Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Work of Mary

July 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles, Featured, Pat Bearsley

The early Marists were convinced that Mary had chosen them to form a new family in the Church – one which would bear her name and do her work of saving souls. Theologically this claim cannot be “proved”; but nor on the other hand can it be “disproved” if only for the reason that theology cannot put restrictions on the work of God. If God wanted to use Mary to inspire the early Marists to establish the Society of Mary, it is not for the theologians to say he cannot do so. The task of the theologian, however, is to reflect on the claim in the light of other known aspects of God’s saving action and to judge whether this conviction is consonant with what we know of God’s revelation of himself or not.

However, in judging the “soundness” of this claim, one must distinguish between a “soundness” appropriate to the early nineteenth century and a “soundness” appropriate to today. For theology is not merely a reflection on the “truths of revelation”, but it is a reflection carried out in the light of the concerns and experiences of the Christians of that day. Thus it is possible that what was sound theological practice or opinion in Fr Colin’s day (given the concerns and experience and knowledge of the people of his time) may not now be considered sound theological practice or opinion today (given our concerns, experience and knowledge). For example, we today have the benefit of intense scholarly study of the scriptures, which was not available to Fr Colin. Moreover, the twentieth century has learned a great deal from the findings and insights of modern positive sciences, such as psychology and sociology. The canons of “soundness” today are different from the canons of yesteryear. However, it must also be borne in mind that in judging the soundness of something such as the conviction of the early Marists, we are not judging a matter of orthodoxy in the Faith. It is not a question of a matter “de fide”.

Rather this conviction is one of those things which can be believed by the faithful or not believed without detriment to “faith or morals”. In saying that something which was sound in the nineteenth century may not be sound today, we are not saying that yesterday’s orthodoxy may become today’s heresy.

In this paper I shall not attempt to judge whether the belief of the early Marists was sound in their day. Rather I shall be concerned solely with the question of whether the claim of the early Marists can be judged to be sound today, i.e. in the light of current theological opinion.

All sound mariology must seek to preserve a delicate balance between two poles, one divine and the other human. A theological understanding of Mary must take into account both her relationship to Christ and thence to God, and also her relationship to the Church and thence to all men and women. Marian thought and devotion throughout the ages has tended to swing between these two poles, at one time favouring her relationship to Christ and at another time emphasising her solidarity with humankind.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century we saw the heyday of a “high” mariology, where she was closely linked with Christ and she was accorded privileges which paralleled the transcendent features of her Son. He was Christ the King, she was Queen of Heaven; he ascended to heaven, she was assumed into heaven; he was sinless, she was immaculately conceived and remained spotless throughout her life; he was the Redeemer, she was the Co-Redemptrix; he was the Mediator of all grace, she was the Mediatrix of all graces; and so on.

In the wake of Vatican II and its very significant statement on Mary in chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium this type of mariology is no longer in vogue. The pendulum has swung in favour of the other pole. Mary is now viewed primarily as within the Church and at one with the lot of creatures. She is seen not so much as the heavenly protectress as the Poor One of Yahweh (one of the Anawim).

The favoured images are the “first redeemed; the perfect disciple’ (Christian), the model of the Church, and so on. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far towards this pole, and important aspects of her mystery are being neglected today. Once again, balance is needed. Nevertheless, the emphasis that places her among the redeemed –albeit the most perfectly redeemed– is surely a healthy one.

In an effort to achieve a balance we shall consider our question first in the light of the pole which relates her to Christ and to God. Then we shall consider the question again from the perspective of the other pole which sees her in the midst of the Church, at one with the redeemed and within the community of disciples.

But first of all, we must sketch an account of the fundamental presupposition which provides the background or context against which we shall situate our discussion.

