In the years following the Second Vatican Council, certain misdirected individuals within the Church sought to eliminate many cherished symbols that had served to promote piety and devotion among the faithful. Paramount among these were Marian images as well as statues of the saints. One notorious example involved some priests insisting that the Second Vatican Council no longer permitted ornate statues or precious icons to remain in church buildings. Parishioners were duped into removing life-size statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints from parish churches, dumping them into local lakes and nearby waterways. For the average Catholic there was little recourse to such blatant destruction.
The truth is that there are no directives in the Vatican II documents calling for a blanket elimination of all statues or images within parish churches. The 1963 Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) speaks explicitly about church art and sacred symbols deemed acceptable in the house of God. Allow me to highlight a few pertinent points from chapter 7 on “Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings” in this Constitution:
• “Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere extravagance … Let bishops carefully exclude from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety…” (article 124).
• “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be firmly maintained…” (article 125).
• “Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or allowed to deteriorate; for they are the ornaments of the house of God…” (article 126).
Although the above articles do not specifically refer to images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, they suggest a balanced approach when decorating churches so as to promote legitimate veneration. While duplication of symbols is to be avoided, care is to be taken to ensure that aesthetically appealing statues and furnishings are used in the sacred space that we call “the church” or “house of God.” These principles apply equally to symbols of Mary.
In the more comprehensive chapter on our Blessed Mother in Lumen Gentium, there are several matters that ought to be mentioned. It is apparent, for example, that the Council Fathers embarked upon a new approach to Marian theology that greatly enriched ecclesiology (the study of the theology of the Church). No wonder that out of the 16 documents promulgated by the Council, the bishops spent the most time engaged in serious deliberation on this document. Even the other, more lengthy document on the Church (Gaudium et Spes), received substantially less discussion as it was being prepared. Part of the reason may have been due to the carefully crafted chapter on Mary.
Some have suggested that the chapter on Mary in Lumen Gentium was more of a compromise than the actual desire of all the bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council. Initially, an entire schema or outline was prepared with the intention of having a separate document written about Mary. However, when several bishops protested that such a document would de-emphasize the person of Christ, a new decision was made to include Mary in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The final decision was accepted by the Council Fathers in a narrow margin of 1,114 to 1,074 votes, which resulted in this final chapter comprising 10 articles (55-65) dedicated to the subject of Mary. The decision to include Mary in the document on the Church points to the fact that the Holy Spirit was busy persuading the minds and hearts of the assembled bishops because Mary is, in fact, a most fitting model of the Church.
Ironically, the reason why some bishops initially wanted to de-emphasize Mary was due to an unfounded assumption that to include her would be ecumenically insensitive. While wanting to include Mary they felt that certain non-Catholic churches or ecclesial communities might be offended if too much attention was afforded her. The fact is, however, that Lutherans, Anglicans and the Orthodox have devotion to Mary in their church traditions and even non-Christian groups like the Muslims actively venerate the Mother of Jesus. The Eastern Church in particular has a special devotion to Mary and speak of her as Panagia or the “All Holy One.” The focus of this devotion is on Mary’s uniqueness as the only disciple of Christ possessing the fullness of grace from the first moment of her conception.
The fact remains that Mary may be the bridge of unity so often sought after in honest ecumenical encounters. Fellow Christians and non-Christians just may see in the Virgin of Bethlehem the catalyst to engage in deeper and more sincere ecumenical and inter-religious discussion. By not including Mary in a more complete way, we may inadvertently delay opportunities for better understanding and unity between faith communities and individuals. No doubt the belief that Mary is the first disciple of Christ and the perfect “grace-filled” woman whom we are called to emulate is possibly something the world desperately needed in the confusing 1960’s and ’70s, and certainly, no less today.
On the positive side, what the Council Fathers gave us by dedicating the final chapter of Lumen Gentium to Mary is a fresh perspective on the Mother of Jesus that is primarily Bible-based with strong emphasis on her pilgrimage of faith and call to holiness. With more than 25 verses from Sacred Scripture and some 24 citations from the early Church Fathers as well as recent popes, the Council did not consider Mary separate from its treatment of the Church, but discussed the theology of Mary within the larger mystery of Christ and His Church. Here, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church she is not only presented as a model of the Church but also held up as one to emulate in responding to the “universal call to holiness” (chapter 5), which is also an important subject treated in Lumen Gentium outlining the responsibility that all of us have to grow in greater holiness.
Curiously, other titles afforded Mary in Lumen Gentium, some familiar but many not so familiar, begins in article 53. They include: Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Son of God, Daughter of the Father, Temple of the Holy Spirit, Mother of the Members of Christ, Most Beloved Mother, Mother of the Redeemer, Daughter of Sion, Mother of Jesus, New Creature, Virgin of Nazareth, Daughter of Adam, Mother of Humanity, Model of Virtues, Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.
When the Second Vatican Council ended there were some within the Church who claimed that the Council Fathers discouraged devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This, of course, is not the case. In fact, the Council states that “practices and exercises of devotion toward [Mary, should] be treasured as recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries, and that those decrees issued in earlier times regarding the veneration of images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints, be religiously observed.” (article 67).
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop.