Saturday, September 16, 2006

Our Lady of Whatever

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

The apples in my family tree don't fall very far. I grew up with my grandparents living next door. My nieces had the same experience, growing up next door to my parents. Now the eldest of my nieces is raising her children in close proximity to both their grandparents and great-grandparents. No, the apples stay close to home.

There are, however, exceptions. While my parents and siblings and nieces and nephews and various cousins are concentrated in a couple of Central California counties, a couple of us escaped to the wilds of the north state. Not too long ago, my parents decided they had one more long road trip in them and spent some hours on the freeway to drop in on the son and grandson who had wandered away. We braced ourselves for the visit.

Events back home are organized around family anniversaries and church holidays. Up here my life and the life of my nephew are governed mostly by the academic calendars of our respective schools. He is busy arranging a postdoc as a research scientist at his university and I am a full-time college faculty member. Although we stay in touch with the folks down home (and my nephew heads south at frequent intervals for visits), our orbits bear scant resemblance to the trajectories of most of our other family members. We both knew that it was time to dig out the mass schedule of the local Catholic churches because Mom & Dad were coming up on a weekend, and they would insist on going.

Of course, their son and grandson would be dragged along in their wake. It may seem a bit odd, but on their home turf my parents no longer try to enforce church attendance. They're just happy to see us. By contrast, however, once they've made the long trek to come visit distant family members, it would be the height of rudeness not to accompany them everywhere. I guess it makes sense.

Mass confusion

My folks arrived at my home, whereupon I alerted my nephew that we were on our way. Mom & Dad were taking us all out to dinner, but first we were picking up their grandson and going to Saturday evening mass (which many Catholics attend in fulfillment of their weekly obligation, which is more commonly discharged on Sunday). My nephew (who is also my godson) had informed us that the only opportunity in his small town was a bilingual service. That was more of a problem for him, a monolingual anglophone, than for his bilingual relatives. My parents and I are accustomed to Portuguese and decades of exposure to Spanish have made it easy to follow along at a Spanish mass. As it turned out, however, the bilingual mass really was a two-language affair. They didn't have supertitles, like in an opera house, but the priest said everything twice, first in English and then in serviceable Spanish. My nephew tuned in and out in turns as we attended the longest Saturday mass we had ever experienced this side of an Easter vigil.

Ordinarily I think my parents would have been pleased that their wayward kin were getting a double whammy, but we were all waiting dinner till the service was over, so they were getting restive, too. Then, just as we were running through the final responses and champing at the bit to dash for the doors, we were ambushed by the Virgin Mary.

Mary is a very busy woman. In addition to haunting a wide variety of edibles (particularly Mexican ones, although she's not too proud to appear in a humble cheese sandwich), the Blessed Mother has been racking up a most impressive series of avatars. Even non-Catholics are quite familiar with some of them: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Fatima (very big in my family because of the Portuguese connection), Our Lady of Lourdes, etc., etc., etc. Like I said: busy, busy, busy.

The Blessed Virgin is not content to rest on her laurels. No, on the particular evening when my parents, my nephew, and I had finally reached the end of a long bilingual mass, the priest cheerfully announced (twice, of course) that we were about to be treated to a special presentation. I knew right away what was going on, and I suspect that my parents did, too. When a middle-aged woman with a very earnest expression on her face rose in response to the priest's summons and moved to the front of the church, I had no doubt at all. She bore all the traditional stigmata of the Marian advocate, of which an intense earnestness is the most visible.

We had had ample warning. Prayer cards had been handed out at the door to everyone who attended the mass. They bore an unfamiliar image of the Virgin Mary on the front (see the picture at the top of this post) and included a devotional prayer on the back. Although I could scarcely be more lapsed as a Catholic, I dare say I do as good a job as my weekly-attentive parents in keeping tabs on what the church is up to. If I had never seen this Marian icon, it was likely new. We were about to be treated to a pitch for a new devotional practice.

