“Ave Maria”

Pointed Admonition

I stopped my car. A middle-aged lady, thumbing a ride, stepped in. Her speech betrayed her foreign ancestry. As our conversation grew, it turned out that she was from Brabant, Holland.

But who was I? she wondered, after switching to the Dutch. A minister, I explained. Oh, an “evangelist,” she responded. And she was an ardent Roman Catholic.

That set the stage for a lively discussion. Nearing our destination, our conversation drifted to Mary. After sending out a feeler or two, I ventured my conviction that the Bible offers no grounds for believing either Mary’s immaculate conception or her bodily ascension to heaven.

Fact was, my passenger owned no Bible, and never had, but intended to purchase one on a forthcoming trip to Holland. My argument was therefore pointless to her, for she could hardly contest it intelligently. Nonetheless, the vigor and conviction and resolute passion with which she reacted was most striking.

“Sir,” she said, “that is a great sin and you will have to confess that sin this very evening!”

I have never forgotten that admonition. Often I have reflected upon it. What is it about Mary’s sanctity, and about her deeply entrenched position in the Catholic mind, and about her steadily increasing importance in Catholic theology and dogma, which can account for such an emotional eruption? In seeking an answer, let us look into the background of Mariology as it has developed down through the years.

Point Of View

The closest most of us come to such veneration is perhaps our musical appreciation of the anthem “Ave Maria.” This, however, does not even begin to scratch the surface of the deeply religious significance attached to Mary by devout Roman Catholics. The “Hail Mary” liturgies reaching us through our radios lead us nearer to the heart of this veneration. Yet really one must be immersed in and saturated with the Catholic mind in order to feel its pulse-beat. For Mariology is not an isolated chapter in Catholic dogma. It is an integral part of the whole.

As some Catholic writers have said, by way of illustration, the Church of Rome is like a cathedral. Viewing a cathedral from the outside, the stained-glass win dow s appear dark and somber and foreboding. But when one steps inside and sees the sunshine piercing through them, then those windows come alive in all their rich, deep colors, and the darkness is dispelled.

To understand and evaluate Mariology rightly we must try to get at it from-the-inside-out. This requires, first of all, some sort of historical survey of its progressive evolvement up to the present time.

Ripening Process

In the shaping of Catholic theology popular piety often paves the way for later definitive formulation of dogma. The truth of this observation is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the growth of Mariology. Mary held a firm place in the hearts of Catholic believers long before she obtained an official place in Catholic dogma. This is, as Catholic apologetics explain, the work of the Spirit leading the Church into all truth by bending the intuitive sensitivities of the Church-popular in the right direction. Theology must then fall in line by advancing grounds from Scripture and tradition to vindicate such accepted patterns of piety.

The dogma of “Mary, the Mother of God,” as we know it today, is the ripened fruit of centuries of natural growth, often stimulated by pronouncements of Catholic prelates. Yet withal our modern full-fledged Mariology remains a relatively late development in Catholic dogma. Seeds were sown long ago, ideas took root, buds sprouted. But the full blossom is something of quite recent date. Not incorrectly have the past one hundred years been called the “Century of Mariology.”


Moving Drama

Behind it all lies a truly remarkable history. Old pagan beliefs in a Mother-Goddess doubtless influenced the movement toward Mariology, as did the worship of such Greek deities as Diana of the Ephesians. But we will deal here only with the more strictly Christian traditions.

Somehow this drama of Mary had to begin with her recognition as a Saint. For many centuries, however, the road to this singular honor remained closed. As late as the fourth century there are no indications of any special veneration of Mary. This is understandable, since originally only martyrs were counted among the Saints. Hence Mary was excluded, since there is no evidence of her having suffered a martyr’s fate.

Later, however, ascetics were also granted a place among the Saints. They too were regarded as martyrs, having suffered martyrdom from extended personal privations and self-mortification. Tins newly opened door proved to be an entering wedge for acknowledging the Sainthood of Mary. Surely she of all people must have lived an ascetic life! The Church confesses, after all, that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. Early Mariologists exploited these possibilities. Apocryphal traditions report that from her youth Mary was brought up in solemn isolation from the world, in her mother’s private room and in the temple. These pious influences led to her selection as the “Mother of God.”

These are the beginnings of a long history. The end is not yet in sight. The origins are buried deep in apocryphal traditions, ancient legendary, and Biblical interpretations, all of which as source materials remain dubious and unconvincing, and open to widely varying interpretations. The times were right, however, and the masses susceptible. So the idea struck root.

