Devotion to Her has long been a Controversial Affair

Behind the cult of Mary.

By + More

Marian devotion has certainly helped wrap the Catholic Church in a cloak of mysticism. Marian apparitions have been commonplace and widespread since at least the fourth century. Shrines tend to be built at the sites where reported miracles involving Mary occurred. Charlene Spretnak, in her book Missing Mary, says 66 percent of Europe's Catholic shrines are dedicated to Mary; a mere 7 percent focus on Jesus. Claims of weeping Madonna statues were once very common, too. The number has dwindled since the 18th century, Carroll says, because the church typically failed to acknowledge them. The Vatican has also been reluctant to legitimize claims of visions of Mary. "The church cannot have hallucinating individuals defining church doctrine," Carroll explains. "It also tends not to endorse them because it does not want the whole thing trivialized."

Nevertheless, a few well-documented apparitions have gained church acceptance, including Lourdes in France, where, in 1858, teenager Bernadette Soubirous said Mary appeared to her 18 separate times and said: "I am the Immaculate Conception." Since that message came on the heels of the church's 1854 declaration, "Lourdes was a safe one" for it to accept, Carroll says. According to Spretnak, Lourdes has documented 2,000 miracle cures since the visitation, and the church has accepted 66 of those.

Visions. Perhaps the most famous visitation of the last century was in 1917 at Fátima, Portugal, when several children said they saw and heard Mary. The enduring claim that the Virgin at Fátima warned of Russia rising as a godless world power would later fit into the church's anticommunist mentality, Carroll explains. For more than four years, starting in 1961, children in the Spanish village of San Sebastian de Garabandal said they had visions of Mary. The church has not accepted the Garabandal apparitions, Boss says, "but it has not condemned them, either." More recent unendorsed visitations have been reported in the 1980s in Medjugorje, Bosnia, and Kibeho, Rwanda.

  • Women of the Bible
  • Daughters of Eve
  • New Testament

    • In Search of the Real Virgin Mary
    • A Warm Protestant Welcome for Mary
    • Behind the Cult of Mary
    • Mary Magdalene: A Long Miscast Outcast
    • Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code
    • Mary and Martha: Two Models of Christian Devotion
    • Salome: A Deadly Dance
    • Phoebe, Prisca, and Junica: Three Stalwart Sisters in Faith
    • The Feminist Hit List
    • Marian devotion is also conducted at a more personal level. In many Catholic countries there are edicolae—small shrines, or prayer spots—on city streets and along rural paths, and many feature Mary. "Bathtub Virgins" in the United States are lawn statues of Mary, so-called because they're often sheltered beneath half-planted, upright tubs. Home worship, which often includes altars, has long been part of Catholicism in places like Mexico, New Mexico, and Louisiana, Carroll says.

      In recent times, the cult of Mary has come under attack from some Catholic feminists. They decry Mary as a male-invented symbol used to subjugate and diminish women. On one hand, the church emphasizes Mary as the ideal mother; on the other, it uses her as a poster girl for chastity. The irony is that a woman cannot become a mother without engaging in sex. "The Catholic religion therefore binds its female followers in particular on a double wheel, to be pulled one way and then the other," says Marina Warner, author of Alone of All Her Sex. Other feminists, however, consider Mary one of the few strong women in the Bible. Indeed, some argue she provides a rationale for the ordination of female priests.

      While Mary remains a key figure in the Catholic Church, over the past 40 years her importance has been minimized in a Vatican caught up in a wave of ecumenicalism and demystification. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican ii) played down the nonbiblical aspects of Marian veneration. Church teaching now maintains that the foundation for Mariology wasn't Mary's motherhood but her agreeing to carry the Christ child. Thus, the church says, she is to be honored as "the perfect disciple."