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Mary and the
Millennium

by Avery Dulles, S.J.

For Pope John Paul II, Mary is the primary patroness of the advent of the new millennium. As the mother of Christ she is preeminently an advent figure—the morning star announcing the rising of the Sun of Righteousness. Like the moon at the dawn of a new day, she is wholly bathed in the glory of the sun that is to come after her. Her beauty is a reflection of his.

The glories of Mary have only gradually been discovered by the Church during nearly 2,000 years of study and contemplation. The basic lines of Catholic Mariology (theology of Mary) are by now beyond dispute, enshrined as they are in the Scriptures, in the liturgy, in prayer, poetry, song and art, in the writings of saints and theologians and in the teaching of popes and councils. Mary holds a secure place as the greatest of the saints, conceived and born without original sin and free from actual sin at any point in her life.

Full of grace, she is exemplary in her faith, hope, love of God and generous concern for others. Having virginally conceived the Son of God in her womb, she remained a virgin throughout life. At the end of her earthly sojourn she was taken up body and soul into heaven, where she continues to exercise her spiritual motherhood and to intercede for the needs of her children on earth. This body of teaching, constructed laboriously over long centuries, belongs inalienably to the patrimony of the Church and can scarcely be contested from within the Catholic tradition. It goes without saying that Pope John Paul II accepts this heritage without question.

The pope's understanding of Mary

Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, has been a devoted son of Mary ever since early youth, when he worshiped at her shrines in the neighborhood of his native Wadowice. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, as a chaplet leader in a "living rosary," he joined in prayers to Mary for peace and liberation. He also studied the works of St. Louis Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), from whom he takes his motto as pope, totus tuus ("I am wholly yours").

It would be a mistake to think of the pope's attachment to Mary as the fruit of sentimentality. He emphatically denies that Marian teaching is a devotional supplement to a system of doctrine that would be complete without her. On the contrary, he holds, she occupies an indispensable place in the whole plan of salvation. "The mystery of Mary," writes the pope, "is a revealed truth which imposes itself on the intellect of believers and requires of those in the Church who have the task of studying and teaching a method of doctrinal reflection no less rigorous than that used in all theology."

As as a bishop at Vatican II, Wojtyla made several important interventions regarding Mary. He favored the inclusion of Mariology within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, but he pleaded for a different location of the text, so that, instead of being a final chapter, it would immediately follow Chapter 1 on the Mystery of the Church. Mary, he declared in a written intervention in September 1964, having built up Christ's physical body as mother, continues this role in the mystical body. Since she is mother of Christ and of Christians, she ought to be considered early in the document, rather than be relegated to a kind of appendix at the end.

For "practical reasons," however, the theological commission judged it necessary at that stage to keep the section on Mary at the end of the constitution—a decision that unfortunately made it possible for some commentators to say that Vatican II had demoted the status of Mary.

The commission also rejected several proposals to designate Mary formally as Mother of the Church, and even to make that term the title of the chapter.

But in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (1964) the Council did declare that "the Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with the affection of filial piety as a most loving mother" (#53). To the great satisfaction of Archbishop Wojtyla, Paul VI at the end of the third session, on November 21, 1964, explicitly proclaimed Mary to be Mother of the Church.

The pope's encyclical

The Mariology of John Paul II appears in concentrated form in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater (1987) and more diffusely in a series of 70 Wednesday audience catecheses on Mary delivered between 1995 and 1997. In general, his teaching may be called pastoral rather than technical or speculatively theological. The pope is more concerned with communicating the faith of the Church and fostering authentic piety than with proposing new theories. But rather frequently one comes across phrases and statements that reflect personal insights of his own.

The key term that unifies the pope's Mariology, as I see it, is that of motherhood. Mary is the mother of the redeemer, mother of divine grace, mother of the Church. The Council of Ephesus in the fifth century established the foundational dogma of Mariology, that Mary is Mother of God, in Greek, theotokos (literally, "God-bearer").

In Redemptoris Mater (#30-32) the pope calls attention to the ecumenical value of this dogma: It is accepted by practically all Christians, and has given rise to beautiful hymns, especially in the Byzantine liturgy, which in turn inspired the salutation in the great Anglican hymn, "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones": "O higher than the cherubim,/More glorious than the seraphim,/Lead their praises,Alleluia!/Thou bearer of th' eternal Word,/Most gracious, magnify the Lord, Alleluia!"

