Recommending Mary: A Review of Marian Veneration by Francis Cardinal Arinze

Oct 2nd, 2017 | By | Category: Blog Posts

For Protestants interested in better understanding the subject of Mary and Marian devotion in Catholic faith and practice, there are many good books, including several that have been published within the last ten years.1 One of the most accessible — both in terms of clarity of writing, doctrinal precision, and breadth of subjective address — is Marian Veneration, written by Francis Cardinal Arinze, and published earlier this year. Arinze, the Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the current Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni, succeeds in providing a strong, surprisingly crisp (122 pages!) explanation and defense of the Catholic Church’s doctrine on Mary. This book is a great resource for both Protestants and Catholics.

Arinze’s book is not principally an apologetic for Marian veneration, as the text is as much a summary of Marian teachings for Catholics as it is for interested non-Catholics. Nevertheless, the cardinal, whose upbringing and religious development in Nigeria exposed him to many brands of Protestantism, makes clear early on that he will be addressing many of the most common Protestant objections. He writes,

There are some Protestants or Evangelicals who challenge Catholics on their Marian devotion. They suggest that Catholics give to the Virgin an attention that they consider excessive or that is not biblically based or that tends to overshadow the central place due to Jesus Christ. Well-prepared Catholics can easily see the defects in such objections or half-truths and give due answers to those who sincerely desire to listen.2

For those Protestants willing to give a charitable hearing to explanations of Catholic doctrine, this is a veritable introduction to Catholicism’s understanding of Mary.

The first chapter tackles terminology, explaining what the Catholic Church means in offering devotion to Mary: the honor Catholics give Mary (hyperdulia) is categorically and intrinsically different from that given to God (latria). Moreover, the concept of giving veneration to humans has a Biblical pedigree: the Jews gave special honor to Moses, Abraham, and the prophets (Matthew 23:29-36; John 8:39), while the writer of the letter to the Hebrews calls the saints of the Old Testament a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Furthermore, there is a corollary between Abraham and Mary: Abraham is the father of all those who have faith in God, while Mary is the mother of the Savior of the world, and the second person of the Trinity.3 This is the reason for the ecumenical Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) declaring Mary not only Christokos, or Christ-bearer, but Theotokos, God-bearer.

Arinze follows this by a 14-page exposition on Mary’s unique role in Holy Scripture, one that is thorough in its range, given its brevity. He argues that the Bible “attributes to the Blessed Virgin Mary a place not reserved to any other woman.” This is because, as even many Protestants acknowledge, her role is prophesied from the first book of the Bible, Genesis, while also appearing in the closing book, Revelation. Mary’s role is central to Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the Messiah, that book announcing that the LORD will give a sign: “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:10-15). Mary’s role is required for the salvation of man, as, to paraphrase Saint Bernard, the whole world waited upon her consent to bear Immanuel. Furthermore, it was to Mary, and Mary alone among all the women of history, to carry in her womb the Second Person of the Trinity.4 It is Mary whom Elizabeth calls “the mother of my Lord,” and it is Mary who utters the Magnificat, a song of praise and recognition of the fulfillment of God’s promises that is both spiritually powerful and pervaded by Scriptural allusions . Through this song, Mary proves that she is not only “conversant with the Sacred Scripture,” but a well-schooled theologian of the Old Testament.5

A careful reading of the Gospels will demonstrate that Mary is present at many of the most important moments of Jesus’ life and that of the early Church, that she is consistently and uniquely praised, and that she provides an ideal model for the Christian life. It is Mary who elicits the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry, recorded in John 2 at Cana, and it is Mary who asserts one of the shortest, clearest directives for the Christian life: “do whatever he tells you.” Arinze’s chapter also addresses common Protestant objections, including that Jesus on two occasions seemed to distance himself from his mother (Luke 8:19-21 and its corollaries in Matthew 12:49 and Mark 3:34; Luke 11:27-28). In the latter, Jesus responds to a woman who declares the womb that bore Him to be blessed, by saying, “blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Is this a rebuke of the woman’s pronouncement, a devaluing of the role of his mother? Arinze thinks no: “Mary is the first of those who hear the word of God and do it” at the annunciation depicted in Luke 1, and thus Jesus is referring “primarily to Mary.”6