Contextual Presupposition: The basic presupposition underlying this discussion is the dogma of the Assumption. However, it is not the “de fide” core of the belief that is important, but the implications that flow from it which provide the framework for our inquiry. In believing that Mary has been assumed into heaven, we also believe that she has reached her destiny as a human person and as one of the redeemed. She too has been resurrected to new life following the pattern set by her Son (1 Cor 15:13-23). She is now fully human and fully redeemed. She has “gone as far as she can go”, and further than any other purely human person. She is thus a model for all other redeemed persons. She is the perfect Christian – not just in the sense that she is a model or ideal to whom all other Christians must aspire, but also in the sense that she has been “perfected” as a Christian. The fullness of what it means to be a disciple of the Lord and to be redeemed by him has been accomplished in her.

Mary is thus constituted in power. She is possessed by God and possesses him. Her will is perfectly conformed to the will of God and she finds all her delight and fulfillment as a human person in her relationship with God – the mutual giving and receiving between persons that characterises the very life of the Trinity Itself.

Empowered by and in the Spirit she is now the fulfillment of what she was on earth. There is no radical change in the person of Mary. She is still the same person she was when walking the streets of Nazareth. What she was then, she is still now – but even more so. She has now been confirmed in her mission. At the Annunciation she was called to be the mother of the Saviour, and on Calvary that call to motherhood was extended to include all those with whom her Son identified himself. On earth she was mother of Jesus and mother of the beloved disciple. Now in heaven she is still mother – but now of the Risen Lord and of the Church. As she was his loyal disciple on earth, she is now the perfect disciple in heaven. All the human, maternal and Christian qualities she displayed during her earthly life remain with her, but now as fully empowered by and in the Spirit.

These ideas then form the theological framework or context in which the early conviction of the Marists must be considered.


A. Mary and the Father

The early Marists believed that Mary herself wanted them to establish a Society bearing her name for the purpose of saving souls. The mission of this Society was in reality her mission, and they were to do her work. They were to be her representatives, her agents, in the world.

There is a danger in presenting the conviction as simply as this (as some of the early Marists may have done). For it seems to suggest that the whole idea of the Society of Mary was Mary’s initiative. It was her own “bright idea” which she was putting into operation. Of course the early Marists would have believed that it was in conformity with the will of God and that her Son would have liked the idea too. But this is not enough. It is too simple.

Today it is necessary to make it quite explicit that redemption and everything connected with the plan of salvation belongs first and foremost to the initiative of God. God “loved us first” (1 Jn 4:19). “This is the love I mean: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.” (1 Jn 4:10; also Rom 5:8). Theologians, following the Gospels, usually attribute this initiative in bringing about salvation to the Father.

Thus if Marists believe that they have a role in bringing the redemptive love of God to men and women of our world, then they must also believe that that role is part of the Father’s saving plan. Any initiative that Mary may seem to have played is in fact subordinate to the overall initiative of the Father who inaugurates and oversees the salvation of every person.

At Cana Mary appeared to take the initiative. “They have no wine.” (Jn 2.3) However, Jesus made it clear that the initiative during his ministry belonged to the Father alone: “Woman, what is this to me and to you? My hour has not come yet.” (2:4) [Jesus’ “hour” is in fact his Father’s “hour” (12:27-28; 13:1; 17:1)] Mary understands and immediately leaves the whole matter up to Jesus: “Do whatever he tells you.” (2.5)

The Father may indeed choose to manifest part of his plan through the agency of Mary. We may suppose that at Lourdes and at Fatima (for example) the Father was operating through Mary, if we interpret the message of those “apparitions” to be a call to return to the Gospel and to live according to its values. Because of the psychology of the age and the strong marian devotion that characterised those times, it is not surprising that he chose to manifest this call through her.

This does not mean that Mary did not act fully in her person on those occasions. She was more than a mere “mask” behind which God was hiding. Because of her present state and status, and because her will is perfectly conformed to the will of the Father, she could act freely and in her own right as a human person – and also as an instrument of the divine mercy. However, just as Lourdes and Fatima were not something she did purely on her own initiative (as if she were the sole author of the events), neither can the “experience” of Fr Courveille be considered something that Mary did of her own accord. If this “experience” is genuine, it would have to be a manifestation of an initiative from the Father, carried out through the agency of Mary.

