Brother John Raymond
The whole purpose of this document is summed up in the introduction. The American Bishops wish to share with us the truths concerning Virgin Mary and to express their filial love for Her. Also, they want to counteract any understanding that the Second Vatican Council downgraded faith in or devotion to Mary.
Regarding the first point concerning the truths, the Church has the duty of preserving the Divine message received from Our Lord in every generation. Part of this message is the special role Mary plays in the mystery of salvation. This bishops hope this document will reaffirm our rich heritage of faith in Mary and encourage authentic devotion to Her.
In regard to the Council, the eighth chapter of the Constitution on the Church honors the Mother of Jesus. Pope Paul VI called this chapter on Our Lady a vast synthesis of Catholic doctrine with regard to Her position in relation to the mystery of Christ and His Church. Pope John XXIII had entrusted the Council to this heavenly patroness. Mary's role is wonderfully summed up in Pope Paul VI's title of "`Mother of the Church.'" Our Lady's intercession extends to the whole community of believers. She cooperates with a maternal love in their birth and development in the Church.
At times some are of the opinion that devotion to Our Lady takes away from Jesus, but just the opposite is true. A deeper love and knowledge of Mary leads to a deeper love and knowledge of Jesus. The inverse holds true also. The Council upheld this position too. Mary's unique role in the plan of our redemption is based on God's free choice to use Her in this way.
As Mother of Jesus Christ Mary has a unique and exalted role in the redemptive mission of Her Son for men. Her virtues form a model of a perfect disciple of Jesus Christ. Devotion to Her is the duty of everyone. She is a powerful intercessor under the redeeming mercy of Her Son.
Our Lady in the Bible
The Second Vatican Council's description of Our Lady's earthly life as a pilgrimage of faith is based on a Biblical perspective. She is the new Eve whose obedient response of faith heals the old Eve's disobedience. It was Her faith that openned the way for Jesus' saving mission. Mary is the representative of the believing remnant, or exalted Daughter of Zion, who waited for God's salvation. Preserved from Original Sin Mary was able to give Her whole self to the saving work of Her Son. She stood out among the "Daughter of Zion," or the Lord's poor and lowly awaiting salvation, becoming intimately connected with all the saving mysteries of Jesus. Mary is a bridge and plays a role between the Old Testament expectations and their New Testament fulfillment. This is an important element of the Gospel view of Mary. For both St. Luke's and St. John's Gospel Mary is the perfect believer.
St. Luke's Gospel in the first two chapters uses an "allusive theology" to use Old Testament words and phrases to describe New Testament events. For example there is an "ark of the covenant theme" in Mary's visit to Her cousin Elizabeth. This parallelism can be found in the transfer of the ark of the covenant by King David. (2 Sm 6)
Of special interest is the double tribute to Mary's faith in the conclusion of the Annunciation episode. First, Her "yes" to be the Mother of Jesus was an act of faith. Second is the praise of Mary's faith contained in the parting words of Gabriel, "for nothing is impossible with God." (Lk 1:37) These words are taken from the Genesis story of Abraham. (Gen 18:14) This is significant since Abraham is the great Old Testament man of faith. St. Luke wants us to see that Mary is the great Gospel model of faith.
In St. John's Gospel Mary is seen both at the beginning and end of the public life of Jesus. At Cana Jesus performed His first sign or miracle and Mary was there. For St. John such signs were for an awakening or strengthening of faith. But it is evident that Mary already believes as She puts Her faith in Jesus and His power "before" this first sign. Also this first miracle reveals Mary's concern for others and Her intercessory power. Mary has an ecclesial significance too. Making use of the stone jars for Jewish ceremonial washing links Mary to the figure of the synagogue. When She tells the waiters, "Do whatever He tells you" Mary becomes the figure of the Church. (Jn 2:5) At Calvary Jesus says to Her, "Woman, behold Your son." (Jn 19:26) The Old Testament had promised that during the Messianic times the Daughter of Zion would bear children that she hadn't conceived. In Jesus and with Jesus Mary bears the new People of God. At the same time She symbolizes the Church, "Woman," that also fulfills the Old Testament prophecy.
