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Youth Discipleship and Mary

The Ideal Discipleship of Mary

Youth, Discipleship, and Mary in Secondary Catholic Education

Introduction – Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Is there a contemporary profile of Mary for today's youth in secondary Catholic education? In her Masters thesis from Saint Joseph College of Main, Alexandra Fontanetta argues that teaching of young Catholics about the Blessed Virgin has potential to re-energize the Church and humanity. In a very lucid, committed, and solidly grounded essay, she shows that the study of Mary's person and mission is a powerful means to strengthen the Church and Christian discipleship. It is in Mary's own discipleship that Fontanetta recognizes a most motivating ideal for contemporary youth in higher education. Presenting Mary as the "perfect disciple" in scripture and theology, Fontanetta then elaborates on the practical influence of her ideal discipleship for social commitment, evangelization, spirituality, and devotion. 

Except from "The Ideal Discipleship of Mary: Our Lady and Secondary Catholic Education" – Alexandra Fontanetta

… Bearsley, in his work on Mary as the perfect disciple, notes that “a theologian works from what is given in revelation, but still endeavors to construct a system of ordered knowledge based on a few fundamental beliefs or principles” (Bearsley 463). Theological knowledge, as a cumulative process “knows no end, given the inexhaustible riches of the heart of Christ, the revelation of the Father, and the ingenuity of the human mind” (Bearsley 463).

Under the influence of modern biblical scholarship, the notion of discipleship has resumed a central place in the spirituality and theology of the Church (Bearsley 472). In this study Mary has been held up as a model of discipleship, as “the perfect disciple” (Bearsley 472). Bearsley notes that the role of a model in theology does not equal a paradigm in science. In theology “the model operates in the context of a faith community and is subject to what is given in revelation; in science the paradigm operates in the context of a scientific community and is subject to the phenomena of nature” (Bearsley 470). When a new model arises in theology, it does not dictate the dismissal of the body of belief previously held since tradition is an essential part of Christian faith and doctrine.

Mary’s role as disciple, by its very definition, makes her unequal to Christ. “A disciple is not above a teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher” (Luke 6.40). In the Catholic Church, Mary is always positioned with her Son, cooperating in His mission. Saint Alphonsus Liguori, referencing Denis the Carthusian, explains “With the exception of the hypostatic union, no union is more intimate than that of Mother of God and her Son” (Liguori 227). Even as the ideal disciple, she is never placed above Him, and is never worshipped as a goddess.


Example One: The Annunciation

Mary emerges as a disciple early in the Gospel of Luke. In his infancy narrative, she is portrayed as a believer. Mary’s words at the Annunciation reveal both her faith and her obedience. “Then Mary said, ‘here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. Then the angel departed. (Luke 1.38). Here Mary utters the very words that her Son will one day use in speaking of discipleship.

The immediate and genuine response of Mary to the angel Gabriel makes her the first disciple, one who will not be insulated from the pain of discipleship. She is the benchmark for all those on the path of discipleship as well as evidence of the significance of women in Christianity. She is described by Jesus as the “one who hears the word of God and keeps it” (Luke 8.21). Beginning with her fiat, she is revealed to be Christ’s first disciple and Mother in the order of grace. Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the faithful, and Model of the Church, is worthy of special honor and devotion.

Example Two: The True Kindred of Jesus

The biblical account provides a good starting point for a discussion of Mary as a disciple. Jesus is busy teaching when Mary and bothers arrive to speak with him. He takes the opportunity to explain that he holds discipleship closer than family relationships. Jesus responds to remarks from the crowd regarding familial ties. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking at the crowd around him he continues, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother (Mark 3.31-35). Matthew writes somewhat differently of the account. “And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister” (Matthew 12.49-50). From Matthew, Bearsley suggests that Jesus specifically addresses his disciples, not simply the crowd.

