August 12, 2005


Mary and ecumenism

We can affirm together the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture and that it can, indeed, only be understood in the light of Scripture.”

That quotation is from an historic document approved in May by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission ( ARCIC ), appointed by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Anglican Com­munion Office. We reported on this document on page one of our May 20 issue.

With the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven coming up on Monday (although, being a Monday, it is not a holy day of obligation this year), we thought it well to consider the role that Mary seems to be playing in bringing Catholics and Protestants closer. This, of course, has not always been the case. For many Protestants, the devotion that Catholics have for Mary has been a divisive issue.

Time magazine, in its cover story for its Easter issue, noted what it called the rediscovery of Mary by some Protestants. It reported that some Protestants have realized that the Bible says more about Mary than they were led to believe—and their religion is based on Scripture. Indeed, the article says, the New Testament says more about Mary than any other character in it except Jesus.

The article in Time credited the Second Vatican Council with walking the middle road between those who ignore Mary and those who make her little less than a goddess. It also credited Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ with making Christians think more about Mary’s role in the life of Jesus.

There is, though, a more unfortunate reason why there’s more emphasis on Mary in evangelical Protestantism. Many of the evangelical Churches are making strong efforts to proselytize Hispanics who already have a deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

That ARCIC document, called “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ,” focuses on the two doctrines about Mary that the Catholic Church has declared to be infallible teachings: the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.

As for the Assumption, the document acknowledges that the Bible is silent about the end of Mary’s life. However, it says, “When Christians from East and West through the generations have pondered God’s work in Mary, they have discerned in faith . . . that it is fitting that the Lord gathered her wholly to himself.”

Concerning the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic belief that Mary was conceived without original sin on her soul, the document says that “Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings.” She, as every other human being, was redeemed by Christ.

It also notes the archangel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary as “full of grace,” which could indicate that she was free of original sin.

Our contention that Mary is playing a role in ecumenism might be borne out by this statement in the ARCIC document: “Progress in ecumenical dialogue and understanding suggests that we now have an opportunity to re-receive together the tradition of Mary’s place in God’s revelation.”

It’s interesting that it uses the phrase “re-receive the tradition” because the Catholic Church has always preserved the tradition of Mary’s place. Although some Catholics undoubtedly have overemphasized Mary’s role, almost making her the fourth person of the Trinity, that has never been the teaching of the Church. We do not worship Mary. The Church does teach, though, that Mary, as Jesus’ mother, enjoys a preeminent place among all human beings.

Since Jesus was God, Mary is the mother of God “to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs,” as the Vatican II document “Lumen Gentium” (“Light of the Nations”) stated. So we pray to the mother of God to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

At the end of his encyclical on ecumenism, “Ut Unum Sint” (“That All May Be One”), the late Pope John Paul II asked if Christian unity is possible. The answer, he said, “will be the one of Mary of Nazareth, who said: ‘With God nothing is impossible.’” Perhaps that same Mary is helping to make unity possible.

— John F. Fink


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