The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catechetics
Synod of Bishops-1977
Oral Intervention by John Joseph Cardinal Carberry, Archbishop of St. Louis

Most Holy Father, Venerable Fathers: I speak in the name of the Conference of the Bishops of the United States and desire to present reflections on Mary's role in catechetics.

Viewing catechetics in its broad sense as the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus in order "to make men's faith become living, conscious and active through the light of instruction" (Christus Dominus, 14) Our Lady may be considered as Model and Mother in this evangelical endeavor.

I.

Mary is the Model of the living out of the God News itself. As stated in Lumen Gentium, "Mary unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith," (65) For example, her divine maternity has always been the touchstone of an authentic understanding of the Incarnation of Jesus the Lord; her Immaculate Conception helps us see more clearly the gratuity of God's profound redemptive love; her sinlessness makes us understand better the disastrous effects of man's refusal of God's love; her Assumption clarifies the teachings of the Church on eschatology, by giving us a motive for hope and for the ultimate victory of Jesus as Lord of the universe.

We may say that Mary is a "compendium of catechetics," that she is a "living catechism." More than by abstract teaching, our young people will be formed into a living, conscious and active faith by her vibrant example.

Further, in Marialis Cultus, our Holy Father describes Mary as "the first and most perfect of Christ's disciples." (35) Imagine how she can, therefore, be a Model for those of our youth who desire seriously to acquire a deep knowledge of Truth. They see in her openness to God's power; they perceive the results in her of "hearing the Word of God and keeping it"; (Lk 11: 27-28) they behold her as the Woman of Faith who actively and responsibly surrenders fully to God's love as made known to her by the Angel at the Incarnation. Our youth can see in her someone of their own age who listens, who spiritually hears and courageously accepts and experiences the goodness of God. In Mary they see a young girl who finds meaning and fulfillment in life by her union with the Lord. Our youth today desire to see faith in action. Here, again, Mary in the mystery of the Visitation, of Cana, of Calvary, is the ideal image for our young people to whom we proclaim the Word of God.

Lumen Gentium, speaking of Mary, declares that she "devotes herself totally as the handmaid of the Lord to the Person and world of her Son." (65) She labors for Jesus to make Him known, loved and served. In this she is the model of the catechists who also must give themselves totally to the Person and work of Christ so that He may be truly known and loved by our youth.

II.

In the process of catechesis, Mary also plays the role of Mother. Her intercession cannot be forgotten without serious detriment to our catechetical endeavors. She reveals this role in her powerful prayers for the catechist, in her intercession on behalf of our youth, so that the message of Jesus will be proclaimed effectively by the catechist and be received with faith, understanding and love by youth. We go to the Mother of God and our own Mother, praying that she will aid us in every aspect of catechetics.

Besides, Mary, as Mother of mankind, exercises a mysterious maternal causality in the entire work of catechesis, of forming our youth into the image of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. The more we are conscious of this maternal influence, the more we praise God for the fiat she still utters in our name, how more efficacious will our catechetical work be!

Mary is, in the words of Pope Paul, the "Star of Evangelization ever renewed within the Church" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 82) Because of the inseparable bond between evangelization an catechesis, Mary is equally the Star, the powerful guide in the catechetical mission of the Church. Mary is, therefore, the Model and Mother of the entire Church and of each individual in our catechetical endeavors.

The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Popular Devotions in Catechesis
Written Intervention by John Joseph Cardinal Carberry, Archbishop of St. Louis

The presentation of the faith of the Catholic Church concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary is an indispensable component of our catechesis. Encouragement of devotion to her person is of incalculable value, writes Pope Paul VI: "Because of its ecclesial character devotion to the Blessed Virgin reflects the preoccupations of the Church itself." (Marialis Cultus, 32).