B. Mary and the Son

Although Mary’s greatest claim to fame and honour is the fact that she is the mother of Jesus, and thus the mother of God-made-man, the Gospels are consistent in showing that this does not give her any authority over Jesus with respect to his saving mission. We have already remarked that the dialogue in the Cana incident can be interpreted as Jesus’ pointing out to Mary that his “hour” is determined solely by his Father and that she should defer to the authority that has been given to him by the Father (Jn 3:35; 17:2; Mt 28:18). A similar point is made in Luke’s Gospel with the story of the twelve year old Jesus being found in the Temple by his anxious parents. Jesus counters their reproaches with the remark: “Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?” (Lk 2:49). Once this has been emphasised, the evangelist can then add: “He went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority.” (2:51)

The Synoptics also stress that the mere fact of being his mother did not carry a great deal of weight for Jesus once he had embarked on his public ministry. Mark (followed by Matthew) recounts an incident in which Jesus prefers to carry on with his instruction to those sitting around him rather than go to his mother who was waiting outside to speak with him. He makes it clear that he considers his family to be those who do the will of God (Mk 3:31-35; also Mt 12:46-50).

Probably Mark did not know Mary personally, nor did she figure prominently in the Church community for whom he was writing his Gospel. Mark’s principal intention in relating this episode was to present Jesus’ teaching on the importance of doing the will of God in as striking a fashion as possible. He probably was not unduly concerned if in doing this he cast Mary in a negative light. However, although he gives the impression that Jesus was snubbing his mother, he does not say explicitly that she was an unbeliever nor that she failed in doing God’s will. What is clear from the text is that in Jesus’ scale of values it was much more important to be a doer of God’s will than even to be his mother. And we can conclude that if Mary was to find favour in Jesus’ eyes, it would be primarily because she did the will of God rather than because she was his mother (in any purely natural or biological sense).

When we come to Luke’s Gospel we see that he was concerned to correct any unfavourable impression that Mark may have given of Mary, but at the same time he wanted to preserve the key saying of Jesus concerning his “true” family. He cleverly situates the episode in the context of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed, and he edits the story in such a way that Mary appears as someone warmly commended by Jesus. At the conclusion of his explanation of the parable Jesus says: “As for the part in rich soil, this is people with a noble and generous heart who have heard the word and take it to themselves and yield a harvest through their perseverance” (8:15). Then a few verses later when Jesus is told that his mother (and brothers) were outside wanting to see him, he replied: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (8:21). Thus, just after giving his definition of what it means to be a true disciple (v.15), Jesus holds up Mary as an example of what he has been talking about (v.21).

Luke emphasizes this point by associating this notion of discipleship (hearing the word and incorporating it into one’s life) five more times with Mary in his Gospel (1:38; 1:45; 2:19; 2:51; 11:28), and in the Acts of the Apostles he lists her as one of the group of loyal disciples in the post-resurrection Church (Acts 1.114). Thus Luke is consistent in portraying Mary as the model disciple, fulfilling what it means to be a disciple, and thus winning the favour of her son.

Mary’s significance for us then is that she shows us what it means to be a true disciple of the Lord. Even her divine motherhood (her greatest privilege) is a manifestation and result of her discipleship – as I shall show in the next section. This is how it was during her life on earth and it is still the case now that she is in heaven. She was first and foremost a disciple then, and she is still a disciple of her Son now.

Therefore, there can be no question of Mary exercising an initiative in the realm of salvation independently of her Son. Mary as a disciple follows Christ. He was sent into the world to save people from their sins (Rm 3:25). This mission was entrusted to him, and him alone, by his Father. He inaugurated his mission when he came on earth and won salvation for all by his death and resurrection, but the mission will not be fully accomplished until the end of time. Christ is still carrying out his mission through his Spirit in his Church.

If the Society of Mary has a part to play in this saving mission of Christ, then its foundation should be attributed to his responsibility and initiative before it is attributed to Mary. She as a loyal disciple identifies herself completely with his mission. It becomes also her mission. Just as she co-operated and contributed to it while he was on earth, she does the same now and will continue to do so till it reaches completion. But it is first and foremost his mission and responsibility.

