The Sunday TimesPlus

12th January 1997



Mary,mystic rose or revolutionary?

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya

Sri Lanka's Catholic Church has been plunged into one of its biggest crises over the excommunication of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya for alleged heresy in his book titled "Mary and Human Liberation" Most people including Catholics don't have much of an idea of what in heaven's name is going on because very few have read and understood the book. With the aim of bringing about a better public awareness on the issue, The Sunday Times begins serialising the more important or controversial chapters from Fr. Balasuriya's book.

Mary in Catholic devotion

Mary, the mother of Jesus has a very special place in Catholic devotion.

The Second Vatican Council placed its teaching concerning Mary as the final chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, LUMEN GENTIUM. In it the Council explains the "nature and basis of the cult of the Blessed Virgin".

"Mary has by grace been exalted above all angels and men (sic) to a place second only to her Son, as the most Holy Mother of God who was involved in the mysteries of Christ; she is rightly honoured by a special cult in the Church. From the earliest times the Blessed Virgin is honoured under the title of Mother of God, whose protection the faithful take refuge in together in prayer in all their perils and needs (Sub Tuum Praesidium).

"Accordingly, following the Council of Ephesus, there was a remarkable growth in the cult of People of God towards Mary. In veneration and love, in invocation and imitation, according to her own prophetic words: "all generations shall call me blessed, because he that is mighty hath done great things to me" (Luke 1.48), Vatican II: Constitution on the Church 1965 - Art 66.Ó

In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) the Vatican Council recalls the place of Mary in the liturgy:

"In celebrating this annual cycle of Christ's mysteries,the Holy Church honours with especial love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son. In her the Church holds up and admires the most excellent fruit of the redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be" - (Art 103).

These two texts of the most recent and most important Council of the Catholic Church give the understanding concerning Marian devotion in the Catholic Church during centuries up to the 1960s and even to our own days.

Mary is venerated and loved as Mother of God, invoked in perils and in needs for protection and refuge and to be imitated as the most perfect human after Jesus.

We shall endeavor to see how the traditional devotion of the Church has influenced Christian spirituality.

In keeping with this centrality of Mary in the life of Jesus and the Church, the Christians, particularly in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have developed their piety and spirituality in a close and deep relationship to Mary; perhaps no other person has so many Churches and shrines dedicated to her/him in the whole world. People have built large and beautiful Cathedrals in her honour. The world's most popular pilgrimages in all the Continents are Marian shrines. Christian artists, poets and spiritual writers have devoted their noblest talents to present and praise her. Numerous families of religious nuns, brothers and priests and lay organizations take Mary as their patroness. Several countries are consecrated to her. Marian hyms are among the most popular in Catholic chant, Marian prayers are the ones most commonly recited - perhaps after the Lord's Prayer, the "Our Father". The Rosary is the companion of the millions of persons in their quiet moments.

Main themes in Traditional Marian Devotions

The popular understanding of Mary is expressed in the Marian devotion such as at her shrines, in the celebration of her feasts and in the prayers recited by Christians. Among these the Marian hymns are important as they express in music and with feeling the content of Catholic belief and with their expectations of Mary. To these may be added popular prayers such as the "Hail Mary", "Remember O Most Gracious Virgin Mary" (Memorare), "We fly to thy patronage", "The sub tuum Praesidium", "The Angelus" and "Regina Coeli," -" the Hail Holy Queen" (Salve Regina) and the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The prayers and hymns indicate the prevailing belief and theology at a given time.

The Marian Hymns sung by the English speaking congregations in Sri Lanka show the type of accent placed in Marian devotions. Two popular hymnals are the Hymn Book - Songs for Worship and Praise, St. Philip Neri's Church, Colombo, Mclean Printers (no date), and Hymnal, Church of Our Lady of Fatima, Fatima Church, Maradana, St. VincentÕs Press, Maggona, 1986.

In these there are 19 hymns to Our Lady. 7 hymns are in both booklets. Of the 19 one is the "Magnificat". This contains a radical social message such as:

"He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly
he fills the starving with good things
sends the rich away empty .."

This song with revolutionary import is not of recent origin. It is from the words attributed to Mary herself in the Gospel of St. Luke 1.55 and harks back to the Old Testament. Thus we have a directly biblical song which has a clear reference to God's concern for social justice and integral human liberation.

There are two other hymns which have a passing reference to Mary's courage. One is: "All Hail to you Mary" - 238 in St. Philip Neri hymnal and 13 in Fatima Church Hymnal.

"When Gabriel had spoken
You humbly said "yes"
May we have the courage
God's word to confess"

Here courage is in confessing God's word and refers to Mary's humility. There is no clear reference to courage in society as Jesus and Mary actually manifested in their day. In the other hymn "The wonders he has done for me" (170 in St. Philip Neri Hymnal) the second verse reads:

"Through your heart a sword will pass in sorrow
Opening a mother's love to men
Showing us the courage of a woman
Standing with her son against all men."