The Church's Understanding of the Mystery of Mary
As history of the Church has unfolded, reflection upon herself has revealed that Mary is a model of the Church. We have already seen how Mary was considered the new Eve. But before this development the Church had already been regarded as the new Eve. The virginal birth of Jesus by Mary rests on the constant and consistent faith of the Church as well as the Sacred Scriptures. God intervened in a miraculous way that gave us Jesus, the new Adam. The Old Testament is marked by miraculous births that find their climax in the virginal conception of Mary. This conception has been seen as a sign and means for the Holy Spirit to build the Body of Christ, the Church. Through this conception we receive our status as adopted Sons of the Father.
By the 4th century the Church clearly began to speak of Mary as "ever-virgin" in the sense that She never used Her marital rights. By the Council of Ephesus this doctrine had been well formulated. In this virginal dedication of Mary to Her Son's redeeming work, the Church sees its mission to bear witness to the values of the kingdom of God, both now and in its future heavenly reality. Lumen Gentium urged religious to pattern themselves after these values.
The fact that Sacred Scripture uses the infrequently expressed term "blessed" to refer to Mary shows the great veneration of the early Church for Her. The blessedness of the Mary reflects the blessedness of the Church in its participation in God's self-giving love. The Fathers of the Church called Mary "all holy." In this short phrase is contained the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception that the Vatican Council called attention to. This doctrine that Mary received the grace we receive at Baptism at Her conception through the forseen merits of Jesus Christ to prepare Her to be the Mother of the Redeemer was proclaimed a dogma by Pope Pius IX. This totally unmerited grace is a figure of the spotless bride of Jesus, His Church.
Another dogma of the Blessed Virgin Mary is Her assumption body and soul into heaven. From the 6th century homilies on Our Lady's Assumption can be found. Our Lady united to our victorious Risen Lord in Heaven is the first fruit and spotless image of the Church as she will appear in Heaven. Mary in Heaven is the sure hope and comfort for the pilgrim People of God. In Mary's union with Christ in Heaven the Church sees herself perfected by answering the invitation of her heavenly Bridegroom and obtaining union with Him also.
As early as the 3rd century the title "Mother of God" was applied to Mary. This title as an affirmation of the Incarnation and one person in Jesus Christ was proclaimed a dogma at the Ecumenical Council at Ephesus. We will see how Mary as mother is related to the Church.
Mary, Mediatrix and Spiritual Mother
As Catholics we are familiar with the term "mediatrix" to describe Mary's unique role in Her Son's redeeming mission. The Vatican Council used this word sparingly for pastoral and ecumenical reasons. Pastorally so that Catholics would understand Mary's role under Christ. Ecumenically "mediatrix" would seem to non-Catholics to conflict to the Biblical perspective of Christ as our one Mediator. Our Lady's role takes nothing away from Christ. In fact, She is the highest example of association in Her Son's redemption of Mankind. Her mediating role is perfectly in accord with the centrality of Christ. What Mary began on earth She continues in Heaven in union with Her risen Son.
Americans have the custom of calling Mary "Our Blessed Mother." Mother is associated with the transmission of life. We all have life in Christ. St. Paul's image of the Church as the "body of Christ" is a reminder that we are linked to the life of our Head, Jesus Christ. From the beginnings of Christianity the Church was seen as "Mother Church" because she transmits the life of Christ. Gradually Mary's relationship to the members of the Church came to be seen as that of a "spiritual mother." She is physical mother of Christ and spiritual mother of the members of Christ. Pope Paul during the Vatican Council called Mary the "Mother of the Church." She is our Mother not only because She was the physical Mother of Jesus. Mary's faith was first as She gave Her consent to be the Mother of God. And this same faith is what enabled Mary to become the perfect example of the Gospel's meaning of spiritual motherhood. True followers of Christ are those who hear and keep God's word. (Lk 11:28; 8:19-21) Their faith gives birth to Christ in others. The Vatican Council echoes St. Augustine who proclaimed Mary more blessed for Her faith in Christ than in conceiving Him. Any woman by a holy life and by charity can be a spiritual mother. But Mary is the greatest example of faithfullness so that Her life can be called a "pilgrimage of faith." Hers is the highest degree of spiritual motherhood. And as already stated, Mary continues this motherhood in Heaven. The pattern Word of God, faith, birth of Christ can be said of both the maternity of Mary and the Church. Both motherhoods are virginal in that they depend solely on God and not on Man. Both conceive, bring forth and nourish Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Mary in Our Life
In Sacrosanctum concilium because of the inseparable bond between Mary and Jesus in the work of redemption the Liturgical Year honors Mary. To honor Mary is to honor Jesus, since She is the Mother of God. To love Her is to love Jesus, since She is the Mother of Jesus. To pray to Her is to glorify Her Son who wills the intercessory role of His Saints, especially His Mother. To imitate Mary is to imitate Her Son, since She was His most faithful follower.
