Marian Devotion and Supreme Happiness

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The following was a college essay written by Marianna Rice. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Clarifying Catholicism, nor of everyone affiliated with Clarifying Catholicism. We welcome respectful responses in the comments below.

By Marianna Rice

Mary has always been an important presence in the Catholic Church. She is mentioned in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, always close to Jesus and his disciples, passed down to us as our mother by her son, Jesus.[1] The Protoevangelium of James’ emphasis on Mary’s life and perpetual virginity shows that interest in and devotion to her has existed in the Church from the start, and many beliefs that we have about Mary have always been in the Christian tradition (as well as in Scripture). Throughout history, Mary was given the title “conqueror of heresies” due to her role in the rejection of the major unorthodox movements, serving Christ and enhancing our understanding of Him (e.g. her perpetual virginity and immaculate conception defend Christ as both true God and true man, countering the heresies of Gnosticism and Docetism).[2] However, Mary’s role has been more than intellectual as Marian devotion has bettered the faithful throughout Church history by being a perfect and loving example of how to love God. Specifically, the affective aspects of Marian devotion work with modern man’s reason to lead him to ultimate happiness. This paper will discuss a few aspects of man’s nature, who Mary is, and man’s attitude towards faith (especially in the United States) after the Second Vatican Council in light of Mary’s example, showing why a devotion to her is necessary for all Christians.

Man and his Ultimate End

Man’s mind has the image of the Trinity. The memory or physical life (Father), intellect or rationality (Son), and will or heart (Holy Spirit) work together in everything man does. The intellect and will are the most uniquely human parts and will be the focus here. Man tends naturally towards truth, and his intellect and will help him to pursue this.[3]Through reason, man is able to understand the natural world; by his will, he is able to direct himself towards his perfection by seeking and loving the true and good.[4] Both reason and will are necessary, as together they guide the steps of human action and show us natural law; we must not forget, however, that the will is subject to reason, even though it is an act beyond knowing—an act of trust. The modern heresy disconnects what we know is true (intellect) and what we love (will), leading to two extremes of faith, both dangerous. When the intellect is taken on its own, there is a risk of religion becoming abstract and more of a mind exercise than a relationship and way of life. In addition, “the light of reason alone” cannot bring us to know God, we must surrender ourselves to His revelation at times.[5] Conversely, relying too heavily on the will without the constraints of reason can lead to irrationality. The will and emotions are a bridge between the body and soul, but without the proper hierarchy of the mind that places reason over will, we are likely to become overly emotional and can quickly fall into heresy like the Franciscans were wont to do with respect to Mary early on in their time as an order. They had a deep love for Mary, but they took this affective way of thinking too far and claimed she was present in the Eucharist with Jesus.

Another essential aspect of man is that he is dialogical—he requires others, relationships, to form and understand himself. This is why God said “it is not good for man to be alone,” because apart from others we cannot move towards our final end.[6] This end is “the entry…into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity,” a call “to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life.”[7] Our intellect and will, as they are in the image of God, guide us towards this unity and dialogical relationship with the Trinity. As one theologian says, we want to transcend ourselves “by giving away the sum total of our finite participation in the gift of life” for the sake of others and eternal life. This desire cannot be fulfilled without being in communion with others, but ultimately the desire for the end of unity with God can only be adequately fulfilled by God.[8] In all man does, he must be guided by both his reason and will, working with others and with God to know the truth and love the good, to reach heaven, “this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed … Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.”[9]

Mary as the Prototype of Christians

Mary accomplished this human end most perfectly and “in her whole being, is the point of connection between the eternal filiation from the Divine Father and the human filiation in the flesh from a human Mother.”[10] Mary is the prototype of Christians, a perfect example for us to follow, her trust in God is unconditional and she “embodies not God, but the creature in the order of God.”[11] She is “an expression of the closeness of God” to man, showing how we ought to think, feel, and act in our lives in order to attain happiness with Him.[12] She listens, accepts, and responds to God, truly opening herself that He might become man through her, and opening us that we might be prepared to welcome His grace and do His will. She gives herself completely to God, holding nothing back, and this gives her a perfect freedom in action and a sinlessness powered by the grace she allows God to pour into her.[13] Since Mary was so closely united with God, her reason and will worked together perfectly to know the true and love the good, allowing her to perfectly execute the steps of human action and all the virtues without faltering in her love of God.

Mary also spent much of her life in contemplation, pondering in her heart all that God did in her life. Contemplation is “poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father as ever deeper union with his beloved Son,” “a gaze of faith.”[14] In this contemplation Mary formed a close relationship with God, which, on top of her human relationships, fulfilled her need for community as a dialogical being in a way we all strive for but cannot attain until heaven. This aspect of Mary plays into Marian devotion as well: Mary, in dialogue with the Trinity and with us, teaches us to grow closer to God and surrender all to him. She also teaches us to be contemplative with her, and Marian devotion has always taken on this quality, most popularly with the Rosary, as will be discussed later.

