Mary, Model of Liberation
Michael Crosby, OFM.Cap.
I'm very thankful that so many of you, devoted to Mary, have come to this session to reflect more deeply on what Mary has to say to us in today's church and today's society.
My talk is in three parts: 1. Images of Mary from private revelation, 2. The reality of Mary from divine revelation, and 3. My personal reflections: why I find the latter understanding much more satisfactory and grounded in what we say our faith is all about.
I proceed with some fear and trembling. The last time I gave this talk I was at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. It is the "mother of all religious ed conferences" -- with some 20,000 to 25,000 people attending each year. Outside were the picketers, protesting those speakers they felt the Cardinal should not have allowed to speak. I am on their list. Some of them came to my talk, not to listen to the theology, but to find something in my remarks that they could twist to prove I was disloyal to the Holy Father and to Mary. Two weeks later one of the protest groups in Los Angeles published a report in a newspaper called Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission, denouncing the whole congress and saying, "The only thing missing was the golden calf!" About my talk they wrote, "Crosby said traditional Marian piety is a dysfunctional spirituality." I didn't say that, and I can tell from your reaction that you don't believe that either. What has been dysfunctional is a spirituality based on certain images and concepts that really are not life-giving to the Church and to the people of God.
This summer I gave a retreat to the Marianists at Bergamo Center in Dayton. There I met a Marianist brother, Joe Aspell, an artist who has created the most powerful image of Mary I have ever seen. The original scupture is in St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Orland Hills, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Joe and I have since connived to enlarge this photograph of the sculpture (pictured on page 1). The moment you see it, you are moved, for this image reflects that woman who has touched all our lives -- that crosscultural woman, that woman of wisdom, that woman of strength who is Mary.
1. Images of Mary from private revelation
We have inherited a set of images of Mary, reinforced by current forms of private revelation and private devotion. Many have not been very helpful for us. Many of us were formed in a type of Catholicism that stressed those elements, and almost identified Catholicism with them, to the detriment of Scripture, and to the detriment of ever knowing what "Jesus is Lord" is all about. Many of us therefore have rejected those images, and have not reappropriated Mary, the one pregnant with hope as she sings her Magnificat, as a model for our discipleship and for our journey.
I was brought up in a Catholicism that had Mary at its center. It meant Tuesday evening devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help at our parish in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It meant making the five first Saturdays. Of course they never ended after five. You just kept going to Mass on the first Saturday of every month for years. It was on one of these Saturdays, in April of my senior year in high school, that I told my parents I was going to enter the seminary. I had used the family car to drive to a party the night before, but I still got up in time to drive my Mom and Dad in the same car to 7 a.m. Mass. On the way, there was this loud clunking noise back and forth in the trunk. "What's that noise?" said my Mom. "Gee, I don't know," I said. "It wasn't doing that when I drove the car last night." After Mass I said I'd take the car over to the filling station where I worked to get it checked out. "It's probably just a lug wrench that came loose." My Dad didn't believe me. "Stop the car. Open the trunk," he said. For some reason, there was an empty quarter-barrel of beer in the trunk. Back home in the kitchen no one spoke. I remember leaning against the counter, and saying to myself over and over, "It's the service or the seminary, the service or the seminary." I waited until I heard the familiar words, "Michael, what's going to become of you? What are you going to do with your life?" And I said, "I'm going to the seminary."
In Fond du Lac, 65 miles from Milwaukee (that was where the real sinning was going on!), during the Cold War, we got our piety from the women religious, who just gave us all the images they themselves had been taught, before Sister Formation. They had started teaching right after high school, and the piety they had was right out of the 1800's. The images of Mary were used to reinforce papal patriarchy and various power positions in the Church. They were dysfunctional images, but we didn't know it. They seemed to function very well for us at that time.
During the Cold War, we just knew that the Russians were coming, and that was because we weren't praying hard enough or consecrating the world, and especially Russia, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Russians were coming, and for some reason, they were going to land in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin! God was getting more and more upset with all of us, and all our sinning (especially those folks in Milwaukee, but also ourselves).
God was very angry with the world. This was actually a takeoff on the revelation in one of the contemporary apparitions of Mary, at La Salette. The image was of Mary holding back the angry arm of her Son. (Somehow the nuns got that image mixed up with Fatima. Just as we intermingled the infancy narratives from Matthew and from Luke, we also blended La Salette, and Fatima, and Lourdes. It was all somehow the same.)
God was getting ready to really punish us. I remember picturing it like a game of marbles. Remember those big, big marbles, the "glassies" and the "steelies"? Well, I pictured God with this great, huge steelie, and God was getting ready to fire away at the whole world. Who was holding back God's arm? Mary.
Now that's dysfunctional family stuff. The father of the house is really angry at the kids, but mother is going to protect the kids from the rage-oholic father. That image had a deep impact on my spirituality. I didn't trust God. I was afraid of God. I didn't like God very much, because I didn't think God liked me very much. Jesus I liked a little bit better, because he was somehow more human. And with Mary I had no trouble at all. That was the gradation: we feared God, we were more edified by Jesus, and we just loved Mary. My critics at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress misunderstood me. It is these images, not the whole of Marian piety, that I call dysfunctional.
