The Virgin Mary attained cult status in the earliest centuries of the fledgling Christian church. And despite a concerted effort begun by the Vatican 40 years ago to de-emphasize her, the mother of Jesus remains a powerful, albeit polarizing, force within the Catholic Church.
The church's liberal wing claims the Mary cult is an unnecessary anachronism. Others—mainly conservative Catholics—argue that Mary is as popular as ever and want her reinstated as the Queen of Heaven.
Catholicism's internecine debate over Mary's status is nothing new, says Michael P. Carroll, author of The Cult of the Virgin Mary. "Devotion to Mary in the western church has gone through a number of cycles," he says. Mariology is linked to Mary's important role within the church at its inception, according to Sarah Jane Boss, director of the Center for Marian Studies at the University of Wales-Lampeter. A prayer to Mary, written in Greek on papyrus and found in Egypt, addresses her as the Mother of God, and it dates to sometime between the third and fifth centuries.
But why did the early church feel a need to elevate Mary to a position of worship? Perhaps to help spread Christianity. "Ancient people needed a feminine figure in their worship," Boss says. "They were used to having goddesses." Moreover, virgin births of gods figured prominently in many ancient myths. And pioneering Christians often piggybacked on paganism to speed conversion. They built churches where pagan temples once stood and often proclaimed holy days that coincided with past pagan celebrations.
Go-to saint. Marian devotion went into overdrive in the Roman west in 431, after the Council of Ephesus agreed that Mary should be called Theotokos (Mother of God) rather than Christotokos (Mother of Christ). The Theotokos label also implied Jesus's divinity. To be sure, there were dissenters who considered the title blasphemous. Nestorius, an early leader of the church in Constantinople, protested that God has always been, so he couldn't have a human mother. In the 11th century, the scholar St. Bernard of Clairvaux gave the cult further momentum when he preached a more emotional, personal faith in which Mary was the prime intercessor.
In her book Empress and Handmaid, Boss notes that the earliest likenesses of Mary portrayed a stern, all-powerful queen. By the end of the 12th century, however, her image softened. Mary became more of a moral figure, humbler and more approachable, the go-to saint for the troubled. "She was someone you could chat to," Boss says. Although the church has always officially portrayed Mary as an intermediary with no supernatural powers of her own, that's not been the case at a grass-roots level, Carroll says. In many countries, such as Italy, different Madonnas are seen not as representations of the same person but as individual beings, each with their own special powers.
Veneration of Mary takes many forms, among them special prayers—including the Hail Mary—shrines, relics, and statues. Many individual clerics pushed devotion to Mary by founding Marian societies, especially during the so-called counterreformation, when the Roman church reacted to the Protestant movement. Mariology got another boost in the 19th century as part of an effort by the Vatican to standardize Catholic practices. In 1854, Mary's Immaculate Conception became church dogma. In large part, Carroll says, the 19th-century church was again reacting to external pressures. Its authority was under assault by popular movements, modernist thought, and various governments.
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.
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."
This thoroughly modernized Mary hasn't gone down well with all Catholics, and many want her restored to her full regal glory. A conservative lay group, Vox Populi Mariae Mediatric, has collected nearly 7 million signatures on a petition asking that Catholic dogma proclaim Mary as "Mediatrix of All Graces," or the sole dispenser of God's graces, as well as Christ's co-redeemer. The late Pope John Paul ii was inclined toward granting the Virgin those titles, Boss says, but was dissuaded by his chief aide, the German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who argued that only Vatican councils—and not popes—should proclaim dogma. Now, of course, Ratzinger is Pope Benedict xvi.
Meanwhile, Spretnak argues that Marian devotion shouldn't be the province of conservatives only. She calls on her fellow liberal Catholics to also seek a return to traditional Mariology. "Vatican ii lopped off too much of [Mary's] symbolic, sacramental, mystical, and cosmological aspects, [and] it would be well to restore them." Besides, Spretnak says, many millions of Catholics have simply ignored the new doctrine. Indeed, the world's main shrines to the Virgin continue to attract millions of her faithful.
Thirty years ago, Warner insisted Mary was an "exhausted" icon and predicted that "the Virgin will recede into legend." Warner may ultimately be proved right. But Mary's legions of ardent worshipers will ensure that their queen won't go quietly.