By conventional standards, Jesus’ mother is not a major figure in the New Testament. Her name appears barely a dozen times; famously, Mary is mentioned more often in the Qur’an than in the Christian Bible. Yet despite that relatively low profile, few figures in Scripture have been the subject of greater controversy.
For some Protestants, Mary has long loomed as a symbol of Catholicism’s penchant for “adding” to the gospel, in this case an almost blasphemous level of devotion to a mere human being. For some feminists, veneration of Mary as both virgin and mother sets an impossible standard for women, thereby perpetuating male dominance. For many secularists, the body of miraculous lore surrounding Mary, especially her reported apparitions in various parts of the world, strains credibility in a special way.
In part, perhaps, Mary has been a lightning rod precisely because she is such a uniquely Catholic figure. Catholics share Christ, the gospels, prayer and sacrifice, even the sacraments, with many other forms of Christianity. Yet even though other Christians treasure Mary in their own ways, she is strongly associated in the popular imagination with the Catholic church.
Mary’s centrality in Catholic tradition may help explain why the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have been so committed to reawakening Marian devotion in the church. For both popes, defending Catholic identity in a highly secular age has been job number one, and nothing says ‘Catholic’ quite like the Blessed Virgin Mary.
John Paul’s motto was Totus Tuus, “all yours,” a phrase from the book True Devotion to Mary by the 17th and 18th century French saint Louis de Montfort. As for Benedict XVI, so far he’s made nine foreign trips, and virtually all have pivoted on a major Marian shrine. While in Brazil, for example, Benedict went to the shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida; the heart of his trip to Austria was a stop at the sanctuary of Mariazell.
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John Allen mentions five points that the Holy Father made in his recent trip to Sardinia.
- Mary points to Christ, above all to his incarnation.
- Mary is a symbol of the beauty and tenderness of God.
- Mary is a forerunner and a model for all disciples of Christ.
- Mary is a model for mothers, children and spouses, and thus a patron of the family.
- Mary is the “star of the new evangelization,” a patron for efforts to bring Christ to the world.