by divine command who escaped the effects of sin (Gen 6:9). Jacob's Ladder that reached from earth to Heaven and that angels used to ascend and descend, was seen as a sign of the future intercession of the Blessed Virgin (Gen 28:12). The Fathers saw the Burning Bush of Moses as a type of Mary because it held the presence of God but without corruption (Ex 3:1). From the Canticle of Canticles Mary is depicted in the impenetrable tower of David and in the enclosed and inviolable garden (Cant 4:4,12). Also the Temple of God in 1 Kings 8 represented a sanctified house of God which foreshadowed Mary as the future tabernacle of Jesus.
The Ark of the Covenant is a strong model of Mary as that chosen special place that held the presence of God (cf. Gen 6:14; Ex 37:1), as well as the several references to created wisdom in the book of Wisdom.
These Old Testament references and several more illustrate the repeated foreshadowing of the
Mother of the Redeemer, both in terms of her intercession and in terms of her virginal and pure nature. So, we
see that the Old Testament is very rich in foretelling, through models and types, the future role of the Mother
The complete attention of the faithful in the infant years of the one Church of Christ had first to be directed pre-eminently to Jesus Christ Himself. The proper adoration of Jesus has to be established before any secondary veneration of Mary would be appropriate or fitting. Her honor, of course, arises first and foremost from her being the Mother of Jesus.
Further, the comparative obscurity of Mary was important to avoid any rash conclusion of an all too human conception of Jesus. In other words, to avoid concluding that the "wise, pure and holy" Jesus was simply the product of a very "wise, pure and holy" mother. Mary's obscurity protected and focused the attention of the Apostolic Church towards the single primacy of Jesus and His heavenly origins.
Moreover, it was important that during Mary's lifetime her humilitywas rightly respected and protected. Mary was to be the perpetual example of hidden holiness, of interior sanctity - a model for Christians of all future ages. For these reasons it was very fitting that Mary, as the humble handmaid of the Lord, not have more development in the New Testament, so as not to diminish the primacy of her Son and His own example.
Nevertheless, the revealed truths about Mary's unique privilege with her Son in the New Testament can be seen in "seed form" from the praises that came from the Angel Gabriel and Elizabeth (Lk 1 :28f,42), to the words of Jesus on the Cross (Jn 19:26), to John's description of her glory in Revelation (Rev 12). These and other doctrinal seeds offer more than enough scriptural basis for an authentic devotion to Mary. Although these New Testament passages referring to Mary will be discussed in greater detail as they arise in the upcoming treatment on Marian doctrine and devotion, let us quickly survey some of the principal New Testament citings about the Blessed Virgin.
In the first two chapters of St. Luke's Gospel (referred to as "Our Lady's Gospel" because of its many Marian references), we can follow the pattern of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary to summarize the chief Marian citations:
The Gospel of St. Matthew adds several more Marian scriptural references:
Note that many of these infancy references repeatedly bespeak the unity of "the Child and his Mother" as a sign of the profound union of Jesus and Mary that would continue for all time.
Beyond the infancy narratives of St. Luke and St. Matthew other principal Marian Scripture references include:
In summary, we can see that Mary's place in Sacred Scripture is select but profound and certainly provides the necessary doctrinal grounds for the corresponding devotion that was to develop gradually in the early Church.
Mary in the Early Church
The first historic indications of the existing veneration of Mary carried on from the Apostolic Church is present in the Roman catacombs. As early as the end of the first century to the first half of the second century, Mary is depicted in frescos in the Roman catacombs both with and without her divine Son. Mary is depicted as a model of virginity with her Son; at the Annunciation; and at the adoration of the Magi; and as the orans, the woman of prayer.
Avery significant fresco found in the catacombs of St. Agnes depicts Mary situated between St. Peter and St. Paul with her arms outstretched to both. This fresco is the earliest symbol of Mary as "Mother of the Church." Whenever St. Peter and St. Paul are shown together, it is symbolic of the one Church of Christ, a Church of authority and evangelization, a Church for both Jew and Gentile. Mary's prominent position between Sts. Peter and Paul illustrates the recognition by the Apostolic Church of the maternal centrality of the Savior's Mother in His prevailing Church.
It is also clear from the number of representations of the Blessed Virgin and their locations in the catacombs that Mary was seen not only as an historical person but also as a sign of protection, of defense, and of intercession. Her image was present on tombs, as well as on the large central vaults of the catacombs. Clearly, the early Christians dwelling in the catacombs prayed to Mary as intercessor to her Son for special protection and for motherly assistance. So we see as early as the first century to the first half of the second century that Mary's role as Spiritual Mother and intercessor was recognized and invoked.
The early Church Fathers, also by the middle of the second century, considered the primary theological role of the Blessed Virgin as the "New Eve." What was the basic understanding of Mary as the "New Eve" in the early Church? Eve, the original "mother of the living," had played an instrumental though secondary role in the sin of Adam which resulted in the tragic fall of humanity from God's grace. But Mary, as the new Mother of the living, played an instrumental though secondary role to Jesus, the New Adam, in redeeming and restoring the life of grace to the human family. This maternal role in restoring grace to the human family manifests the role of Mary as both intercessor and Spiritual Mother.
