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Liberation, exaltation and mysteries: thinking of Mary in the month that once was hers.

Until a few years ago, the beginning of May brought a flood of Marian piety. May medals were displayed on lapels. Processions in honor of our Lady took place in countless parishes and everyone was made conscious that May is the month of Mary.

That type of consciousness-raising has severe credibility problems these days when the assumption seems to be that the church is antifeminist and even is the unwitting oppressor of women. We are told endlessly that the basic rights of women to divorce, family planning, reproductive freedom, and equality in the ministry are opposed by the church.

This new phenomenon is ironic and difficult to handle because for centuries the accepted wisdom was that the church, by reason of its exaltation of the role of Mary, had liberated women from centuries of oppression and second-class status.

The sudden downsizing of devotion to Mary is further complicated by the fact that Protestant opposition to alleged "idolatry" of Mary has subsided. Middle-age Catholics clung to Mary because it was another way of differentiating themselves from Protestants.

It is not easy to speak with credibility these days about Mary. It might, therefore, help if we return to what Mary told us about herself. Evangelists did not know Christ until he was over 30. Jesus' mother is virtually the only source of our sparse information about the birth and early years of our Lord. Mary told the details of this part of Christ's life to Luke, She revealed information about her own life only when it was necessary to tell the story of the three decades during which Jesus lived with his mother.

Hard questions about how God treated Mary have puzzled Christians for centuries. Why did God treat the woman he loved most in the way the Gospels reveal? The question becomes more mysterious as one reflects on the contemporary challenges being made by women about their role and their status.

The scene of the angel speaking to Mary, a child of 14, opens the story of God's dealings with the most influential woman in the history of the world. After asking the angel how she could be a mother when she was a virgin and unmarried, Mary promptly accepts the knowledge that by divine intervention she would be the mother of the messiah. Christian art, architecture and music have for centuries gloried that moment of the Annunciation. But lots of questions remain. One of them is: Why was Mary apparently unable to reveal her forthcoming pregnancy to her future husband, Joseph? Mary went off for some 90 days to help her cousin Elizabeth who, by another miracle, would bring forth John the Baptist.

When Mary returned, Joseph saw her condition and felt that he should put her away quietly. Another angel intervened and told Joseph about the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Spouses are supposed to communicate and share everything. Why did God apparently decree a different plan for the parents of his only son?

This inability to communicate must surely have been the first sorrow that came into Mary's life. Other sorrows followed quickly. There was no place for the child to be born in Bethlehem. Simeon predicted that Mary's heart would be pierced and the angel told Joseph to go immediately into Egypt.

Mary and Joseph stayed in Egypt for some seven years not knowing the language, encountering hostility because they were Jews and not even able to tell anyone that they were in exile to avoid the raging jealousy of Herod.

The return to Nazareth was soon followed by the loss of Jesus in the temple. No matter how one seeks to construe the words of Jesus to his parents, they are still abrupt, even cruel.

Mary, the only source of these details, never complained to Luke. In fact, she never mentioned that Joseph died some time after Jesus was 12 and before he was 30. This left Mary as a widow younger than 45.

We have the sense that Mary wanted to be invisible. Pious writers for centuries have called this the perfect example of humility. But we want to know more about her. She was immaculately conceived, which means that she could not sin since she had none of the effects of original sin in her soul. Was she tempted to rebel? Did she want to cry out against the fate that God gave her? Why was her only child executed with savage barbarity like a common criminal? Why was she required to undergo this unspeakable suffering?.

We hear about Mary in Christ's life only on a few occasions--at Cana, at the cross and in the cenacle after his death. She could have dominated the synoptic Gospels if she wanted to. She was only 47 when Christ died. She could have been a dominant figure in the church as it took form throughout the Roman Empire. Tradition says that she worked in Ephesus for some 15 years before her assumption. She was closely affiliated with the apostle John to whom Christ on the cross, referring to Mary, said, "Behold your mother."

Catholic tradition has been much more certain of the beauty of Mary's role than contemporary Catholics seem to be. Tradition has created dozens of titles for Mary. She is both the cause of our joy and the mother of sorrows. She is the queen of the world and the mother of the church. She has been described as the mediatrix of all graces and, in fact, as the co-redemptrix of the world.

Lots of people long for the old days when Marian piety was accepted and went unquestioned. It was wonderful for all of us that we could believe that the Catholic church has through the life and example of Mary elevated the status of women for all nations and for all time. There is without doubt much truth in that assertion. But in the present atmosphere where millions of women are asserting--with not a little justification--that they have been mistreated for centuries, how do we use the role of Mary to demonstrate that the Catholic church is a defender, friend and advocate of women's rights?

There is in the modern church a profound desire to place masculine and feminine characteristics in God. Indeed every type of human goodness can be found in the Godhead. But why do so many Catholics today not find in Mary's life the exemplar of those feminine virtues that God intended to display there? Perhaps the decline of Marian devotion means that present day Catholics are missing something very meaningful about the way in which God revealed himself to his people. in that revelation a woman had a central and dominant role. She was not one of the 12 apostles or a priest. But her place in the scheme of redemption is essential, unique and paramount.

Let us pray that in May of this year many of us by prayer and study will acquire a deeper and more satisfying understanding of what Mary should mean in our lives.

[Jesuit Fr. Robert F. Drinan is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.]
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Title Annotation:Column
Author:Drinan, Robert F.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 21, 2004
Previous Article:Saving women, saving the world.
Next Article:Fallen heroes deserve better.

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