Any good anthology of spiritual writing witnesses to the way that Catholicism at its best and truest focuses its heart on Jesus, who came to live, die, and rise for our salvation.239 In his Epistle to the Romans, written in the early second century when being brought in chains by soldiers to face death in Rome, St Ignatius of Antioch (d. ¿.107) showed his intense love for Christ. Being 'ground by the teeth of wild beasts' would make him 'God's wheat' and the 'pure bread of Christ' (4. 1). This martyr summed up his longing to die and be with Jesus: 'Let there come upon me fire and cross, and struggles with wild beasts: my being mauled and torn asunder, my bones racked, my limbs mangled, my whole body crushed, my being cruelly tortured by the devil, provided only that I may reach Jesus Christ' (ibid. 5. 3).
As we saw in Ch. 2, the medieval piety of St Francis of Assisi, St Clare, and so many other leading Catholic figures reflected a similar Jesus-centred life—something we find strikingly exemplified in the prayer by St Richard of Chichester (d. 1253): 'Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which thou hast given me—for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.' A few years later St Gertrude the Great (d. c.1302) reported her own experiences in The Herald of Divine Love: 'Her most loving Jesus seemed to draw her toward himself by the breath of love of his
239 See e.g. T. de Bertodano (ed.), Treasury of the Catholic Church: Two Thousand Years of Spiritual Writing (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1999); published in the USA as The Book of Catholic Wisdom (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2001).
pierced heart, and to wash her in the water flowing from it, and then to sprinkle her with the life-giving blood of his heart.' After echoing in this way the words of John 19: 34, she continued with the passage cited at the start of this chapter.240 In his Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471) summarized what a Jesus-centred existence promised: 'Blessed are those who know how good it is to love Jesus .Love him and hold him for your friend; for when all others forsake you, he will not forsake you' (2. 7).
The Christ whom they knew and received in the Eucharist fostered the devotion of Ignatius of Antioch, Richard, Gertrude, Thomas à Kempis, and innumerable other Catholics. The initiative of Juliana of Liège, as we saw in Ch. 2, secured in 1264 the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christi—for centuries celebrated with great devotion. St Francis de Sales (1567—1622) called the Eucharist 'the centre of Christian religion'.241 In modern Ireland and around the world, many teachers used to quote the summary of Irish faith and practice offered by Augustine Birrell (1850—1933): 'It is the Mass that matters.' Beyond question, over the centuries eucharistic practice and piety have waxed and waned among Catholics, as we recalled in Ch. 7. But looking at the whole picture supports the conclusions: there is a special Catholic emphasis on attending the Sunday Eucharist,242 and there is a particular Catholic intensity about receiving Christ in Holy Communion and praying before his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. One feels very close to the heart of Catholicism at a parish Mass on Sundays, especially in the moments after Holy Communion.
The Eucharist focuses a deep commitment to Christ, and so too does the widespread desire to have a crucifix and not simply a bare cross displayed in churches. Certainly an empty cross can emphatically recall Christ's rising into glory. He is no longer personally pinned to that terrifying instrument of suffering and death. All the same, Catholics want to see his body and its wounds. This instinct has also prompted them into erecting in different parts of the world wayside scenes of Calvary. At the foot of the cross Christ's Mother often keeps her lonely vigil.
Trans. M. Winkworth, Classics of World Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993), 176. See Introduction to the Devout Life ,2. 14. 1.
This was vigorously recalled by John Paul II in his 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini ('the Day of the Lord').
Catholics feel very comfortable with images of Mary standing by her dying Son or holding her new-born baby in her arms. To be sure, Christ does not appear in many wonderful paintings of the Annunciation left us by fifteenth-century Florentines and artists of other places and times. We see only Mary, the angel Gabriel, and sometimes one or two other figures. Christ's conception and birth are being announced; he is not yet visibly there. Nevertheless, he is not absent, as Andy Warhol (1928—87) brilliantly showed in his adaptation of an ancient masterpiece, a painting of the Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci (1452—1519). Warhol has kept only the hands of Mary and the angel; between them he has highlighted a mountain, which one barely glimpsed in Leonardo's original painting. The change highlights effectively the coming down 'from above' of the divine Word in Christ's conception and birth. Even in the Annunciation and other compositions where Mary visibly stands or kneels alone, her Son is not missing. As we noted at the beginning of Ch. 2, a mosaic in St Mary Major's (Rome) shows her sitting on a throne beside her divine Son—in a work that commemorates the Council of Ephesus (ad 431) that upheld her already popular title of Theotokos (Mother of God). She conceived, gave birth to, and mothered Someone who was personally the Son of the God and the Saviour of the world.
Catholics, Orthodox, and some other Christians feel themselves understood and cherished by this woman and this mother.243 A fourth-century papyrus gives us in a Greek version the first text of Sub Tuum Presidium, one of the oldest Christian prayers after those found in the Bible (e.g. the psalms in the OT and the Our Father in the NT). It begins: 'Beneath your protective shelter we flee, holy Mother of God.' This prayer, in an expanded form, continued to be used in the Middle Ages and beyond. Like the rosary with its joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries—and, since 2002, mysteries of light—that commemorate the main stages in the story of Christ, the Sub Tuum Presidium moves from Mary to her Son: 'O glorious and blessed Virgin, our dear Lady, our mediator, our advocate, lead us to your Son, recommend us to your Son, present us to your Son.' An anonymous medieval poem, 'I sing of a maiden', in a courtly and charming manner honours Mary but does so precisely because of her Son. The opening verse says: 'I sing of a maiden that is makeless [matchless]:
243 Nothing has expressed for us more forcefully a Catholic sense of Mary's loving concern than hearing the English soprano Lesley Garrett sing from Verdi's The Force of Destiny Leonora's plea to the Virgin to secure her pardon and protection.