With his great interest in the theme of redemption, John Paul II frequently calls attention to Mary's involvement in the saving mission of her Son, beginning with the Annunciation, when she consented to the plan of the Incarnation and received the signal grace of divine motherhood. As the virgin mother, she conceived through faith and obedience to the divine Word that came to her from on high (Redemptoris Mater, 13).

Like Christ's own redemptive mission, Mary's role in salvation history was not exempt from sorrow. In many texts John Paul II recalls how, at the presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple, Simeon prophesied that Mary's soul would be pierced by a sword. This prophecy was to be fulfilled on Calvary, where Mary's compassion perfectly mirrored the passion of her Son, whose sufferings reverberated in her heart.

After the death of Jesus, according to the pope, Mary's motherly office assumes a new form. In saying to the Beloved Disciple, "Behold your mother," Jesus places the apostles under her maternal care (Jn 19:25-27). In the days following the Ascension we find Mary in the company of the Apostles prayerfully and confidently waiting for the Holy Spirit, who had already overshadowed her at the Annunciation, to descend upon the Church.

There is a mysterious correspondence, therefore, in Mary's maternal relationships to Jesus and to the Church. By her unceasing intercession she cooperates with maternal love in the spiritual birth and development of the sons and daughters of the Church (Redemptoris Mater, 44). "Choosing her as Mother of all humanity," writes the pope elsewhere, "...the heavenly Father wanted to reveal the maternal dimension of his divine tenderness and care for men and women of every age."

Preparing for the jubilee year

In his apostolic letter The Coming Third Millennium John Paul II makes a number of concrete suggestions with implications for Marian practice and devotion. He relates the last three years of the second millennium to the three divine persons and the three theological virtues. The year 1997, he declares, was a time to concentrate on faith with special reference to Jesus Christ as the divine Son. The year 1998 would then be a time for emphasizing the Holy Spirit and the virtue of hope. And 1999 is declared to be an occasion for turning to God the Father and for special emphasis on the virtue of charity.

Each of these three years, according to the pope, has a Marian dimension. She is the virginal mother of the Son, the immaculate spouse of the Holy Spirit and the fairest daughter of the Father. She is also exemplary in her faith, hope and charity.

In the year 1997, therefore, we were urged to contemplate Mary's journey of faith in relation to the incarnate Son. At the Annunciation, she responded in faith to the angel's message that she was chosen to become the mother of the redeemer. In uttering her fiat ("May it be done to me according to your word," Lk 1:38) she entered the history of the world's salvation through the obedience of faith (see the 1986 encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem). At the Visitation she was praised by Elizabeth with the words: "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Lk 1:45).

Mary's faith was to be severely tested by the flight into Egypt, the loss of the child Jesus in the Temple, his rejection at Nazareth, and especially his crucifixion at Golgotha, which the pope describes as "perhaps the deepest kenosis [self- emptying, outpouring] of faith in human history" (Redemptoris Mater, 18). But her faith continually grew as she pondered the meaning of the words addressed to her. Her obedient submission in faith was, in the expression of Irenaeus, the act that untied the knot of Eve's disobedience, thus enabling humanity to rise again to communion with God. Mary's faith is perpetuated in the Church as it makes its own pilgrimage of faith.

By pondering Mary's faith in Christ in 1997, Christians disposed themselves for meditation on the Holy Spirit and on hope, the themes proposed for 1998. Mary's faith, itself a gift of the Holy Spirit, enabled her to conceive her Son by the power of that same Spirit. Her faith flowered in an ardent and unfailing hope. Just as Abraham hoped against hope that he would become the father of many nations (Rom 4:18), so Mary trusted against all appearances that the Lord would place her Son upon the throne of David, where he would reign in unending glory (Lk 1:32-33).