This event seems to convey that Jesus values those who are bound to him by their willingness to do the will of God more so than those who are united with by family ties alone. This sentiment is seen in other New Testament accounts as well. Some sense a rejection of his mother in these passages, however Bearsley offers several explanations, including that the Evangelists simply wanted to deliver a strong message on discipleship. Another explanation is that they did not know her. Viewed in a different light, Mary, free from original sin, is blessed because she faithfully did the will of God and conceived his Son, a precious gift to humanity. This makes her the perfect disciple.

Example Three: The Gospel of Luke

Bearsley identifies the Evangelist Luke as protective of Mary. He speculates that Luke may have known Mary in the post-resurrection Church and that from personal experience he concluded that she fully deserved being numbered among the disciples.

Luke recounts Mary’s visit to Jesus differently than Matthew and Mark. He positions it in the context of Jesus teaching on the topic of discipleship. He accomplishes this by beginning with the parable of the sower and the seed. “As for that in good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Luke 11.15). He then follows with the account of the true kindred of Jesus. By rearranging the order, Luke seems to suggest that the criterion Jesus uses to determine who are members of his family is not one based on blood relationships but solely rather obedience to the word of God and acting on it. His mother and brothers do seem to satisfy the criterion (Bearsley 476).

Luke also portrays Mary as a disciple in his account of the Visitation. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1.45). By bringing forward Elizabeth as a witness Luke is asserting the discipleship of Mary (Bearsley 477).

An additional account in Luke emphasizes the contrast between family relationships and hearing the word of God. While Jesus was teaching, a woman in the crowd cries, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” (Luke 1.27). Jesus corrects the woman saying, “Blessed rather are those that hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 1.27). The words spoken by Elizabeth at the Visitation and the words of the woman in the crowd both praise the motherhood of Mary. Yet Jesus’ response to the woman in the crowd and Elizabeth’s words to Mary, both praise those who hear the word of God and keep it. Perseverance in accepting the word of God is necessary; merely hearing it is not enough. (Bearsley 477).

Luke applies to Mary the idea of hearing and incorporating the word of God into one’s life a total of six times (Bearsley 478). This, along with his mention of Mary among the early members of the Church community in Acts of the Apostles, supports the claim that Mary is both Mother of God and disciple. Bearsley summarizes Luke’s understanding of discipleship as composed of two elements: hearing the word of God “be it from the mouth of Jesus, or from one of God’s messengers, or in the events of life and incorporating that word into one’s life (Bearsley 478). Bearsley, in these two elements identifies the need for a “divine initiative and a human response” (Bearsley 478). This is analogous to Bonhoeffer’s description of discipleship as being composed of Jesus’ call and the act of obedience on the part of the human. Bearsley, like Bonhoeffer, also notes that only God can initiate the call to which the would-be disciple must respond. The result of the exchange is a radical life-altering shift as is evident in both the Old and New Testament examples discussed thus far.

This theme is seen in Matthew and Luke in the parable of the sower wherein they describe the seed that falls on rock soil. Since the seed has no roots, it withers away as will the disciple who lacks a lasting commitment. Discipleship must be a radical reorientation of life “…for only if the seed falls on deeply rich soil will it reach a hundredfold increase (Mark 13.8, 23; Luke 8.8, 15). Mary’s actions clearly fulfil the terms of discipleship described by Luke and by John as well.

Example Four: The Gospel of John

Mary is prominent in the Gospel of John in the account of the wedding feast at Cana and at the foot of the Cross. The account of the wedding in Cana is significant, not only because it was the first of Jesus’ signs, but also because of the dialogue between Mary and Jesus. When the wine ran out, Mary said to Jesus, “they have no wine” (John 2.3). “And Jesus said to her, ‘What concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2.4). Some see Jesus’ remark as disparaging and do not see her as a disciple until Calvary, however he Evangelist positions the account after Jesus calls the first disciples thereby linking Mary with them (Bearsley 484). In fact, she is the first to be named in the account.

John identifies Mary as “the mother of Jesus” in this account and in the account of Calvary. She appears only in the beginning of his Gospel, when Jesus worked his first sign in response to her words, and the end of Jesus’ ministry (Bearsley 484). Bearsley believes that for the Evangelist, her intervention went beyond a motherly request and suggests a dual role. “If at Calvary Mary is clearly seen as both mother and disciple, it seems natural to suppose she is present at Cana also in this dual role” (Bearsley 484).