However, if the Society of Mary is to be an instrument of divine mercy and an agent of salvation by taking its inspiration from Mary’s brand of discipleship and by seeking to reproduce her apostolic spirit in the world, then it is fitting that Christ should have used her to manifest this new initiative and make his will known to Fr Courveille and the early Marists. Indeed Fr Courveille’s report of the “experience” of Mary’s words to him in 1812 is remarkable for the emphasis given to precisely the points I have made here in this section:

I have always imitated my Divine Son in everything. I followed Him to Calvary itself, standing at the foot of the Cross when He gave His life for man’s salvation. Now in heaven, sharing His glory, I follow His path still, in the work He does for His church on earth. Of this Church, I am the Protectress. I am like a powerful army, defending and saving souls. When a fearful heresy threatened to convulse the whole of Europe, my Son raised up His servant, Ignatius, to form a Society under His name, calling itself the Society of Jesus, with members called Jesuits, to fight against the hell unleashed against His Church. In the same way in this last age of impiety and unbelief, it is my wish and the wish of my Son, that there be another Society, one consecrated to me, one which will bear my name, which will call itself the Society of Mary and whose members will call themselves Marists, to battle against hell …” (OM II, doc 718) [My emphasis]

C. Mary and the Holy Spirit

Once his earthly life was over Jesus ensured that his mission of salvation for all people would continue through his Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and has been sent into the world to ensure that what Jesus won on Calvary would be the means of salvation for all succeeding generations. In Johannine theology the Spirit was breathed forth by the dying Jesus onto the infant Church personified in Mary and the Beloved Disciple and the other holy women (Jn 19:30, 34 – with reference to 7:37-39). In this view as soon as the earthly Jesus ceased, the “spiritual” Jesus took over. The words, “and bowing down his head he gave forth his spirit” (v.30), indicate simultaneously both the death of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit. In the Lukan scheme of things the Spirit was promised by Jesus as he ascended to heaven (Acts 1:8) and descended on Mary and the assembled disciples ten days later at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Despite the differing time-scales Luke and John are making the same theological point: Christ sent his Spirit on the disciples to continue his work for all succeeding ages. Both authors also explicitly mention Mary as a recipient of the first outpouring of the Spirit.

In the Old Testament the Spirit is consistently portrayed as the power of God effective in dealings with his creation. He is God’s creative power, not in the scholastic sense of creating something where there was literally nothing before, but rather in the sense of making something new and better out of what was lowly and inadequate. The Spirit acts within creation. He brings form to chaos (Gn 1:2), life to the clay body of Adam (Gn 2:7) and to the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision (Ez 37:1-14). In the New Testament this notion becomes clearer. The Spirit appears as a Person, not merely as the divine power. He is distinct from both Father and Son, for he is sent by them both. However, his action is still characteristically one of acting within creation – and more particularly within persons. First and foremost he acted within Jesus even during his public ministry –“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me” (Lk 4.18)– empowering him in the carrying out of his mission. And then at the close of his earthly ministry Jesus pours out that same empowering Spirit onto his disciples. The Spirit now acts within the disciples in the same way as he acted within Jesus. Jesus promised as much when he said: “in my name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison; they will lay their hands on the sick who will recover.” (Mk 16:17-18; also Lk 10:19. This power was confirmed in Acts 3:1-10; 14:3,8-10; 28:3-6.)

Thus it is important to notice that when the Spirit was breathed forth on Calvary or descended at Pentecost, he came into a group of people. The Holy Spirit does not work on his own, in a vacuum, as it were. He always works within persons. His power is subtle. It is not the power of “thunderbolts from on high” (as if he were the Christians’ answer to the Zeus of the Greeks); rather it is the power of a breath – quiet, almost invisible, but as powerful as life itself. (It is no accident that both Hebrew and Greek make a pun out of their word for the Spirit.) The Spirit is not known in himself; he is known through his effects, through what he achieves in the people he works with.

