Mary in the Catholic Tradition
Patrick Breen, O.Carm.
Mary holds a very important place in the life of the Catholic Church and there is scarcely a Catholic church in the world which does not have some image, statue or shrine of her. Mary derives her importance from the fact that she is the mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God. Mary is known by many titles the most common of which are “The Blessed Virgin,” “Our Lady,” and the “Mother of God.” Non-catholic groups tend to refer to her by the title “Saint Mary” or “Saint Mary the Virgin.” Yet despite her importance to us very little mention is actually made of Mary in the scriptures. Much of what we have about Mary comes from outside the canon of scripture, from the Pseudo-evangelium of James which is not historical. It is therefore little more than myth though it does tell us that Mary stands out from the rest of humanity in a very special way.
Her Birth & Early Life – According to the Pseudo-evangelium of James
Mary was born to Jewish parents – Joachim and Anne (Anna) – in Jerusalem close to the pool of Bethsaida, not far from the Temple Mount. Her birth is commemorated on September 8 each year. Joachim and Anne are said to have been well on in years when Mary was born and, in fulfilment of their promise, they presented Mary at the Temple at about the age of three. Following this Mary remained at the Temple to be educated and at some point took a vow of virginity. She impressed the elders greatly and had many visions while at the Temple.
Marriage – According to the Pseudo-evangelium of James
When Mary was fourteen the high priest at the Temple wished to send Mary home to be married – traditionally, a girl’s marriage was arranged once she reached the age of 12 or 13 years. Mary, however, reminded the high priest of her vow of virginity and so he had to choose very carefully who she should marry. The young men of the House of David were called and the one who worked a particular miracle was to be the bridegroom. They all failed. Eventually a widower named Joseph worked the miracle and they were betrothed. Joseph, being a widower, was assumed to be much older than Mary and is therefore portrayed in pictures and statues as an old man (though this is without foundation and Joseph’s age is unknown). The betrothal lasted a year after which the couple would then live together after a formal ceremony.
Before Mary came to live with Joseph she was visited by the archangel Gabriel who told her that she was to give birth to a son (Luke 1:26-38). Mary was perplexed because she was a virgin. The angel tells her that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and that the child would be the Son of God. Mary gives her assent to this and so she conceives. Soon after she hurries to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who has also conceived miraculously and her son was to be John the Baptist – the forerunner to Jesus (Luke 1:39-56). Following Elizabeth’s greeting Mary proclaims the Magnificat – a prayer which is still used today (Luke 1:46-55).
Joseph learns of Mary’s pregnancy which, under strict Jewish Law, brought shame on them both given that they were not yet fully husband and wife. He decides to divorce her quietly but he is visited by an angel who assures him that what is happening is in keeping with the will of God and so he takes Mary into his home (Matthew 1:19-25).
Birth of Jesus
At about the time that Mary’s pregnancy came to full term a census was held in the land and Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem to be registered (Luke 2:1-7). Shortly after arriving there Mary gave birth to her son in a cave-stable as there was no other place for them to stay. They were then joined by shepherds who came to the worship the new-born Saviour (Luke 2:8-10). They were also visited by the Magi – three wise men – who brought them expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-12). After this visit Mary, Joseph and the child were forced to flee to Egypt because King Herod wished to kill the child in order to secure his own throne (Matthew 2:13-18). We do not know how long they spent in Egypt but when they returned they settled in Nazareth where Joseph resumed his carpentry (Matthew 2:19-23; Luke 2:39-40).
We then have a gap in the story until Jesus begins his public ministry when he was thirty years of age, though some of the apocryphal Gospels do give us some stories. In the four canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – we see Jesus travelling throughout the Holy Land and spreading the message of the Kingdom. Mary was with him at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1-12) and we are told that she came looking for him on another occasion (Mark 3:31-35). Mary was with him at the time of his death in Jerusalem and receives his lifeless body in to her arms when it is taken down from the cross on Calvary (John 19:25-27). She was also with the disciples and received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day.
After Calvary – Assumption
Here our facts about Mary and the remainder of her life become vague once again. Mary lived with John the Evangelist following Christ’s instruction on the cross (John 19:25-27). There are arguments in favour of her residing in or near Jerusalem and also at Ephesus. However, where she ‘died’ is unknown though Jerusalem would seem to be the most likely place. It is also believed that Mary’s earthly body was assumed into heaven following the end of her earthly life (commemorated each year in the Solemnity of the Assumption on August 15) because our Lord would not allow his mother’s body to become corrupt. Therefore it is believed that as Mary’s body and soul were both assumed into heaven that she in fact did not die as we understand dying and so many refer to it as Mary’s Dormition – Mary’s sleep – in which she left this world.
On December 8 we keep the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception which holds that Mary, unlike any other human, was conceived without the stain of original sin on her soul. This is believed to be so because God held a special place and dignity for the woman who was to be the mother of his divine Son. This was long believed to be the case but was only formally proclaimed by the Catholic Church in 1854. Four years later our Lady appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in southern France and when asked what her name was she replied, in French, that she was the Immaculate Conception.
Mary is commonly called the ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’ but many questions have been raised regarding Mary’s virginity, particularly concerning her virginity after the birth of Christ, and these have not been definitively answered for many. We do believe that at the time of Christ’s birth Mary was a virgin. The Gospels refer to Jesus as Mary’s ‘first born’ but as this was a legal title under Jewish Law it does not necessarily mean that Mary had more children after Jesus (Luke 2:7). The Gospels also make reference to the brothers and sisters of Christ (Luke 8:19-20; Matthew 12:4-6) but in Palestine of the time, as in many other places, cousins were often referred to as brothers and sisters. In Hebrew and Aramaic, ‘brothers’ is the word used for cousins or even more distant relations of the same generation. It is also thought that if Joseph was a widower at the time of his betrothal to Mary that he possibly had children already and these are the ones referred to as they would have grown up together. It is also thought by many that as Joseph was much older than Mary and that he died while Christ was still young (both according to tradition) that Mary did in fact remain a virgin. The Fathers of the Church held that Mary remained a virgin all her life in faithfulness to her Son and as an example of purity for the Church.
Mary – the Mother of God
Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ who is the Son of God. Jesus is also the second person of the Most Holy Trinity and so is himself God. Therefore, Mary is the Mother of God (Theotokos in the Orthodox Church). There is no doubt about this in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches though some Christian denominations are not comfortable with it. Seeing Mary as the Mother of God does not place her in a superior position to God nor does it suggest that she existed before him. God is one God, three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and there is no other. Mary is the Mother of God because she is the mother of Jesus but she is never seen as coming before him. She does occupy a special place in heaven, she was immaculately conceived, she herself conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, she was assumed into heaven at the end of her life but she is not God.
In a spiritual sense she is also seen as the mother of all people because as he hung on the cross, Christ gave her to his disciple, John, to be his mother and for John to be her son. John is seen as representing all people and so Mary is seen as our mother also. In this way we are intimately related to Mary and through her to Christ, who is our brother. Because Mary is related to us and is the Mother of God we pray to Mary to intercede for us before her Son as she did at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1-12).
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin has been in existence since earliest times in the Church. Mary is venerated by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in a very special way as our mother as well as the Mother of God. Many shrines, churches places and even countries are dedicated to her. She is also known by a myriad of titles such as “Our Lady of Lourdes,” “Our Lady of Dublin,” “Queen of Heaven,” “Seat of Wisdom,” etc., each one describing a particular aspect of her or a particular association with her. However, despite the tremendous devotion to her and the many prayers dedicated to her, Mary is not seen as God or more important that God. She holds a very special and unique place in creation and is seen as our advocate, or mediator, who intercedes on our behalf before God.
Apparitions of Mary
Throughout the centuries countless people have had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Some of these have received approval from the local bishop who asserts that something supernatural did take place and permits pilgrimages and liturgies. Some of the better known apparitions are:
1531 Guadalupe, Mexico to Juan Diego (57) in which she told Juan that she was the Mother of God.
1830 Rue du Bac, Paris to Catherine Labouré (24) in which Catherine was shown an image which was to become the Miraculous Medal.
1846 La Salette, south-east France to Maximin Giraud (11) and Mélanie Mathieu (14) in which Our Lady asked for repentance and a return to the Gospel.
1858 Lourdes, France to Bernadette Soubirous (14) in which she said that she was the Immaculate Conception.
1871 Pontmain, France to a handful of children only though there were some adults present. Our Lady said nothing on this occasion and the apparition only lasted a few hours.
1879 Knock, western Ireland to a group of people and again there was no message during the short apparition. This was not formally approved as the others were but pilgrimages and liturgies are permitted.
1917 Fatima, Portugal to three children – Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco – in which Our Lady asked for prayers for peace and also devotion to her immaculate heart.
1932/3 Beauraing, Belgium to four children in which she encouraged people to pray always.
1933 Banneux, Belgium to Marriette Beco (11) in which Mary told Marriette that she was the Mother of God and exhorted her to pray much.
Mary and the Carmelites
Mary holds a very special place for us as Carmelites, as she does with so many other religious orders and institutes. When the hermits first came together on Mount Carmel they erected a chapel in their midst and very early on this chapel was dedicated to Mary. For us, Mary is more than just mother because we also see her as our sister which is reflected in the Order’s official title – The Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Mary is one of the twin inspirations for us – the other is the prophet Elijah. The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16 is celebrated by us as a solemnity and is seen as our patronal feastday.