Marian Devotions

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Marian Devotions

"Devotion" comes from the Latin phrase de voto, "from a promise," referring to solemn pledges of service made in honor of a religious personage. In common usage the term refers to a religious cult or to the practice of certain rituals and prayers motivated by an affective commitment toward a religious experience. Marian devotion is rooted in the Christian Scriptures, which depict Mary of Nazareth as the mother of Jesus Christ and a key member of the early Christian Church. The Fourth Gospel, John 2:1–12; 19:25–27, adds a symbolic dimension to Mary's maternity of Christ, a theme amplified in the apocalyptic language of Revelation. (Revelation 12)

Evolution of Marian Devotion

Iraeneus, bishop of Lyons in 180 c.e., developed the theological concept of Mary as "New Eve," describing her as the woman who reversed the effects of sin brought by the first Eve. Iraeneus was born in Smyrna in Asia Minor, and his writings probably attest to concepts current in Eastern Christianity. Artistic representations of Mary are found in the Roman catacombs, confirming to an abiding appreciation of her role in salvation history in the West. The Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel that Mary had been chosen to be Mother of God is a favored theme, apparently because that episode stressed the free will of Mary, whose acceptance of her mission contradicted pagan myths wherein the birth of a god was the result of a rape. Extracanonical books such as the Protogospel of James offered vivid tales of Mary's interaction with the child Jesus, suggesting that the earliest Christians had much interest in Mary's life.

Athanasius (ca. 293–373 c.e.), who had fled his see in Alexandria to avoid persecution by Arians, attributes to Mary the title Heotokos, "Parent of God," a concept later celebrated by the faithful at Ephesus in 431 c.e. in opposition to Nestorius, who taught that Mary was mother only of the human nature of Jesus. Completing the development of early Marian doctrine Ambrose of Milan (340–397) asserted that Mary was free from original sin and remained a perpetual virgin, notions reiterated by Jerome (347–420), the translator of the Bible from the original languages into Latin. It has been said that Marian devotion developed as a response to Arianism, since Mary received from orthodox Christianity the status that Arians ascribed to Jesus: she was not divine, but had received all the graces necessary to transform her into the model for all salvation.

Marian Devotion in Popular Practice

Mary had an impact on Christian practice at a popular level. Since the first days of the church, believers have made prayerful promises to undertake some pious practice or make some sacrifice in petition or in thanksgiving for favors. The safe return of a son from war, recovery from a serious illness, or a healthy pregnancy are some individual favors connected to Marian devotions. Entire communities might also contribute to the devotion, as, for instance, if a town was not seriously damaged by a flood. Many of these favors might not qualify as a "miracle," that is, something unexplainable by nature, but they became traditional causes of devotion, with special processions and prayers to commemorate specific events. Christians honored images of Mary with the same reverence as would be shown were she physically present. Gold ornaments, deep bows and genuflections, and candles and flowers before the image became essential elements of the devotion. This was the dynamic of popular religion that created Marian shrines throughout the Christian world, many of which became magnets for pilgrimages, exquisite churches, and inspired art. Throughout the Middle Ages and until the fifteenth century, most Marian devotions were highly localized and were focused on the favors received rather than on apparitions or revelations.

Christian theologians were generally careful to avoid contradicting the scriptural definition of Christ as the only intercessor with God the Father (I Timothy 2:5). While feudalism dominated the social relations in Western Christianity, Mary became "Our Lady," an object of chivalric devotion. This chivalric norm was promoted extensively by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) and became an essential element of Marian devotion in the West. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224–1274) defined Christian devotion to Mary utilizing Greek theological terms: Mary received dulia (servanthood) rather than latria (worship). This distinction emphasized the fundamental differences between prayers to Mary the creature and Christ the Divine Person.