Part of what makes Mary such a perfect example is that, even though she was never tainted with original sin, she still suffered its constructive effects. In other words, though she likely did not experience concupiscence since there is nothing good about it; however, she did experience hunger, thirst, suffering, and death. These are constructive effects of original sin because, by her response to them, Mary could obtain more congruous merit. Mary responded to the suffering and mortality of life perfectly, with the help of God’s grace, by “receiving them as gifts that lead to greater conformity to Christ.[15] In her incredible openness to God, she became the prototype of humanity and the Church, showing us how to accept all as a gift from God. 

Marian Devotion and Vatican II

Before Vatican II, Marian devotion was strong in the Church, and the decisions that the Council made with respect to Mary were expected to give it even more fuel. Unfortunately, what then Cardinal Ratzinger called the ‘anti-spirit of the Council’ spread the idea that whatever idea is “new” (even when it is merely a resurfaced old heresy) is absolutely better than whatever came before.[16] The Council was immediately followed by a great decline in Marian devotion, a lack of interior piety among Catholics, and “an unhealthy fixation on the Church as an organization and institution.”[17] This was not a direct result of Vatican II however. Rather, Vatican II made way for new theological studies and historical criticism quickly dominated the field, leading to this ‘de-emphasis’ of Marian devotion. Despite this, several scholars, including Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs Von Balthasar, encouraged the Council and pointed to its many fruits, including how theologians began to explore Mary as what the Church and its members ought to be.[18] Regardless of the intention of the Council, the will oriented, contemplative Marian movement was replaced by the more structured, intellectualist, Biblical, and ecumenical liturgical movement. Only recently has the Marian movement been growing again into what it once was, balancing and complementing the liturgical movement. Marian devotion is necessary in order to keep the place of the will alongside that of the intellect, and Ratzinger emphasized this well: “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 the Church, to rediscover that place.”[19]

The lack of post-conciliar Mariology is a problem because man is both intellect and will, and as such, that interior love needs to be fostered and grown. When the faith is purely intellectual, it becomes abstract and over-politicized. Mary’s motherhood fights this, because “an abstraction does not need a Mother,” though a faith does.[20] The place of Mary as Mother ensures that Catholicism can never be purely intellectual, for she spreads God’s love and mercy so that we may glorify Him with our whole being. 

In my own life, I see the difference between pre and post-conciliar theology in my conversations with my Grammy and my siblings. Last summer, we had a family dinner and, as is common, several of my siblings and I ended up in a discussion about some intellectually heavy theology (I believe it had something to do with what happens after death and the nature of Purgatory). At one point my Grammy, who was a working mother of two when Vatican II happened, made a comment about how she felt like a bad Catholic because she had never learned the things we were talking about. This statement struck me to the core and left me not a little horrified. My Grammy lives a life of prayer, watching Mass on EWTN multiple times a day, saying rosaries, and having a relationship with God that is closer and more real than anything I can imagine. Her feeling of lack shocked me because, in my mind, what she has is better. She knows the core teachings of the faith and has a personal relationship with Jesus and Mary. What I have is good, you cannot love what you do not know, but what I am lacking (a deep personal love between myself and God) is much harder to gain. I have experienced this with my peers who are well-educated in their faith—we have much incredible knowledge of God, Mary, and many aspects of the Catholic Faith. However, in this time there is a lack of real trust as we try to make everything logical or follow a plan that makes sense to us. I am not trying to say that this is the case for all my peers, but that I believe it is more of a trend now than eighty years ago, and that we are the poorer for it.

Why We Need Mary

Why is any of this important, and why does the Church claim that Marian devotion is needed? I propose that it is because, to attain our final end, happiness with God, we need to practice contemplation and a virtuous life and Mary is the perfect example and teacher. In addition, all the Holy Spirit gives to us passes through her hands, making devotion to her the surest way to obtain God’s grace and mercy. Contemplation requires humility and poverty to “turn its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ.”[21] Contemplation works with and forms the affective, imaginative qualities of man, teaching us about God’s love and how we can be more like Him. It is not a passive activity, however, but requires an active participation in Christ’s ‘yes’ to come down as man to serve and in Mary’s fiat.[22] Who could better help us contemplate Jesus’ life than she who ‘pondered all these things in her heart’?[23] This is one reason why the rosary is such a powerful prayer—Mary, mediatrix of all grace, pours help out upon us as we contemplate the great mysteries of our Faith with she who witnessed them and knows Christ best. Her school is the sure way to “learn to love and follow Christ above all else” and experience trust and certainty in our Faith.[24]

Jesus said that “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”[25] If our end and supreme happiness is union with the Trinity, then Jesus has given us a clear way to strive for this on earth. Mary loved Jesus above all, He was her son and her Lord, and kept His word perfectly in an attitude of faith and trust. By drawing close to Mary and allowing her to help us follow her example, we will, as she was, become open to receiving God’s infinite mercy and grace. Doing this is necessarily both intellectual and affective. We can understand why Mary is the prototype of our faith while entering a loving relationship with her and being open to God’s work incorporates our emotions, transforming us and bringing us into that communion with the Trinity that will bring us true happiness on earth and in heaven.