Let us look at a few citations from the early Church Fathers that manifest this growing understanding of Mary's spiritual and maternal role as the "New Eve," who as the "new Mother of the living," participates with Christ in restoring grace to the human family.
St. Justin Martyr (d.165), the early Church's first great apologist, describes Mary as the "obedient virgin" in contrast to Eve, the "disobedient virgin":
St. Irenaeus of Lyon (d.202), great defender of orthodoxy and possibly the first true mariologist, establishes Mary as the New Eve who participates with Jesus Christ in the work of salvation:
Later, St. Ambrose (d.397) further develops the New Eve understanding:
And St. Jerome (d.420) neatly summarizes this whole understanding of the New Eve in the pithy expression, "death through Eve, life through Mary."
The Second Vatican Council confirms this early understanding of Mary as the "New Eve" by the Church Fathers:
The first centuries of the Church provide us with examples of direct prayer to Mary as a means of intercession to the graces and protection of her Son.
For St. Irenaeus, Mary is an interceding helper (advocate) for Eve and for her salvation. St. Gregory Thaumatengus (d.350) depicts Mary in Heaven interceding for those on earth.
St. Ephraem (d.373), a great Eastern doctor of the Blessed Virgin, has direct address to the Blessed Virgin in several Marian sermons. And direct prayer to Mary is clearly found in a sermon of the great Eastern Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen (330-389).
Within the last part of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, we have numerous explicit examples of direct prayer to Mary; for example in the writings of St. Ambrose, who was later to have his converting influence on St. Augustine, as well as in the Eastern Father, St. Epiphanius.
The most complete ancient prayer to the Blessed Mother preserved is the Sub Tuum Praesidium, which means Under Your Protection. It is dated approximately 250 A.D. Note the depth of understanding by the third century Church of Mary as having the power to intercede for spiritual protection:
We fly to your patronage,
The early Christians knew that Mary could be trusted to intercede for protection in the midst of their trials, that the Mother of Jesus was a means of hope against dangers both spiritual and temporal.
By the time of the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., where Mary is declared the "Mother of God," we have cathedrals dedicated to her in the central ecclesial locations of Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople.
After the Council of Ephesus, we see a tremendous flourishing of devotion to the Blessed Virgin both in the East and the West, the quantity and quality of which would exceed the most comprehensive study. Such an effort would be similar to trying to document the overall development of Western civilization itself Marian prayers, Marian liturgical feast days, Marian icons, Marian paintings, Marian artwork became ubiquitous throughout the Christian world after the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.
The Second Vatican Council attests to this tremendous flourishing of Marian devotion from the early Church onward:
Historians have further testified to the vast influence of Marian devotion upon the overall development of Western civilization. The British historian, Kenneth Clark, himself not Catholic, describes in his excellent work, Civilization, the dramatic effect of devotion to the Blessed Virgin on Western civilization. He describes Mary as
Along with the impact of devotion to Mary on Western civilization, the fruitful effects of Marian devotion on the proper dignity of woman has also been historically verified. The noted historian, William Lecky, who was neither Catholic nor Christian but a self-professed rationalist, made these comments about the influence of Mary on the West:
Possibly, as no other besides her Son, the Mother of Jesus and the rightful devotion granted to her throughout the ages have borne fruit in a proper respect for person, a proper respect for the unique dignity of woman, and a new cultivation of all that is good in Western civilization.
In summary, then, we can say that authentic devotion to the Mother of Jesus, which is foreshadowed in the Old Testament and divinely planted in the New Testament, began its authentic growth in the early Church and, since the fifth century, has flourished vivaciously throughout the Christian world.
We can conclude with the words of Dante from the classic The Divine Comedy which typifies well the strength of devotion to the Blessed Virgin that has been evidenced throughout the history of the Church:
2. Cf. Suarez, S.J., Disputationes, 10, all III.
3. St. Louis Marie De Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, Chapter 1, p.1.
4. Cf. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854.
5. Cf. Murphy, "Origin and Nature of Marian Cult" in Carol, ed .,Mariology, Vol. III, (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1961), pp. 1-20.
6. St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 100, Patrologia Graeca (PG) Migne, 6, 709-712.
7. St. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, Bk. 3, pg. 32, I; PG 7, 958-959.
8. St. Ambrose, Epist. 63, n. 33, Patrologia Latina (PL) Migne, 16, 1249-1250; Sermon 45, n. 4; PL, 17, 716.
9. St. Jerome, Epist. 22, n. 21, PL 22, 408; ci Walter Burghart, S.J. "Mary in Western Patristic Thought," Mariology, Vol. I, 1955.
10. Murphy, Mariology, III, p. 6.
11. Kenneth Clark, Civilization as quoted in Dan Lyons, The Role of Mary Through the Centuries, Washington, New Jersey, World Apostolate of Fatima.
12. Cf. Lyons, The Role of Mary Through the Centuries.
13. Dante, "Paradiso" in The Divine Comedy, Canto 33.
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