During the past five centuries, the position of Mary in faith and practice has been regarded as one of the most divisive issues in the global Christian community. Is it possible to bridge the gap of misunderstanding which has developed over the years? 

Mary
It should be made clear that because God honored Mary does not mean that she supplants our Savior. This may help to quiet some Protestant misconceptions. Shutterstock

Following is a suggested format adapted from my book Mary — A Handbook For Dialogue. The four sessions outlined constitute a basis for community-wide dialogue among a variety of Christian traditions. The sessions should begin with prayer and use scriptural and historical studies to promote discussion of the issues and mutual soul-searching. 

Session 1, Mary as an example of faith, should begin with a reading of St. Luke 1:26-29, followed by a wrestling with the question of whether Mary should be honored by all Christians since God honored her in the Annunciation. At this point, group leaders should make clear that because God honored Mary does not mean that she supplants our Savior. This may help to quiet some Protestant misconceptions. 

Next, have the group read Luke 1:30-38 and discuss the importance of the Virgin Birth and why it is so important to the Christian message. Then explore in the same chapter, verses 39-45 and discuss how Mary’s faith may have been strengthened by her visit to Elizabeth and how our friends can help us with our faith. Verse 42 is contained in the Rosary. Is the group aware that the Rosary has a biblical basis? 

Close the session with the reading of the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 and compare Mary’s song with Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Do any members of the group belong to churches that use the Magnificat in services? 

Session 2 emphasizes Mary as the fulfiller of prophecy. After prayer, consider an opening in which everyone sings Bishop Phillips Brook’s great carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Read St. Matthew 1:1-16. Such a long genealogy can put the congregation to sleep, but Matthew has a purpose. Discuss what that purpose might be. Read Luke 1:26-27. Why do you suppose God chose this particular woman and at this particular time in history? 

The Papal pronouncement on the Immaculate Conception is not explicitly taught in Scripture, but as Ludwig Otto points out, it is based on a long history of teaching and thought in early Christianity. Does the group find it reasonable to believe something not explicitly taught in Scripture but based on the collective logic of church leaders? This is a good junction to discuss the whole relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the history of the Christian faith. The same issue arises in the dogma of the Assumption, which Anglican theologian John Macquarrie argues is not taught in Scripture, but that there is no biblical basis for denying it. 

As the group reads the Christmas story from chapter two of Luke’s Gospel, members may want to compare the powerful simplicity of this story with the commercialized extravaganza of the typical American Christmas. How can all Christians, regardless of church affiliation, rise above the commercialism to find the true spiritual meaning? In closing the session, spend a few moments allowing each person to mention a meaningful way to share the joy of Christmas. 

In Session 3, Mary as the Mother of the Christ, consider opening with the hymn “At the Cross Her Station Keeping” and then pray together that each member of the group may gain a greater understanding of Mary’s very human emotions as a mother. Read Matthew 1:18-25 and discuss the possible human anxiety caused by news of a surprise pregnancy. Can this relate to times in our own lives when we should have trusted God but were overwhelmed by anxiety? 

The Nunc Dimittis in Luke 2:25-32 is sometimes used as part of Eucharistic liturgies. Do members of the group recall it from their own churches and, if so, does it offer comfort? Protestant theologian Karl Barth stated that Mary can rightly be called the “Mother of God” in the sense that she is the mother of Jesus Christ who is an equal Person of the Holy Trinity. Can this be regarded as logical thinking by Protestants? 

The Vatican II document De Beata Marria Virgine Matre Ecclesiae, emphasizes the fact that Mary is not the object of Christian worship, but that we honor her and are devoted to her because such devotion leads us to a deeper faith in her Son, Jesus. Allow for discussion, particularly among non-Catholics present, as to whether or not this is acceptable logic. 

In Session 4, Mary as a follower of the Christ. Begin by praying together that all may become more open to Mary and, by doing so, make her Son, Jesus, the center of our lives. Read Luke 2:41-52. Verse 50 shows that Mary and Joseph did not fully understand Jesus. His own disciples did not understand Him. Discuss whether faith comes through understanding or if it is the other way around. 

St. Louis-Marie de Montfort says that we achieve real intimacy with our Lord only by establishing a very close union with Mary. Is this a reasonable conclusion to those in the study group? Protestant Reformer Martin Luther often prayed to Mary. If you have ever prayed to Mary or said a Rosary, did it make you feel detracted from communicating with God or did it enhance your feeling of communication? 

Read St. John 19: 25-27 and reflect on Mary’ s special anguish as she witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. How did Jesus comfort His mother? Think of people who have reached out and helped others in spite of their own physical or emotional pain. From where do they seem to get their strength? 

A Protestant document on the 16th century, Martin Luther’s Smalcald Articles, suggests that it is idolatry to invoke the saints, keep their feasts, and regard them as helpers in time of need. Allow members of the group to discuss whether or not they feel that prayers to Mary and the saints are, or could be, a helpful devotional practice. 

Obtain a translation of the beautiful Ave Maria. As the group thinks about the words, ask if it really sounds like a hymn to merely glorify Mary or if it can be a genuine path leading us to her Son. Finally, have the group consider a statement in a homily by Pope John Paul II that Mary’s role is to make her Son shine and to lead us to Him and to welcome Him. This can be an important discussion in leading all members to understand the role of Mary in God’s plan for human salvation. 

Close the final session in silent meditation on how devotion to Mary can lead us to a greater commitment of our lives to Christ. End with a prayer from the ancient liturgy of St. James which reads, “Deliver us from hatred and prejudice and whatever else may hinder us from union and concord.”

DR. DICKSON is a Lutheran parish pastor, college professor, and author of two books on Mary: A Protestant Pastor Looks at Mary, Our Sunday Visitor Press (1996) and Mary — A Handbook for Dialogue, PublishAmerica (2010).