Mark Shea: Mariology From A-Z (Part 1)

Former Protestant Addresses Marian Devotion

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By Annamarie Adkins

SEATTLE, Washington, JULY 16, 2009 ( One would think it impossible to spill any more ink about the Blessed Virgin Mary, judging from the number of Marian titles on the shelf at a local Catholic bookstore.

But when popular Catholic author Mark Shea was considering entering the Church, there were no comprehensive titles where he could address his concerns as an evangelical Protestant about Catholic Marian doctrine and devotion.

Twenty years later, that book was still missing from the shelves, so Shea set out to write it.

The result is «Mary, Mother of the Son,» a three-volume apologetics tool published by Catholic Answers.

Shea is senior content editor at Catholic Exchange and a regular columnist for both Inside Catholic and the National Catholic Register.

In Part 1 of this interview, he shares with ZENIT why almost everything non-Catholics think they «know» about Mary is wrong.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

ZENIT: Why did you write a book about the Mother of God? Where does your trilogy fit on the already crowded shelf of books and treatises about Mary?    

Shea: I wrote this book because it’s the book I wish somebody had written when I was coming into the Church.

I waited around for 20 years, hoping somebody else would do it, but when nobody did, I decided I’d take on the project (which is only fair since I’m the only one who really knows what questions and doubts I had and what would constitute a satisfactory reply to them).

As to where the trilogy fits on the bookshelf, I suppose I’d say «Anywhere.»

That is to say, part of the reason I wrote it is because there simply wasn’t any book I could find that did what this book does. For instance, the books on Marian dogma didn’t deal with questions about apparitions. Devotional literature didn’t answer questions about where the Church was getting all this stuff about Mary. Books tracing the development of doctrine didn’t talk about the rosary. In short, the literature was out there, but most people don’t have time to locate all the resources for the host of questions they have about Mary. So I created «Mary, Mother of the Son» to be a sort of «one-stop shopping» resource for virtually every issue a non-Catholic (or uncatechized Catholic) might have concerning Marian doctrine and devotion.

It tackles everything from the sources of Marian belief and practice (a huge issue since oodles of non-Catholics simply assume the whole thing is a data dump from paganism) to the Catholic approach to Scripture to the four Marian dogmas to the broad spectrum of Marian devotion to private revelations and apparitions to possible ways forward in Catholic/Evangelical conversations about the Blessed Virgin.

When it comes to Marian Willies, I’ve run the gamut in my own life and had to deal with pretty much every difficulty and problem with Mary to which non-Catholic flesh is heir, so it’s a book that comes from my heart (and gut) as well as my head.

Nothing in it is new (God willing) and the whole thing is ultimately a restatement of the Tradition. But it’s a restatement that tries to run the gamut of Catholic teaching on Mary, not simply focus in on one specialized area. And it’s written in order to be intelligible to the non-specialist.

ZENIT: You discuss in your books why most of what people think they know about both Mary and the Catholic Church is really pseudo-knowledge. Can you describe this phenomenon and why there is so much pseudo-knowledge lurking in the culture about the Church?

Shea: Pseudo-knowledge is the stuff that «everybody knows,» not because it’s true, but because somebody with «important hair» said it on TV, or because your favorite magazine said so, or because a beloved character in a movie stated it as fact and lots of other people repeated it around millions of water coolers.

Pseudo-knowledge is why «everybody knows» Humphrey Bogart said, «Play it again, Sam» (except he didn’t). It’s why «everybody knows» the US Constitution speaks of a «wall of separation» between Church and State (except it doesn’t). And it’s why «everybody knows» medieval Europeans all believed the world was flat (except they didn’t).

Pseudo-knowledge causes people to go around talking as though they’re certain that at one time or other they must have read the Federalist Papers, or boned up on the meteorological data for global warming from the latest scientific studies, or committed to memory the documents of the Council of Trent, when they cannot, in fact, quote five words from any of these things.

What they really know is what that resonant, well-modulated voice on TV or their own circle of friends (or both) told them was «common knowledge» concerning government or science or the Catholic Church.