The hope of the whole people of ancient Israel came to its culmination in Mary, who in her Magnificat praised God's fidelity to the promises he had made to Abraham and to his posterity forever (Lk 1:55). She is thus a radiant model for all who entrust themselves to God's promises. The image of the Virgin praying with the apostles in the Cenacle, says John Paul II, can become a sign of hope for all who call upon the Holy Spirit to deepen their union with God.

Finally, as the most highly favored daughter of the Father, Mary may be viewed as the supreme model of love toward God and neighbor—the theme for 1999. Out of affection for her cousin Elizabeth, she hastens into the hill country to assist her and share with her the good news of the Annunciation. In the Magnificat she expresses her joy of spirit in God her savior, who has looked upon her lowliness and done great things for her.

In the same hymn she expresses solidarity with Yahweh's beloved poor, thus anticipating the Church's preferential option for the poor. At Cana she manifests her active charity by helping to relieve the embarrassment of her hosts, thus occasioning the miracle by which Christ first displayed his messianic power over nature. Mary's love for God is brought to its deepest fulfillment in heaven, where she continues to intercede lovingly for her children on earth. This she will continue to do until all things are subjected to the Father, so that God will become all in all.

The Church follows in the paths marked out for her by Mary. Like her the Church believes, accepting with fidelity the word of God. It preserves the faith by keeping and pondering in its heart all that God speaks to it. Sustained by the Holy Spirit amid the afflictions and hardships of the world, the Church unceasingly looks forward in hope to the promise of future glory. In imitation of Mary, the fair daughter of Zion, the Church continually praises the Father's mercies and imitates his love for men and women of every nation, the righteous and the unrighteous. The Church's prayers for the needs of the whole world blend with Mary's petitions before the throne of God.

Besides being an icon of the whole Church, Mary is in a particular way a model for women. The contrasting vocations of virginity and motherhood meet and coexist in her (see John Paul II's 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem). The single, the married and the widowed can all look to her for inspiration. In Mary women can find an exemplar of "the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement" (Redemptoris Mater, 46).

Meaning of the jubilee

Pope John Paul's Mariology is closely interwoven with his theology of time. Mary could receive the fullness of grace because the fullness of time had arrived (Gal 4:4). This fullness, says the pope, "marks the moment when, with the entrance of the eternal into time, time itself is redeemed."

Jubilee years are more than sentimental recollections of the past. They are woven into the texture of salvation history. Christ began his public ministry by proclaiming the arrival of the great jubilee, the year of the Lord's favor predicted by the prophet Isaiah (Lk 4:16-30).

We continue to live in this era of redemption, this jubilee season of grace and liberation. Just as the Scripture was fulfilled in the hearing of those gathered in the synagogue of Nazareth, so it is fulfilled anew in our hearing, if we will only listen. Every jubilee celebration of the Church recalls and reactivates the arrival of the fullness of time.

The coming jubilee recalls the wonders of Mary while it celebrates her son. The child does not enter the world apart from Mary his blessed mother, the theotokos. In her pilgrimage of faith, hope and love she blazes the trail on which the Church is to follow. She continues to go before the people of God (Redemptoris Mater, 6, 25, 28), coming to the help of her clients who seek to rise above their sins and misery.

Just as before the coming of Christ Mary was the "morning star" (stella matutina), so she remains, for us who are still on the journey of faith, the"star of the sea" (stella maris). She guides us through the dark journey toward the moment when faith will be transformed into the everlasting vision in which we look upon God our Savior face-to-face.


Avery Dulles, S.J., is the McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University. This article is adapted from the Tenth Annual Fall McGinley Lecture delivered at Fordham on November 19, 1997.

 

 

Mary:
Guiding Star for the New Millennium

"I entrust [the Church's preparation for the new millennium] to the maternal intercession of MARY, mother of the redeemer.

She, the mother of fairest love, will be for Christians on the way to the Great Jubilee of the third millennium the STAR which safely guides their steps to the LORD.

May the unassuming young woman of Nazareth, who 2,000 years ago offered to the world the INCARNATE WORD, lead the men and women of the new millennium toward the one who is the 'TRUE LIGHT that enlightens every man' (Jn 1:9)."

—Pope John Paul II,
The Coming Third Mi
llennium, 59

 


Next: Eucharist—Understanding Christ's Body (by William H.Shannon)


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