Mary, following the exchange of words with Jesus, embodies her role as disciple instructing the servants to “do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5). Jesus’ reply indicates he is only subject to the will of the Father. Bearsley sees this as the transformation of their Mother – Son relationship into a connection through discipleship (Bearsley 486). Here again Mary both hears and practices the will of God.


Example One: Catholic Social Teaching

Mary’s virtues of faith, hope, and charity, along with her obedience to the will of God, are at the root of Catholic social teaching. She personifies the call to family and the dignity of every human person and reminds the faithful to keep an open heart to the marginalized. The dogma of the Assumption was defined following World War II to emphasize human dignity. Her active participation in her Son’s mission of salvation embodies her commitment to community and demonstrates her evangelization. She adhered to the will of the Father, and in doing so became Mother of future generations.

Example Two: Evangelization

Mary’s intercession plays a critical role in the economy of salvation. In writing about the wedding in Cana, John writes “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. Remember, however, it was Mary who practiced evangelization as she directed the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5). As a result, the disciples came to believe.

The presence of Mary at the foot of the Cross is also an example of her evangelization. In cooperating in her son’s mission of salvation, she delivers a message of faith, charity, and hope to all humans throughout history.

Example Three: Mary as Intercessor

The Church rightly honors the Blessed Mother with special devotion. “From the most ancient time she has been honored with the title ‘Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and need” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 971). She “shines forth on earth, until the day the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the Pilgrim people of God” (Lumen Gentium 517). The Blessed Virgin is recognized as the New Eve, Mother of the Church, and “continues in heaven to exercise her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ” (CCC 975).

While Catholics recognize Christ as Mediator, they also recognize Mary’s role as Intercessor, without regarding her as equal to Christ. According to Catechism of the Catholic Church, she is sometimes called Mediatrix in virtue of her cooperation in the saving mission of Christ, who alone is the unique Mediator. There is biblical for support for this assertion in Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11.1). If Paul can serve as a means to Christ, certainly the Virgin Mother must possess a more powerful role as Intercessor.

Mary’s role as Intercessor is revealed in her actions in the account of the wedding at Cana. Here the Mother of Christ asks her Son to fulfil the needs of the feast. This results in Jesus performing His first sign. “The Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 969). Saint Alphonsus Liguori, a prolific writer on Mary, reiterates her role as Intercessor. In his fourth sermon he recounts a specific example of a saved sinner. “This example shows us how solicitous our Good Mother is, not only to draw us away from a state of sin if we appeal to her with this good purpose in mind, but also to deliver us from the danger of falling back into sin” (Liguori 232). Liguori believes that it is in her maternal authority that she has great power with God and she can obtain reconciliation even for great sinners. Finally, the saint points out that God did not create her solely for Himself, but He gave her to the angels as their restorer and to humans as their repairer, and to devils as their vanquishers.

Many saints and popes recognize Mary as intercessor. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his work Daughter of Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief, writes “…we can now say the figure of the woman is indispensable for the structure of biblical faith. She expresses the reality of creation as well as the fruitfulness of grace…she always points beyond herself to the all-embracing reality, which she bears and represents” (Ratzinger 28).

Example Four: Marian Devotion

The roots of Marian devotion are found in Sacred Scripture. Furthermore, the first recorded prayer can be traced to the fourth century (Shoemaker 142). Nonetheless, throughout history, there have been times when these practices have been considered idolatrous. This includes the use of statues and beads (Boss 385). In response, the Magisterium developed a defense of these practices often offered in honor of the Blessed Mother.

Devotion to the Blessed Mother, rooted in medieval practices, remained largely unchanged until the mid- twentieth century (Yossa 144). With the twentieth century came a new devotion to Scripture and the call for change issued by the Second Vatican Council. In the years following, however, Marian devotion became limited despite encouragement in Lumen Gentium. Uncommon exceptions, including the rosary and practical Marian devotion, applied in daily life. Newer variations of older forms have emerged, including the new rosary mysteries of Light promulgated by John Paul II. These prayers explore her role in the economy of salvation. Proper veneration to Mary continues to this day.

