Mary, The Embodiment of God's Love:A Historical Perspective

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Kathleen Coyle, S.S.C.


The image of Mary has largely been shaped by the imaginations of many generations of Christians, and that image has adapted itself to the religious needs of the faithful in various times and places. The church has constantly turned to Mary to meet the ever-changing aspects of Christian discipleship.  Because times and cultures vary, the challenge of Christian discipleship and the demands of the radical living of the gospel also vary and can never be rigidly prescribed.  Mary has been its model in re-embodying in particular times, places, and cultures the love and justice of God.  Every age therefore has unconsciously formed its image of Mary according to its own ideal of discipleship.

Throughout history theologians have reflected upon and addressed questions of doctrine in the evolution and development of theological thought about Mary.  The Council of Ephesus in the year 431 declared Mary to be theTheotokos, the Mother of God; two hundred and fifty years later, in 681 her perpetual virginity was declared at the Council of Constantinople; in 1854, the church defined the dogma of the immaculate conception and in 1950 the dogma of the assumption was promulgated.  However, it was in prayer and devotion rather than in doctrinal discussion that the ordinary faithful continued to show an intense reverence towards the Mother of God.

There has always been a strong mutual influence between prayer and belief, and the development of popular piety reflected the people’s traditional belief in Mary’s powerful intercession.  We will concern ourselves in this paper with the devotions of generations of Christians as they largely shaped their own image of Mary and as Mary embodied God’s love for them–and adapted herself to their religious needs in various times and places.  From early days, devotion to Mary found expression within the liturgy.  A prayer of petition to her Sub Tuum Praesidium (“Under your protection O Holy Mother of God ...”) is attested from the late third or fourth century.2  This prayer which was adopted into the Byzantine, Coptic, Ethiopian and Latin churches shows us the early development of belief in Mary’s power of intercession being expressed in prayer.  Since the fourth century marian hymns have been sung and churches have been named after her.


In the Constantinian period, when the Christian religion was officially tolerated and was subsequently adopted as the official state religion, the threat of martyrdom had passed and the ideal of carrying one’s cross found expression in asceticism.  Mary, Queen of Virgins, became the patroness of ascetics and celibates. She was the model of women withdrawing to the Egyptian desert to lead a hermetic life.3  Documents from this period describe her as a perfect Egyptian nun, eating and sleeping only when her body demanded it.  She avoided her relatives and other women who spoke of the things of this world, and made progress every day.  She was perceived as a solitary, consorting only with angels and leading the life of the most exemplary austerity.

During the fourth century there was an upsurge in popular devotion to Mary. She became the ideal of the consecrated virgin who always stayed at home and prayed. (By contrast, the Mary of the Gospels did not hesitate to visit her cousin Elizabeth and attend the Temple feasts).  In the fifth century the church fathers spoke of Mary as taking a vow of virginity.  Gradually the practice of taking a formal vow became an established custom in the church.  It then seemed only fitting that Mary, the prototype of virgins, would have been the first to make such a promise to God.  The imitation of Mary became an established way of life. A widening split between the Fathers’ views of an idealized Mary and other women lies at the root of the representation of Mary in Western art where she is never portrayed as a sexual being. She is fully clothed while Eve on the other hand is frequently portrayed as naked.  Such images leave lasting impressions on our imaginations


It is probably safe to say that the real impetus for the marian cult begins at the Council of Ephesus in 431, when Mary’s unique role as the  Theotokos, the Godbearer, was defined. The word Theotokos consists of two elements Theos(God) and tokos (a creature who gives birth).  Although the main focus of the council was christological, it also emphasized Mary’s unique role as the bearer of God.  He who is begotten eternally by the Father is born of a woman according to the flesh, that is, he has united human nature to himself.  After Ephesus the Theotokos, the divine Mother becomes a unique title of honor and glory for her who is the mother of the incarnate word.  The dogma of Mary’s divine motherhood concentrates our attention on the glory of God shining on the mother of Jesus.  The Son who existed from all eternity takes flesh in Mary’s flesh and assumes our frail and poor human condition. As mother of God and mother of Jesus, Mary is concerned for the salvation of the universe that her Son has come to redeem.  Mary’s divine motherhood has deep and solid roots in scripture.  The Christian scriptures give Mary the title Mother more often than any other.  In fact she is called Mother twenty-five times.4  God takes on human flesh through the flesh of a woman.  Mary’s divine motherhood is the key to interpreting the mystery of the incarnation.  The dogma invites us to become God bearers, to bear God in our world today.

