A Modern Look at Mary’s Role in the Church
On this day, O beautiful Mother,
On this day we bring thee our love.
Near thee, Madonna, fondly we hover,
Trusting thy gentle care to prove.
For Catholics of a certain generation, these words represent the best of childhood memories: May crowning, rosary processions, girls in white dresses, and petals strewn as far as the eye could see. For others, it represents the worst of sugary-sweet hymnody: a devotional life divorced from the liturgy of the Church and traditional forms of Marian devotion void of ecumenical sensibility.
For me, it represents neither. My memories are drawn not to elementary school, but to a local nursing home—Bishop Drumm Retirement Center. I remember going there as a kid to take my grandma to Mass and always seeing Sr. Edith, as old as any of the residents, still pounding away at the organ as best as she could. Her repertoire was limited by age and arthritis, so you could almost bet that at least once each week you’d get a rousing rendition of “On This Day.” It didn’t matter whether it was Tuesday of the fourth week of the year or the second Saturday of Easter. I wasn’t even aware that it was a May-crowning hymn until I entered the novitiate for the Dominicans; then again, before that time I’m not sure I understood exactly what May crowning was.
You see, I’m what the media call a millennial—a term used to describe people born between 1982 and 2004. In the Church, we’re often recognized as the “JPII generation” because we only knew one pope until the election of Benedict XVI. More important, we were the first generation born so far after the Second Vatican Council that not only do we lack personal memory of life before the council—many of our parents do too. Most of us grew up without the cultural supports and devotional practices the previous generation recognized as an integral part of their spirituality. It confuses people, then, why Catholics of my generation have such a strong interest in the traditional, liturgical, and devotional life of the Church.
Some explain our interest as a kind of great restoration; others look at it (in horror) as the way in which youth, especially young priests, are trying to turn back the clock. I’d like to suggest that, in general, this is not the case and that the temporary decline and ultimate resurgence of Marian devotion in the years since Vatican II is in fact one of the best examples that the council’s reform is really working.
The Golden Age of Mariology
The years immediately prior to Vatican II were, in some ways, a kind of golden age of Mariology (the theological study of Mary). As late as 1950, Pope Pius XII used his extraordinary power to solemnly declare the dogma of Mary’s assumption, body and soul, into heaven. Less than a hundred years before that, Pope Pius IX made a similar declaration concerning the immaculate conception. Mariology was all the rage; one only needs to skim the Catholic theological-library catalogs of the day to see the sheer volume of literature—popular and academic—being produced about the Virgin.
On a much broader level, the so-called Leonine prayers (prayed immediately after low Mass) were mostly prayers to Mary. They were first presented for the protection of the Holy See and ultimately for the conversion of Russia. And the presence of religious communities in most every parish with a school ensured that virtually everyone was engaged with the rosary.