In traditional Catholic piety — that is, “traditional” from the 19th century to the Second Vatican Council in the mid-20th — the month of October had a special Marian significance. October devotions were an integral part of parish life and of the experience of young Catholics in parochial schools.
Some elements of those devotions, however, could not sustain careful scrutiny today. There were parishes, for example, where the public recitation of the rosary was held during the celebration of weekday Mass. Not before, not after, but during the Mass.
While most members of these small, weekday congregations took the practice for granted and joined in without any qualms, the audible recitation distracted others who wished to participate directly in the Mass itself, and not least of all the priest-celebrant.
But this was just before the Second Vatican Council’s renewal and reform of the liturgy and more than a decade before Pope Paul VI’s remarkable encyclical on Marian devotions, Marialis cultus, in 1974. It was in that encyclical that the pope made clear that “it is a mistake to recite the rosary during the celebration of the liturgy, though unfortunately this practice still persists here and there.”
There are some Catholics who bemoan the decline of Marian devotions since the time of the council. But many of these Catholics embrace the common fallacy, “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore because of this”). They assume that, because the decline occurred after Vatican II, Vatican II must have been its cause.
However, the decline has primarily occurred in a defective Marian piety. Our pastoral challenge today is not to attempt a restoration of dubious devotional practices, but to develop and promote newer, more spiritually substantive forms of Marian devotions.
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical provided guidelines that are as relevant in 2006 as they were when first proposed more than 30 years ago.
1. Every element of the church’s prayer life, including Marian devotions, should have a biblical imprint. The texts of prayers and songs should draw their inspiration from the Bible and be “imbued with the great themes of the Christian message.” This means that they should be free of pious sentimentality and of the temptation to view Mary as more compassionate than even her Son, who is our one and only Redeemer.
2. Marian devotions should always harmonize with the liturgy. Novenas and similar devotional practices, including again the rosary, are not to be inserted, hybrid-style, into the very celebration of the Eucharist. The Mass is not simply a backdrop for private prayer.
3. Marian devotions should always be ecumenically sensitive. “Every care should be taken,” Paul VI cautioned, “to avoid any exaggeration which could mislead other Christian brethren about the true doctrine of the Catholic Church.” There should never be a doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus Christ is our sole Mediator with God.
4. “Devotion to the Blessed Virgin,” the pope insisted, “must also pay close attention to certain findings of the human sciences.” This means that the picture of the Blessed Virgin that is presented in devotional literature and other expressions of piety must be consistent with today’s understanding of the role of women in the church and in society.
Paul VI noted in Marialis cultus that in the “sphere of politics, women have in many countries gained a position in public life equal to that of men.” Similar developments have occurred in the social field, where women are no longer “restricted (to the) surroundings of the home.” And in the cultural field, “new possibilities are opening up for women in scientific and intellectual activities.”
The pope observed that too much popular piety is at odds with this modern reality, and that may be why certain Marian devotions are in decline.
We must see Mary once again for who she is: not only the Mother of God, her most exalted role in the mystery of Redemption, but also as her Son’s foremost disciple. When she heard the Word of God, she acted upon it. As the encyclical noted, she was “far from being a timidly submissive woman.”
On the contrary, “she was a woman who did not hesitate (in her “Magnificat”) to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions.”
Only when Marian piety is liberated from what Paul VI called a “sterile and ephemeral sentimentality” (obsession, for example, with apparitions, “messages” and weeping statues) can there be any real hope for a renewal of authentic Marian piety in our time.
The month of October is a good time to reflect on these matters.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.Tags: Mary