Mary's heart is totally attuned to the heart of her Son. Her Son is one with God. Mary's vision for what is good for the world cannot be in any way different from that of our God revealed in Jesus Christ. But we had all these contrary images: God is closing the door on us, but if you go round the back way, Mary will let you in through the window. Crazy, dysfunctional family systems images were applied to the Trinitarian God, and to Mary, and they were not very helpful to spirituality. So naturally, when a lot of us grew up, since we had no healthy, functional, nourishing images of Mary, she just dropped out of the picture for us.
I was born in 1940, and began Catholic school in 1946. Somewhere around 1953 the nuns began telling us that the Communists -- Russians or Chinese, it was never clear which -- were going to invade us. Blood was going to flow down Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee -- the sinful big city. We lived in fear. Fear defined my early spirituality. I really didn't believe I could have intimacy with God. I had to go through a medium, and that medium was Mary.
Sometimes those images still had a positive effect. After a year in an open seminary, I wanted to join a religious order. It came down to a choice between the Capuchin Franciscans and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. I had a month to decide before entering one of the two novitiates. One day I asked my Mom if I could borrow the car, and I went to our parish church, St. Patrick's, to try to make my decision. I made a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament, but where I really got down to business was in front of the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I took out a piece of paper, and made two columns, one for each religious order. I wrote down their spirituality, their ministry, their purpose. Everything looked like it favored the Oblates, but the spirit of the Capuchins sounded like they really wanted to live the Gospel, and I felt drawn to that, so that became my decision. Through Mary, somehow, I discovered my call to live the Gospel as a Capuchin Franciscan.
The old images of Mary are still around. Somehow I got on the mailing list of "The Fatima Crusader," published by a group obsessed with the idea that the Pope and all the world's bishops, on the same day and at the same time, must consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Until that happens, the Pope and the Church are being unfaithful to the revelation by Our Lady of Fatima to Lucy in 1929. Mary is very upset, and Mary is actually weeping about it. One article in The Fatima Crusader asks, "Why is Mary Weeping?" The image of Mary weeping is very widespread. In 1993 in U.S. News and World Report we had the Case of the Weeping Madonna. Thousands of people flocked to a church to see the statue of Mary weeping.
(At this point in his talk, Crosby invited questions or comments. A woman said that she was trying to help her elderly father, sick with Alzheimers disease, to prepare for his death. But he was raised on these negative images, and is terribly afraid to die, because his God is an angry God, not a kind and loving God who appreciates all that he has done in his life. Crosby said the negative images have affected many people: "One of my own professors, now in his 80s, living in this city, is scared to death to die. And I've said to myself: If I had a God like he thinks he has, I'd be afraid to die too. This God makes unbelievable demands on us all, but this God is not the one revealed to us in Jesus Christ.")
2. Mary in divine revelation
After all these negative images of Mary, I eventually said to myself: I need to try to learn what we know about Mary from Scripture, from the Gospels -- not from private revelation, but from divine revelation.
Scripture doesn't say a lot about Mary. She doesn't utter a word in Matthew's Gospel, or Mark's, and only speaks twice in the Gospel of John. The first time is when she addresses a human need: "They have no wine." She tries to respond to people's need who are embarrassed socially, for theirs was an honor-blame culture. She is aware of their predicament, their inability to define their own reality. The last words she speaks in John's gospel are probably her most powerful words outside of the Magnificat: "Do whatever he tells you." For all of us who were trained on private revelations, or books with titles like "Mary Speaks to Her Priests," all Mary says is: Do whatever HE tells you.
There are many ways Mary is used and abused, including the way the contemporary hierarchy in Rome tries to use her to enforce a patriarchal system and notion of priesthood, but they have no grounding in Scripture. They are reading things into Scripture in ways any Scripture scholar will tell you have no basis. Many times Mary has been used as an external authority to get people to do something they wouldn't do otherwise. But all Mary says is, "Do whatever HE tells you."
In the Gospel of Luke, we find some very powerful images of Mary. It is these that Joe Aspell had in mind when he created his sculpture, "Seat of Wisdom." In his accompanying brochure he writes:
"In Mary, the older woman, we see reflected our own lives. When I began to sculpt Mary as an older woman, she became someone in whom, I felt, people could recognize their own image. Her life was not protected. No longer the girl of the Annunciation, she is seen here as having lived through the same contradictions that our lives face, especially the lives of millions of the world's poor. Here is a person who confronted the mystery of her own life. I felt people today, especially women, are looking for this older woman from whose wisdom they can find inspiration and strength.
"In the Gospels, she is homeless at the time of her child's birth. She and her family are the target of a massacre. She becomes a refugee, and must flee her own country to become a foreigner in a strange land and culture. Later her own neighbors drive her son out of the community in which she raised him. She is a widow, perhaps at an early age. Tradition has it that she lived out her last years in a foreign place.
"Beyond these hardships, like us, she too experienced a crisis of faith. She faced the human condition of outliving her child; and the spiritual contradiction that everything her culture led her to believe, did not happen -- death on a cross was not what was supposed to happen to the Messiah. At that moment she had to take her faith and make it more than what others said. She had to make it her own. She came through that, and this is the person we see at the Pentecost."
continue to section two