The Church is the primary locus of the Spirit’s activity in our world. The Church is the community of Spirit-filled disciples of the Lord. The Spirit dwells within these disciples, and through them he is able to continue the work of Christ in the world. Thus the breathing forth of the Spirit was simultaneously the birth of the Church, for he was not breathed forth just “to float in the air” as it were, but to empower the disciples to further the work of Jesus.

Mary was the first of these disciples. She was the first (together with the Beloved Disciple) to receive the Spirit from the dying Christ, and it is by understanding the action of the Spirit in her that we shall understand how he works in us today. For she is the model for all disciples, then as well as now.

We can see the action of the Spirit in Mary most clearly at the Annunciation, the moment of the Incarnation (Lk 1:26-38). St Augustine is the best known patristic witness to have developed with regard to Mary the Gospel insight that in Jesus’ scale of values it is much more important to be responsive to the will/word of God than to be even one of his kin through ties of blood. “She did the Father’s will and it is a greater thing for her that she was Christ’s disciple than that she was his mother. It is a happier thing to be his disciple than to be his mother.” (Sermon XXV, 7) And in similar vein: “Mary’s relationship as mother would have been of no profit to her if she had not more joyfully borne Christ in her heart than in her body.” (De Sac.Virg. 3)

However, Augustine develops this idea further. For him Mary was first and foremost the Woman of Faith. We are all familiar with his dictum that Mary full of faith conceived Christ first in her heart before conceiving him in her womb (Sermon 215,4), but we are less familiar with a further acute observation on his part. Not only does he give priority to Mary’s conception of Christ in faith, but he points out that it is precisely through her believing that Mary conceived him in her womb: “Maria credendo concepit sine viro” (ibid.) In another sermon he makes this point very clearly: “Virgo Maria non concubuit et concepit, sed credidit et concepit.” (Sermon 233,4) The Virgin Mary did not have intercourse and conceive; instead, she believed and conceived. In other words, the human act whereby she conceived her Son was not an act of loving union with her husband but an act of loving faith in God. A wife surrenders in love and faith to her husband and conceives; Mary surrendered in love and faith to God and conceived. “Let it be done to me according to your word.” If it is asked, what did Mary do to conceive Christ?, the answer is simply: she made an act of faith. This act was the act of a disciple, hearing a word from God and accepting it wholeheartedly. But it was also a generative act: as a result of her response, “the Word was made flesh” (Jn 1:14). It was the very act whereby Mary conceived and became the mother of God. Her “fiat” was thus the expression of her disciple’s heart and the cause (on her part) of her motherhood.

However, we are told that Mary conceived Christ “through the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18), who over-shadowed her (Lk 1:35). The Incarnation was accomplished through him. But this does not mean that he was the “father” of Christ. It would also be wrong to think that he played the part of Mary’s husband. The insistence that Mary was a virgin removes any pagan suggestion that Jesus’ origin was through any sexual activity on the part of Mary – even with “God”. Although we occasionally find in Tradition that the Spirit is called the “husband” of Mary and Mary the “spouse” of the Holy Spirit, these terms are not really appropriate and may betray a misunderstanding of the whole situation. For they suggest that the conception of Christ was the result of a partnership between Mary and the Holy Spirit analogous to that of a wife and husband in any ordinary conception, whereas in fact their relationship was of a totally different order: that of God and his creature. The Holy Spirit is God, the third Person of the Trinity, and he characteristically works from within, ex intimo. When from the impulse of the Spirit we cry “Abba! Father!” the Spirit is in our hearts (Gal 4:6; Rm 8:15). When the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, Mary was totally at his disposal, as the creature is to the Creator. He worked within her, making her conceive Christ, in a fashion no created agency could rival. Of course Mary was not totally passive in receiving his influence. She was active: she freely consented to his action within her. But –and this is the crucial point– she could not make her “fiat” of her own accord, from her own natural resources. Just as any act of faith, any movement towards God, requires an initiative from God himself, so did Mary’s act of accepting God’s word. Her “fiat” thus was the result of a prompting of the Spirit within her. Just as our cry “Abba! Father!” arises from an impulse of the Spirit but is nevertheless our cry as sons and daughters, so too was Mary’s “fiat” her own personal consent given under inspiration of the Spirit. Thus the Holy Spirit, far from being simply a partner in the conception of Jesus, is in fact the transcendent cause who inspires Mary to play her part in consenting to motherhood and also accomplishes within her the motherhood to which she has consented.