The faithful, using statues, images, and beads in prayer, are reminded also of Mary’s discipleship, perfected in her obedience to the Father and her cooperation in her Son’s mission of salvation. She is a source of comfort and inspiration to humans as they pursue the path of discipleship. Reflecting upon her actions also serves as a reminder that as disciples humans are expected to be united with those on the same journey.

Example Five: The Hail Mary

Marian devotion and the role of Mary as Intercessor are anchored in the Hail Mary, also known as the Ave Maria. Saint Alphonsus Liguori, in his work The Glories of Mary, gathers the insights of some of the greatest minds of the Church in an effort to draw sinners closer to the Blessed Virgin. In doing so, his thoughts on grace, discipleship, devotion, Scripture, mediation and intercession emerge. He also notes that this traditional Catholic prayer seeks the intercession of the Virgin Mary and establishes the need for Marian devotion. This prayer, based on the Gospel of Luke, also forms the basis of the Rosary, which unites the Blessed Mother with the Incarnation.


Change remains inevitable. The Church, like many other institutions, struggles to find solutions for complex problems. The fluctuation in the number of Church leaders and the number of practicing Catholics impacts the entire Church body, particularly the youth. Furthermore, conditions in society pose a threat to the religious development of young Catholics. Steps must be taken for a quick solution.

Polya’s problem solving method proved to be an effective means to identify specific challenges and conditions facing the Church. As a result, a plan incorporating Mariology into Catholic secondary education was devised. It is the hope that such a course will inspire a new generation of Catholics

Mariology is a broad discipline and the Virgin Mary may be studied from a variety of vantage points, including her Divine Motherhood, her perpetual virginity, and her role as mother of the Church. The focus of the solution developed is her perfect discipleship. She serves as a model for all.

The idea of discipleship is simultaneously simple and complex. A basic definition is straightforward: Jesus calls and the disciple follows. It is only when one begins to explore the nuances of discipleship through examples that the complexity emerges. Biblical passages serve as a contrast for Mary’s ideal discipleship in a way that may be meaningful for students.

The Blessed Virgin holds a special place in the economy of salvation. Foreshadowed in the Old Testament and prominent in the New Testament, she cooperated fully in her Son’s mission. Her ideal discipleship animates many aspects of the Church today including Catholic social justice, evangelization, intercession and devotion.

The consequences of discipleship are profound and have positive ramifications for the Church. Inspiring a new generation of Catholics through discipleship can re-energize the entire Mystical Body. The journey does not end with the sacraments of initiation but rather is an infinite one requiring repeated affirmations. Learning that perseverance is essential will encourage students to listen for the voice of God whenever faced with a decision.

Much has changed since the Second Vatican Council. The world has become more secular and relativistic. The study of Mary in Catholic secondary educations appears to be a viable means of strengthening the Church and Christian discipleship as well as civic, liturgical and ecclesial commitment.


The Addition of Mariology to Secondary Catholic Education: A Means to Strengthen Young Catholics, the Church and Society, Alexandra Fontanetta, Saint Joseph College of Maine

Bearsley, Patrick J. "Mary the Perfect Disciple: A Paradigm for Mariology." Theological Studies, vol. 41,no. 3, Sept. 1980, pp. 461-504.

McDermott. Daughter Zion meditations on the churchs Marian belief. Ignatius Press, 1983. Print. 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Print.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994. Print.

Liguori, Alfonso Maria de. The glories of Mary. Liguori, 2000.
Paul VI. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium: Light of Nations.

Yossa, Kenneth. “Currents and Contentions: Authentic Devotion to the God-Bearer at the Dawn of the Third Millennium.” Mary. God-Bearer to a World in Need. Eds. Maura Hearden and Virginia Kimball.  Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013. Print.

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