At the same time, it is evident that much of the contemporary catechesis has not responded to the opportunities provided by this devotion to our Lady and indeed by popular devotions in general. The Second Vatican Council "warmly commended" such popular devotions, "provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church" and provided that they are "so drawn up tat they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, and are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it." (Sacrosantum Concilium, 13). For this reason, another purpose of this presentation is to express the hope that the Synod will encourage those responsible for catechesis to recognize and take advantage of the catechetical value of popular devotions which have been the source of spiritual growth for so many people.

The Blessed Virgin Mary

The Blessed Virgin Mary is a compendium of catechesis. She is a living catechism. The faith of the Church becomes incarnate in her person. In her, abstract teaching becomes a personal commitment and Christian discipleship reaches perfection. As our Holy Father reminded us in Marialis Cultus, Mary is "the first and most perfect of Christ's disciples" (35). She is thus the best model for those who seek to acquire a deeper knowledge and experience of the Word of God. In her they will see the life-giving results of the believer's openness to God's power: the fruit of "hearing the Word of God and keeping it." (Lk 11:27-28) They will see her as the Woman of Faith, who actively surrendered fully to God's love.

Young people today desire to see faith in action. Let them look to Mary at the Annunciation, and they will see someone their own age who is attentive to the Word of God, hears it, and courageously accepts the mission entrusted to her. In the Virgin of the Magnificat they will discover the boundless joy of a young person in solidarity with the poor and the helpless who experiences the vindication of their hopes. The Woman of Cana will be their model and companion at all the joyful moments of their lives, while at Calvary she will show them what it means to be a person of faith in the darkest hours of human existence.

Catechists also will find in mary the model of those who must give themselves totally to the Person and the work of Christ in order that He may be truly known and loved. Her words at Cana capture entirely the faith and message of the catechist: "His mother instructed those waiting on table, 'Do whatever [sic] he tells you.'" (Jn 2:5)

Catechesis aims to convey precisely what He has told us, and as Lumen Gentium teaches us, "Mary unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith." For example, her divine maternity has always been the touchstone of an authentic understanding of the Incarnation: her Immaculate Conception helps us to see more clearly the gratuity and the power of God's redemptive love; her Assumption clarifies the teaching of the Church on eschatology by giving us hope that the ultimate victory of Jesus over death will be shared by our own bodies.

Evangelization is the way in which the community of faith reproduces itself in the heart of believers. Catechesis is a way in which this Messianic community of faith reproduces itself in the heart of believers. Catechesis is a way in which this Messianic community cares for those reborn into the new creation, sustains them, and teaches them how to walk in this new world of the Spirit until they attain that full maturity of which Christ is the measure. Evangelization and catechesis, therefore, demonstrate the Church's fertility and maternal solicitude. For this reason, she who is the "Star of Evangelization ever renewed within the Church" (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 82) is, by the same token, the star and powerful guide of catechesis. For she is the Mother of the Church. The more we are conscious of her maternal influence, the more we praise God for the fiat which she still utters in our name, the more efficacious will our catechetical work be for the formation of the believer into the image of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Popular Devotions

Throughout the centuries, the Catholic people of the East and of the West have kept close to the Lord and have grown in their understanding of the sacred mysteries of redemption by means of devotional practices in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. One has but to consider the devotion of the rosary, which, as our Holy Father has reminded us, is "a gospel prayer, centered on the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation...a prayer with a clearly Christological orientation.... The commemoration in the liturgy and the contemplative remembrance proper to the Rosary, although existing on essentially different planes of reality, have as their object the same salvific events wrought by Christ." (46 and 48) There is also the Angelus, which allows contemplation of the mysteries of divine election and contemplation. There is the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, which is so dependent on biblical imagery. Devotion to our Lady of Fatima encourages so many people to receive the Lord in Holy Communion every first Saturday of the month and reminds them of the Lord's rule over the affairs of peoples and nations. Devotion to the Immaculate Conception in Our Lady of Lourdes enables many of the faithful to appreciate the power of grace over sin. Devotion to the miraculous medal and the scapular have kept alive in the hearts of many an appreciation of divine Providence.