The sixteenth-century Reformation severely criticized Marian devotion for distorting biblical texts, for its commercialism, and for a frequent vulgarization that approximated superstition. This radical critique of Marian devotion did not displace belief in the Virgin Birth for Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli. Elizabeth I of England did little to suppress the Marian notion of "Virgin Queen," possibly because it benefited her legitimacy on the English throne. But insistence on the primacy of Scripture and an elimination of adornment in many Reformation traditions combined with a rejection of most Catholic traditions to virtually eliminate Marian devotion within Protestantism.

While the Council of Trent (1543–1563) reaffirmed Marian devotion as part of the deposit of faith, it also addressed the legitimate objections of Protestants. By requiring all cults to submit to a rigorous ecclesiastical approval and by composing official prayers, Trent connected exuberant popular religiosity to Vatican orthodoxy. The commercial development of American and Asian colonies had created a global Catholic public, and the printing press facilitated mass diffusion of devotional items such as holy cards with a picture of Mary on one side and a theologically correct prayer on the other. Novenas, popular preaching, and devotional books publicized the favors received through Mary's intercession. The rosary, considered a bouquet of prayers analogous to a wreath of roses (hence the name), was promoted worldwide after the decisive victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. Thus Catholicism acquired a purified and regulated form of devotion that may be called "devotionalism."

Marian Beliefs and Contemporary Religion

Post-Tridentine Marian devotionalism was characterized by interest in the origins of local shrines, such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. In 1648 its origins were ascribed to a miraculous apparition that was reported to have taken place a century earlier. Similar traditions for Mary under special titles as national protector include: Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland, Our Lady of Montserrat in Catalonia, Our Lady of Charity in Cuba, and Our Lady of Altagracia in the Dominican Republic.

To these devotions with a nationalist character must be added the two Marian doctrines that have been declared dogmas. The Immaculate Conception (1854) affirms that Mary was conceived without original sin. The dogma of the Assumption (1950) articulates an ancient tradition that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven after death. Both doctrines had been long contested within Catholic theology because they have no clear scriptural basis, despite ample historical evidence of their origins in the traditions of early Christianity.

Wearing the brown wool cloth of the Carmelite scapular is a practice believed to bring Mary's intercession for freedom from Purgatory on the first Saturday after one's death. Connected by legend to the Star of the Sea (stella maris) in many parts of Latin America and the Ibero-Mediterranean world on the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in July, a statue is adorned with flowers and set adrift in port waters to implore protection for sailors throughout the year. This and similar local customs repeat the oldest patterns of devotions to Mary.

The most famous of Marian apparitions in the modern period are those to St. Catherine Labouré in 1830, which introduced the practice of wearing the Miraculous Medal, proclaiming the Immaculate Conception. Lourdes in France (1858) was the site of the first apparition subjected to rigorous examination with modern science. Claims of miraculous healing in the spring at Lourdes are substantiated with X rays and medical reports by a panel of doctors that includes nonbelievers. The apparitions to children at La Salette in France (1846) and at Fatima in Portugal (1917) portray Mary as requesting repentance from the world to avoid punishments.

In the United States, devotion to Lourdes and Fatima have been the most common among all Catholics. Various ethnic groups maintain particular fervor for Mary under her other titles. The shrine to Mary in Washington, D.C., completed in the 1960s, is distinguished by its many chapels and statues of this rich diversity in Marian devotionalism. The reforms of Vatican Council II curtailed Marian devotionalism, and some feminist Christians repudiated the traditional image of Mary because they contend this image perpetuates a model of a submissive and domesticated woman.

Despite the feminist critique, traditional Marian devotions have experienced a modern revival, often with a new edge reflecting contemporary concerns. For instance, Our Lady of Guadalupe is now presented as a devotion with a message about contemporary race relations. There are frequent manifestations of the depth of attachment to Mary among the faithful. Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia has become a modern Marian shrine, as has Sábana Grande in Puerto Rico. The materiality of these devotions exercises an appeal to many believers who seek symbols that transcend the rationalistic limitations of institutionalized belief.

See alsoFeminist Theology; Mary; Miracle; Roman Catholicism; Shrines; Virginof Guadalupe.


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