“I knew a kid in grade school …” the story often begins, if the speaker grew up in a Protestant church. “My mother used to …” it often begins, if the speaker grew up a Catholic and then joined a Protestant group. I have never asked to hear this story, but I have heard it many times, when someone found out I had become a Catholic.
The speakers go on to describe a distorted devotion to Mary, in which Catholics are told to go to Mary because only she can soften up her Son. Jesus is pictured as distant, wrathful and more interested in punishing you than giving you anything you want. Mary is nice — and actually likes you. If you approach her as an obedient child, she will go talk Jesus into being nice to you, though he won’t change his mind about you. He’ll say No to you in a second, but he won’t say No to his mother. Lucky for you.
In these stories, Mary is good news and Jesus is bad news, unless she gets him to change his mind. The people telling the story may well be exaggerating, because they are trying to make a point — “For heaven’s sake, don’t be Catholic!” sums it up — but some Catholics through the centuries have talked like this. You can find old devotional books that treat Jesus as the tough guy doling out justice and Mary as the loving one dispensing grace.
It is a little embarrassing. This isn’t the Jesus who gathered the children around him, who healed the sick and fed the hungry, and then let himself be tortured to death to save us from our sins. This isn’t the Jesus we can talk to ourselves, who wants us to be healed and whole and happy.
But there are two things to be said in the Church’s favor — things we may see more starkly illustrated in a distorted devotion than in healthier and more orthodox ones.
The first is that the Church is enormously creative. There are a lot of different Catholics, and some of them are going to say and do very clever things. Their proposals will be tested and refined over time by many different people from many different cultures. But since there are a lot of different Catholics, some of them are going to say the wrong thing. Our Protestant friends, and our secular friends too, have the same problem. That’s life.
Exaggerated devotions are one inevitable result of the creative life of a living body. There are plants the gardener must let grow and trim only when they are overgrown, if he wants to see them bloom as fully as they can. Some ideas are going to be better than others. Some will fly; some will crash. Some will establish themselves for a time, but will fade. Others will establish themselves until the Church in her wisdom represses them or replaces them with healthier versions. You can’t get the great ideas without getting the bad ones.
The second thing to be said in the Church’s favor is that these devotions maintain parts of the Catholic faith that the storytellers’ traditions may have neglected or lost. The devotions are not so much wrong as unbalanced, even though they may be so severely unbalanced as to look as if they’re simply wrong. Because Catholic teaching is true, even the mistakes will convey some part of that truth and may convey a truth the critics have forgotten. This is true here. The kind of distorted devotion to Mary that makes her loving and Jesus wrathful still protects the reality that Jesus, the Son of God, is holy and hates sin.
The Jesus we see in the New Testament could be a very tough, intimidating man. Even a scary man to those who were guilty or didn’t take him seriously. Look at how he drove the businessmen out of the Temple. Look at how he talked to the Pharisees. Look at how he talked to his friends, for that matter. When he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” Peter was only trying to help. Peter is the apostle who’s always trying to please Jesus, and he gets slapped down hard. So there is a truth here that this devotion has maintained — and that Catholics have maintained — even if it’s horribly exaggerated. We have a sense of who Jesus really is.
In some Protestant piety, you don’t find that Jesus. You might find the surfer-dude Jesus or the caring psychologist Jesus or the cool uncle Jesus or the Oprah Jesus, or the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” Jesus. You might get a tame Jesus whose response to sin is a chuckling “Boys will be boys.” You may get a Jesus you can presume upon.
As I said, the devotion we’re discussing — the overdone kind — can be a little embarrassing to less demonstrative Catholics. But it is also encouraging — as a sign that the Church is a living body, always creating new ways to love and serve the Lord. It reminds us that she is a careful steward, always conserving the whole truth.
Our Protestant friends will say this is true of their traditions as well, and to some extent it is. But it is truer of the Catholic Church because she is the Church, with that continuous creativity and that permanent sense of truth God gave her to guide his people through history. And, in any case, when the storytellers begin to tell this story, or one like it, the Catholic can thank them for the chance to tell them what life is like in a living Church.
Catholic convert David Mills is the author of Discovering Mary:
Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant, 2009).