Mary’s act of faith thus becomes the model for all disciples. Although the Incarnation as such can never be repeated, all disciples are called to do spiritually what Mary did physically (and spiritually). Through their faith they too are summoned “to give flesh to the Word” by making him come spiritually alive in themselves and in others. This is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit who works within them as he did in Mary: empowered by the Spirit they can act with faith in hearing the word of God and putting it into practice. Gradually they become moulded in the likeness of Christ and thus pleasing to the Father. Christ lives on in them, “incarnated” in the world –not as he once was physically in the person of Mary– but now spiritually in the persons of the disciples, who live by the Spirit and continue his mission by bringing God’s salvation to all peoples.

This continuing mission of Christ has been entrusted to the Spirit and it is always carried out by his power. As Mary was at the Annunciation and throughout her earthly life, so is she now – living by the power of the Spirit, who works perfectly within her, inspiring her every action and ensuring that her whole being is oriented towards God. As he empowered her to co-operate wholeheartedly in the beginning of redemption, he can still inspire her to give her whole being to the continuation of that work. In this post-resurrection age the work of saving people is primarily the work of the Spirit of Jesus. If the Society of Mary is an agent of salvation in today’s world, then that can only be because it is primarily an instrument in the work of the Holy Spirit. And so if in 1812 Mary intervened in the life of Jean-Claude Courveille, then she must have been acting through the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit who was using her as an instrument to inaugurate a new initiative for bringing the salvation of Christ to men and women of the nineteenth century and beyond. But just as at the Annunciation Mary was fully human and free in giving her “fiat” (even though overshadowed by the Holy Spirit), so at Le Puy her intervention to Courveille would have been a free personal act on her part (even though inspired by the Spirit).


Much that would be relevant to our question under this heading has been treated already in the previous section on Mary and the Holy Spirit. However, there is still another aspect which deserves a brief discussion.

The mission of preaching the Gospel and bringing salvation to all peoples now belongs to the Church. There is no contradiction in saying this with our earlier contention that the continuance of the mission is now the work of the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Church, and to talk of the mission of the Holy Spirit and the mission of the Church is really to talk of the same thing – two sides of the one coin.

The Church is identified by her mission. As Moltmann puts it:

“What we have to learn … is not that the Church ‘has’ a mission but the reverse: that the mission of Christ creates its own Church. Mission does not come from the Church; it is from mission and in the light of mission that the Church has to be understood.”

Thus the founding of the Society of Mary must be understood in the light of the mission that gives the Church its identity. The Society of Mary is not a “salvation-agency” working directly under the authority of God, or even of Mary. It is not an entity independent of, and separate from, the Church. It is essentially part of the Church, within the Church, and dependent on the Church. Its mission is a sharing in the overall mission of the Church.

As such the Society had to be authorised by the Church and commissioned by her to go out and preach. Approval by the Holy See is not merely a legal requirement. It is a reflection of a deep theological reality, touching the very nature of the Church and determining the essence of any apostolic congregation in the Church. Fr Colin showed a healthy theological instinct when he insisted on loyalty to the Holy See and to the bishop of whatever diocese Marists were working in.

Thus the founding of the Society of Mary can be seen as an initiative on the Church’s part, seeking to further her mission in a new way in the world of the nineteenth century. No matter what Courveille, Colin, and the rest may have thought at the time, they were in fact representatives of the Church as she sought to make the Gospel message effective at that time. The Church is nothing without her members, and any new initiative in the life of the Church comes to light through the activities of one, or several, of her members. Courveille, Colin and co. were thus playing a part in the Church’s constant renewal of herself. They were within the Church, not apart from it, and their initiative in founding the Society of Mary was all part of the Church’s initiative in coming to terms with the contemporary world.

How then does this tie in with the early Marists’ conviction that the founding of the Society was a response to an initiative from the Blessed Virgin Mary, such that she was the true foundress and the first and perpetual superior?

