Ecumenical Dialogue on Mary In 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?

Following is a suggested format for a series of four sessions of 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.

An Example of Faith

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

Next, have the group read St. Luke 1:30-38 and discuss the importance of the Virgin Birth and why it is so important to the Christian message. Then explore the same chapter, verses 39-45 and discuss how Mary’s faith may have been strengthened by her visit with 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?

The Fulfiller of Prophecy

Session Two emphasizes Mary as the fulfiller of prophecy. After prayer, consider an opening in which everyone sings Bishop Phillips Brooks’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 St. Luke 1:26-27. Why do you suppose God chose this particular woman at this particular time in history?

The papal pronouncement on the Immaculate Conception, by Pope Pius IV in 1854, 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 which is not explicitly taught in Scripture but is based on the collective logic of Church leaders?

This is a good juncture to discuss the whole relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the history of the Christian faith. The same issue is found with the dogma of the Assumption. Anglican scholar John Macquarrie argues that, while neither is taught in Scripture, there is no biblical basis for denying them.

As the group reads the Christmas story from chapter two of St. Luke’s Gospel they might 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 of Christmas? In closing the session, spend a few moments allowing each person present to give one way how the joy of Christmas can be shared in a meaningful way.

The Mother of the Christ

Session Three focuses on Mary as the Mother of the Christ. Consider opening with singing 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 St. Matthew 1:18-25 and discuss the very human anxiety that must have centered around the news of Mary’s 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 St. Luke 2:25-32 is sometimes used as part of Eucharistic liturgies. Do non-Catholic members of the group recall it from their own churches and, if so, does it offer some meaningful 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?

In the Vatican II document De Beata Marria Virgine Matre Ecclesiae there is an emphasis on 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 some discussion, particularly among non-Catholics present, as to whether or not this is acceptable logic.

Mary — Follower of Christ

Session Four is titled Mary: 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 St. Luke 2:41-52. As evidenced in verse 50, Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus. His own disciples did not understand Him. Discuss whether faith comes through understanding, or whether it is the other way round?

St. Louis Marie de Montford says that we only achieve real intimacy with our Lord 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 distracted from communicating with God or did it enhance your feeling of communication?

Read St. John 19:25-27. Reflect on Mary’s special anguish as she witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. How did Jesus comfort her? 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?

Praying to Mary and the Saints

A Protestant document called the Smalcald Articles, written by Martin Luther in 1537, suggests that it is idolatry to invoke the saints, keep feasts, and regard saints as helpers in the 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 hymn “Ave Maria.” As you think about the words, ask yourself if it really sounds only like a hymn to 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 welcome Him. This important discussion can help in leading all members to understand the role of Mary in God’s plan for human salvation.

Close the final session in silent meditation, thinking particularly how devotion to Mary can lead us to a greater commitment of our lives to Christ. Close this with a prayer from the ancient liturgy of St. James which reads, “Deliver us from hatred and prejudice and whatever else might hinder us from union and concord.” Finally, embrace the other members of the group in Christian love.

REV. DICKSON, a Lutheran pastor and college professor, is the author of A Protestant Pastor Looks at Mary (Our Sunday Visitor, 1996).