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Life Unfolded for Mary As It Does for Us
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

How Much Did Mary Know?
Was Something Lacking in Christ’s Sufferings?
Are Infant Baptism and Limbo Connected?
Was Anyone Else Born Free From All Sin?


Q: When Mary was invited by the Archangel Gabriel to be the mother of Jesus, did she know any details about Jesus’ future life? Where he would be born? What he would do as an adult? That he would be crucified, rise from the dead and ascend into heaven?

A: Mary probably knew none of these details beforehand. If she had, Mary might have gone through life with an I-know-but-I-can’t-tell-you smirk on her face. Her willingness to live with uncertainty began with her reply to Gabriel: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38a). Mary had to take life as it came—just as we do.

St. Luke tells us a great deal when he writes that after the visit from the shepherds outside Bethlehem, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (2:19). After Jesus, at age 12, was lost in the Temple for three days and then returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, St. Luke notes, “and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:51b).

In a way, Mary anticipated the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) by bringing the puzzling events of her life to prayer, by seeking help from Scripture to understand them. This is what makes Mary the first and most perfect disciple of Jesus, as the late Father Raymond Brown, S.S., describes so well at www.AmericanCatholic.org/Messenger/May1997/Feature2.asp.

Mary knows our struggles and our joys. Perhaps that is why paintings and statues of Mary holding Jesus after he was taken down from the cross have been very popular across cultures and down through the centuries. This is not the end of her story, but she had to live it to arrive at the end.

Where would faith have been if Mary had known the details of Jesus’ life but had chosen to hide them? According to Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (NRSV).

Henry Alford’s hymn text describes Mary’s faith as well as ours: “We walk by faith, and not by sight/No gracious words we hear/of him who spoke as none e’er spoke/but we believe him near.” Mary did a good deal of soul-searching before she heard Jesus speak—as well as much pondering and praying long after Jesus ascended into heaven.

Q: On the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle (July 3), this quote appears in St. Anthony Messenger Press’s book Saint of the Day: “...they [the apostles] supplied what was wanting in the sufferings of Christ by their own trials and sufferings” (Colossians 1:24).

How could anything be “wanting” (normally understood as meaning absent, falling below expectations or lacking in capacity) in Christ’s suffering and death? How could any human being possibly supply anything of meaning, compared to Christ’s sacrifice?

A: Both the print and the online version for this feast place this Scripture reference within a longer quote from Vatican II’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (#5).

In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Maurya Horgan writes about Colossians 1:24: “This is usually translated, ‘I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.’ Interpreters have debated two issues: 1) the meaning of filling up what is lacking; and 2) the meaning of ‘afflictions of Christ.’

“Since the hymn proclaimed Christ as the one through whom all are reconciled—restated by the author in 1:22—verse 24 should not be thought to say that Christ’s work was somehow insufficient. The word thlipsis, which is never used of Jesus’ passion but is regularly used of the hardships of those proclaiming the gospel (Romans 5:3; 8:35; 2 Corinthians 1:4,8; 2:4; 4:17; 6:4 and 7:4), suggests that the afflictions are Paul’s, not Christ’s.”

This interpretation is supported by the Decree, which, after referring to Christ’s mission, states: “Since this mission continues and, in the course of history, unfolds the mission of Christ, who was sent to evangelize the poor, the Church, urged on by the Spirit of Christ, must walk the road Christ himself walked, a way of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice even to death, a death from which he emerged victorious by his resurrection.

“So it was that the apostles walked in hope and by much trouble and suffering filled up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ for his body, which is the Church. Often, too, the seed was the blood of Christians [reference to Tertullian, who wrote, ‘The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church’]” (#5).

Q: Some of my family members are arguing that because the Church no longer teaches what I learned about limbo as a child, there is no longer any reason to baptize their newborn twins.

Two questions: Has the Church, in fact, changed its teaching about limbo? If so, what effect does that have on the practice of baptizing infants? I don’t agree with my relatives regarding the Baptism of children, but I need a better answer.

A: The Church never officially taught that all unbaptized persons will go to limbo—unless they were martyred or were old enough to experience “Baptism of desire.” But many Catholics have thought the Church taught that.

As I indicated in my September 2007 column, on April 20, 2007, the International Theological Commission (ITC) published, with Pope Benedict XVI’s permission, a 41-page document titled The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized. This is the result of a study begun in 2004 by the ITC, whose members are appointed by the pope and work with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This ITC text is available at the CDF section at www.vatican.va.

In 1984, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated: “Limbo was never a defined truth of faith. Personally—and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as prefect of the Congregation—I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for faith, namely, the importance of Baptism” (The Ratzinger Report, p. 147).

The Catholic Church was baptizing infants for centuries before any theologian speculated about limbo, which solves one problem (Where do unbaptized good people go?) but created another (Is limbo the best that most people who have ever lived can achieve?).

Baptizing infants is a way for parents to affirm which values they consider most important to share with their children. Your relatives could delay baptizing these twins for years. Meanwhile, those twins will be accepting some values as “normal”—but not necessarily values consistent with following Jesus Christ.

If parents are not ready to make the commitment to be the primary educators in the faith for these twins, then Baptism is not proper at this time. The parents, however, cannot use the downgrading of limbo to justify their decision.

Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church teaches: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—these too may attain eternal salvation” (#16).

This quote indicates that limbo is not the best hope for unbaptized adults who have led a good life.

Q: On June 27, the Office of Readings for St. Cyril of Alexandria quoted St. Athanasius: “There have been many holy men free from all sin. Jeremiah was sanctified in his mother’s womb, and John while still in the womb leaped for joy at the voice of Mary.” I thought that Mary the mother of Jesus was the only person free from all sin. Am I missing something in this passage?

A: St. Athanasius was noting here that Jeremiah was called to be a prophet from his mother’s womb (1:5). Likewise, St. Luke notes the meeting of the unborn John the Baptist and the unborn Jesus (1:44). St. Cyril is not saying that Jeremiah and John the Baptist were conceived without Original Sin, which is what the 1854 definition of Mary’s Immaculate Conception affirms about the mother of Jesus. Even though the Prophet Jeremiah and John the Baptist had unique vocations from God, neither of them was born without Original Sin.

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