The Marian devotion of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is beautifully manifest in his previously articulated “six reasons for not forgetting” Mary. In a 1984 interview with Vittorio Messori, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, identified Our Lady as the “remedy” for the contemporary challenges and crises for the Church and the world today.
To the crisis in the understanding of the Church, to the crisis of morality, to the crisis of woman, the Prefect has a remedy, among others, to propose “that has concretely shown its effectiveness throughout the centuries.” “A remedy whose reputation seems to be clouded today with some Catholics but one that is more than ever relevant.” It is the remedy that he designates with a short name: Mary.
Ratzinger is very aware that it is precisely mariology which presents a facet of Christianity to which certain groups regain access only with difficulty, even though it was confirmed by the Second Vatican Council as the culmination of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. “By inserting the mystery of Mary into the mystery of the Church,” he says, “Vatican II made an important decision which should have given a new impetus to theological research. Instead, in the early post-conciliar period, there has been a sudden decline in this respect—almost a collapse, even though there are now signs of a new vitality.”
In 1968, eighteen years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in body and soul to heavenly glory, the then professor Ratzinger observed as he recalled the event: “The fundamental orientation which guides our lives in only a few years has so changed that today we find it difficult to understand the enthusiasm and the joy that then reigned in so many parts of the Catholic Church…. Since then much has changed, and today that dogma which at that time so uplifted us instead escapes us. We ask ourselves whether with it we may not be placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of a reunion with our evangelical fellow Christians, whether it would not be much easier if this stone did not lie on the road, this stone which we ourselves had placed there in the so recent past. We also ask ourselves whether with such a dogma we may not threaten the orientation of Christian piety. Will it not be misdirected, instead of looking toward God the Father and toward the sole mediator, Jesus Christ, who as man is our brother and at the same time is so one with God that he is himself God?”
Yet, during the interview he told me, “If the place occupied by Mary has been essential to the equilibrium of the Faith, today it is urgent, as in few other epochs of the Church, to rediscover that place.”
Ratzinger’s testimony is also humanly important, having been arrived at along a personal path of rediscovery, of gradual deepening, almost in the sense of a full “conversion,” of the Marian mystery. In fact, he confides to me: “As a young theologian in the time before (and also during) the Council, I had, as many did then and still do today, some reservations in regard to certain ancient formulas, as, for example, that famous De Maria nunquam satis, ‘concerning Mary one can never say enough.’ It seemed exaggerated to me. So it was difficult for me later to understand the true meaning of another famous expression (current in the Church since the first centuries when—after a memorable dispute—the Council of Ephesus, in 431, had proclaimed Mary Theotokos, Mother of God). The declaration, namely, that designated the Virgin as ‘the conqueror of all heresies.’ Now—in this confused period where truly every type of heretical aberration seems to be pressing upon the doors of the authentic faith—now I understand that it was not a matter of pious exaggerations, but of truths that today are more valid than ever.”
“Yes,” he continues, “it is necessary to go back to Mary if we want to return to that ‘truth about Jesus Christ,’ truth about the Church’ and the ‘truth about man’ that John Paul II proposed as a program to the whole of Christianity when, in 1979, he opened the Latin American episcopal conference in Puebla. The bishops responded to the Pope’s proposal by including in the first documents (the very ones that have been read only incompletely by some) their unanimous wish and concern: ‘Mary must be more than ever the pedagogy, in order to proclaim the Gospel to the men of today.’ Precisely in that continent where the traditional Marian piety of the people is in decline, the resultant void is being filled by political ideologies. It is a phenomenon that can be noted almost everywhere to a certain degree, confirming the importance of that piety which is no mere piety.”
The Cardinal lists six points in which—albeit in a very concise and therefore necessarily incomplete way—he sees the importance of Mary with regard to the equilibrium and completeness of the Catholic Faith.
First point: “When one recognizes the place assigned to Mary by dogma and tradition, one is solidly rooted in authentic christology. (According to Vatican II: ‘Devoutly meditating on her and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church reverently penetrates more deeply into the great mystery of the Incarnation and becomes more and more like her spouse,’ Lumen Gentium, no. 65). It is, moreover in direct service to faith in Christ—not, therefore, primarily out of devotion to the Mother—that the Church has proclaimed her Marian dogmas: first that of her perpetual virginity and divine motherhood and then, after a long period of maturation and reflection, those of her Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption into heavenly glory. These dogmas protect the original faith in Christ as true God and true man: two natures in a single Person. They also secure the indispensable eschatological tension by pointing to Mary’s Assumption as the immortal destiny that awaits us all. And they also protect the faith—threatened today—in God the Creator, who (and this, among other things, is the meaning of the truth of the perpetual virginity of Mary, more than ever not understood today) can freely intervene also in matter. Finally, Mary, as the Council recalls: ‘having entered deeply into the history of salvation, … in a way unites in her person and reechoes the most important mysteries of the Faith'” (Lumen Gentium, no. 65).
This first point is followed by a second: “The mariology of the Church comprises the right relationship, the necessary integration between Scripture and tradition. The four Marian dogmas have their clear foundation in sacred Scripture. But it is there like a seed that grows and bears fruit in the life of tradition just as it finds expression in the liturgy, in the perception of the believing people and in the reflection of theology guided by the Magisterium.”
Third point: “In her very person as a Jewish girl become the mother of the Messiah, Mary binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God, Israel and Christianity, synagogue and church. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old. In her, instead, we can live the unity of sacred Scripture in its entirety.”
Fourth point: “The correct Marian devotion guarantees to faith the coexistence of indispensable ‘reason’ with the equally indispensable ‘reasons of the heart,’ as Pascal would say. For the Church, man is neither mere reason nor mere feeling, he is the unity of these two dimensions. The head must reflect with lucidity, but the heart must be able to feel warmth: devotion to Mary (which ‘avoids every false exaggeration on the one hand, and excessive narrow-mindedness in the contemplation of the surpassing dignity of the Mother of God on the other,’ as the Council urges) thus assures the faith its full human dimension.”
Continuing his synthesis, Ratzinger lists a fifth point: “To use the very formulations of Vatican II, Mary is ‘figure,’ ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the aforementioned masculinized model that views her as an instrument for a program of social-political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.”
Here is the sixth and last point of this synthesis: “With her destiny, which is at one and the same time that of Virgin and of Mother, Mary continues to project a light upon that which the Creator intended for women in every age, ours included, or, better said, perhaps precisely in our time, in which—as we know—the very essence of femininity is threatened. Through her virginity and her motherhood, the mystery of woman receives a very lofty destiny from which she cannot be torn away. Mary undauntedly proclaims the Magnificat, but she is also the one who renders silence and seclusion fruitful. She is the one who does not fear to stand under the Cross, who is present at the birth of the Church. But she is also the one who, as the evangelist emphasizes more than once, ‘keeps and ponders in her heart’ that which transpires around her. As a creature of courage and of obedience she was and is still an example to which every Christian—man and woman—can and should look.”
This post on the six reasons for not forgetting the Virgin Mary is an excerpt from The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press, 1985.