Devotion to Mary has been a source of debate in recent years as people lament that some Catholics have no devotion to the Mother of God at all, while others harbour concerns that some Mariology displaces Christ in whom redemption is claimed.
For the most part, there does not seem to be much middle ground in this debate. Mary either receives too much attention or is ignored. There is no question that Mariology remains for several people outside the Church, and for a few within it, a very difficult area.
As with most difficult doctrines it is often not what we have to say, but the language we use in saying it. There are a variety of ways to speak with people about Mary. One is to attend to the advice of Paul VI in Marialis Cultus and start with the nine episodes where Mary is portrayed in the New Testament: the annunciation; the visitation; the nativity; fleeing as a refugee to Egypt; the losing of Jesus in the temple; the wedding at Cana; when she goes to bring Jesus home from his public ministry in Mark 3; the crucifixion and Pentecost. The religious truths contained in the scriptures cannot lead us astray in our spiritual lives, and these texts provide enough flesh and blood moments for a lively devotion.
As helpful as Pope Paul’s advice was for me in my devotion to Mary, it was another episode in my life which helped me even more.
On 15 August 1975 the entire parish council of a village outside the capital of Chile was arrested by the military police. For months the villagers tried to find out where the men had gone and why they had been taken away. Abduction, torture and illegal imprisonment were daily realities for Chilean people under General Pinochet.
Word arrived in November that the corpses of the parish councilors could be found in Santiago’s morgue. My friend, Catherine, an US nun working in that parish, took the mothers of the eight men to the morgue. Catherine later wrote to me, ‘Richard you could not imagine what we found in the morgue. There were over 300 corpses piled high on each other and the mothers had to roll someone else’s son over in an attempt to find their own. And as the mothers searched they began to weep loudly realising how evil we can be toward one another. As they wept they prayed the rosary. As one mother, and then another, found her son, they called out more desperately,“Holy Mary, Mother of God pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.”’
Catherine’s letter continued, ‘For years I rejected devotion to Mary because I felt oppressed by the way generations of men in the Church presented her – blue veils, white skin, always smiling, a perpetual virgin and yet also a mother, an ideal I could never achieve, but one to which I was told I should aspire. In the experience of the village mothers, however, the distortions of who Mary was for a poor and suffering world faded away. Far from feeling distant from their devotion, I found myself praying with them, knowing that Mary was with us in our shock, anger and grief.’
‘The journey home was harrowing. My pickup truck could not take all the mothers and their sons in the back, so I had one of them in the front with me, cradling her son in her arms all the way back to our village. I asked on the long trip home about their prayer to Mary. She said, “We can only pray with Mary at times like this because she knows what it’s like to bring a child into the world and claim his dead body in her arms.”’
Twelve years later, in 1989, Catherine died in that village of hepatitis. Her family had been trying to get her to come home for months, but she lied about how ill she was and said that she could find everything she needed there. The only consolation Catherine’s family got was when a letter arrived from the mothers in the village. When it was translated into English it read:
‘We want you to know that we were with Catherine when she died. We would never have let her die alone for she was one of our children too. We often prayed the rosary with her. She seemed to like that, thumbing the beads she used ever since she brought us back with our boys. We have buried her next to our sons and put on her tombstone the line she asked us to inscribe, “Mary my friend, my companion and mother of the poor pray for me.”’
In 2001 I went to work in South America. I caught a bus from Santiago, and nearly three hours later got off the bus in the mountains. The mothers greeted me like a long-lost son, and they took me to Catherine’s grave soon after I arrived. I do not speak Spanish. The six surviving mothers do not speak English, but the local priest was able to do a little translation. There it is; the ninth grave in a line with the sons they buried in 1975.
We stood. We wept and then they asked me to pray. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I simply went to an ancient Latin love song in honour of Mary, Mother of the Poor: Salve Regina… And as soon as I started they all joined in.
Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae; vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve. Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevae. Ad te suspiramus gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte. Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsilium ostende. O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.
V. Ora pro nobis, sancta Dei Genitrix.
R. Ut digni efficamur promissionibus Christi.
(Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee to we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.)
Now is not the time for us to throw devotion to Mary out, but to reclaim a relationship with her as prophet, friend and companion in faith.
If we are in touch with the fact that we are poor in spirit, we know she meets us there and always brings us to her Son.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Why Bother Praying?