Theological reflection on Mary did not give rise to her veneration.  This veneration sprang from the liturgy and gradually revealed the unique place of Christ’s Mother in the economy of salvation. After Ephesus, her feasts multiplied, devotions became more fervent. Her purity which had been praised in such glowing terms, led to questions about the decomposition of her body in death. In fact death seemed no longer compatible with the dignity of the Mother of God. She was the awe-inspiring Theotokos in whom the very transcendence of the creator was reflected.  Poets and hymn writers used a variety of Old Testament typology to describe her: 

Mountain of God; bush unconsumed by fire; Aaron’s rod which blossomed; ark of imperishable wood; lampstand of pure gold which bears the lamp which burns forever; jar of gold which concealed the manna; Jacob’s ladder by which Jesus came down to earth; the queen which stands at the king's right hand.5

The central idea of Eastern spirituality is the theology of deification by grace. Mary is the human being who most resembles the perfect image of God, the incarnate Word.  In her the divine image can be contemplated.  Because God’s incarnation as the Christ was at the centre of the Eastern Church’s theology, Mary was praised as the greatTheotokos.  She has reached the final glorification towards which the church aspires.


It may be a surprise to some to discover that as late as the time of Augustine there is no mention of hymns, prayersor marian feasts in the West.  Only in the fifth century do we have the first hymn directly saluting Mary.  Her name was not inserted into the Roman Canon until the sixth century.  The titles “Mother of Mercy” and “Mater Dolorosa” were applied to her in the sixth century.  The feasts of her annunciation, “dormition” and purification were not adopted inthe West until the seventh century.

By the end of the patristic period properly so called, the main doctrinal and devotional lines had been traced. Mariologyas well as marian liturgy and marian poetry had reached a far more advanced stage in the East than in the West.  Inthe West as we have noted, the language about Mary was far more restrained.  The context for devotion and praisewas both doctrinal and liturgical.  Under the influence of Tertullian (died 225) and Augustine (died 430), and with theology’s preoccupation with original sin, Mary’s grace-filled figure was contemplated as a type of the church itself. Her intimate relationship with the church was affirmed by St. Ambrose (died 397) and St. Augustine.  St. Ambrose, whomay be called the father of western Mariology,6 asks us to imitate Mary who was “a virgin and humble of heart” and“as Mary did, do also in your heart.”  The question of whether Mary was exempt from original sin appears not to have been asked at this stage.  Her assumption seems to have been accepted only in Gaul.  Her queenship and power ofintercession are treated much more soberly and there is no question yet of her mediation.


In the later Byzantine period, the first author to have attempted a life of Mary was Epiphanius the Monk (died c. 800). He made use of much apocryphal material as well as New Testament data, and presented her according to the Byzantine ideal of beauty.  He described her grave and dignified bearing “with light brown hair and eyes, black eyebrows, a straight nose, a long face and long hands and fingers.”7  In the eighth century in the West we find the influence of the Greeks on Latin mariology.  This  was  due  to  the  fact  that  many  of  the Greek monks had settled down  in  Sicily to escape  the  persecution  of  the emperors.  They blended the splendor of the  Byzantine image  ofthe  glorious  queen, mistress of heaven and earth, interceding on our behalf, with that of the tender mother, givingher maternal love and tenderness to all.

The first aspect of medieval marian devotion arose from sheer delight in what God had done for her, how she embodied God’s love for the people helped to realize God’s designs in the world. Central to this devotion was the graciousnessof Mary’s fiat at the annunciation.  During the Middle Ages, the handmaid of the Lord as she is described in Luke’s Magnificat, now becomes “Our Lady,” a woman actively concerned about the person seeking salvation.  There was alsoa shift from a liturgical perspective to a personal one, and this was expressed in the proliferation of new devotions.