And, of course, it’s why «everybody knows» that «the Catholic Mary» is really just a warmed-over pagan goddess. It’s a modern myth that has circulated around for so long that nobody even thinks to question it. And when you do, you discover there’s no there there. Nothing. Not a scrap of actual historical support for the claim.

Like many of the myths about the Catholic Church, it arises from a superficial acquaintance with the Church (she’s hard to avoid completely and people often judge by fragmentary impressions) and from the fact that many non-Catholics listen only to other non-Catholics circulating baseless junk as «fact».

ZENIT: What is the most important role Mary has played in the history of the Church and its mission of evangelizing the nations?

Shea: Being who she is. Mary is the «type of the Church» in the words of St. Ambrose. Her mission has been the same ever since Jesus gave her to us with the words «Behold your mother.» As the model disciple, the Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin, Immaculate and Assumed into Heaven, she has constantly been interceding for us and has, on occasion, even been entrusted with critically needed calls to repentance and grace (as at Fatima and other places).

ZENIT: Why, in your opinion, does Mary keep appearing to people all over the globe? Is there a common theme in the various apparitions of the Virgin?

Shea: Essentially her mission has always been the same: to say to the world «Do whatever Jesus tells you.»

As I point out in Mary, Mother of the Son, Mary’s life is the most profoundly referred life any mortal has ever lived. All true private revelations have one thing in common: they point us right back to the public revelation of Jesus Christ and to the apostolic tradition of the Church. Mary’s message is radically not new: Be good. Go to Mass. Trust Jesus. Little boys should tell the truth. That sort of thing.

If you are living a serious Catholic life of trust in Jesus, obedience to Holy Church, the practice of virtue, and frequent reception of the sacraments, you are doing everything that all those visions, miraculous healings, and dancing suns were wrought by God to say to the human race.

ZENIT: Why do so many important Church documents — from conciliar statements (Lumen Gentium) to papal encyclicals (Caritas in Veritate) — seem to always conclude with a paean and exhortation to seek the intercession of the Blessed Mother?

Shea: Because it is good and fitting (and smart) to do so.

God has given her primacy among all creatures and we are to accord her hyperdulia: the highest honor due a mere creature. But «creature» is such a cold word, isn’t it? Like something out of a science fiction movie. You wouldn’t give your Mom a Mother’s Day card and address it «Dear Exalted Creature». You would give her a card that says, «Dear Mom: I love you and I appreciate all you’ve done and sacrificed for me.» The Church says the same to our Mother.

Some will complain that speaking of Mary’s «sacrifices» is taking away honor due to Jesus alone. I reply: Imagine a church servi
ce for the parents of a son killed in Iraq in which the pastor points to the grieving parents and says, «God was the one Who gave these parents their child and it was He Who sent their son to die for the freedom of the Iraqi people. They didn’t sacrifice anything. They merely assented to be a part in God’s plan.»

Nobody talks that way at any time about any sacrifice that any ordinary person ever makes. All the rest of the time, we can grasp the fact that, while God is the Author of all things, our sacrifices and choices really matter too — by the grace of God.

The only time people talk this way is when Evangelicals who are weirded out by Mary dehumanize her and dismiss the sword that pierced her heart so they can talk as though she was utterly irrelevant to the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, instead of the one who was, in fact, more intimately bound up with Him than any person who ever lived. No mortal suffered and lost more in the Passion than Our Lady did. If we can spare words of thanks to the parents of a fallen soldier, how much more gratitude should we have for her who gave, just as God did, her only Son.

So it’s only fitting that the Church honor (and ask the intercession of) the Blessed Virgin. God didn’t go to all the trouble of perfecting her in his holiness, love and power just to throw all that away. For 2000 years, it has been her joy to intercede for her children — because she is more like Christ than anyone who ever lived and it his joy to do exactly the same thing.

[Mark Shea discusses Mary and ecumenism in Part 2 of this interview, to be published Friday.]
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