Growing Pattern

Already recognizing Mary as virgin in a very unique sense before the birth of Christ, the next step in this growing pattern was to safeguard her virginity during and after Christ’s birth. The former was achieved by appealing to a divine miracle, and the latter by positing her faithfulness to a vow of chastity for the rest of her life. This conviction did not grow fast, but it did gradually gain momentum. Justin and Irenaeus in the second century mention nothing of it. Tertullian in the third century even defends the position that after Christ’s birth Mary lived as wife with Joseph and bore other children. Shortly thereafter, however, in the fourth century, Ambrose and Hieronymus take the position that in mentioning other children of Mary, the Bible cannot mean real children. Still later, Epiphany asserts that whosoever believes that Mary lived with Joseph as wife after the birth of Christ blasphemes her holiness.

Mary’s saintliness thus became deeply embedded in the consciousness of the Church. Still withal the early Church Fathers are ignorant of her heavenly ascension. This remains a unique honor, reserved for Christ alone. But popular sentiment, untutored by Scripture, is bound to pursue its course ever further into a maze of speculations, from which there is no return except that of a radical Reformation.

So in the later centuries of the early Christian era the idea of Mary’s heavenly ascension gradually gained some acceptance in the Church. Sometimes it was related to similar legends regarding the Apostle John, see John 21:22. According to another old tradition, Mary died in the presence of the apostles. Christ appeared there to receive her soul. But when certain enemies came·to steal away her body, Christ again intervened, taking also the bod y to heaven. Sometimes the prophecy of Revelation 12 plays a role in these traditions. Through it all one thing becomes increasingly clear, namely that from the fifth century onward, the belief in Mary’s ascension began to assume ever greater proportions.

Western Christianity adopted a more critical approach toward Mary veneration than did Eastern Christianity. For the Roman Church was deeply conscious of the fact that this tradition is relatively new, that it lacks apostolic authority, and that it depends primarily upon extra-Biblical data.

Unfolding Panorama

Still the tide of popular sentiment could not be stemmed. The figure of Mary captivated men’s hearts. Steadily the distance between her and her great Son was bridged. If he was sinless, then she must be sinless too. If he arose and ascended to heaven, then she too. If he is King upon the throne, then she is heavenly Queen in his palace. Thus Mary was accorded an increasingly large place in Christ’s atoning work. Men discovered a parallel between Eve and Mary. Eve brought death into the world. Mary brings life. Hence it would be manifestly inconsistent, if she herself should fall prey to death. She must have ascended to heaven, without having tasted of death, there to reign with her Son.

Gradually co-mediatorial functions were ascribed to her. She was clothed with the virtues of lovingkindness and mercy and grace, Next to her, Christ became the Man of stern wrath, the Judge, avenging evil with an inexorable justice, as Luther remembered him from his youth. Thus Christians learned more and more to appeal to Mary in order to allay the fierce judgment of Christ, to turn his serious frown to a friendly smile. From there it is but a short step to crowning Mary as Co-Mediatrix. The year 2000 may be a propitious time to climax this unfolding drama.

Slowly, deliberately the Church of Rome pursues its chosen course. Eastern Christianity commemorated a Marian Ascension already in the sixth century. Western Christianity, more critical, waited about three centuries. But now, during the past ten centuries this doctrine has been creating an ever greater place for itself in Catholic thinking. Its growth did not go entirely unchallenged. But methodically, step by step, by inner persuasion and effective pressures, opposition was overcome. Now finally this dogma has reached definitive formulation. The recently deceased Pope Pius XII will doubtless go down in the Vatican annals as the Pope who headed up the final stages in this development, and authorized its final pronouncement, and issued his encyclical “Humani generis” to guard this dogma against possible misconceptions.

Consistent Advance

Down through the years there has always been a sort of inexorable logic, which in the name of consistency has driven Rome onward step by step down the road of Mariology. Already at the Council of Trentin 1545, Rome’s abiding answer to the Reformation, the quite universally accepted notion of Mary’s virginity before, during, and after Christ’s birth, and all the accessory notions of her sanctity and asceticism and saintliness, were officially endorsed as Church dogma. Thus Mary’s sinlessness was guaranteed in her relationship to the birth of Christ.

