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Pope Benedict XVI and Mary

Pope Benedict XVI and Mary

– Father Johann G. Roten, S.M.

On the day after his election, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the cardinals with a message of unity and fidelity. He pledged to "work without sparing energies for the reconstitution of a full and visible unity of all followers of Christ." Looking to Christ, Benedict XVI renewed his "unconditional promise of fidelity. Him alone I intend to serve, dedicating myself totally to the service of his Church." And then he added: "To support me in this promise, I invoke the maternal intercession of Most Holy Mary, in whose hands I place the present and the future of my person and the Church."

Entrustment to Mary
Josef Ratzinger doesn't say things lightly. We may rest assured, the new Pope's modus operandi will not be lacking German Gründlichkeit or thoroughness. In other words, he meant what he said about Our Lady. Although frequently a typical Marian flourish as much convention as is conviction, the final sentence of the Pope's first message to the cardinals had the ring of authenticity and more, of anxious eagerness. His words about Mary were--as condensed as may be--Peter's profession of faith in the Marian character of the Church. The person of Peter puts himself, present and future, in the hands of Most Holy Mary. He did the same on behalf of the whole Church. This gesture of placing Pope and Church in the hands of Mary has the meaning of an act of entrustment, a wise and at the same time childlike gesture of both need and trust. The Pope recognizes the "encompassing motherliness" of Mary, an expression dear to his revered friend, Hans Urs von Balthasar. He highlights the noble role of Mary's maternal intercession, and so points to her just, noble, and utterly dependent relation to Christ. Speaking of entrustment: Cardinal Ratzinger, in his funeral homily, entrusted the "dear soul" of John Paul II to the Mother of God that she might guide him to the eternal glory of her Son.

A Different Style
What does Mary mean to Benedict XVI? Is she no more than one of many figures on the theological chessboard good for a quick move to save Christ's identity? Or is her place and importance that of an incidental matter for him? Benedict XVI is not John Paul II. He never claimed to be a committed follower of Grignion de Montfort. He is not known for effusions of a typically Polish or Latin Marian devotion. Cool and disciplined, hardly expansive, he keeps the stirrings of his heart to the metaphysical depths of his German soul. Will Benedict XVI be a Pope for Mary? Let me state the obvious. He will not try to imitate the style of John Paul II: engaged and engaging, emotional, and even daring. Benedict XVI is a piano player and aficionado of Mozart's music. Like the musical genius from Salzburg, the man from Regensburg is all nuances and cadences, a theological virtuoso of artful and measured variations bound to a powerful cantus firmus of revealed essentials. This having been said, Benedict XVI's attitude toward Mary fits the theological context of Germany. In his own words: "Personally, my attitude was stated from the beginning by the strongly christocentric aspect of the liturgical movement, and this has been further strengthened in dialogue with our Protestant friends" (Seewald, 296). Here we have the cantus firmus which has its roots in Scripture, liturgy and dogma. The variations are the May devotions, the October rosary, and the places of pilgrimage. And there may be a further variation due to age: ". . . the older I am, the more the Mother of God is important to me and close to me." (ib.)

The School of Mary
The words "close" and "closeness" seem to have a special fascination for the Pope. Asked, what does Mary mean personally to you, his first reaction is: "An expression of the closeness of God." There are two meanings to the word "close": Mary offers Benedict XVI the closeness of a mother, but even more important, she is herself an expression of the closeness of God. Mary, being close to God and close to us, we may draw a logical conclusion, which indeed the Pope himself formulated at the start of this month of May: He invited the faithful to "contemplate Christ with Mary's eyes." In doing so, he took up the example of John Paul II: "With his words and even more so with his example, Pope John Paul II taught us to contemplate Christ with Mary's eyes, valuing especially the prayer of the Rosary." (Zenit, May 2) In his own way, Benedict XVI values, too, the prayer of the rosary. For a "restless spirit" like his, the rosary "allows the soul to settle into tranquility. . . (makes it) calm and free and grant(s) it a vision of God." (Seewald, 319) The Pope associates the rosary with consolation and healing, an inner refuge, and the certitude "to be enfolded in the rhythm of the prayer of the whole Church." (Seewald, 320) Praying three rosaries daily, even one, would be too much for him: "I would wander too much." He fits two or three mysteries "in a certain interval when I want to get away from work and free myself a bit, when I want to be quiet and clear my head." He humbly recognizes that "the older you get, the less you are able to make great spiritual efforts." (Seewald, 320) And just as humbly he admits: "I do it quite simply, just as my parents used to pray." (319) But he is very much aware of the deeper theological meaning of the rosary. It takes people "out of themselves" to experience Mary's feminine and motherly closeness, and makes the soul become "one with the words," those words which convey closeness with the Lord. From the very first days of his pontificate the Pope urged his many and varied visitors to "enter the school of Mary to learn to love and follow Christ above all else" (General Audience, May 4). Mary's school is one of "feminine and motherly goodness," and the high way to enter the deepest of Christ's mysteries (to German pilgrims on day of his installation).