As European culture revived, the cult of Mary began to grow. Crowds flocked to attend the monastery festivals connected with the marian feasts.  Together with the monks, the faithful contemplated the beauty and the glory of the Virgin Mary. A flourishing trade led to the rebirth of towns and the rise of a new merchant class. Glorious Gothic cathedrals were built, usually dedicated to Mary, and sophisticated schools of theology sprang up. By the twelfth century, devotion to Mary was widespread. In fact this century was known as the golden age of mariology. Theological reflection on Mary was chiefly developed by the Cistercians, especially St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard fostered aform of meditative writing that expressed an intense devotion to her. This affective approach continued for a longtime.  This was the age of the Crusades, of feudalism, and of courtly love. These developments also had their influence on marian doctrine and devotion. Mary was hailed in chivalrous terms as the fair lady of the knights.  She was addressed as “Our Lady” and “Madonna,” respectful titles given to feudal aristocrats. These were both symbols ofchaste love. Mary, a simple Palestinian housewife could not meet the needs of the aristocratic ladies. Before theycould venerate her they had to make her one of themselves.  From the simple maiden of Nazareth she becomes the great Queen of Heaven, assigned a place above the church, between God and the highest angels.

Consciousness of sin and fear of judgment were characteristics of the conscience of this era.  The awesome figure of God the Father, as stern king and just judge was difficult to approach.  A high christology too, tended to distance Christ from ordinary people. Like the distant feudal kings, he was too threatening to be approached directly.  God, itwas thought, could not forgive sin without demanding satisfaction and sinful people experienced the temptations ofsatan and the dangers of eternal torment in hell as very real.

Divine mercy, however, found its expression in the mother of Jesus, who, like a kind hearted feudal noblewoman, could plead with her Son for those who sought her intercession. Consequently, the enormous veneration poured out towards Mary expressed itself in the multiplication of prayers, relics, shrines, feasts and narrations of miraculous cures. In theprocess, Mary often outshone Jesus and occasionally even God the Father. She was the embodiment of God’s love and even substituted for God as the acting subject of divine deeds and the recipient of divine glory and praise, as we notein the medieval version of the standard prayer, The Te Deum

We praise thee, O Mother of God; we confess thee, Mary ever Virgin. Thee all angels and archangels, thrones and principalities serve.  Thee all powers and virtues in heaven and all dominations obey. Before thee all the angelic choirs, the cherubim and seraphim, exulting, stand. With unceasing voice every angelic creature proclaims thee: Holy,holy, holy, Mary Virgin Mother of God.

Among the Latin preachers and theologians the doctrine of the immaculate conception became the topic of discussion and theological debate.  Such questions as had Mary to struggle against sin? or was she conceived and sanctified by the Spirit from her mother’s womb? were discussed. The Augustinian doctrine of original sin played a decisive part inthis controversy. On the other hand, popular religious literature embellished the biblical and apocryphal stories about Christ and his mother. Feasts in her honor became more and more elaborate; some were preceded by a vigil, other seven by a two-week fast. But in the sixteenth century, this exaggerated cult of the Virgin was stamped out by the Reformers in all Protestant countries.

The intensification of interest in Mary in the medieval period, as well as the emphasis on her exalted role in human salvation, provided a “feminizing” element in an otherwise wholly male-dominated religion. It has been suggested that she replaced the mother goddess Christianity lacked; and at the level of popular devotion, she occupied the place leftvacant by Isis, Cybele, and the other goddesses. However, her theological isolation from all other women prevented her from functioning psychologically as a model for women.9


The ferment of intellectual life associated with the new universities began to change the social structures of monastic-centred Christianity. A new generation of people emerged, anxious to live the gospel outside the traditional monastic structure.  The ministry of preaching to the laity was undertaken by the new mendicant orders, the Franciscans andDominicans. They focused on Jesus in the poverty of his humanity; and in scenes of the crib and the cross Mary was always present in a human role.  At the same time scholastic theology was developing an understanding of redemption that emphasized the need to make satisfaction for sin. The awe-inspiring Virgin Mother of Christ now becomes theMother of Mercy, who mediates between Christ and sinners.

While the development of theological thought was now taking place outside the monasteries, the rigor of scholastic theology with its emphasis on the faculty of reason had little room for affectivity or imagination. Compounding the problem was the fact that the language of scholarly discourse and liturgy was Latin.  Latin liturgy and scholastic theology became ever more remote from the ordinary experience of people, at a time when life was hard and often dangerous.  The immaculate conception continued to evoke theological discussion. Don Scotus initiated a new way oflooking at this mystery.  He asserted that Mary was equally dependent on Christ, whether Christ’s grace preserved herfrom sin or sanctified her in the womb, the more common opinion at that time. Beyond this controversy, Mary appearedonly in the great summas, and then only in relation to questions about the incarnation.

