When Michael Duricy looks at a film, he's always looking for Mary.
He's part of the community of scholars at the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton who study every aspect of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, to explore and understand her influence on faith and culture to make her better known, loved and served.
As a University of Dayton scholar of Mary in media, Duricy has studied hundreds of films: "In every portrayal of her, she's universally likeable, always admirable, always pleasant. It cuts across all countries and all styles of film."
Sometimes Mary plays a supporting role, sometimes she's the main character. Sometimes her presence is just a picture in the background or a rosary in a character's hands. He's seen her reflected in a character in a Disney fairy tale, a movie about a modern mermaid and a classic retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Duricy has a rich resource. More than 1,000 films are in the Marian Library's collection, where he is academic coordinator. As the largest repository of printed materials and artifacts related to Mary, the library draws scholars from around the world who study Mary in Scripture, history, fine and folk art, and popular culture.
The institute's mission is frankly pastoral as well as scholarly. While scholars have different approaches, Duricy is fascinated with the power of media to stir emotions and engage people through those emotions. That process can be evangelical, leading people to faith through an intimate, direct connection.
Duricy has seen portrayals of Mary in film change over time, tracking with sociological and cultural change, offering more contemporary touchpoints that enable people to identify with her in the context of their own lives. For example, prior to the 1970s, Mary is almost always a supporting character. She became the main character during the era of the women's movement, as women began stepping out from supporting roles in society.
Also during that time, Mary is more frequently depicted as an approachable, contemporary individual who might live in your neighborhood. Post-millennial films go further, reflecting society's broadening embrace of cultural diversity. In earlier films, Duricy laughs that Mary was most often portrayed by Irish women, but after 2000, her cultural identity might be Palestinian, African-American or Asian, among others.
Duricy has a special interest in popular films where the main character has Mary-like qualities; she's compassionate, caring and helpful like the "universally likeable" Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
"With Mary, we really believe that she brings those attributes to the people she knows. We believe she really cares and her caring becomes compassion," Duricy says.
"In the Wizard of Oz, the characters come to Dorothy as we come to Mary, saying 'please help us.' Dorothy feels compelled to lend her help. She illustrates what Mary would do in those circumstances and it engages our emotions and that can deepen our faith."
Duricy finds his attention is turning to newer media as Mary moves beyond film to the Internet and social media. He sees them playing an important and powerful role in returning faith to people's everyday lives.
"What's important is seeing what works in these media and how they engage people's emotions," he says. "When you engage people, you engage their emotions. That can be very significant for the new evangelism, deepening spirituality within the church."