May 8, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Our devotion to Mary

John F. Fink(Thirteenth in a series of columns)

One of the things that many Protestants don’t understand about Catholics and Orthodox Christians is our strong devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Catholics, by the same token, often don’t understand why Protestants don’t have a greater devotion to her.

Catholics and Orthodox honor Mary because God himself did so by making her the mother of the Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

Luke’s Gospel (Lk 1:48, 49) quotes Mary in her Magnificat as saying, “From now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me.” For Protestants who claim to follow Scripture alone, you would think they would be quick to call Mary blessed and venerate her. She appears in the New Testament more than any other woman.

The objection that some Protestants have toward devotion to Mary is that this devotion puts Mary on the same level as Jesus. If this were true, it would be heretical. But it’s not true. We do not adore Mary. Mary’s role is to lead us to her Son, to deepen our devotion to Jesus as the Christ, our Savior.

Here are the Catholic doctrines about Mary:

• She is the mother of God. The Council of Ephesus in 431 solemnly established that Jesus had two natures, the divine and the human, but he was one person, and Mary was the mother of that person. If Jesus was God, as Christians believe, and Mary was his mother, then Mary was the mother of God. It’s a simply syllogism: Jesus was God; Mary was his mother; therefore, Mary was the mother of God.

• Mary remained a virgin all her life. Both Luke’s Gospel (Lk 1:35) and Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 1:20) tell us that Mary conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, while remaining a virgin.

As for the “brethren of Jesus” referred to in Scripture, Catholics believe either that they were cousins or, along with the Orthodox, that they were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage. In this view, Joseph was an older widower who agreed to care for her. Some Protestants deny that Mary remained a virgin, although it is interesting to note that Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley all held that she was ever-virgin.

• Mary was conceived without original sin. This doctrine is called the Immaculate Conception and should not be confused with the doctrine of the virgin birth. It means that, when Mary was conceived by her parents, she was preserved from the sin that, according to Christian doctrine, we are all born with.

The only biblical basis for this doctrine is the angel Gabriel’s address to Mary, “Hail, full of grace,” or in some modern translations, “Hail, highly favored one” (Lk 1:28). If Mary was full of grace, it meant that she did not have original sin on her soul.

• Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven. This doctrine, called the Assumption, was not defined as dogma until 1950, but the feast of the Assumption was being celebrated as early as the sixth century. †

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