Marian scholar Edward Sri believes that many outside the Catholic Church see Mary as a distraction.
Yet Sri contends that understanding Mary and such Marian traditions as the rosary are the keys to understanding Jesus.
“All that belief in Mary is very much rooted in Scripture and professed by tradition,” said Sri, professor of theology and Scripture at Augustine Institute in Denver, Colo. “All that belief in Mary leads us to Jesus.”
Sri, who spoke during a Marian conference in December 2007 at St. Louis Church in Pittsford, noted that Catholics do not adore Mary, but instead honor her.
“You praise the artist by recognizing his masterpiece,” he observed.
According to the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, that masterpiece was begun long before the events of the New Testament. Mary’s role is foreshadowed in Genesis, when the evil serpent is told that there will be hatred between him and the woman. The council noted that the woman’s offspring will strike at the serpent’s head.
Mary’s first appearance in Scripture details her visit from the angel Gabriel — an event known as the Annunciation — during which the angel tells Mary of God’s plan for her to bear the Messiah, saluting her with the words, "hail, full of grace." In his encyclical Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II wrote that this greeting indicated that Mary was free from original sin.
“In the language of the Bible, ‘grace’ means a special gift, which according to the New Testament has its source precisely in the Trinitarian life of God himself, God who is love,” Pope John Paul II wrote.
Sri said the idea of Mary being free from original from the moment of her conception — which Catholics refer to as the Immaculate Conception — is clearer in a literal translation of the angel’s greeting: “You who have been and continue to be great.” Lumen Gentium notes that the Immaculate Conception of Mary long had been accepted by church fathers even before it became an official doctrine of the church in 1854.
Sri said one must picture the Annunciation anew to fully appreciate it. The angel Gabriel, who had spent his life praising God, was sent to a tiny village in Nazareth to tell a humble and poor teenager that — even though she was a virgin — she soon would bear a son who would save the world.
Though there have been doubters over the years, the virginal conception of Jesus is a cornerstone of the Catholic faith, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph when Gabriel visited her, Sri said. Betrothal was not the same as engagement, he said, but was actually the first phase of a Jewish couple’s marriage. During the betrothal, he noted, the wife lived with her family and the couple did not consummate the marriage until the wife moved in with her husband.
“Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery, or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike; so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age,” the catechism states. “The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the ‘connection of these mysteries with one another’ in the totality of Christ’s mysteries, from his Incarnation to his Passover.”
Critics also challenge the Catholic belief that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth is faulted because the Bible mentions Jesus’ brothers and sisters, the catechism acknowledges.
“The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary,” the catechism states. “In fact James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary.’ They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.”
In addition to informing the young virgin Mary that she will give birth, Gabriel tells her that the Lord is with her. That news might well have scared a Jewish person: The Hebrew Bible was replete with stories in which men and women called with these words faced hardship, Sri said.
"Mary did not have formal theological training, but she was living in a culture that just lived and breathed the stories of their tradition,” he said.
Yet Mary responded to the call with her fiat: “May it be done to me according to your word.” This sentence does not indicate a passive obedience to God’s will, Sri said, but an active acceptance of a role in God’s plan.
“She said ‘yes’ to God, and allowed God into her womb, and her life, so that we too may say yes to God’s will,” he said.
After the Annunciation, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who the angel said had also conceived a son. In her greeting, the phrases Elizabeth uses to praise Mary recall language that people used to praise God in front of the Ark of the Covenant, Sri said.
“Mary’s faith, proclaimed by Elizabeth at the Visitation, indicates how the Virgin of Nazareth responded to this gift,” Pope John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Mater.
According to church doctrine established by Pope Pius XII in 1950, at the end of her life, Mary was assumed — or taken body and soul — into heaven. Sri said the doctrine comes from the tradition of early Christians and is supported by the fact that there are no relics of Mary’s body.
“If ever people would want a relic, it would be of Mary,” Sri remarked.
To understand how the Catholic Church regards Mary, one must see her as an icon and an example for the whole church of faith, charity and union with Christ, said Father Joseph A. Hart, diocesan vicar general and moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center.
“At once virgin and mother, Mary is the symbol and the most perfect realization of the Church,” the catechism adds.
Tags: Catholic Beliefs, Mary