Subsequent chapters follow the same quick, Scripturally- and theologically-driven analysis in reference to Mary’s role as “Mother of God” and “Mother of the Church,” her role in salvation history, and her faith. Arinze also applies the same approach in his explanation and defense of Marian devotional beliefs and practices, arguing that “true Marian devotion is Christocentric,” which should “lead us to Christ, and, through him, to the Eternal Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.”7 This is because, as noted above, Mary’s whole life is defined by that dictum uttered to the servants at the Cana wedding feast: “do whatever he tells you.” True Catholic Marian devotion orients the Christian not to Mary as telos, but God. “When Elizabeth praises her, she [Mary] praises God who has done great things for her.”8 This is further evidenced in such practices as the rosary: of twenty different mysteries for meditation in the rosary, eighteen of them are directly referring to Christ. Devotional sites Protestants may know as being affiliated with Mary, are also Christocentric. Lourdes, in France, gives pride of place to Christ in the Eucharistic celebration, Eucharistic procession, Benediction, and the Way of the Cross. Arinze also cites St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, one of the most prominent advocates of Marian devotion in Catholic history, who taught: “If devotion to Our lady removed us from Jesus Christ, we should have to reject it as an illusion of the devil.”9

One of Arinze’s last chapters is devoted to to the nexus between Marian devotion and ecumenical dialogue. He acknowledges Protestant doubts about Catholic Marian veneration, doubts which are usually driven by concerns that it is not biblical, or not sufficiently Christocentric, or even idolatrous. Here the Cardinal portrays not only a charitable, dialogue-focused approach (“you can win an argument and lose a friend,” he acknowledges), but a strong familiarity with Marian devotion within the Protestant tradition. Luther, he notes, “accepted and observed most of the Marian doctrines,” while Calvin believed in her perpetual virginity. Zwingli and the early English Reformers likewise retained many of the Catholic Marian dogmas, to include her immaculate conception, divine motherhood, and her perpetual virginity.10 Readers may however wish that Arinze had devoted some space to explaining why the early Reformers embraced these Marian doctrines (did they think they were Biblical? Did they believe some early Church traditions to be binding for Christians?), and how exactly it came to pass that most Protestants came to harbor deep suspicions of any special honor given to Mary. Arinze makes only a brief reference to rationalism in Protestant denominations as a cause of declining reverence for Mary.

Marian Veneration accomplishes much for a book that can be read in an afternoon. Besides those topics addressed above, Protestants interested in understanding more about Marian topics even more foreign to Reformed sensibilities — such as Marian apparitions and shrines, Marian societies and associations, and Marian prayers — will find the same kind of logical and theological precision given to these subjects. Arinze has provided one of the best, most easily accessible texts currently available as an introduction to Catholic teaching on Mary, one that will benefit both Protestants and Catholics.

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For those interested in other Catholic texts on Mary, particularly ones accessible to those unfamiliar with Catholic Marian dogma, I would like to briefly recommend another book. This is David Mills’ Discovering Mary, which covers much of the same ground as Arinze’s book. Mills’ book is notably useful for its structure: the author lists common questions regarding Mary (particularly those he held as a former Episcopalian), and then addresses them from a Catholic perspective. The introduction to his book is also very accessible to Protestants, as Mills provides an honest summary of his own sentiments and opinions about Mary and Marian devotion — ones I myself resonated with as a former evangelical and Reformed Christian.

  1. I recommend specifically David Mills’ Discovering Mary and Tim Staples’ Behold Your Mother, which I will mention in a little more detail at the end of this post. []
  2. Francis Cardinal Arinze, Marian Veneration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017), 9. []
  3. Arinze, Marian, 14-15. []
  4. Arinze, Marian, 18-20. []
  5. Arinze, Marian, 22. []
  6. Arinze, Marian, 28. []
  7. Arinze, Marian, 51. []
  8. Arinze, Marian, 51 []
  9. Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary (Rockford, Il: TAN, 1985), no. 62. []
  10. Arinze, Marian, 98-101. []

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