Conversational Mariology?
Scanning Ratzinger's considerable bibliography, the reader discovers a rather modest number of Marian titles, mostly articles and homilies and only a single monograph, Daughter of Zion (1977, 1983 English). Ratzinger did not spontaneously, much less impulsively, take up his pen to write about Mary. It was Hans Urs von Balthasar who "patiently wrested" the manuscript of Daughter of Zion from him, the same Balthasar who criticized Ratzinger's lack of clarity in formulating Jesus' divine sonship, and to whom Ratzinger concedes: "Yes, I admit that I did not make the point clearly enough." (Daughter of Zion, 51, footnote 11) Most of what Ratzinger wrote about Mary are writings commissioned or of circumstantial character. The future Pope seems more at ease to talk about Mary when asked questions in conversations with journalists, as for example with V. Messori (The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius 1985) and P. Seewald (God and the World, Ignatius, 2000). In 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger sees in Mary a remedy and a pedagogy: "Mary must be more than ever the pedagogy, in order to proclaim the Gospel to the men of today." (Messori, 106) He urges a return to Mary to rediscover the truth about Jesus Christ, the truth about the Church, and the truth about the human person: "If the place occupied by Mary has been essential to the equilibrium of the Faith, today it is urgent, as in few other epochs of Church history, to rediscover that place." (Messori, 105) There was a time, as a young theologian, when Ratzinger had "some reservations in regard to certain ancient Marian formulas, such as "De Maria numquam satis" and "Conqueror of all heresies."

No longer in 1985--in this "confused period where truly every type of heretical aberration seems to be pressing upon the doors of the authentic faith." (Messori, 105)

Six Indicators
How does the Cardinal see in Mary a warrant for the "equilibrium of faith"? He lists six points, "six reasons for not forgetting." It is most revealing that these reasons are not primarily characterizations or privileges of Mary herself, but theological indicators of what Mary and Mariology mean for our faith. These six reminders may not come as a surprise:

1. In Marian dogma and tradition we have a solid foundation for authentic Christology.

2. Mariology expresses the right relationship and integration of Scripture and tradition.

3. Mary, both Jewish girl and mother of the Messiah, "binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God, Israel and Christianity, synagogue and Church." (Messori, 107)

4. Correct Marian devotion strikes an indispensable balance between heart and mind, assuring the faith its full dimension.

5. Mary is figure and archetype of the Church, the human face of the Church. In her "the Church again finds her own visage as mother." Mary is the antidote against faith as abstraction, and Church as mere organization, party and pressure group.

6. Finally, Mary projects a "light upon that which the Creator intended for women in every age…: through her virginity and motherhood, the mystery of woman receives a very lofty destiny from which she cannot be torn away." (Messori, 108) Quoting Lumen Gentium (#65) which states that Mary "unites in her person and reechoes the most important mysteries of the faith," Cardinal Ratzinger does not hesitate to remind his readers that authentic Mariology is a true guardian of revealed truths: the truths about Christ, the relation between Scripture and Tradition, Old and New Testament, heart and reason in faith, the Marian and Petrine Church, and the essence of femininity.

Mary—"Completely a Christian"
Fifteen years later, in 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger's reflections about Mary seem more relaxed and reflective, even meditative. Questioned about Mary in Scripture and dogma, about Marian devotion and apparitions, he develops a portrait of Mary adorned with a throng of interesting insights and original formulations. This woman, he says, had "a quite unique union with God," but she was fearless. Her story shows that we do not need to be afraid of God. God, in his greatness, makes himself small, he saves and does not frighten. He brings life. Being the mother of the One who is life and gives life, Mary is mother "of life and of the living," the fulfillment of what Eve was meant to be. Ratzinger sees in Mary the "original image of woman." She is the "pure figure of humanity and the Church," and this not withstanding the little information about her in Scripture. "I would say here," the Cardinal remarks, "people were discreet so long as she was alive. And obviously she herself was always discreet." (Seewald, 297) In Luke she appears as the mother not only in her body but in her mind and heart, mother of those who hear and believe, and keep the Word. In John, at Cana and at Calvary, her role as mother "has been more clearly worked out." At Cana she is the "prototype of the interceding Church." At the cross, Jesus' "new family" begins, in which Mary holds a new and essential place. The name woman is a "theological image," pointing out that Mary "plays a role beyond that of an individual: She appears as the "image of the New Eve."