But the problem remained of Mary’s original guilt and pollution, which she as a daughter of Adam presumably shared with all men. She too was conceived and born in sin. At least no real grounds had ever been adduced for excepting Mary from this universal rule. But Mary’s solidarity with sinful mankind proved an insurmountable obstacle to further enhancement of Mary’s esteem. In the popular mind she was already elevated above the common misery of other men. All that remained was the Church’s official pronouncement of this dogma. In 1854 the time was apparently ripe, and so the world received the papal declaration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

The Council of Trent had now affirmed Mary’s saintly life. The papal decree of 1854 proclaimed her unique birth and stopped up the wells of impurity in her life by declaring her free from original sin. The next move became clear. Being exempt from sin, it follows that Mary must also be exempt from the wages of sin, namely death. It required another century for this logic to break through completely. But it carne, just eight years ago. It had to come, for a supernatural entrance into life calls for a supernatural exit from life. And so Mary’s whole being falls under a mysterious halo of holiness. Her death is swallowed up in victory. She is forever liberated from the lot of common mortals.

In 1854 already Queen Isabella of Spain urged upon Pope Pius IX to declare Mary’s heavenly ascension as a sequel to her immaculate conception. She saw the consistency of the matter. Her request has proved prophetic of later developments. But apparently that was not an opportune time. The papacy always reckons with lingering opposition within and possible reactions without the fold. Since then, however, Mariology has grown by leaps and bounds. What was considered inadvisable in 1854 became solemn reality in 1950.

Preliminary Observations

What accounts for this change in climate? There was, of course, the continued development of established commitments, plus persistent pressure by ardent Mariologists. Since 1854 about 115 cardinals, 2500 bishops, 85,000 priests and 8,000,000 laymen have subscribed to Queen Isabella’s petition, all of which indicates which way the wind was blowing. Moreover in Rome and Paris special chairs of learning were installed to promote interest in the dogmas of Mary. Mary festivals were held. Numerous reports were circulated about miraculous appearances of the Holy VD:gin, for example in Lourdes and Fatima. Added to this is the fact that the erstwhile Pope Pius XII was from his youth a devout admirer of Mary, supposedly having been visited by her.

But he does not stand alone. During the past century numerous popes have paid high tribute to Mary. In 1938 the Vatican news service announced to the world that the universal Catholic community was engaged in earnest prayer for the ripening dogma of Mary’s ascension. In his encyclical “Corporis mystica Christi” in 1943 the pope appended a hymn of praise to Mary, which in some Catholic circles was embraced as a supreme revelation. The necessary groundwork was completed, so that on November 1, 1950, the pope for the first time exercised the authority vested in him in 1870 to speak as Vicar of Christ inerrantly in all ex cathedra, official, pronouncements of faith. Mary’s heavenly ascension was declared to be historical fact.

In a questionnaire which preceded the pronouncement about 1200 bishops were interviewed regarding the fixation of this dogma. Of these, 1169 were in favor, and only about a half dozen expressed doubts. Even today some Catholic writers experience difficulties in adjusting themselves to this new dogma, especially in lands not predominantly Catholic, where polemics prevail. But when the Church speaks, then finally all opposition must subside or be suppressed. For 1854 and 1870 and 1950 are all links in one chain. Together they are parts of a consistently unfolding Catholic faith—a faith drawing out consistently the evil conclusions inherent in its evil commitment.

In the past the Vatican has often demonstrated a strong preference for troublous times in publishing its decrees. So in 1950, amid the upheavals and disillusionments of the post-war years, Rome offered the world new hope by directing its faith to Mary, the “Queen of Heaven.” Amid the turbulent flood-waters of atheism and communism, nihilism and protestantism, Rome poses as the Light in the night, directing men to the haven of rest. The pronouncement of Mary’s Heavenly Ascension is intended as a symbol of Rome’s strength.

In every age Rome moves forward deliberately in the formation of its dogmas. But at the same time it keeps an ear open to reactions. It is safe to say, I believe, that in this case the reactions were more violent than anticipated, from the Archbishop of Canterbury on down. Many saw in it the bottom falling out of cherished dreams and tender hopes of ecumenical possibilities. Others read it with regret as a lost opportunity to speak words of reassurance and encouragement to a wounded world. For instead of drawing men closer together, it has driven them farther apart.

In a following article, I wish to offer a few remarks by way of Scriptural evaluation and criticism.