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In the end, a mother's love.

As the new millennium approaches, the Virgin Mary stands as "an inspiration to more people than any other woman who ever lived."

Millennium approaches. Ah, America! What other culture could make the Apocalypse seem as ordinary as a Happy Meal? As Hollywood and Madison Avenue cash in on the (apparently imminent) end of the world, however, the church presents for consideration its own vivid and resonant figure of final things.

Some years ago, a sportswriter asked Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz if he realized that freshman recruit Gus Ornstein might become the school's first Jewish quarterback. Holtz retorted: "What's the big deal? After all, there's a Jewish mother standing on top of the Golden Dome!"

Not just any mom stands atop the dome, of course, but a woman "marvelously unique and uniquely marvelous," as Saint Anselm of Canterbury described her, "through whom the elements are renewed, hell is redeemed, the demons are trampled underfoot, humanity is saved, and angels are restored." A tall order, even for a Jewish mother.

Other than her son, no historical figure has borne a greater weight of expectation and interpretation than Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Mary Through the Centuries, the historian of Christian doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan writes, "The Virgin Mary has been more of an inspiration to more people than any other woman who ever lived."

And she remains so in the 20th century. Shared devotion to Mary is a source of unity for Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians; the appeal of the "Jewish mother" who is also "the heroine of the Qur'an" transcends religious boundaries as well.

Feminists, coming to terms with Mary as a symbol of "ultimate womanhood," cast her either as a model of independence and women's liberation or, in the words of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, as a submissive pawn of a "theology of woman preached by men to women and one that serves to deter women from becoming fully independent and whole human persons."

Informing such contemporary appropriations of Mary is a rich symbolic legacy. In art, hymn, prayer, and common parlance she is the Madonna--the prototype and pure embodiment of all mothers, of all women, indeed, of all humanity in its capacity for achieving a depth of joy, hope, and faith that can endure, accept, and transform unspeakable suffering. The grief-stricken Mary of Michelangelo's Pieta embodies the astonishing resilience, beyond death, of the relationship between a parent and a beloved child ("piety"). In her mournful embrace of her crucified child, love and trust do not wither, but deepen. In Mary's passion the common human experience of parenthood is forever associated with the experience of divinity--of the heavenly father who sacrificed his only son.

This is the theological background for understanding Mary as symbol both of the church and the eschaton (the final age--in scripture, a time of fulfillment). The Book of Revelation describes a "great wonder in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of 12 stars." Literally thousands of such apparitions of the Virgin have been reported through the centuries.

Confounding expectations that the advance of science would diminish the plausibility of supernatural phenomena, the modern era has witnessed an acceleration of reported apparitions of Mary--especially in her role as protectress and personification of the church. According to Mariologicai scholar Rene Laurentin, more than 200 such appearances have been reported since the 1930s.

Christian literature from its origins contains reports of apparitions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, other saints, and angels. Since the Middle Ages, however, when devotion to Mary flourished in Western Christianity, she has been the figure most often seen.

In her appearances, explains author Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, Mary eases the tension between divine justice and divine mercy. The Virgin intervenes on behalf of people devoted to her who had led evil or useless lives, saving them from the fires of hell at the last possible moment by allowing them a deathbed confession and viaticum.

In the traditional pattern, Mary appears to a member of a community that is suffering. Significantly, the individual's sins are bound up with and symptomatic of the sins of the community. The Virgin typically prescribes a kind of ritual: the establishment of a new shrine, the promotion of a particular devotional exercise. Supernatural signs follow: weeping icons, healings, the miraculous powers of the visionary. Common to all the visionaries is a prior, intense encounter with emotional or physical pain, inspiring the effort to render personal suffering meaningful on a grand scale. The vast majority of the seers are female.

Modern apparitions tend to proclaim not a local but a universal message. The appearances are serial and "public" (i.e., available to a mass audience). The Virgin divulges secrets to young children whose innocence has not yet been corrupted yet who must suffer for the sins of others. These secrets concern dire threats to the church, especially the pope, and to the world.

The Marian messages and "style" have grown more apocalyptic as humankind has moved deeper into the genocidal and atheistic century now coming to a close. In the decade of Soviet expansionism following World War II, historians Thomas Kselman and Steven Avella note, more than 100 Marian apparitions were reported in Europe and America. Most were interpreted in the context of the Virgin's appearance to the children at Fatima in 1917, at the time of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The surviving Fatima visionary, Sister Lucia, later described Mary's virulent opposition to communism and revealed that the Blessed Mother asked that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart and that Catholics receive Communion on the first Saturday of five consecutive months.

American Catholics did their part for world peace and the conversion of Russia by praying the Rosary and making the five first Saturdays. They offered novenas for the safe return of family members during World War II, and many believed that Mary's intercession brought an end to the war.

Pope John Paul II's role in the fall of communism thus appears to most Marian devotees as confirmation of the Fatima message. Indeed, the pope himself sees the Virgin as his patroness in the war against atheistic communism. He has attributed his survival from two assassination attempts, both on May 13, in Rome and at Fatima, to the Virgin's intervention.

John Paul believes that the "providential plan of the most Holy Trinity," as he wrote in the 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater, turns on the "unique presence of the Mother of Christ in history, especially during these last years leading up to the year 2000."

In such passages Mary becomes the agent of the church's eschatological destiny. It is precisely through the supernatural presence of the "woman clothed with the sun," and the spirituality she inspires, that the church will prevail in the new millennium. "Preparing for the year 2000 has become as it were a hermeneutical key of my pontificate," John Paul acknowledged in the apostolic letter, As the Third Millennium Draws Near. But he also made it clear that "apocalypse now" is a spiritual and moral state, not a literal Armageddon.

The spiritual and social roles of Mary are intertwined, and her practical intervention in world affairs is linked to the spiritual regeneration of church and world. "Her maternal concern extends to the personal and social aspects of people's life on earth," John Paul teaches. The church "presents to the Blessed Virgin difficult individual situations, so that she may place them before her Son, asking that he alleviate and change them. But we also present to her social situations and the international crisis itself, in their worrying aspects of poverty, unemployment, shortage of food, the arms race, contempt for human rights, and situations or dangers of conflict, partial or total."

The pope depicts Mary as the embodiment of the church's preferential option for the poor. This principle of Catholic social teaching "is wonderfully inscribed in Mary's Magnificat. The God of the Covenant ... is also he who `has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.'" The church learns from Mary's prayer "that the truth about God who saves cannot be separated from the manifestation of his love of and preference for the poor and humble."

Thus, the pope places the church's Marian symbols and apocalyptic consciousness in direct service to Catholic social teaching. The ability to suffer with the suffering, to deepen love in the face of deprivation, to work for the elimination of injustice--this is the real fulfillment of the ages, the promise of the new millennium. As any mother's son can tell you.

By R. SCOTT APPLEBY, professor of history and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
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Title Annotation:importance of Virgin Mary
Author:Appleby, R. Scott
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Previous Article:It's a poor world, after all.
Next Article:Jesus gets out of line.

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