As the "New Eve," Mary was His (Jesus') mother "and could not afterward belong to anyone else." She is the "actual door into history" through which came the Messiah. "She remains in the same reserved position as the gate (scil. Ezekiel), which belongs to the king alone" (Seewald, 303). This means, for Cardinal Ratzinger, that the notion of brothers and sisters can be understood only in the "framework of clan thinking." Her being set apart for Christ--the Immaculate Conception--"was the characteristic trait of her life. . . She stands from the outset, in a special way, in the sight of God, who had looked upon her (Magnificat) and allowed her to look upon him." (Seewald, 304) The Immaculate Conception brings with it "a complete state of grace," which with the Assumption is transformed into full community with Christ. Notwithstanding the difficulties of this dogma, for example, what is meant by heaven, by glorified body? The "essential point of this dogma is that Mary is wholly with God, entirely with Christ, completely a 'Christian'" (in another corporal identity, which we cannot imagine)." (Seewald, 305)

"It has always been the Mother"
Mary may belong to the King alone, she is set apart for Christ, but she is not separated from us in splendid isolation. Mary has tended the hearts of men and women, and thus produced prayers and a popular piety which "never lost their freshness and immediacy." The Cardinal goes a step further: "Mariology has expressed the inmost feelings of Christianity. Here people can have direct experience of Christianity as the religion of trust, of certainty." (Seewald, 299) Through the mother they find God. Religion is no longer a burden but a help in coping with life. Mary, in a special way, is the key to missionary activity. "There is one thing we must not forget," says the Cardinal, "it has always been the mother who reached people in a missionary situation and made Christ accessible to them." (Seewald, 300) He is thinking in particular of the Latin American situation: "In Mexico, at first, absolutely nothing could be done about missionary work--until the occurrence of that phenomenon of Guadalupe, and then the Son was suddenly near by way of his mother." (Seewald, 300) He also salutes the "timid efforts" made by Protestants to recapture the figure of Mary, because woman stands at the center of Christianity. "Through Mary, and the other holy women, the feminine element stands at the heart of Christian religion. To think of Christ and Mary as being in competition means ignoring the essential distinction between these two figures… That is not competition but a most profound intimacy." (Seewald, 302) And the Cardinal perceives in Mary and Mariology--though warning against "mere sentimentality, which no longer keeps in touch with reality"--a reaction against the exaggerations of Enlightenment: ". . . we have experienced such an enormous trend toward rationalizing and Puritanism, if I may so express it, that the heart of man sets itself against this development and holds tight to Mariology." (Seewald, 300) People hold tight to Mary because she is "the open door to God," the key to a deeper understanding of God. Cardinal Ratzinger uses this symbolism with some frequency: "Through Mary they are able to look upon the face of Christ and of God, so that they are able to understand God," or in a different context: : . . The mystery of the Son and the mystery of God are made accessible to men in a special way through the mother." (Seewald, 307) The basis for this relationship is trust, often mentioned--and varied--by the Cardinal. In her presence we can be "completely unselfconscious," like "little children, trustingly, in a way people often would not dare to do with Christ." Apparitions, healings, miracles--though escaping human understanding--have a foundation in trust and trust answered: "Faith becomes such a living thing in this trust that it spills out into the physical, everyday realm and thereby permits the kind hand of God to become actually effective, through the power of the kindness of his Mother." (Seewald, 308)

The Simple Soul becomes the Seeing Soul
Are these words typical of a Vatican taskmaster, a doctrinal enforcer and "Rottweiler" of the Church? For Cardinal Ratzinger Christianity is a "religion of the heart," not only but also, where the "simple soul becomes the seeing soul," always. Confronted with questions regarding apparitions, he bundles the deeper and lasting meaning of major and recognized events in the symbol of the "woman clothed with the sun," which stands not only for the People of God of the Old and the New Testament but also for Mary herself. He sees in the sun in which she is arrayed the true light of the world, Jesus Christ. Apparitions express Mary's "radical connection with Christ." He calls the image of the Apocalyptic Woman "frightening"; more important, it is "power enthroned." Visitors of Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe experience "the greatness of this figure, as well as the consolation and healing it brings." (Seewald, 309)