The people loved the Virgin so it is natural to expect that other strains of marian piety and ways of venerating Mary, continued to come from the popular religious imagination of the people.  The meditative writing initiated earlier by St. Bernard provided an opportunity to express an intense devotion to her and it appealed to a wider and more popular audience.


The earlier spirituality that focused on Mary’s person now shifted from contemplation to a popular imagination that is less critical.  In the imagination of the people there was intense reverence towards her. With her maternal influence over God she mediated God’s grace to unworthy sinners. She functioned as a merciful and tender mother caring for her spiritual children. There were, however, lots of abuses prevalent in the mariology of this late medieval period.  Focus on the mystery of the incarnation was now replaced by a magical idea of Mary as mother who could solve all problems. Rene Laurentin comments on the fourteenth century:

Repelled by desiccated intellectualism, people sought life on the imaginative and sentimental plane. Throughout this period of decadence popular enthusiasm for the Blessed Virgin never faltered, but the adulterated fodder it was nourished on, consisted of trumpery miracles, ambiguous slogans, and inconsistent maundering.10

Because of such natural disasters as the Black Death, the experiences of the Hundred Years’ War and the Great Western Schism, people prayed to Mary, Mother of Mercy, for her protection from dangers pressing from every side.When one fifth of the population of Europe was wiped out by the Black Death, people sought consolation in the image of the sorrowing mother at the foot of the cross.  While the Franciscans encouraged the faithful to follow the Via Dolorosa, to journey with Mary to the cross, the Servites preached the seven sorrows of Mary under the title of Sorrowful Mother.  For Christians who could not afford to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, this was a way of sharing in the sufferings of Mary and her Son.

At times Mary’s ability to rescue the sinner became the focus of devotion so that she often functioned independently ofGod. Popular preaching designated her Queen of Heaven and Refuge of Sinners, and placed her at the center of the process of personal salvation.  Some even understood such titles as Queen of Heaven to be the re-emergence of the suppressed mother goddess of prehistoric times.  While theologians today may interpret her usurpation of the role of Christ as a deterioration of mariology, anthropologists, on the other hand, analyze it as an appreciation of what hastraditionally been termed “the feminine element” in the world. This feminine figure which embodies the attributes oftenderness and compassion grieves with the sorrowful rather than punishing them for their offences.  Devotion to the compassionate Mother of Mercy expressed a need for a religious experience of the feminine in the divine, an experience not available through the understanding of God at the time.

Because of a still underdeveloped theology of the Holy Spirit, the figure of Mary assumed the caring qualities of thedivine. Catholic piety tended to view her as spiritually present to guide and inspire, to console and intercede - allactions, which, in the Scriptures belong to the Spirit (Jn 14:16; 15:26). While marian doctrine and devotion developedconsiderably between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries in the West, they remained more static in the East. This was due to the fact that the influences of both the Augustinian doctrine of original sin as well as that of scholastic theology, were absent there.  In the West too, the doctrine of original sin played a decisive part in the controversy about the immaculate conception.


The first challenge to the abuses and distortions of the late medieval church as well as to the popular cult of Marycame with the Reformation.  The Protestant reformers deplored the lack of trust in God’s grace and mercycommunicated through Christ alone.  Protestant and Catholic thinkers alike objected to the excesses of popular belief. The magical and healing powers of relics, for example, led to their becoming objects of devotion.  The wood of thecross was believed to have special powers to combat the devil.11  Martin Luther believed that human beings remainsinners, no matter what they do, God only imputing to them the merits of Christ. However, he could still admit that Mary could pray for us, as we pray for each other.  Luther himself showed a tender devotion to the Virgin, especially inhis early sermons.  In his commentary on the Magnificat he described Mary as a woman of faith, and our model ofGod’s grace to the world. He retained a remarkable amount of Catholic teaching which was only dismissed by hissuccessors.  However, he equated the exaggerations of Catholic devotion to Mary with the cult of Baal which wasdenounced by the prophets.12  Luther stressed that the true basis of Mary’s dignity was as a believer, and any specialblessings given to her were through the merits of Christ and not due to her own special merits.

