“What a joy to remember that she is our Mother! Since she loves us and knows our weakness, what have we to fear?” Saint Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church
By Alex P. Vidal
“HAIL Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
These words of the Ave Maria, spoken daily by millions of Roman Catholics, summarize one of the most perplexing elements in the riddle of Roman Catholicism, the cult of prayers and veneration addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The late Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, who wrote The Riddle of Roman Catholicism on the eve of the Second Vatican Council and in the early phase of the Cold War, explained that other elements in that riddle may seem strange or even fascinating, “but the cult of the Blessed Virgin is downright repugnant to many non-Roman Christians.”
Non-Catholics look upon it as “a species or vestigial remnant of pre-Christian paganism,” Pelikan explained.
He noted that “they smile intolerantly” when they see or hear the invocation of the saints by the Roman Catholics, or read notices in the “Personal” column of a metropolitan newspaper that say: “Thanks to St. Jude and the Blessed Virgin for obtaining an apartment for us.”
Pelikan observed that even those Protestants who look at the mass with respect rather than suspicion are caught short by the veneration of Mary.
“In the eyes of many Protestant lay people this is surely the most obnoxious feature of Roman Catholicism,” Pelikan stressed. “Here, they say, you have to draw the line beyond which Christianity dare not go.”
Protestant theology, too, sees in the cult of Mary, as it has climaxed now in the dogma of the Assumption, one of the chief barriers between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Pelikan said even sympathetic Protestant theologians felt constrained to warn in 1950:
While today the majority of the churches with tears of penitence confess before God that they share in the guilt of a divided Body of Christ, and in common prayer and serious scholarly effort seek to diminish the area of disagreement and increase the area of agreement…the Roman Church would increase the area of disagreement by a dogma of the Assumption. Creation of a dogma of the Assumption would be interpreted today in the midst of the efforts at closer relationships between the churches as a fundamental veto on the part of the Roman Church.
“Thus there is little sympathy for Roman Catholic Mariology outside the borders of the Roman communion,” stressed Pelikan, who died on May 13, 2006 after a battle with cancer at age 82.
Calling Mary “holy” was originally a way of speaking not about Mary herself at all, but about Jesus Christ, suggested the one-time Lutheran professor of church history at Yale Divinity School.
Almost every reference to her in the earliest Christian literature is, in point, a reference to her son.
When Paul says that Christ was “born of woman,” he is saying nothing about Mary, but is asserting that our Lord was truly human. (See Gal. 4:4.)
Pelikan pointed out that even the narratives of Matthew and Luke, which tell of her conceiving without a man, are aimed at the glorification of Christ, not of Mary.
“Whatever else may be said about the idea of the virgin birth, it is a declaration about Jesus Christ,” wrote Pelikan. “It means that even in the circumstances of his humble birth Jesus manifested God’s power and freedom over the created world and its laws.”
He added: “To that power and freedom it points as a sign. Even without the sign of the virgin birth, the gospels of Mark and John and the epistles of Paul are able to speak of the power and the freedom of God in Christ.”
Pelikan explained that the sign loses its powers as a sign, its “significance,” when it is interpreted as merely an incredible happening or when it is taken as a key to the holiness of Mary.
“Mary and Pontius Pilate are the only two ordinary people mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed,” disclosed Pelikan. “Both are there as signs pointing to Jesus Christ—one to show his lordship even in infancy, the other to show his lordship even in death.”
Pelikan believed that “neither Mary nor Pilate is important as a figure in history except for the role each of them played in the career of our Lord.”