A statue of Mary overlooks the tiny fishing village of Trinity, Nfld. Photo by Michael Swan

A pilgrim Church looks to Mary

By 
  • September 22, 2022

For Catholics who have for years heard Mary’s first words in the Gospel of Luke as the defining moment of her life, it may seem the Pope is flipping the script on the Lord’s mother.

Those words, where Mary declares herself “The servant of the Lord,” and asks the Angel Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your word,” have often translated into a passive Mary, remote from the cares of the world. But for the Pope, those words are not the end-point but merely the beginning as he reflects on the Blessed Virgin in a statement released Sept. 12.

In his message for next August’s World Youth Day in Portugal, Pope Francis emphasizes a more active, engaged Mary on the move. He sees her as a model for the “Pilgrim Church.” Mary’s immediate choice to head “with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,” where she would accompany her older cousin Elizabeth through an unlikely pregnancy, is the key to understanding how Mary is anything but passive.

“The young Mary did not remain paralyzed, for within her was Jesus, the power of resurrection and new life,” Pope Francis writes.

This emphasis on Mary’s life after her fateful “fiat” is a breath of fresh air for Doris Keiser, a theologian at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta. Keiser is a specialist in the history of Church teaching about Mary, currently researching the ways Pope Francis speaks about her.

“I like the Mary who is more active, because she is a human person,” Keiser said. “She is foundationally human, which is what is important about her relationship with Christ. That makes sense.”

The Pope has found in Mary’s life a potent model for young people seeking a faith that acts in the world.

“The Mother of the Lord is a model for young people on the move, who refuse to stand in front of a mirror to contemplate themselves or to get caught up in the ‘net,’ ” Pope Francis writes. “Mary’s focus is always directed outwards. She is the woman of Easter.”

The passive Mary who only sits and ponders is really a very modern invention. Keiser points out how in the Middle Ages people thought of Mary as someone capable of making choices.

“If you look at medieval mystic women, if you look at their perceptions of Mary, Mary is less of a model (for others) and more an embodiment,” Keiser said. “Her significance is in the incarnation. She is depicted far more actively by those women.”

Pope Francis also speaks of a young, flesh and blood Mary whom young people can identify with.

“Mary was a young woman, like many of you,” he writes. “She was one of us.”

This has been a particularly important way for Indigenous people to connect with Our Lady, said Maliseet elder and former New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Graydon Nicholas, citing Our Lady’s 17th-century appearance to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego at Guadalupe.

“She appears, of course, as an Indigenous woman, speaks the language and also brings comfort to the oppressed Indigenous people of that part of Mexico at that time,” said Nicholas, a member of the Guadalupe Circle, an official dialogue between Indigenous Canadians and Catholic bishops.

Of course, no pope ever taught that Mary was merely a passive object in the history of salvation. But excessive emphasis on her fiat (let it be done unto me) and images of her spotless purity have pushed her life of journeys and toil for others into the background.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX emphasized Mary’s passive acceptance of grace in Ineffabilis Deus, which declared Mary’s immaculate conception as the constant teaching of the Church.

The Greek word Kecharitomene on Gabriel’s lips when he praises the Virgin as “full of grace” is a perfect passive participle. Over time this passive aspect of Mary’s existence came to dominate a certain strain of popular devotions.

Pope Francis’ young, active and human Mary is good news for women who have identified with Mary as the first woman of the Church, said Keiser.

“Women are very active in the Church in all of its capacities,” she said. “I wonder, does (Pope Francis) see that? By referring to Mary as this very active person who is being called to lift up the Church, you see what is happening in the Church and you can be like Mary. You can lift up the Church.”

In addition to Mary as a model for the pilgrim Church, Pope Francis sees her as the model for a culture of encounter.

“She sets out to find the most genuine of all ‘connections’: the one that comes from encounter, sharing, love and service,” Pope Francis writes.

This culture of encounter is naturally international and has lived on beyond Mary’s life on Earth.

“Mary has never stopped bridging time and space to visit those of her sons and daughters who need her loving help,” said the Pope.

In lifting up the apparitions of Mary around the world, Pope Francis embraces the popular devotions of Catholics, particularly poor Catholics in marginalized communities.

“It comes with Francis’ more devotional understanding of Mary in the Church,” said Keiser. “A lot of scholars poo-poo the apparitions and don’t really buy into them in the same way as is claimed by popular devotion. Clearly Francis doesn’t have a problem with it.”

The advantage in apparitions for Francis’ message is that they situate Mary as an ambassador to a truly global Church.

“There’s room for a Mary who isn’t white and blue-eyed. Mary is frequently the protector of the local people. When she appears, she appears to be as one of them.”

Nicholas also looks to Mary as a figure who stands with the poor and on the side of the environment, a point the Pope drives home.

“The Mother of God moves in the midst of her people by tender and loving care; she makes her own their anxieties and troubles,” he said.

Marian Apparitions

The many appearances of Mary through the centuries and in our own time have given us an international Our Lady. Here are some of the apparitions that have found a place in the hearts of Christians around the world.

Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to an Aztec man, Juan Diego, in 1531. She was pregnant and had an Indigenous face. Her image was imprinted in Diego’s tilma or cape, which is now on display in her shrine in Mexico. In 1999 St. Pope John Paul II declared her patroness of the Americas.

Our Lady Aparecida, or “Our Lady Revealed,” first appeared to Domingos Garcia, João Alves, and Filipe Pedroso, three fisherman on the Paraíba river who in 1717 had prayed for a bountiful harvest of fish. Today her shrine in Brazil is the second largest Church in the world, with capacity for 40,000 worshippers.

Our Lady of Akita appeared to Sister Agnes Katsuko Sasagawa in 1973. The Japanese Sister reported hearing a statue of Our Lady of All Nations speak to her. Which was extraordinary because Sister Agnes was deaf.

Our Lady of Kibeho identified herself to three young Rwandans as “Nyina wa Jambo,” or "Mother of the Word" in 1981. She warned Alphonsine Mumureke, Nathalie Mukamazimpaka, and Marie Claire Mukangango of a coming slaughter. Ten years later, Mukangango was killed in the Rwandan genocide. 500,000 people per year visit her shrine.

Our Lady of Good Health appeared twice to separate Tamil children in southern India in 1570 and 1587. Rather than delivering a message, Mary asked the children for milk for her child. After the children handed over the milk, miracles ensued. When Pope John XXIII elevated the shrine in Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu to a basilica, he called it the “Lourdes of the East.”

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