Q: Father John, I am a convert to the Catholic faith, and I still have difficulties with Mary. Don’t get me wrong – I believe all the dogma and doctrine fully, but when it comes to praying to Mary, I don’t seem to get it. What role is she supposed to have in my pursuit of holiness and spiritual growth?
A: She has the role of helping you cling more closely to her Son, Jesus Christ – that’s what first examined, the theological underpinning of Marian devotion. And she exercises that role in three ways, as we have seen: by her presence, her example, and her intercession. Now we are ready to drill down to the practical level. What can we do, concretely, to live this Marian devotion fruitfully, to allow our mother in the order of grace to nurture, guide, and protect our spiritual growth? Here we arrive, finally, to the most obvious and familiar aspect, Marian devotions. Marian devotions are the many different ways that individual Catholics can engage in a healthy Marian devotion.
The distinction between devotion and devotions is crucial. Catholics are not superstitious. We do not engage in ritual or pious practices as if they were magical formulae. Our devotions give form to our devotion, just as a birthday cake gives form to our appreciation of a loved one’s existence. Without the sincere appreciation, the cake would have no meaning. If we engage in specific Marian devotions without plugging into the deeper theological source that gives them meaning, these practices can become distractions or even temptations that actually hinder our spiritual growth.
Having given that warning, we are ready to mention some common Marian devotions that, when lived rightly, allow the Blessed Virgin to fulfill her role in our pursuit of holiness.
Categories of Marian Devotions
The numerous Marian devotions that have arisen and flourished in the Church can be grouped into several categories. The most common and obvious category are the prayers. Praying to Mary (not worshipping her as if she were a goddess, but acknowledging her presence, admiring her example, and asking for her intercession) is the most direct and common form of Marian devotion. And among the prayers, the Rosary holds first place. Almost every pope since 1900 has written an encyclical letter encouraging Catholics to make use of this devotion. The Memorare, the Sub tuum presiduum, the Angelus, and the Regina Caeli are other favorite Marian prayers. We could write an entire post on each one, examining its meaning and its history. Many lesser known Marian prayers exist as well, especially novenas and individual prayers composed by saints and popes. These are vocal prayers (except the Rosary, which is a combination of vocal and mental prayer), and we pray them well in the same way that we pray all vocal prayers well.
Another category of Marian devotions consists of Marian shrines. By making a visit or a pilgrimage to a Church-approved shrine, we can give our Marian devotion a turbo boost. Shrines are sometimes linked to Marian apparitions (e.g., Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes) or artistic/miraculous images of Mary (e.g. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Our Lady of Chiquinquira, Our Lady of Guadalupe). The history of these events, places, and images offer eloquent (and sometimes downright awe-inspiring) testimonies of Mary’s active role in leading her spiritual children closer to the Lord. Every year, they inspire and renew the hearts and minds of millions of visitors and pilgrims.
On a day-to-day level, Catholics have long used household images to channel their Marian devotion. Reproductions of famous and powerful religious paintings and statues adorn living rooms, bedrooms, laundry rooms, dashboards, lockers, workshops, barber shops, restaurants, yards, road-side chapels, screen-savers, cell phone wallpaper, street corners, hospitals, prisons, and even casinos throughout the world. The mere fact of such ubiquity illustrates, to some extent, the powerful and inescapable role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of Christ’s Church. Most parish churches will also have a prominent Marian image, either close to the sanctuary or in a side chapel. Glancing at these images, or even spending a few moments now and again contemplating them or praying to Mary in front of them (this is often called “making a visit to the Blessed Virgin Mary”), allows Mary’s spiritual motherhood to work in our lives.
For someone who has not developed a favorite form of Marian devotion, this variety of devotions may seem overwhelming. Don’t worry! None of us is called to engage in all of these devotions, though all of us are called to develop Marian devotion. The key is to find one or two devotions that help you live the devotion fruitfully. If you are at level zero, I would recommend starting to pray the Rosary, one decade every day (this Rosary booklet may be of assistance). If you are looking to deepen your devotion, you may want to arrange a mini-pilgrimage to a local Marian shrine for your family, for a group of families, or maybe even for yourself. An annual Marian pilgrimage, especially during the month of May (a month in which, traditionally, Catholics give special attention to Marian devotion), is an effective way to weave Catholic traditions into the fabric of family life.
I hope these series of posts have helped answer your question and put your mind at ease about the role Mary is meant to have in our great adventure of following Christ and building his Church. But if it hasn’t, don’t worry; there’s no rush. By seeking Christ in and through his Catholic Church, you will eventually come to know, love, and feel very comfortable with the Mother of our Lord.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC