Q: Father John, I am a convert to the Catholic faith, and I still have difficulties with Mary. Don’t get me wrong – I believe all the dogma and doctrine fully, but when it comes to praying to Mary, I don’t seem to get it. What role is she supposed to have in my pursuit of holiness and spiritual growth?
A: God in his wisdom has given us a mother in the order of grace, Mary. He didn’t have to do it that way, but he chose to, and in the last post we examined, briefly, why. The liturgical feasts that honor Mary, the Mother of God, throughout the year provide us with opportunities to read, reflect, and meditate on this aspect of God’s plan of salvation. We shouldn’t expect those efforts to lead us to a complete and exhaustive understanding of Mariology (the study of Mary’s role in Redemption), but deeper insights into the role and ecclesial action of our Lord’s Mother will, surely, lead us closer to the Lord himself, and that’s our goal.
Having looked briefly at the doctrinal foundation of Marian devotion, we are now prepared to give a more direct answer to your question about what that devotion is supposed to look like in practice. Mary draws us closer to Christ in three ways, the three ways that all saints draw us closer to Christ, though as Queen of all the saints (and because of her special privileges, e.g., the Immaculate Conception), Mary’s draw is objectively more powerful than theirs: 1) through her presence; 2) through her intercession; 3) through her example. We’ll take a separate post to look at each one.
The Source of Mary’s Greatness
The presence of the Blessed Virgin in our lives, the knowledge faith gives us that she watches over us spiritually as natural mothers watch over their children naturally, gives us a constant reminder of the most important principle of Christian living: the primacy of grace. Mary’s greatness, unlike goddesses from pagan myths, doesn’t come from her own excellence. It comes from the privileged excellence that she received from God. The Archangel Gabriel greeted her by calling her “full of grace.” It was God’s special action in her life, his grace, that preserved her from sin and prepared her to become the New Eve. She cooperated with this grace; she was docile to what God asked of her; she allowed God’s grace to penetrate and rule her life. Yet, that grace, that action of God in her life, was the real protagonist of her greatness.
Mary is the first one to remind us Jesus’ sobering admonition: “I am the vine, you are the branches… Cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
The same grace that was at work in the Blessed Virgin Mary has been at work in all the saints, and it is at work in us. When we were baptized, we received an infusion of that same grace. Every time we pray or receive any of the other sacraments, that same grace – the active presence of God working in our souls supernaturally, from within – continues to warm and transform into our hearts and minds, as sunlight transforms a cold, shadowy cave.
The Power of Mary’s Presence
When we turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary, therefore, her presence reminds us of the primacy and power of God’s grace, and gives a supernatural boost to our faith, hope, and confidence in God. If God’s grace performed such wonders in her, it can do the same in us. This boost of confidence is especially effective because when we turn to Mary we turn to her as our Mother. In relation to a mother, a child is always a child. In relation to Mary, we are always spiritual children. And so, her presence keeps alive in us the childlike spirit that we need in order to be docile to God’s will. It reminds us, in short, that we are not self-sufficient.
In this sense, Mary’s presence is especially important for us modern American Catholics. The American way of life, marked more and more by secularism and consumerism, is turning self-sufficiency into a real idol. Much more than previous generations do we need to reminded that we are spiritual children, that without God’s grace we can do nothing. At the risk of making this post exceedingly long, here is a quotation from a speech Pope Benedict XVI gave to the bishops of the United States during his visit in the spring of 2008. Notice how much he emphasizes the importance of depending on God – the primacy of grace:
“It is easy to be entranced by the almost unlimited possibilities that science and technology place before us; it is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs. This is an illusion. Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain, our lives are ultimately empty. People need to be constantly reminded to cultivate a relationship with him who came that we might have life in abundance.”
Mary’s presence keeps us humble, confident in God, and full of childlike docility and energy. In the next post we will look at the power of Mary’s intercession.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC