World Youth Day: A Pilgrim Church looks to Mary

A statue of Mary overlooks the tiny fishing village of Trinity, Nfld. (Photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register - CCN)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News} – Mary’s first words in the Gospel of Luke where Mary declares herself “The servant of the Lord,” and asks the Angel Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your word,” have often translated into a passive Mary, remote from the cares of the world. But for the Pope, those words are not the end-point but merely the beginning as he reflects on the Blessed Virgin in a statement released Sept. 12.

In his message for next August’s World Youth Day in Portugal, Pope Francis emphasizes an active, engaged Mary on the move. He sees her as a model for the “Pilgrim Church.” Mary’s immediate choice to head “with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,” where she would accompany her older cousin Elizabeth through an unlikely pregnancy, is the key to understanding how Mary is anything but passive.

“The young Mary did not remain paralyzed, for within her was Jesus, the power of resurrection and new life,” Pope Francis writes.

This emphasis on Mary’s life after her fateful “fiat” is a breath of fresh air for Doris Keiser, a theologian at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta. Keiser is a specialist in the history of Church teaching about Mary, currently researching the ways Pope Francis speaks about her.

“I like the Mary who is more active, because she is a human person,” Keiser said. “She is foundationally human, which is what is important about her relationship with Christ. That makes sense.”

The Pope has found in Mary’s life a potent model for young people seeking a faith that acts in the world.

“The Mother of the Lord is a model for young people on the move, who refuse to stand in front of a mirror to contemplate themselves or to get caught up in the ‘net,’ ” Pope Francis writes. “Mary’s focus is always directed outwards. She is the woman of Easter.”

The image of a passive Mary who only sits and ponders is really a very modern invention. Keiser points out how in the Middle Ages people thought of Mary as someone capable of making choices.

“If you look at medieval mystic women, if you look at their perceptions of Mary, Mary is less of a model (for others) and more an embodiment,” Keiser said. “Her significance is in the incarnation. She is depicted far more actively by those women.”

Pope Francis also speaks of a young, flesh-and-blood Mary whom young people can identify with. “Mary was a young woman, like many of you,” he writes. “She was one of us.”

This has been a particularly important way for Indigenous people to connect with Our Lady, said Maliseet elder and former New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Graydon Nicholas, citing Our Lady’s 17th-century appearance to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego at Guadalupe.

“She appears, of course, as an Indigenous woman, speaks the language and also brings comfort to the oppressed Indigenous people of that part of Mexico at that time,” said Nicholas, a member of the Guadalupe Circle, an official dialogue between Indigenous Canadians and Catholic bishops.

Of course, no pope ever taught that Mary was merely a passive object in the history of salvation. But excessive emphasis on her fiat (let it be done unto me) and images of her spotless purity have pushed her life of journeys and toil for others into the background.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX emphasized Mary’s passive acceptance of grace in Ineffabilis Deus, which declared Mary’s immaculate conception as the constant teaching of the Church.

The Greek word Kecharitomene on Gabriel’s lips when he praises the Virgin as “full of grace” is a perfect passive participle. Over time this passive aspect of Mary’s existence came to dominate a certain strain of popular devotions.

Pope Francis’ description of a young, active and human Mary is good news for women who have identified with Mary as the first woman of the Church, said Keiser.

“Women are very active in the Church in all of its capacities,” she said. “I wonder, does (Pope Francis) see that? By referring to Mary as this very active person who is being called to lift up the Church, you see what is happening in the Church and you can be like Mary. You can lift up the Church.”

In addition to Mary as a model for the pilgrim Church, Pope Francis sees her as the model for a culture of encounter.

“She sets out to find the most genuine of all ‘connections’: the one that comes from encounter, sharing, love and service,” Pope Francis writes. This culture of encounter is naturally international and has lived on beyond Mary’s life on Earth.

“Mary has never stopped bridging time and space to visit those of her sons and daughters who need her loving help,” said the Pope.

In lifting up the apparitions of Mary around the world, Pope Francis embraces the popular devotions of Catholics, particularly poor Catholics in marginalized communities.

“It comes with Francis’ more devotional understanding of Mary in the Church,” said Keiser. “A lot of scholars poo-poo the apparitions and don’t really buy into them in the same way as is claimed by popular devotion. Clearly Francis doesn’t have a problem with it.”

The advantage in apparitions for Francis’ message is that they situate Mary as an ambassador to a truly global Church. “There’s room for a Mary who isn’t white and blue-eyed. Mary is frequently the protector of the local people. When she appears, she appears to be as one of them.” Nicholas also looks to Mary as a figure who stands with the poor and on the side of the environment, a point the Pope drives home.

“The Mother of God moves in the midst of her people by tender and loving care; she makes her own their anxieties and troubles,” he said.