By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
By conventional standards, Jesus’ mother is not a major figure in the New Testament. Her name appears barely a dozen times; famously, Mary is mentioned more often in the Qur’an than in the Christian Bible. Yet despite that relatively low profile, few figures in Scripture have been the subject of greater controversy.
For some Protestants, Mary has long loomed as a symbol of Catholicism’s penchant for “adding” to the gospel, in this case an almost blasphemous level of devotion to a mere human being. For some feminists, veneration of Mary as both virgin and mother sets an impossible standard for women, thereby perpetuating male dominance. For many secularists, the body of miraculous lore surrounding Mary, especially her reported apparitions in various parts of the world, strains credibility in a special way.
In part, perhaps, Mary has been a lightning rod precisely because she is such a uniquely Catholic figure. Catholics share Christ, the gospels, prayer and sacrifice, even the sacraments, with many other forms of Christianity. Yet even though other Christians treasure Mary in their own ways, she is strongly associated in the popular imagination with the Catholic church.
Mary’s centrality in Catholic tradition may help explain why the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have been so committed to reawakening Marian devotion in the church. For both popes, defending Catholic identity in a highly secular age has been job number one, and nothing says ‘Catholic’ quite like the Blessed Virgin Mary.
John Paul’s motto was Totus Tuus, “all yours,” a phrase from the book True Devotion to Mary by the 17th and 18th century French saint Louis de Montfort. As for Benedict XVI, so far he’s made nine foreign trips, and virtually all have pivoted on a major Marian shrine. While in Brazil, for example, Benedict went to the shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida; the heart of his trip to Austria was a stop at the sanctuary of Mariazell.
Once again next week, Benedict will be at a major Marian center to mark an important occasion, in this case the 150th anniversary of the first appearance of Mary to St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes.
Thus for Benedict, the pilgrimage to Lourdes is not a largely obligatory act of piety, one that represents a sideshow to his session with French President Nicolas Sarkozy or his efforts to revitalize the French church. Instead, Mary is very much the beating heart of this trip – and, for that matter, of much of Benedict’s papacy.
Over the weekend, Benedict offered a preview of his message in Lourdes during a brief stop at another Marian shrine – Our Lady of Bonaria, on the Italian island of Sardinia. (Our Lady of Bonaria is the traditional patron of sailors in the Mediterranean; Spanish conquistadores named the capital of Argentina for her, Buenos Aires.)
In summary, the pope made five points about Mary in Sardinia, which are likely to surface again while he’s at Lourdes:
•tMary points to Christ, above all to his incarnation.
•tMary is a symbol of the beauty and tenderness of God.
•tMary is a forerunner and a model for all disciples of Christ.
•tMary is a model for mothers, children and spouses, and thus a patron of the family.
•tMary is the “star of the new evangelization,” a patron for efforts to bring Christ to the world.
Benedict encouraged the Sardinians to renew their Marian traditions, not merely as a matter of preserving local culture, but also because of the importance of Mary in Catholic theology and spirituality.
“The role of Mary in salvation history stands out in all its clarity: the being of Mary is totally relative to Christ, in particular to his incarnation,” Benedict said in his homily at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria. “Respecting everything human, God makes it fecund from within, causing the most beautiful fruit of his creative and redemptive work to bloom from the humble virgin of Nazareth.”
“Thus we can, once again, contemplate the place of Mary in God’s plan for salvation,” the pope said. “She is, in fact, in Christ, the summit and model of ‘those who love God.’ In the ‘here I am’ of the Son, we find a faithful echo of the ‘here I am’ of his mother, as well as the ‘here I am’ of all the adoptive children of the Son.”
In a nod to local devotion, Benedict cited a line from a Marian hymn in the Sardinian dialect: Sa Mama, Fiza, Isposa de su Segnore, referring to Mary as a mother, daughter, and spouse.
“May Mary help you to carry Christ to families, small domestic churches and the building blocks of society, which today more than ever need faith and support both on the spiritual and the social level,” the pope said.
“May Mary help you find the right pastoral strategies to help young people encounter Christ,” Benedict said. “Youth by their nature carry new energy, but are often the victims of a widespread nihilism. They are thirsty for truth and for ideals, precisely when both seem to be denied.”
Finally, Benedict urged the Sardinians to turn to Mary as a patron of efforts to evangelize the world – not just in terms of making disciples, but also bringing Christian values to society and public life.
“May she make you capable of evangelizing the world of work, of the economy, of politics,” Benedict said, “all of which today need a new generation of committed lay Christians, capable of seeking, with competence and moral rigor, solutions to sustainable development.”
Benedict’s Marian leitmotif illustrates a by-now familiar theme of his papacy.
In contrast to those who regard traditional piety and doctrine as a distraction from building a better world, Benedict insists that shoring up classic Catholic identity is not merely a means, but ultimately the only means, of fostering durable peace and justice. In the final analysis, in his view, a world without God, who is revealed in Christ, cannot be just – and Mary is the ultimate witness to Christ, as well as the role model par excellence for all who wish to follow Christ.
Like John Paul before him, Benedict XVI seems determined to lead a deeply Marian papacy. That will almost certainly be the story of his visit to Lourdes, whether or not it shows up in the headlines.
John Allen is filing stories throughout the pope's visit to France and Lourdes. Read all the stories in his daily news column: John L Allen Jr Daily Column. Stories he has already filed include:
• Pope offers prayerful meditation on Eucharist: Jesus 'past, present and future'
• Pope in France: Traditionalists deserve 'a place in the church'
• The Cross, Mary, and hope for 'new vigor' in the Church
• No reference to Muslims, but pope makes a call to resist 'disaster for humanity'
• Benedict makes a case for 'healthy secularism'
• Pope in France: Averting a secular Iron Curtain
• Pope in France: Latin Mass an 'act of tolerance'
• Extracts from Sarkozy on church/state relations in France
• Cardinal Tauran on the pope's trip to France
• The Marian Papacy of Benedict XVI
• Benedict hopes to tap the 'creative minority' of French Catholics
(Editor's Note: Some stories are double posted, on NCRonline.org and on NCRcafe.org.)