First of all, it must be remembered that Mary herself is a member of the Church – its first and pre-eminent member. Moreover, as the perfect disciple, she is also the model or “type” of the Church. St Ambrose was fond of seeing her in this light (e.g. Expos.Luc. 11,7). However, this notion of Mary as model of the Church was not popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries up to the second Vatican Council, for at that time the predominant model for understanding the nature of the Church was taken from the notion of a “perfect society”, hierarchically constructed with each member related in various ways to all the others. It was a model constructed on lines of power and authority, with the Pope receiving the fullness of power from Christ, which he then shared out in varying degrees to the other levels of the hierarchy. With such an understanding it was difficult to see how Mary could be the model or “type” of the Church.

However, with the advent of Vatican II the Church’s understanding of herself underwent a radical change. Scriptural and patristic insights were used to great effect, and the Church recaptured a deeper awareness of her innermost nature — a nature that lies beneath such appearances as her hierarchical structure. And it is on this deepest level that Mary shines as the model of all that the Church is and should be.

For in her deepest nature the Church sees herself as the Bride of Christ and as a mother. As Bride the Church is the heir to the promises of the Covenant, for she is the new People of God, whom God looks upon with all the tender love of a bridegroom for his virgin bride. As mother she is constantly bringing forth new sons and daughters in the family of God, brothers and sisters of Christ (disciples), and nourishing them with maternal care. Mary is her model in both these aspects: as virgin, she is totally committed to God, bound to him by ties of the new Covenant (the perfect disciple); and as mother, she brought forth the firstborn Son in the family of God. The Church thus realizes her deepest nature in Mary, her pre-eminent member.

So profound is this “typical” relationship between Mary and the Church, that if Mary acts now the Church acts in her, and conversely if the Church acts, Mary is acting too. The Church does not act apart from Mary, for if she did she would be acting without the one member who determines her deepest nature. The Church is the community of disciples of the Lord – the “corporate disciple”, as it were, modelled on the perfect disciple, Mary. All else flows from that – including the Church’s role as mother, just as Mary’s own motherhood was founded on her discipleship.

Thus we can say that if Mary intervened in the life of Jean Claude Courveille, she was acting also on behalf of the Church. Mary (and still less the early Marists) should not be seen as doing a favour for the Church. Rather the Church was acting in her. In Mary’s asking for the establishment of a new Society bearing her name, the Church herself was initiating a new thrust in her mission of evangelization. The Church in her deepest nature was just as responsible for the founding of the Society as Mary was – all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of course.

One final remark can be made. In the light of the above considerations Fr Colin’s so-called “utopian vision” now looks theologically quite sound. For “to make the whole world Marist” is merely another way of stating the Church’s mission. Christ sent his followers to “make disciples of all the nations” (Mt 28:19) and the Church carries on that mission. But to make disciples is to make people like Mary, the model for all disciples. Thus the Church seeks to make the whole world Mary-like, or as Fr Colin would say, Marist. His deepest instincts can now be seen to be deeply ecclesial as well as marian. They have a very modern ring to them, for the Church as a whole is only now rediscovering in an explicit way the riches of what it means to be a disciple of the Lord and to have Mary as the model of her deepest nature.

The conviction of the early Marists that Mary was the true foundress of the Society of Mary and that they were called by her to carry on her work, can be understood in a way that is theologically sound.

In seeking to make this conviction appealing to today’s Marists it needs to be placed in the context of the saving initiative of the Father, the redemptive work of the Son, the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, and the contemporary mission of the Church. Mary’s relationship to these four dimensions of the saving plan of God is the key to a proper understanding of what inspired the pioneer Marists.

This has been a brief sketch. Much more can be said by way of detailed development. Quite different approaches to the same question can also be taken. But I hope that enough has now been said to show that an approach along any one, or all four, of these lines will lead Marists to a fruitful appreciation of Mary as their foundress and first superior. It should also reassure them that their vocation does indeed rest on a foundation that can be justified by today’s theology.

Patrick Bearsley

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