Here there is an appreciation of Mary's courage in standing by Jesus when he was condemned and crucified. Similarly in hymn 78 in Fatima Hymnal "No man can live as an island".

Other than these three references and the Magnificat the 15 other popular hymns have an approach to Mary that does not expressly appreciate her strong adult womanhood. She is not seen as participating in the life struggle of her Son Jesus. His message of radical liberation is totally absent in these hymns.

Mary is presented in the hymns as a humble virgin mother. She is dearest, fairest, purest, brightest, rarest Madonna. She is a loving tender, "gentle chaste and spotless maid", ever caring, hearing our prayers. Her role is linked to the view that Jesus paid the price of our iniquity. "She saves us from peril and from woe". "Whom the Holy Spirit filled with grace", "Virgin of all Virgins", "Lily of the valley", "Mystic Rose".

As a woman, Mary is shown as tender and loving but not concerned with removing the human-made societal causes of poverty, injustice and the exploitation of woman. Her sexuality is emphasized but as a rare virgin of virgins. She is placed at a level in which ordinary women can hardly follow her. On the other hand the emphasis on her physical virginity and her being immaculate draw attention on sex character and preservation from sin and temptation. This corresponds to a spirituality that stressed the virtues and sins of sex relations and neglected the other sins of human and social relations such as selfishness, injustice, exploitation and male domination and the corresponding virtues.

This is quite different from the personality of Mary that we see in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Her strength of character, her adult womanly qualities of contesting the social evils of the day along with her son are not recalled in these hymns except in the magnificat and few lines of three other hymns.

The hymns also present the humans as weak, dependent, sinful, needing help and tenderness. While this is partly true, they do not present us as having a role to play in the liberation of humanity from the social evils which are part of the cause of our misery. The active virtues of co-creativity on earth and in human relations are neglected. The positive values of human sexuality are not only neglected but even down graded.

Thus these Marian hymns contribute towards making Christians less concerned with the transformation of society. They are encouraged to be dependent on Mary for resolving their individual concerns, but not towards bringing about the radical change that the Magnificat announces. This Marian spirituality makes for less socially concerned women and men in the Church.

Sinhala Hymns to Mary

As in English hymns, the hymns to Mary in Sinhala carry the same message. In the hymnal of Fatima Church there are 12 hymns to Mary 163, 170, 187, 188, 194, 200, 201, 202, 204, 205, 206, 219.

Of these 204 is the Magnificat and has its radical message. However as one Church organist explained to me, though this hymn is sung off and on, it is seldom that the verses of the latter half are sung as the hymn is long. The Mass or other services would be unduly lengthened if the whole Magnificat is sung. It is sung at the Vespers on the eve of the Church feast amidst the din and joy of the celebrations. The other hymns are as in English though 205 refers to the cross of Jesus, and 206 "Ridie Vala Gabin" has a reference to the flight into Egypt. Yet even here the reference is to Mary;s protection.

The Sinhala hymns are even more flowery in language than the English ones. The language is beautiful with alliteration and simple beautiful words. The music is attractive and the sentiments are those of praise of Mary, our human weakness and sinfulness and Mary's maternal care for us - taking us under her mantle. Thus No.170: "Mariya Rajiniye"

Hymn No. 202 - "Ma Mavni" says it more expressively

"Our dear mother Mary is light for our blindness, strength in our weakness, grace for our sinfulness."

These are all good sentiments. The problem is not that they are felt and expressed but that the Church hymns miss the complementary positive human strengths and Christianity's radical social message. They tend to make the liturgy a complacent exercise. They foster the sentiments of dependence and filial piety but do not move persons towards a strong commitment to an active sense of human values and responsibility including the remedying of our social and political evils. It rather makes our Marian piety individualistic, asocial and security seeking, given our weakness, sinfulness and fear.

The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been a very popular prayer in Churches and in Catholic homes. It was approved for public recitation in Churches by Pope Sextus V. in 1589. An analysis of its themes brings out the concepts of Mother and Virgin.

Motherhood - Mother of God, of Christ, of divine grace, Mother most pure, most chaste, inviolate, undefiled, most lovable, most admirable, of good Counsel, of our Creator, of our Saviour. These qualities are attributed to Mary. They relate to her sexual purity and her care and concern for us. There is little or no reference to what she had to undergo as the mother of the human Jesus who led a very troubled life specially during his public ministry.

Virginity - Her virginity is recalled and praised. Mary is the Virgin most prudent, most venerable, most renowned, most powerful, most merciful, most faithful. Here too there is an accent on her biological status, and that considered as most significant for her virtue, fame and power.

