Catholic New World: Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago

The InterVIEW

Mary is our mother, and mother of the church

Sister Sara Butler

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

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May is Mary’s month, and Mary has always been special to Catholics. At least 70 of the archdiocese’s 365 parishes are named after Mary in some form, including six named Immaculate Conception. To discuss why Catholics are so devoted to Mary, Catholic New World staff writer Michelle Martin spoke with Father James Presta, rector of St. Joseph College Seminary, who recently received a doctorate in Mariology from the University of Dayton.

The Catholic New World: When did devotion to Mary develop?

Father James Presta: If you look at the history of Marian devotion, it’s been part of the fabric of the church from the first or second century. The evidence we see would be images of Mary in the catacombs in Rome—there’s some very early artwork depicting Mary and the kind of impact that she had on the people. Even by the first few centuries there’s already a prayer, a Latin prayer called the Sub Tuum Praesidium, invoking Mary’s help and protection. There is also evidence of devotion to Mary in the writings of the church fathers, and she is mentioned in the Creed.

The earliest source really is the Scriptures. There is the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, with the more familiar stories of Mary. Even John has the two stories of Cana and Calvary, with Mary at the foot of the cross.

So from Scripture, from the church fathers to the depictions in the catacombs to the creeds, there seems to be evidence of devotion to Mary.

TCNW: How has it changed over the centuries?

FJP: Obviously, it’s developed in 2,000 years. It’s different than it was in the first centuries of the church, no doubt, in the sense that we certainly add something of ourselves to Marian devotion. Our culture has something to say about it. Different ethnic groups have developed different pieties and devotions, especially around some of the apparitions, so it looks different than it did in the first centuries of the church.

We call the church the mother church, because the church is a teacher and a guide. In a sense, the church parallels or learns from Mary. In Vatican II, we said Mary is the mother of the church. “Lumen Gentium” links Mary to the church in chapter 8, and it really kind of set a tone for post-Vatican II devotion to Mary, setting it in the context that all devotion to Mary really centered on Christ and the church.

TCNW: Why do Catholics feel so close to Mary?

FJP: It’s love, affection for someone that we call mother. One of the reasons Catholics are so devoted to Mary is that they can relate to her. They see in her what they see in their own mothers. There’s a link between Mary and Catholics because she occupies a unique place in salvation history. No one else gave birth to Jesus Christ. She’s the only one.

She occupies a special place in our devotional life and our spirituality. She accompanied Christ throughout his life—to the cross—and so she accompanies us. We make mention of Mary in the Mass. She’s mentioned in the Confiteor and the Creed, she’s mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer. There are special Masses devoted to Mary, feast days devoted to her. What the church is really trying to say is that Mary is a premier disciple. She is queen, she is mother, she is teacher, she is role model for Christians and Catholics today.

TCNW: Is that why she has appeared so many times?

FJP: The whole idea of Marian apparitions actually goes back to the early days of the church. One of the church fathers— St. Gregory of Nyssa, I think— claims to have had an apparition of Mary.

They become more pronounced and popular in the last 200 years. We’ve had apparitions happen in countries where something significant was going on in their political and social life. Mary seems to bring a message from God to people there. The message is usually very Gospel-centered, and it’s certainly in keeping with what the church teaches, and that is the need for prayer, the need for penance, the need for conversion, the need to return to the sacraments.

TCNW: What is the church teaching on the apparitions?

FJP: The church will give its approval of apparitions that are authentic, that are Gospel based, that are in line with what the church has already taught—it can’t be anything new. It can’t be a new doctrine. The church will usually approve of the actual site of the apparition, saying that it’s a place where people can go for pilgrimage and know that they are on holy ground and it’s a place where they can grow in their faith. The fact that someone may not wholeheartedly embrace the apparitions, the church would say, it’s not part of the deposit of faith. You can be a good Catholic and yet not fully understand or Marian apparitions may not be part of your spiritual life. Marian apparitions would not be considered essentials of the faith.

Obviously the church will hold them up as significant. They have a message that needs to be shared, a message that is divinely inspired. The church gives its support to those who support these particular pilgrimage sites.

Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, Knock. There are also a couple in Belgium— Banneaux and Beauring. There are a number of them that have been approved. Also the Miraculous Medal, in 1830. From 1830 on we’ve had a number—I think it’s seven apparitions.

TCNW: What do you say to non-Catholics who think we worship Mary?

FJP: Obviously, we worship God alone. That’s very clear in our theology. We venerate Mary and the saints. As a practice we have a tendency where non-Catholics can look at what we do and misinterpret. But I think the teaching of the church has always been clear. We have always given Mary an exalted status among the saints, saying that she is owed hyperdulia—which basically means that we give her special veneration. Why do we honor Mary and the saints? Because they’re great models for us: Mary’s great fiat, her acceptance of the Lord’s word, her generous response to the Lord, and the fact that she is the mother of God, she deserves a special place of recognition— like we recognize anyone we honor and love. We have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It’s the same kind of notion that we apply to the saints.

There’s also the idea of the communion of saints, that we here on earth, the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven, together we make up the communion of saints. There’s great power in that. They can pray on our behalf to God. We all need intercessors, we all need people to pray for us. Jesus Christ is the mediator. There’s no doubt that is obviously true and a doctrine of faith. Mary cooperated in the plan of salvation, and Mary intercedes for us to her son.