Cradle and convert Catholics encounter the Blessed Virgin Mary in profoundly different ways. A cradle Catholic growing up in a parish and a family with a healthy Marian spirituality is raised, from the immemorial always of childhood, surrounded by Mary as Mother, as Heavenly Intercessor, as Glorious Virgin, as the gentle Mother of God.
She is there at baptisms, daily Mass, birthday parties, Christmas, weddings and funerals. She is part of normal life, somebody you turn to as naturally when you have the blues as you do when at family gatherings where the wine is flowing. She is redolent of the smell of May flowers, of the scent of pine at Christmas, of the incense of the altar at Easter. She is the one you breathe out a prayer to when the girl you love says she’ll marry you — and the first person you turn to when the hand you’ve held all your life is growing cold with the approach of death.
She’s there when you are a little kid or a teenager depressed that “nobody understands me” or when you are old and getting ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. She smiles down on you from humble refrigerator magnets and from exalted icons and church windows of ancient magnificence. You know that however you might be faring in the whole “being a good Catholic” department, she at any rate is full of grace and the Lord is certainly with her when you ask her to put in a good word with the Man Upstairs. She is so woven into your life that the world scarcely makes sense without her.
The ‘Catholic’ Mary
For the convert — and especially the convert from average American Protestantism — it’s a very different story. Mary is, at a profoundly visceral level, perceived as a danger and a thing alien to your faith. Opening up to the Church’s Marian dimension is often, at an experiential level, like being tempted to commit a sin. Many a convert can testify to the sensation.
One feels as though, despite all the good scriptural and traditional arguments Catholic teaching can adduce for the veneration of the Virgin, despite all the beauties that Catholic love of Our Lady has brought into the world, despite all the undoubted sanctity and purity of the saints who were devoted to her, despite the pristine figure of the Blessed Virgin herself — still there must be something sinister at work here and the whole Catholic edifice of Marian doctrine and devotion must (once the shocking surprise revelation is laid bare in the final act of the play) be a vast snare leading you into idolatry, goddess worship and a fundamentally pagan perversion of what the apostles proclaimed and taught. Many a convert will tell you that long after the head is able to give assent to all that the Church believes, the gut goes on chattering in a panicked mutter that it’s all a trap, that “the Catholic Mary” is a snare and a delusion.
It is the sheer gulf between these two experiences of Mary that often makes for the enormous distance between cradle Catholics and those who cannot make up their minds whether they are being drawn by the Holy Spirit or tempted by the devil when they contemplate the dawning and dreadful possibility that maybe, just maybe, there is something in all this Catholic stuff. The non-Catholic, biting his nails about Mary, can look like a lunatic with his terrified fears of “idolatry” and his strange allergic reactions to the hurly-burly of normal, healthy Marian piety with its maypoles and flowers and holly and ivy and all the rest of it so aromatic of the pagan youth of the race.
Meanwhile, the Catholic — who knows Mary so well from years of the sort of familiar shorthand that makes up any real human relationship — can appear to the convert to have no clear understanding of what the Church teaches about Mary at all. And this only increases the convert’s suspicion.
Confronted with doubt
What I mean is this: Many Catholics, surprised in the street with a pop quiz about Catholic Marian teaching, couldn’t answer an average evangelical’s fear-filled questions if their lives depended on it. “How many Catholic Marian dogmas are there? Can you name them? What are their sources in the Tradition and Scripture? Why are these things dogmas? How do you reply to the biblical fact that there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus? What’s the difference between prayer to the saints and a séance? Why do you engage in repetitive prayer when Jesus forbids it? How can you believe Mary is without sin when Romans 3:23 says ‘all have sinned’? Where is the Assumption in the Bible? Why does the Church commit us to believing things that aren’t clearly stated in Scripture?”
These sorts of questions, fired in frenetic staccato by evangelicals fearful of “the Catholic Mary” tend to baffle and bewilder Catholics in much the same fashion as if a Russian were to demand that you suddenly produce a full grammatical analysis of the Gettysburg address with each sentence fully diagrammed and the entire structure of the grammar of the English language adduced from it. Where would you begin? And how would you respond when he shouted “HA!” in triumph as you failed?
Generally, there are three responses to this clash. The majority of Catholics just shake their head in bewilderment and leave the conversation. “What’s the big problem? Mary is our Mother. Jesus said so when he said, ‘Behold your Mother.’ Can’t you read?” is the general reaction.
But that’s not the only reaction. A significant minority, alienated from the Church for some reason(s) typically having nothing to do with Mary, take their own bewilderment at the fearful questions of evangelicals as a sign that “I have been lied to all my life by the Church” and follow the evangelical out of the Church. Result: Ex-Catholics constitute the second-largest body of Christians in the United States. Often, such ex-Catholics then become, themselves, ardent proselytizers for an intensely anti-Marian form of Protestantism.
A third (and healthier) reaction is this: Still another minority of Catholics, shaken by their encounter with anti-Marian rhetorical machine gun fire, undertake to study their faith so that they can actually attempt a reply to the anti-Marian interlocutor.
Explaining Marian beliefs
I propose over the next eight months to take that third way. I want to do what Jesus counseled when he said: “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old” (Mt 13:52). What is necessary for us as Catholics is not to change a thing about our beautiful old Marian devotions or beliefs. Rather, what is necessary is for us to understand how to articulate what they mean to those with honest doubts and questions. It may not be necessary for our sake. There’s nothing wrong with a devotional life that doesn’t constantly have to laboriously construct rationales for itself. There’s much to be said for a quiet and non-talky spirituality.
But there is also much to be said for obedience to St. Peter’s command: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15). Such defenses may not be necessary to the Catholic whose relationship with Mary is printed in his very bones — but it is certainly necessary for the honest outsider who has real doubts and fears. And it will definitely be necessary for our children’s sake in a world where Catholic Marian devotion, like virtually everything else Catholic, is under continual fire.
So, next month, let’s begin.
This is the first in an eight-part series. Mark Shea is senior content editor at CatholicExchange.com and writes the Catholic and Enjoying It! blog at markshea.blogspot.com. He writes from Washington state.