Authentic apparitions have a very specific focus: they bring us back "to the simple and essential things, which we are so easily inclined to overlook" (Seewald, 311). And what are these essentials? They cannot be beside the Gospel. The Cardinal cites Lucia of Fatima: "It's all just a matter of faith, hope, and love." (Seewald, 310) That is what Mary wants us to be aware of, and in and through faith, hope and love brings us to conversion. The famous secrets of Fatima point in the same direction. Conversion and repentance are central, but they are not to be mistaken for "an inescapable determinism." Christianity remains "a story of freedom: repentance can change the vision." In a brief commentary on the third Fatima secret and its significance, Ratzinger highlights one aspect which is frequently overlooked and forgotten: the importance in the twentieth century of martyrdom. In this secret lay people, priests, bishops, and finally even the Pope are killed: "But the blood of those who are executed is collected by angels, and it becomes fruitful for the world." (Seewald, 311) One may perceive a certain unease in the Cardinal's reaction to people's curiosity and hunger for the sensational when it comes to apparitions. This by no means suggests indifference or aversion on his part. In his own words: "The story of Lourdes--which the Cardinal seems to have assimilated through the eyes of the German writer Franz Werfel--is for me personally a particularly moving story." It is the simplicity, the "great inward purity" and fearlessness of Bernadette that appeals to the Cardinal: "…in this somewhat cold spiritual climate, in fact almost freezing, she was able to introduce the face of the Mother of God." (Seewald, 313)

Church in Person
What counts in Ratzinger's eyes are the "essentials," the "profound inner level" of understanding, conviction, and commitment. Here may be one of the reasons, a personal as well as a professional one, why he assesses the movement in favor of the dogmatization of Mary's co-redemption with caution. He points out that Christ "builds a profound and new community with us." (Seewald, 306) Redemption is the heart of the "great exchange": what is his became ours, and what is ours becomes his. This "being with" is expressed in exemplary fashion in Mary who is the "prototype of the Church," and so to speak, "the Church in person." It must not lead us "to forget the 'first' of Christ: . . . Mary, too, is everything that she is through him." (Seewald, 306) Ratzinger finds that the expression "co-redemptrix" would obscure this absolute origin in Christ, and departs to "too great extent from the language of Scripture and Fathers." The continuity of language with Scripture and Fathers is essential for matters of faith. It would be improper, according to Ratzinger, to "simply manipulate language." He sees in the movement promoting Mary's co-redemption a "correct intention" being expressed in the wrong way. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith holds that "what is signified by this (scil. 'co-redemptrix') is already better expressed in other titles of Mary." And so his answer to the request is summarized in the following sentence: "I do not think there will be any compliance with this demand, which in the meantime is being supported by several million people, within the foreseeable future." (Seewald, 306)

Home of the Word
Ratzinger's reading of Mary follows the pattern of ecclesiotypical Mariology. In doing so, he finds himself in the company of theological luminaries such as Przywara, Congar, de Lubac, and to an extent, Balthasar. The ecclesiotypical point of view rests on solid patristic foundations and uses typological methodology. What derives from this approach is a double mirror-effect. The Church reads and explicates itself in Mary, and vice-versa. Mary, for her part, explains the Church's relationship with Christ. In Mary the Church is Bride, Virgin, and Mother. Conversely, Mary's membership in the Church, eminent as may be, is solidly established. We find all of these characteristics in Ratzinger's Marian thinking. He pictures Mary as the "personal concretization" of the Church, the true "Daughter of Zion," the personalized beginning of the New Covenant (see: Introduction to Christianity, 1968, English 1969; Daughter of Zion, 1978, English 1983). We have here the foundation for Mary's role of model and exemplar for our faith. In a homily to conclude the month of May in 1979, the Archbishop of Munich hails Mary as the one who keeps the word in her heart. She is the one who believed and was praised "blessed" because she believed (Lk 1.45). Commenting on all the so-called rejection texts about Mary in the New Testament (Lk 11.27; 2.49; Mk 3,34; John 2,4), he shows that in fact they lead us to the very nature of Marian devotion. How is that? Mary is the "dwelling place for the Word of God," a place where the word is accepted, nurtured, protected; where it is given space, allowed to grow and be at home in a homeless world. Most important, Mary is the fertile ground where the seed of the Word becomes fruit. The Marian character of our being Christian is expressed in Luke's definition of true blessedness. Blessed are those who "hear the word of God and observe it." (Lk 11.28) Ratzinger sees in this Marian attitude a sure direction and trustworthy reference for all those pilgrims in route to eternity who have to brave confusion and contradictions, trial and hardship, anxiety and rejection.

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