Thereafter there are several titles which are associated with Old Testament prophecies and symbolism, but some are less meaningful in our time:

Mirror Of Justice, Seat of wisdom, Cause of our joy, spiritual vessel, singular vessel of devotion, mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of ivory, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comfort of the Afflicted, Help of Christians.

In these again we see the themes of veneration, and invocation of help in our troubles. Help of Christians, of course, presents her as particularly concerned with Christians though she is also regarded as a universal mother of all humanity redeemed by her Son.

The final set of 12 invocations are to her as Queen. of Angels, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins and All Saints.

Thereafter her special grace of immaculate conception (added by Pope Leo XIII) and assumption into heaven (added by Pope Pius XII in 1950) are recalled. Finally she is Queen of the Most Holy Rosary and Queen of Peace, the last being added by Pope Benedict XV during World War 1 .

This litany shows how the themes of prayer are very much influenced by the prevailing theology, which in turn is influenced by the interests and concerns of mainly the power holders of a community. There is little or no reference to Mary's Magnificat with its radical implications or the message of religious and social liberation of her son for which he gave his life.

The "Hail Mary" is the most commonly recited Marian prayer. Millions of Catholics recite it several times each day . Its first part is from the message of the Angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation - from the Gospel of St. Luke (1. 26-38). The second part "Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death" has again the invocation to her as from poor sinners. This is a concept of salvation in which the liberative aspect of transformation of values, relationships and structures is absent. We are made suppliants, without a motivation for an active participation in social liberation of an integral nature. Since the "Hail Mary" is the most common personal and public Marian prayer, this absence of a socially liberative dynamic has a significant impact on tranquilizing Catholics. There is no suggestion that this is intended, but it can be the unintended (subconscious) effect of a most often repeated prayer.

The significance of the Hail Mary would have been different if it included an invocation for support of Mary for radical social change such as; help us oppressed to bring down the mighty and exalt the humble, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away with empty hands (from the same Gospel Luke 1.52). This too could have become a routine like the Magnificat recited at Vespers, but the chances are that a different Marian spirituality could also have been developed through such prayers.

The Rosary, coming down to us from the middle ages is mainly a recitation of Hail Mary's with a meditation on the 5 joyful, 5 sorrowful and 5 glorious mysteries of the lives of Jesus and Mary. The impact of this reflection depends very much on the understanding of the mystery of salvation through Jesus Christ. Since till recently an understanding of salvation in Christ had little to do with integral human liberation, the recitation of the rosary on this count too did not have much of an impact beyond the general themes of a traditional Christology and Mariology.

Marian Apparitions

One example of the way in which Marian spirituality has been evolving In the Catholic Church are the apparitions of Mary. Generally the apparitions reveal the conditioning of the Christians during a given time and a particular place. For instance at Lourdes, Mary appears to Bernadette and speaks of herself as the Immaculate Conception. But she does not say anything about the conditions of the working class in France of the day. It was the heyday of the growth of industrial capitalism in Western Europe. The working class was being severely exploited. Mary as the Mother of all, and specially as a woman of the working class should have felt the social evils to be a grave injustice.

Why was Mary of Lourdes incapable of enlightening the French Christians concerning the atrocities being committed in Africa by their compatriots? These things were done almost in alliance with the Christian Churches. We see how Marian spirituality ignores such important aspects of Christian witness. On the other hand If Bernadette did speak of such things as the rights of French workers or of the African natives, the shrine of Lourdes would probably not have developed in the manner it has during one and a quarter centuries.

In 1917 Mary appeared in Fatima. 1917 was the year of the Communist revolution in Russia. The interpretation of the message to Fatima was said to be a warning against atheistic communism and its threat to the world. In the meantime Portugal was under the dictatorship of Salazar, and the Portuguese were exploiting the Africans in Angola and Mozambique. Yet Mary seems to say nothing about these internal and external evils of the then ruling Portuguese regime. Thus this Mary who comes to us in apparitions and is accepted by the dominant establishment is not a liberating Mary. She speaks of sin, prayer and consciousness of their positive worth and role in the Church and world. Such Marian devotions do not communicate to women the sense of their dignity and rights. The services are usually dominated by a male clergy and women are the recipients ot advice and benedictions. The consciousness of Mary as an adult lay woman and mother who participated actively in the life work of Jesus and in the mission of the early Church is not communicated by these devotions.

The male dominated patriarchal salvation-oriented theology of the period from St Augustine (400 AD) to Vatican II(1965) still pervades much of the Marian piety in Sri Lanka. There are a few changes here and there but very much more can be done in this regard to present Mary as seen in the Gospels and in a manner relevant to today's struggles.

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