King of all kinges to her Son she ches [choose].' The poem describes Christ being conceived as silently as the dew falling on the grass in April, and ends: 'Mother and maiden was never none but she: well may such a lady Goddes mother be.'
Millions of Catholics and other Christians have cherished Mary as the loving helper of the suffering and a compassionate advocate for sinful human beings. Statues of Mary with her Son, stained glass portrayals from medieval Europe, and Eastern icons from all centuries present Marian devotion at its best and truest, with Mary's beauty, nobility, and importance all derived through the Holy Spirit and from her Son. Hundreds of Marian legends emerged in the Middle Ages and were gathered in collections made in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. Some of those legends, however, expressed and encouraged a flawed devotion to Mary, one that for selfish reasons neglected Christ. Erasmus of Rotterdam set out to correct this situation, by ridiculing and exaggerating in a 'colloquy' first printed in 1526 'the shameless entreaties' some people made to Mary. In an imaginary letter he quoted her as saying: 'they demanded everything from me alone, as if my Son were always a baby. 1 Sometimes a merchant, off to Spain to make a fortune, commits to me the chastity of his mistress.A profane soldier, hired to butcher people, cries out to me: "Blessed Virgin, give me rich booty!" ' After listing these and other 'irreverent prayers, Erasmus passed to what he called some 'absurd' ones: 'An unmarried girl cries: "Mary, give me a rich and handsome bridegroom!" A married one, "Give me fine children." A pregnant woman, "Give me an easy delivery.".A doddering old man, "Let me grow young again." '244
Erasmus had been once (1512), or possibly twice (1514), to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and was only too ready to embellish and embroider popular devotion to the Virgin Mary. But we can understand Reformers crying out against such a distortion of petitionary prayer and marginalizing of Christ as the Saviour of all sinners. But it is harder to feel much sympathy for the outbursts of iconoclasts, who turned many beautiful statues and pictures of Mary into their special target.
Martin Luther maintained some well-founded insights into the unique role and grandeur of Mary in the whole story of salvation. Musicians, even
244 Erasmus, Ten Colloquies , trans. C. R. Thompson (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1957), 60—1.
more than writers,245 ensured much continuity with the happier aspects of medieval veneration of Jesus' Mother. Among the oldest Marian antiphons, the Salve Regina ('Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy') dates back at least to the end of the eleventh century. Its tenderly devotional language and its exquisite setting in Gregorian chant (or plainsong) have made it enduringly popular in the Catholic world and beyond. Three other ancient Marian antiphons are also much loved: Alma Redemptoris Mater ('Kind Mother of the Redeemer'), Ave Regina Coelorum ('Hail Queen of the Heavens'), and Regina Coeli ('Queen of Heaven'). The Stabat Mater ('The Mother was standing [at the cross]'), a dramatic medieval hymn describing the suffering of the Virgin Mary during her Son's passion and crucifixion, became widely used at Mass and for the Stations of the Cross (see Ch. 2). The fifteenth-century Litany of Loreto, the name coming from the Marian pilgrimage site in Italy, enumerates various titles and qualities of the Virgin Mary (e.g. 'Holy Mother of God', 'Seat of Wisdom', and 'Comforter of the Afflicted') and adds the invocation 'Pray for us.' Eventually it was set to music by Mozart. Along with the Ave Maria (inspired by Luke 1: 28, 42—3) and the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46—55), the Stabat Mater, and the four major Marian antiphons (see above) were set to music by Bach, Brahms, Dvor'k, Gounod, Haydn, Palestrina, Schubert, Verdi, Vivaldi, and other famous composers. Not all of them composed settings for every one of these texts, but some of them composed many settings for one or other of the Marian antiphons and prayers: for instance, Palestrina left more than thirty settings for the Magniificat, and Vivaldi came up with four settings for the Salve Regina. The most celebrated setting of all is arguably Bach's composition for the Magnificat. Such music conveys perhaps best of all the enduring place of Mary in Catholic Christianity, just as the Akathistos., an ancient song of praise to the Mother of God, expresses the devotion to Mary among Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox.246
245 Normally the three great figures in European literature are reckoned to be Dante (d. 1321), Shakespeare (d. 1616), and Johann Wolfgang Goethe (d. 1832). The Virgin Mary occupies a central place in Dante's Divine Comedy ; she is very minor in the works of Shakespeare; in Goethe's masterpiece, Faust, she is tenderly invoked by the tragic figure of Gretchen.
246 No book conveys better the place of Mary in the Catholic imagination than C. H. Ebertshäuser et al . (eds.), Mary: Art, Culture, and Religion through the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1998). See also J. Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999).
As our first characteristic of the Catholic Church, we have highlighted the way it is centred on Jesus Christ, along with his mother Mary. The fact that Catholicism has persistently taken up material objects into its sacramental and devotional life forms a second characteristic.
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