The teaching of our Holy Father about popular devotions and evangelization is also applicable to catechesis. Popular piety, he writes, "manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know. It makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism.... It involves an acute awareness of profound attributes of God.... It engenders interior attitudes rarely observed to the same degree elsewhere." (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 48) These devotions, which the Holy Father so aptly calls the "religion of the people," are capable of great adaptability to different cultures, sociological conditions, and stages of growth in the Christian life. They thus constitute a powerful means of catechesis.

Unfortunately, contemporary catechesis has not always given to popular piety the attention it deserves. In fact, at times a kind of spiritual imperialism has been practiced: encouragement of certain kinds of devotion and the ridicule of others.

The fundamental catechetical task in this regard is to utilize the devotions to which the people are already attracted by making explicit the mysteries of redemption upon which they are based. Thus will these devotions be oriented to the celebration of these mysteries in the sacred liturgy, as the Second Vatican Council insisted.

Some of the fundamental mysteries of redemption which are the basis for sound popular devotions are the following.

  1. The mystery of divine election. This distinguishes Christian popular piety from mere religiosity. Emphasis has to be given to the initiative and sovereignty of the Word of God. This can be brought out in the devotions to those saints whose life of faith was the outcome of a powerful struggle between God's will and their own inclinations, limited understanding, or radical incapacity to accomplish what was being asked of them. We think of St. Joseph, the just man coping with the mystery of the Incarnation, of St.Theresa de Lisieux and her struggle to define her vocation within the Church, of St. Thomas More, who experienced the apparent collapse of his efforts on behalf of Christian humanism.

  2. The mystery of the Incarnation. This reminds us that it has pleased God to allow earthly realities, to which the masses of the people are very close, to become expressions of the love of God and vehicles of grace. Scapulars, medals, relics and the sacramentals: the value of all of these depends on this mystery. The Incarnation also demonstrates that powerful human emotions of joy and sorrow are not foreign to God.

  3. The paschal mystery. The suffering, death and resurrection of the Word Incarnate give meaning to the sufferings and struggles of the people. Performance of what have been called "acts of reparation" and the Stations of the Cross are popular devotions which provide access to this mystery.

  4. The mystery of Christian eschatology. Devotion to the saints reminds the faithful that the ultimate resolution of the human drama lies beyond success in this life. Such devotions are the source of hope and courage to those who know that they will never find on this earth the fulfillment of their thirst for happiness and the vindication of their struggle for justice.

  5. The mystery of the communion of saints. Devotions to the saints also remind us of our solidarity with one another in the family of Jesus, a family which so transcends the limitations of space and time that those with the Lord in heaven can and do support us in our pilgrimage on earth.

  6. One devotion which deserves special mention is the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. All modern popes have reminded us of the singular value of this devotion. It involves an unequivocal affirmation of the humanity of the Son of God and of its role as the sacrament of God's saving love. At the same time, it leaves no doubt concerning the divinity of Jesus, for this is the only reason for the adoration of his humanity. The Sacred Heart teaches us about the love of God and our response to it. This wounded symbol of love demonstrates how Christ loved us even unto death. The First Friday devotions instill in us a love for the Mass, for the reception of the Eucharist, and for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

In all of this, the task of the catechist is to begin with the devotions which the people already value, and in making explicit their evangelical base, help them integrate their piety into a growing understanding of the history of salvation revealed in the Bible. This is turn will allow for a better understanding of the liturgy and encourage a fuller participation in that participation in that celebration through which we are caught up into this sacred history.

Cardinal John Joseph Carberry, "The Role of the Blessed Mother in Catechetics," Synod of Bishops-1977: Message to the People of God and Interventions of the U.S. Delegates. Washington, D.C.: USCC, 1978, 23.

Reprinted with permission of the department of Publishing and Promotion Services, United States Catholic Conference, October 12, 1999


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