The Reformers did not turn against Mary in herself.  They rejected her veneration on christological grounds. Luther’spolemic was aimed essentially at what seemed to him to be the false honor done to Mary.  The Reformers felt thatpraying to Mary and asking for favors detracted from Christ as the sole mediator between God and human beings. Theresponse of the Council of Trent (1545-63) was cautious.  It simply taught that it was good to invoke the saints and itrequested each local bishop to correct abuses. Contemporary Protestant writers are prepared to contend thatProtestantism has made a serious mistake in its opposition to the Virgin:

Ignoring the place of the Blessed Virgin in the Incarnation and the whole process of salvation has given Protestantisma harsh thoroughly masculine emphasis. . . . The absence of tenderness and affection in Protestantism has led to anoveremphasis on a harsh prophetic picture of God with its attending preoccupation with judgment. . . The developmentof a mature Mariology in Protestant thinking could do much to temper the harsh portrayal of the God of judgment andprovide it with a healthy concept of a God of mercy.13

If anything, Protestant criticisms of marian devotions increased Catholic enthusiasm for it.  Catholics multiplied theirefforts to preserve her exalted status. This exalted image stands in stark contrast to that of the Virgin of Guadalupewho took the form of a simple Indian peasant woman when she appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531, andaffirmed the indigenous people over against the Spanish conquerors.


In the seventeenth century, a hundred years after the Reformation, marian devotions reached a second peak, especially in France which emerged as the spiritual leader of Western Christendom. The vision of the French school ofspirituality, whose doctrinal foundations stemmed from Pierre de Berulle, the founder of the French Oratory, passed almost unchallenged down to the twentieth century. The influence of this spirituality on the Australian church is notoften recognized.  The Irish and English churches were deeply influenced by this spirituality which was brought by theemigrants who came to Australia. The French school was the matrix of the Jansenist error and devotional excess. SomeFrench Catholics believed that it sufficed to be devoted to Mary alone in order to be saved. Pierre de Berulle (d. 1629),the founder of a society of priests known as the French Oratory, even went so far as to say that Mary’s fiat inassenting to the incarnation is “much more powerful in its issue and effect than (the word) that God pronounced whencreating the universe.”14  With Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort (d. 1716), the French school reached its peak ofmarian devotion. De Montfort has been called the master par excellence of marian devotion.  His best known work isThe True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin.15  He believed that it was more perfect, not to approach God directly, but togo more humbly through a mediator.  This was a rather Jansenist attitude, although the Jansenists themselves werecertainly opposed to de Montfort. Small tokens of love for the Blessed Virgin, he said, were not sufficient forsalvation.  He therefore demanded a complete interior surrender to her so as to be entirely formed by her.

Such devotional teaching and practices as we have just seen when discussing Pierre de Berulle and Louis de Montfortwere often very dubious.  Confraternities of the “slaves of Mary” bound themselves in spiritual slavery to Mary, wearingsmall chains about their necks or wrists, as a sign of their bondage.16  Some took a vow, even to martyrdom to defendbelief in the immaculate conception (which was not yet official Catholic doctrine).  Popular manuals of devotion for anincreasing literate population were often filled with bizarre piety about Mary.  This piety included such stories as thatof Mary renewing her vows of victim and servant at age three,17 enjoying the angelic light that showed her all theactions of Jesus’ soul, while he was still in her womb.18


The eighteenth-century Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that rejected extrinsic authority in favor of theauthority of reason.  This movement emphasizing freedom of inquiry, freedom of decision, and freedom of action,posed a serious crisis for the church, which, until now, was the sole authority to determine what was true and whatwas not.  Few Enlightenment thinkers had much use for what they saw to be extravagant superstitions of religion.  Ledby the popular writings of Voltaire they dismissed apparitions as gullible offences against reason.  Even the church,increasingly restrained by secular power, and tempted by Enlightenment rationalism, lost interest in promoting thecult.  Marian feasts were stricken from local church calendars, shrines fell into ruin, and excessive devotions werediscouraged.  During the French Revolution, some churches removed their statues of Mary, and the statue of thegoddess of reason was enthroned in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Marian literature ceased to exist although populardevotion was catered for by sermons, and by pamphlets, put out by congregations particularly devoted to Mary.  TheJesuits, promoters of the marian cult, were disbanded.


