Catholic 101: What about the Virgin Mary?

You may have read before about my relationship with Mary in the Women of the Bible Series. It was written for a Protestant audience but really I didn’t have to tone down anything to suit it, in fact I even talk about a Catholic tradition that is a favourite of mine. Tomorrow is the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, falling on the centenary, so it thought it was like about time I addressed one of the main misunderstandings Protestants have with Catholicism. Mind you, I’d like to claim the fault is entirely on them, but I’ve read one too many self-described Catholics come up with pagan views of Mary in comment sections of religious blogs to actually think the fault is entirely ours. Even those of us who actually know and stick to Church teachings have a tendency to speak in Catholicese, which is basically like a display of the gift of tongues without someone to translate. We take for granted that people use words the same way we do. So I’ll do my best to speak as matter-of-fact and Protestantese as possible.

I love biblical hermeneutics. For some reason I am excited to dig into the Bible and find parallels between things, see bits in the Old Testament (I LOVE the Jewish Scriptures, there will come a day I start going to the synagogue and attempt to learn them in the original language) that foreshadow the coming of Jesus. They are called a type, apparently. Author Steve Ray compiled a list of them which includes those that refer to Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant, so there is no need for me to just open my Bible and do the same work, especially since he quoted the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman so he’s worth listening to.

So, Catholics interpret some parts of Scripture to refer to Mary in a way that suggests she has a special status within humanity (absolutely nothing divine, if you read the Catechism). In fact, what makes Mary special is precisely her humanity. She is a huge example of God’s power and grace.
We consider her our mother as the mother of the Church because the Church is the body of Christ (CCC, especially 789), and who was it that carried the earthly body of Christ through pregnancy and childhood and was at the foot of the Cross to be made the mother of the beloved disciple? It’s a mystical bond. Brad Littlejohn wrote a great piece about honouring Mary as a Protestant (it seems the fears surrounding her are a recent thing tho, as the early Reformers had plenty of nice things to say about Mary).

If you’ve read his article until the end, or if you’re already following along with the idea of Mary being a vessel of honour to God, rather than something we venerate in virtue of herself, you might have legitimate objections to what you see as praying to her (I mean, I have objections to that Latin hymn he quoted too if that’s really the translation). Anyone who read the Bible can agree on the power of intercessory prayer.  The so-called praying to saints, which is a very clumsy way to put it, is just that. For Catholics, the saints aren’t “dead people”, which is the accusation usually thrown at us. Ephesians 4:4-6 states that: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” They were once part of the mystical body of the church, so it seems logical enough that as a mystical body it does not have the constraints of time and space, therefore they still are part of it. I’m not really someone who makes use of intercessory prayer, whether asking a saint or a friend to pray for me. I do occasionally ask people, but not very often. I feel about it like the children who ask something to the parent who is more likely to obtain, from the other parent, what the child could have asked them directly, but didn’t for fear they wouldn’t get a yes. I should be brave enough to just ask the parent directly. But that’s just me. 

One of the most popular forms of prayer that are associated with Mary is the Rosary. On a first look it’s like people repeat 10 prayers that are directed to her, with some in betweens that are directed to God, but what’s supposed to be is entering a meditative state that allows you to meditate on the life of Jesus. I say “supposed” because for me it’s really just repeating prayers, my brain seems unable not to focus on the words being said, and so I don’t pray it, but those who do say they have been helped to dwell more deeply into their knowledge of Jesus. If you are interested in exploring more of this topic, you can find a lot on Heart of Mary (it’s addressed to women, if anyone has something addressed to men just leave it in a comment). A Marian devotion that, instead, I absolutely love is the Via Dolorosa. It’s a Good Friday devotion that is similar to the Stations of the Cross but looks at the Passion through the eyes of Mary. As a woman who wants to be a mother, it’s really striking for me to be spectator of the Passion through the eyes of someone who loves unconditionally (plus I know I have hurt my mother…). The reason I like it so much is that it gives me something tangible to read and think about, with Scriptures and commentaries, and I find that helps me get deeper into things. 

I’ve started by mentioning that tomorrow is the centenary of the visions of Fatima, which are a prophecy considered authentic by the Church, which will formally recognise as saints the Portuguese visionaries. I’ve mentioned before that one of the causes dearest to my heart is the persecution of Christians, which is one of the things that are contained in the prophecy of Fatima. While belief in the message of Fatima (or any Marian apparition) is not required by the Church as an article of faith (because it’s considered private revelation that the CCC 66-67 says help us live more fully by [Christ’s complete revelation] in a certain period of history), if you are interested in learning more about Fatima (and I believe there is a lot of good to take from the message) there is a great deal of information here. And you can also order O My Jesus: The Meaning of the Fátima Prayer by Prof Stephen Bullivant and Luke Arredondo, which goes into details about one of the most famous prayers of the Church (which I’ve only heard for the first time 2 years ago but apparently I was living under a rock).

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