Seeing Mary all over again

GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

A WEEK BEFORE last Monday’s celebration of the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, CNN broadcast a story on a statue of the Virgin Mary near Sacramento that appeared to be shedding tears of blood. In August, a New Orleans funeral home billboard attracted crowds after Mary’s profile was spotted in the photo.. In April, thousands flocked to an expressway underpass in Chicago to witness an image of the virgin that officials believe was a stain created by salt runoff. Hokey or heartfelt, bizarre or sublime, these sightings are a reflection of a contemporary revival in the cult of Mary.

Devotion to the virgin is nothing new to American Catholicism. Each wave of Catholic immigrants brought along their own iconic images of the mother of Christ: Italians revered Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Our Lady of Pompeii; Poles favored Our Lady of Czestochowa. But by the 1950s, the assimilation and upward mobility of Catholics led to a decline in old country devotional Catholicism, and in the 1960s, the reforms of Vatican II sought to refocus attention away from localized “folk” worship and onto the rites and rituals of Rome. While “Marian” devotion never disappeared, it declined significantly over the last 40 years.

But a combination of Mexican immigration, popular feminism and a growing need among spiritual seekers to make God more accessible has led to a resurgence in the presence of the figure of Mary. By the end of the 20th century, Mexican migrants had carried their Virgin of Guadalupe to all corners of the U.S. and her likeness engaged non-Latinos and non-Catholics as well. For many, Guadalupe may represent little more than ethnic kitsch, but others appear to be sincerely drawn to her.


Many theologians have noted that Guadalupe, like so many other images of the Virgin Mary, represents a more tender, compassionate side of God. While deeply skeptical of -- and even annoyed by -- the parade of recent apparitions, Father Thomas A. Thompson of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton in Ohio nonetheless believes that the current revival in Marianism is, in a sense, a popular attempt at recalibrating a collective sense of the divine.

“In Anglo-Saxon culture, God is talked about in masculine terms -- the omnipotent law-giver and judge,” he said. “A yearning for Mary suggests a deeper desire for a more feminine dimension of the religious experience.”

The times may play a role as well. Historically, Marian devotion has increased during cultural crises or war. In the late Middle Ages, the church’s depiction of Jesus as punishing and uncompromising pushed many believers to Mary’s side. Her 1917 apparition at Fatima, Portugal, occurred during the Russian Revolution. In 1531, Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke to an Aztec peasant during a cataclysmic time for Mexico’s Indians. As poet Octavio Paz observed, the Indians “took refuge” in the Brown Virgin after the massacre of their priests and the destruction of their gods.

And consider the source. More often than not, revivals of the cult of Mary have been imposed on church authorities from the bottom up. Since the earliest recorded sightings in the 4th century, the church has taken a circumspect stance regarding Marian apparitions. The overwhelming majority of the estimated 21,000 sightings have not been recognized.

Indeed, even the most celebrated official apparitions contain hints of subversion. The primary elements of the classic apparition narrative include the humble origins of the witness, the initial skepticism of the parish priest, the hostile response from civil authorities and the ultimate, sometimes begrudging, acceptance by the church. The ongoing tension in the church between high and low, masculine and feminine, is reflected in the distinction that is often made between “the Church of Peter,” meaning the hierarchy, and “the Church of Mary,” referring to the most humble of the faithful.

Bible-centered Protestants, of course, long have been skeptical of Catholics’ reverence for Mary. After all, the New Testament makes only passing reference to her. Still, in March, Time magazine reported that the “long-standing wall around Mary” in the Protestant world “appears to be eroding.” Beverly Roberts Gaventa at Princeton Theological Seminary has urged a wholesale Protestant reexamination of the mother of Jesus. “We are a lot more interested now in biblical characters who are women, and we’ve talked about all the others,” Gaventa said. “It might be time to talk about Mary as well.”


Of course, the impulse that stirs Gaventa isn’t exactly the same as the one that draws crowds to an apparently weeping concrete statue at a church outside Sacramento, but both have a way of fitting history’s patterns. The more we see Mary, the more we’re seeking the feminine face of God -- and answers for our own troubled times.