The nineteenth century marked the beginning of the “Age of Mary.”  The republican ideals of the Revolution had failedin France.  Romanticism failed.  Romanticism, an attitude of mind favorable to irrational influences, to emotional aswell as mystical experiences, rejected the Enlightenment program.  Marian teaching and devotion benefited from thisnew mood, and Catholic revival under the long-lived Pius IX signalled the rebirth of the marian cult.  AlphonsusLiguori’s book The Glories of Mary was one of his most popular works on marian devotions.  For Liguori, Mary’s role inthis world was to raise up souls that had fallen from divine grace and to reconcile them to God, a role traditionallygiven to Christ.  If God is angry with a sinner, he says, “Mary takes him under her protection, (and) withholds theavenging arm of her Son, and saves him.”19  The growing demand to have the doctrine of the immaculate conceptionofficially defined signalled the need for official recognition of Mary.  This led to its proclamation as dogma in 1854.

By the mid-century, apparitions of Mary were recorded all over Europe, especially in France: Paris in 1830, Rome in1842, La Salette in 1846, Lourdes in 1858, Normandy in 1871, Knock, Ireland in 1879. Both in popular preaching and intheological discussion Mary had become a more and more autonomous figure. She was no longer seen in theTrinitarian, christological or ecclesial contexts within which the early Christians had seen her. There was anexaggerated emphasis given to our dependence on her. Certain interpretations of the devotion promulgated by LouisGrignon de Montfort, became popular, once more, with the revival of marian spirituality, a spirituality that had declinedin the age of the Enlightenment. De Montfort’s emphasis on “To Jesus through Mary” is a case in point here. Littleattention was paid to Mary’s own dependence on Christ.

The nineteenth century was the age of the suppressed woman, but Rosemary Haughton reminds us that the wiltingand submissive Victorian lady on whom Mary was modelled, was really the last desperate effort of a lost cause.20  Itwas also an age of very strong women.  The Women’s Suffrage Movement was a symbol of a changed consciousnessand expectations that would continue to ask disturbing questions about gender privilege.  Ivone Gebara and MariaClara Bingemer add:

At each new historical moment for Christians, the mystery of Mary unveils a different facet, one that deeply touchesthe needs of the poor and believing people . . . and places women in active participation on an equal basis with men .. . This perspective is not yet something achieved in our era, but it is being announced strongly and vigorously, and itbrings life for the future.21

The first sixty years of the twentieth century saw the continued importance of marian enthusiasm.  Further apparitionswere recorded- at Fatima in Portugal in 1917, and at Beauraing, Belgium, in 1932.  Lay groups, designed to carry out amarian-oriented apostolate led to the blossoming of marian confraternities and movements, strangely enough with adistinctly militant flavor. The Legion of Mary founded in 1921 and the Blue Army in 1947 are examples of suchmovements.  The Legion of Mary was organized on the model of an army, its members promising to serve in thiswarfare, which is perpetually waged by the church against the world and its evil powers. Inspired by the spirituality ofGrignon de Montfort, the legionary becomes a slave of Mary, committing absolutely everything to her.

In 1950, the promulgation of the dogma of the assumption marked another jewel in Mary’s crown.  Piety and theologykept pace with these official documents.  In Rene Laurentin’s words, “never enough honor can be given to Mary.” Holycards popular in the fifties took Mary off her pedestal, “but only to put a broom in her hands.”22  Rosemary Haughton,comparing present and medieval images of Mary, writes:

the crowned and superb Queen of the older images, and even the gentle, vital and confident young Mother of medievaliconography, gave way to a meek, melancholy, and scarcely adult virgin, who during the nineteenth century, wasallowed less and less bosom and no crown at all. Even Bernadette’s vision at Lourdes of an irrepressibly lively andyoung but regal “Lady” was modified to meet the current requirement: tilted head, wilting body, resigned expression;and women, and most especially “religious” women, were required to identify with this model. Many did so,internalizing to such an extent that no other way of being devout could be imagined.23

In this century too, Mary has stood between heaven and earth, a quasi-divine being, and was exalted as the “Mediatrixof all Graces,” “Co-redemptrix,” “Mother of the Church.”  Catholic spirituality came close to divinizing Mary as a co-principle of redemption.  The confusions and exaggerations about Mary - conceptual and imaginative - reached theirpeak in the 1950s.  Such was the situation on the eve of the Second Vatican Council.