The woman with the earnest expression briefly reminded us of the long tradition of Marian devotions in the Roman Catholic Church. No kidding. She said that she was introducing us to the Virgin's new aspect as “Our Lady of All Nations.” She asked us to fish out the prayer cards that had been distributed before mass and then she led us through the prayer (yes, twice).
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father,
send now Your Spirit over the earth.
Let the Holy Spirit live in the hearts of all nations,
that they may be preserved from degeneration, disaster and war.
May the Lady of All Nations, who once was Mary,
be our Advocate. Amen.
Not bad, as Marian prayers go. Staring off with an invocation of Jesus is a good move, since it helps guard against the accusations of Mary worship often leveled against Catholics. I had already perused the card a couple of times during lulls in the mass and quickly homed in on what I knew would be a trouble spot. Sure enough, Mom was on it the moment we left the church.

“What does it mean—‘who once was Mary’?”

I didn't spend years in catechism for nothing and I knew that it would do no one any good for my mother to be distressed.

“I'm sure the intent is simply to distinguish between her life on earth and her subsequent reign as Queen of Heaven.” (Yes, that's one of her many titles in Catholic dogma.)

“But why does it say ‘was’ Mary?”

Time for the big guns.

“Don't worry about it too much, Mom. If you've never heard of this before, then it's probably not yet an authorized devotion. You noticed that the presentation was by a laywoman rather than a cleric, so I doubt it's official. At some point Rome will make a decision on it.”

Ah, the advantages of a church with a hierarchy and a magisterium! Mom calmed right down. What I said was undoubtedly true. (She never seems to fret about getting explications on points of Catholic practice from her nonpracticing son, whom she hoped would someday be a priest. But then, priests provide marriage counseling, so why shouldn't a former Catholic give advice to Catholics?)

I was mostly right, by the way. The devotion to Our Lady of All Nations is a recent upstart. The seer in this instance was Ida Peerdeman of Amsterdam. (Mary prefers to appear to others of her sex, although the boy Francisco got to play a bit part at Fatima. Guadalupe would be the main exception, allowing for the unfortunate likelihood that Saint Juan Diego never existed.) The bishop of Haarlem denied in 1956 that Peerdeman's visions were supernatural and banned public devotions to Our Lady of All Nations. The cult persisted, however, and by degrees has become more mainstream. A new bishop in Haarlem, however, issued a decree in 1996 that permitted public devotions, although without specific church endorsement. This is a bigger step than many might realize, because even the famous apparitions of Fatima and Lourdes are not part of church doctrine; Rome endorses them but does not require belief in them as truths of the faith. Eventually, in 2002, yet another bishop of Haarlem declared that Peedeman's visions were miraculous: “I have come to the conclusion that the apparitions of the Lady of All Nations in Amsterdam consist of a supernatural origin.”

Persistence pays off.

And the part of the prayer that disturbed my mother? Devotees of Our Lady of All Nations have offered this explanation, quoted on the Eternal Word Television Network website:
This refers to the fact that Mary is no longer just Mary but rather The Lady, The Woman at the foot of the Cross. These words refer to her Eternal Motherhood over all of us, for she is Mother Whom Jesus gave to us from the Cross with the words: Woman behold thy Son!
Well, that certainly clears it all up, doesn't it?


eProf2 said...

Yes, and the Pope is going to quote some obscure 14th century contrarian to make us all feel even better about renaming Mary. Shouldn't we also be reexamining Mary Magdalena for a new name too?

Veronica said...

Ah, now, surely there's room in this one for a New World Order/One World Government/Whore of Babylon joke? Or, do I get too much of a kick out of the far reaches of tinfoil hat syndrome?

Julie O. said...

If you have to look up mass times again, there is a website, Just plug in your zip code and it gives you everything you need. It also gives you the Saint of the Day. Today is St. Thecla.

My Catholic in-laws are here for the weekend, so I just looked it up about two minutes before coming here.

Anonymous said...

lolololol as a very lapsed Catholic your tale of reassuring your mother made me laugh and laugh ;-)