The "Communion of Saints" at the time of this document was something of little interest. But just as we can help one another on earth by our prayers and deeds, so the same can be said about the prayers of the Saints in Heaven in God's loving plan. Lumen Gentium speaks of this relationship between the pilgrim Church and the Church in Heaven. In Sacrosanctum concilium we are reminded of how our earthly liturgy gives us a foretaste of the heavenly one. In the Mass we honor the memory of Mary along with the heavenly Church.
In writing this Pastoral Letter the bishops are most concerned about the decline in Marian devotion. They want to emphasize that the Second Vatican Council gives importance to devotion to Mary not only in the Liturgy but also in traditional Marian devotions. For instance, Pope Paul VI encouraged the rosary and scapular. But the various forms of Marian devotions should follow the liturgical season. The bishops remind us of certain approved apparitions of Our Lady that have had a great influence on Catholic devotion, for instance at Lourdes. These appearances have served to remind us of basic Christian themes. Also, the Church has approved the pilgrimages and other devotions asked for in the apparition's private revelations. We must be careful of a superficiality regarding apparitions that is not in conformity with authentic devotion to Mary.
The role of Mary has been known to cause differences between Catholics and Protestants. The Vatican Council was careful in her language to guard against any word or deed that would give a false understanding to our separated brethren over the true doctrine of the Church. Our separated brethren must understand that Marian truths are not isolated truths apart from Christ. Mary points to Christ. Mary's role can only be correctly understood from Her relationship with the Holy Spirit. Her Immaculate Conception and Assumption are affirmations about the nature of our salvation.
Mary, Mother of the Church
Pope Paul's title for Mary as "Mother of the Church" expresses in a concise way the exalted place She holds in the Church. The basic reasons Mary holds this position is that She is the Mother of God, the close associate of Christ in the redemption and the model of virtues for the faithful. In a special way a priest's distinct call bears a resemblance to Mary's association with Her Son's saving work. Her relation to Jesus makes Her the spiritual mother of all priests. Mary's loving faith makes Her the perfect model for religious. She is not only a great example for the whole Church but a model for each member in any Christian vocation at every stage of human development.
Mary's Place in American Catholic History
Devotion to Mary is clear in American history right from the beginning. Columbus' flagship was named the "Santa Maria." Pioneers gave names to cities in both the South and West that expressed their love for Her. The Catholic colony that arrived in Maryland consecrated themselves to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, placed his new diocese of Baltimore under Mary's patronage. This early pattern of devotion set the stage for numerous churches, institutions and apostolates to bear Marian titles across the country. In 1846 bishops requested and received permission to place the United States under the patronage of Mary with the title of the Immaculate Conception. The magnificent national shrine of the Immaculate Conception located in the Capital City attests to Her place in American Catholic hearts.
I think the bishops of America produced a beautiful document pointing out that Vatican II in no way denounced true devotion to Our Lady. This document is full of a rich theological reflection over Our Lady coupled with practical suggestions for devotion to Her. I think it is a very important statement by the American Bishops to offset the decline in Marian devotion and negative attitude of some priests toward it. I wish that it was more widely circulated and known.