Who Is Mary, Mother of Jesus, and Why Does It Matter?

The simple sound of the name “Mary” opens up very different views in peoples’ hearts and minds.

For some, she was what the New Testament says she was: a young Jewish woman who was chosen by God to supernaturally conceive and give birth to Jesus, thus becoming part of the way in which the Son of God became a man. This group, not without their own doubts and setbacks, believes her biblical portrayal indicates that she was also a member of the first community of men and women who followed Jesus. She is soberly respected, yet she does not occupy center stage in their overall Christian experience.

For others, Mary deeply shapes their whole spirituality and entire life. She is prayed to and venerated, surrounded by a vast array of “Marian” devotions, such as rosaries, processions, pilgrimages. The titles with which she is referred to (Heavenly Queen, Mediatrix, Advocate) resemble those ascribed to her son, Jesus Christ. She looks like an altogether different person than the one the previous group perceives she was.

There’s Something about Mary

The process through which Mary became so venerated was long and not linear. It accumulated different viewpoints, devotions, and doctrinal formulations that eventually led to a body of beliefs and practices centered on Mary but beyond biblical boundaries. The real, biblical Mary became an idealized Mary.

Some apocryphal (literally “obscure”) gospels (e.g., The Protoevangelium of James) elaborated on traditions that tried to embellish the gospel story at the expense of its authenticity. Whereas the canonical gospels are realistic, the apocryphal ones are excessive in their attention to Mary’s life.

Besides the influence of these writings, the spiritual framework that gave us Mariology was generated by popular piety. Liturgies centered on Mary, prayers addressed to her, devotions to honor her—this is the religious milieu of the Mariological crescendo. It was through the practice of devotional prayer that Mary was transformed from being a model of faith to becoming an object-subject of faith addressed in prayer and praised in the context of Christian worship.

Against this background, the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) gave Mary the title “mother of God.” The “motherhood” of Mary that first related to Jesus Christ was extended to her motherhood of other areas—mother of the church and mother of the human race.

Marian Dogmas and Devotions

In nations and cultures where Roman Catholicism is prevalent, Marianism largely defines the religious experience of Roman Catholics who pray to her and are devoutly committed to her. The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes as far as to say, “The Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship” (section 971).

To call devotion to Mary “intrinsic” means there can be no proper worship without devotion to her. It also implies that when dealing with Marian devotion, one touches a central nerve of the whole of Catholic spirituality. It’s not something that can be dealt with independently.

Marian Prayers and Rosaries

Prayer to Mary quintessentially defines Marian spirituality. She is perhaps the most invoked figure in many religious quarters. Acclaimed as mother, she is sought to give help and strength. She is approached with reverence and awe. Mary can be approached confidently because she can obtain for us from her divine Son anything she asks for.

Against the background of such deep theological and devotional vision, the list of prayers mirrors a Marian-centered spirituality: “Hail Holy Queen,” “Regina Coeli” (Queen of Heaven), Ave Maris Stella (Hail Star of the Ocean) are only a few of the most common Marian prayers. Another significant form of Marian prayer is the Rosary, which means “crown of roses.”

The conviction behind this expression is that each time people say a “Hail Mary” prayer in the Rosary, they give her a rose. And each complete Rosary makes her a crown of roses. The Holy Rosary is considered by those adherents to be a perfect prayer because within it lies the story of salvation retold in a way that highlights Mary’s central role in redemption.

Instead of inculcating salvation history as the Bible tells it, the Rosary is a powerful tool to shape one’s own imagination in terms of the pervasive presence and agency of Mary in whatever the Triune God is and does. The whole orientation of Roman Catholic “biblical theology” is inherently Marian, in that Mary is thought of as sharing the prerogatives and roles of the Son. This is totally contrary to the gospel whereby all that is said in the Scriptures needs to be seen in the light of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27) and that there is no mediator apart from Christ for our salvation and prayers (1 Tim. 2:5).

Marian Shrines and Apparitions

Apart from shaping the life of prayer and the overall spiritual understanding of salvation history for Catholics, Mariology is also a determining factor for the arrangement of worship in its spatial dimension. Thousands of church buildings around the world are dedicated to Mary, thus forging the minds and hearts of millions of people.

Aside from huge church buildings and sanctuaries, Marian devotion marks its territory in the form of small shrines disseminated in crossroads, hospitals, schools, apartment blocks, and offices to signify the nearness of Mary in everyday life and in every place.

The strong Marian emphasis of Roman Catholicism has also been enriched by alleged apparitions of Mary throughout the centuries, with an increase of these episodes since the nineteenth century when Marian piety pushed the Church to promote the dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception. Each apparition generated the rise of more devotional practices, such as pilgrimages and shrines to the memory of the apparition and to further its message. The most famous Marian apparitions are those associated with Guadalupe in Mexico, in Lourdes, France, and in Portugal.

Rather than promoting a Bible-based, Christ-centered faith, all these messages have reinforced Marian practices and venerations. Although Marian apparitions may at times seem like fanciful tales to non-Catholic observers, their impact has been significant. They’ve led to the conversion of millions to Roman Catholicism, the building of some of the largest Marian shrines around the world, the formation of Marian movements dedicated to the spreading of Marian devotions, encouragement for the development of Mariological doctrines, and the drawing of hundreds of millions of pilgrims to Marian sites.

What is at Stake?

In all its theological force and devotional ramifications, Mariology is an inescapable, all-embracing, and fundamental tenet of Roman Catholic theology and practice. For all Bible-believing Christians, Mariology is a big source of puzzlement. They love Mary, but they cannot come to terms with what happened to the memory of the young lady called by God the Father to be the bearer of the person of the Lord Jesus. They don’t see how the biblical Mary can be reconciled with the hypertrophic Mary of subsequent Mariology. Its development seems to respond to rules and criteria that go way beyond what is written in the Bible.

Mariology, as it stands, needs to go through a process of radically biblical deconstruction if it wants to become a biblically defined and viable Christian option. All the stratified accumulation of Marian suggestions, expansions, and developments should go through the healthy refinement of clear biblical teaching in order to be given Scriptural shape. Pointing our attention to the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ—this was Mary’s way.

Leonardo De Chirico is the pastor of Breccia di Roma and director of the Reformanda Iniative. His most recent book is A Christian Pocket Guide to Mary.