The beginnings of the marian cult are obscure.  It has been explained as a deep psychological need for the worship ofthe mother.  John Shinners agrees that some aspects of the veneration of Mary may be borrowed from pre-Christianearth-mother and fertility cults.24  However, he is careful not to rely only on psychological needs:

Jungian psychologists locate the appeal of Mary in society’s corporate need to express the archetypical feminine andmaternal images of the collective unconscious. Freudians see in the cult a sublimation of male oedipal urges. All ofthese theories fail for various reasons.25

The marian tradition in the Roman Catholic church has had both liberating and oppressive effects on both men andwomen.  Among the liberating aspects, it is important to note that it has kept the image of woman central to theprocess of salvation. Secondly, the centrality of the image of Mary in Catholicism points to a deep intuition that thedeity cannot be adequately portrayed in images that describe God’s activities only as creating, redeeming, andadministering justice.26  The tendency to apply quasi-divine attributes, such as “co-redemptrix” to Mary, is in itself acritique of this persistently controlling imaging of God throughout the long Christian tradition.


Through the long history of the Christian tradition , no one single image of Mary emerged. Each age found somethingdifferent to say about the “woman of the New Testament who has also been such a feminine symbol in Westerncivilization for the last fifteen hundred years.”27  The long history of marian piety nourished the popular religiousimagination of the people through the centuries. We must be slow, therefore, to make superficial or hasty judgmentsabout it, either in its popular preaching or devotional expressions, however bizarre some of these expressions mayseem to us today.  The simpler Catholic faithful, especially the poor and the deprived, have sought in Mary a strengthwhich enabled them to interpret life, to experience the love of God in their lives, to feel accompanied and notabandoned, and to continue to hope, no matter how bad the circumstances and tragedies of their lives.  It was thetask of the Second Vatican Council to bring marian devotion within the limits of sound theology and practice.

Instead of a separate document on Mary, the council decided to include one chapter on her in the DogmaticConstitution on the Church.  It is entitled  The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christand the Church.  The very title of the chapter portrays Mary in an intimate relationship with her Son and his body in thechurch.  Paul VI in his important contribution to the post-conciliar discussion on marian devotion says that certainforms of piety are connected with cultural patterns of the past. They need to be revised and cleaned of theaccumulation of historical excesses if devotion to Mary is to lead us to God and into mystery, mystery that will spillover into history and into all of creation.



1. The second of three talks given at the Marian Conference, “Mary for the        Third Millennium,” St. Joseph’s College, Hunter’s HillSydney, September 1998.

2. Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Vol I (New York:      Hawthorn Books, 1963), 48.

3. ibid., 50-55.

4. Ivone Gebara and Maria Bengemer, “Mary,” Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, Readings fromMysterium Liberationis, eds. Juan Luis Segundo & Ignacio Ellacuria (Maryknoll,   Orbis Books, 1993), 170.

5. Cited in Archimandrite Ephrem, “Mary in Eastern Church Literature,” The      Month, (August/September 1989).

6. ibid., 88.

7. ibid., 182.

8. See Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and           Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society (New York:Doubleday & Co., 1973).

9. Eleanor McLaughin, “Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Woman in            Medieval Theology,” Religion and Sexism ed.Rosemary R. Ruether (New         York: Simon & Schuster, 1974). 246.

10. Cited in Elizabeth Johnson, “Marian Devotion in the Western Church,” Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages andReformation, An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, ed. Jill Raitt (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 411.

11. Carlos Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from      Erasmus to Calvin (London: CUP, 1986), 14.

12. Cited in Graef, Vol II, 10.

13. Charles Dickson, “Mariology: A Protestant Reconsideration,” American   Ecclesistical Review (May 1974): 306-307.

14. Graef, Vol. II, 32.

15.  ibid., 57 [Emphasis added].

16.  ibid., 34.

17. ibid., 35.

18. ibid., 33

19. ibid., 75.

20. Rosemary Haughton, Hope for a Tree, unpublished paper, 14.

21. Gebara and Bingemer, 25.

22. Cuneen, 9.

23. Haughton, 15.

24. John R. Shinners, “The Cult of Mary and Popular Belief,” Mary Woman of Nazareth, ed. Doris Donnelly (New York:Paulist Press, 1989), 163.

25. ibid.

26. See Ann Carr, Transforming Grace (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 134-214.  See also Sally McFague,Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 98-101

27. Cuneen, 7.

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