Several theologians have used this phrase to explain Mary as the prototype: Maria vel anima vel ecclesia, or ‘what is true of Mary should be true of my soul and should be true of the Church.’ This is a high bar to reach. Mary had a perfect unity and balance between her intellect and will. She believed the principles of her faith (intellect) and trusted in what she could not explain (will). Her fiat was an act of total trust towards God (fides qua), modeling the openness of heart that we ought to have. Mary, in her unique roles of physically both virgin and mother, also emphasizes the need we all have to spiritually fulfill these two roles. We are all called to spiritually be virgins by reflecting the presence of faith above all else in that call. We are also all called to be spiritual parents, reflecting the charity and other domestic virtues of that calling. Both of these callings have important emotional sides and require love to be at the forefront, in addition to the intellect. The call to grow in devotion to Mary and attain such a high level of virtue can seem daunting—fortunately, Mary, as our Mother, wants to help us become more like her.

One of the most important reasons for Marian devotion is the unity of faith (will) and reason. Mary had a perfect balance between them that we should all strive for. Just as the Trinity is three persons, all equal, so too our mind, created in God’s image, should have memory, reason, and will be equal. A true Marian devotion ensures this equality and unity of the mind, as Cardinal Ratzinger summarizes beautifully:

The correct Marian devotion guarantees to faith the coexistence of indispensable ‘reason’ with the equally indispensable ‘reasons of the heart,’ as Pascal would say. For the Church, man is neither mere reason nor mere feeling, he is the unity of these two dimensions. The head must reflect with lucidity, but the heart must be able to feel warmth: devotion to Mary (which ‘avoids every false exaggeration on the one hand, and excessive narrow-mindedness in the contemplation of the surpassing dignity of the Mother of God on the other,’ as the Council urges) thus assures the faith its full human dimension.[26]

Man needs to use his reason, it is essential to his nature and what allows him to know himself, his surroundings, and quite a bit about God. Man is not just an intellect, however, and requires the healthy emotional bond of love. Through devotion to Mary, we necessarily form this bond to her, and she unites it to her bond with her Son, bringing us into a beautiful relationship with Christ. Marian devotion unites the affective with the reasonable to form a faith that fulfills the human person and their nature.

After so much extolling of Mary and devotion to her, it is prudent to emphasize that praise of her implicitly praises Christ and “neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ.”[27]Jesus loves His mother more than any of us ever could, and if we are to love what He loves then we ought to praise Mary. Of course, we must do this in a proportional manner, placing Mary below her Son in our devotions.

Man is called to perfect happiness in a total union with his creator, in whose image he was made. This requires a perfection of his intellect and will, using them to understand, love, and trust in God. Mary did this most perfectly in her total acceptance of God’s mercy and grace, and devotion to her is the surest path towards happiness. Marian devotion leads us to follow her example, most importantly in openness to God and contemplation of Him. Every member of the Church ought to give Mary the honor she is due through some devotion to her, and she will in turn bring them to her Son and unite them to Him. Marian devotion gives us the strength we need to be faithful in this world, uniting our reason to our will and affections, since “the Heart open to God, purified by contemplation of God, is stronger than guns and weapons of every kind.” [28]

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs 


[1] John 19:26-27.

[2] Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, and Vittorio Messori. Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. Revised, Ignatius Press, 1985, p. 107, books.google.com/books?id=bSZtm0DWz_cC&vq=reason&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Revised & enlarged, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000, 2467.

[4] Ibid, 1704.

[5] Ibid, 37.

[6] Gen 2:18.

[7] CCC, 260, 356.

[8] Farkasfalvy, Denis, and O.Cist. The Marian Mystery: The Outline of a Mariology. Alba House, 2014, p. 268.

[9] CCC, 1024.

[10] Farkasfalvy, p. 278.

[11] Gaál, Emery. O Lord, I Seek Your Countenance: Explorations and Discoveries in Pope Benedict XVI’s Theology (Renewal Within Tradition). Emmaus Academic, 2018, p. 98.

[12] “Pope Benedict XVI and Mary : University of Dayton, Ohio.” The University of Dayton Marian Library, udayton.edu/imri/mary/p/pope-benedict-xvi-and-mary.php.

[13] “Angelus, 8 December 2012, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary | BENEDICT XVI.” 8 Dec. 2012, www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20121208.html.

[14] CCC 2712, 2713.

[15] Matthew Ramage, From the Dust of the Earth: Benedict XVI, the Bible, and the Theory of Evolution, Ch. 10 (forthcoming from Catholic University of America Press).

[16] Vittorio Messori, translated by Patrick Riley, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Interview, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, Volume 8, #2, https://www.catholicscholars.org/PDFFiles/v8n2mar1985.pdf.

[17] Gaál p. 115

[18] Farkasfalvy, p. 226, 235, 237.

[19] Ratzinger Report, p. 105.

[20] Ratzinger Report, p. 108.

[21] CCC, 2713, 2715.

[22] CCC, 2716.

[23] Luke 2:19, 51.

[24] Pope Benedict XVI and Mary.

[25] John 14:23, emphasis added.

[26] Ratzinger Report, p. 108.

[27] “Lumen Gentium.” Vatican, 21 Nov. 1964, number 62, www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.

[28] “The Message of Fatima.” Vatican, www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_en.html.

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