The Marian Year—Differing Viewpoints
The Bible undeniably depicts Mary as a faithful disciple of Jesus. (Acts 1:14) As we examine the significance of the Marian Year, we certainly have no intention of belittling her reputation or her faithfulness. However, in view of the fact that the year dedicated to her is a religious event of great importance, it is only right for believers to ask themselves: Does God approve of the veneration given to Mary? And is Mary God’s answer to the world’s crisis?
THIS Marian Year is the second to be celebrated by the Catholic Church. The first, from 1953 to 1954, was proclaimed by Pope Pius XII to celebrate the centenary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This was just a few years after the same pope had enunciated the teaching of the Assumption.*
What some Catholics remember about the first Marian Year is the large number of new entrants into the priesthood. They evidently hope that this might be repeated, in view of the present vocational crisis. There is, in fact, much concern over the shortage of priests. According to Luigi Accattoli, expert in Vatican affairs for Il Corriere della Sera, it is calculated that of the 300,000 Catholic communities in the world, “more than half have no resident priest.” It is therefore no coincidence that the faithful are exhorted to frequent the Marian sanctuaries, which have been defined as “places for the promotion of vocations.” Will a Marian Year be enough to give new life to the dwindling numbers of the Catholic clergy?
Mary, Vocations, and Atheism
Some remember the grandiose manifestations of devotion to the “Virgin” during the first Marian Year. On that occasion, even the armed forces of several nations were mobilized. At Loreto, Italy, home of a celebrated Marian sanctuary, there was an impressive parade of the Italian air force. Five hundred American marines went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. In Ireland “the army units were consecrated to the Madonna, who for the occasion was proclaimed Marshal of the army,” says La Repubblica.
Pope Pius XII, in giving the announcement of 1953, hoped that the Marian Year would contribute to opposing all those who “exert themselves in eradicating from the souls the faith in Christ” and would counteract their atheistic ideologies. “It is no exaggeration to say that the Marian Year of 1954,” Avvenire affirms, “obtained authentic miracles of unexpected and longed-for conversions.” Similarly, today, in Catholic circles, it is felt that renewed Marian fervor will serve to combat atheistic ideologies and the governments that propagate them.
The New York Times points out that John Paul II “has publicly stated his desire to visit the Soviet Union if he could preach freely there.” And it is even hoped that 1988, “the year of the celebration of one thousand years of Christianity in Russia, will also be the year in which the Pope will renew the explicit consecration [of that] Land . . . for its conversion,” writes Catholic theologian René Laurentin in Avvenire.
Special Treatment for Mary
Various enterprises were planned for the 14 months that ended on August 15, 1988, the last day of the Marian Year, all designed to ‘honor the Mother of the Lord’ and to revive her veneration after years of decline. The pope issued an encyclical expressly dedicated to Mary, and various conventions were planned in order to examine her importance.
Catholics received precise instructions as to the Marian Year. Among other things, they had to celebrate solemnly all the Marian festivities and make a pilgrimage to the churches dedicated to the “Madonna.” They could also benefit from the “plenary indulgence”* by devoutly participating in Marian holidays and liturgical festivities or by piously receiving the papal blessing imparted by the bishop, even by means of a radio or television broadcast. They were counseled that greater value should be attributed to the altar dedicated to Mary in each Catholic church.
Protestant Reaction and Catholic Dissent
This Catholic initiative has been accepted positively by the Orthodox Churches, which also practice the veneration of Mary, but as was to be expected, there have been quite different reactions from Protestant religious groups.
The Catholic hierarchy, well aware of the fact that Mary continues to represent one of the points of disagreement with Protestants, has tried not to sharpen the contrasts, repeating that the Marian Year “will stimulate ecumenical dialogue.” But the same Catholic sources recognize that the Marian Year has caused ‘bitter reactions,’ “a chorus of invectives,” and “a storm of protest” among Protestants. According to the periodical Vita pastorale, this is why Catholic ecumenical groups are engaged in “curbing bigoted exuberance, in avoiding sickly sentimentalism, in reshaping the worship of the relics” of the “Madonna.” Several Catholic periodicals insistently repeat that the Marian Year celebrants should ‘keep in mind the new ecumenical awareness’ and put to one side ‘devotionalistic and antiecumenical aspects.’
For many Protestants, the Marian devotion and practices are idolatrous. Various Italian Protestant groups therefore proposed the suspension of all ecumenical contacts with Catholics during the Marian Year, and the synod of the Waldenses and the Methodist Church issued a statement that severely criticized the papal initiative, calling it an “obstacle to true ecumenical confrontation.”
Furthermore, not all the Catholic clergy are in agreement with the papal initiative. Catholic priest Franco Barbero caused a stir when he publicly declared that he never prayed to Mary. In his “Letter to Mary,” Barbero states that she has been crushed “under a mountain of dogmas, relics, devotionalisms, legends, superstitions.” The same priest has also stated that even “speaking of a ‘year of Mary’ could raise legitimate perplexities.”
Com-nuovi tempi, a periodical published by progressive Catholics, said: “It seemed as though the Catholic Church’s ecumenical openings [after the Second Vatican Council] were at least going to help in not repeating the old Marian religious practices that had few roots in common Christian origins. Unfortunately, the celebrations for this ‘Marian’ year will be against the interests of the revival . . . of an unalienated Christian faith.”
Why, then, are church authorities and even the pope himself insisting on placing so much emphasis on the figure of Mary? Why is it that Catholic “people love Mary before loving Jesus,” as “Mother” Teresa of Calcutta has said? In other words, why the cult of Mary?
According to a Catholic catechism, Mary was “preserved by the grace of God from every stain of sin from her conception onwards” (the dogma of the Immaculate Conception), and at the end of her earthly existence, she was taken up “body and soul” into heaven (the dogma of the Assumption).—Signore, da chi andremo?—Il catechismo degli adulti (Lord, to Whom Shall We Go?—Catechism for Adults).
According to Catholic doctrine, all punishments that should be meted out in purgatory because of venial sins are canceled by means of the plenary indulgence.