A Defense of Consecration to Mary

No, the bishops are not “misguided” in consecrating their countries to Mary. They are long overdue.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Immaculate Conception,” 1660
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Immaculate Conception,” 1660 (photo: Public Domain)

It disturbs me that there persists a stubborn, anti-Marian streak among certain contemporary Catholic theologians, who often try to find justification for their anti-Marian animus in the documents or, more often, the “spirit” of Vatican II.

Case-in-point: a commentary by French/Dutch theologian and writer Hendro Munsterman in the April 30 La Croix International, asking why bishops are “still” consecrating to Mary. La Croix has a reputation as a seedbed of revisionist theology that appears to see the Francis pontificate as its entrée for re-baking the worst ideas of the “spirit of Vatican II” in its pages as “the world’s premier independent Catholic daily.” (Nothing like humility).

Munsterman observes that the American, Italian and Canadian bishops’ conferences “consecrated” their Coronavirus-ravaged countries on May 1, the traditional Marian month, to the Blessed Mother. He characterizes their efforts as “misguided,” “theologically problematic and controversial,” a medieval hangover that the best of contemporary theology has gone beyond. It supposedly detracts from the “Christocentric” nature of our faith. It is supposedly rooted in an anachronistic Mariology too focused on her privileges or her unique relationship to her Son, supposedly leading to treating Mary “more like a pagan mother goddess.” (This from a journal that had no problem with Pachamama in St. Peter’s).

The consecrations are none of those things — except, perhaps, to Munsterman and the circles of La Croix.

Munsterman invokes the Vatican’s 2001 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy in defense of his argument. I’ll return to his cramped and tendentious reading of the relevant passage but, first, let’s take a way-back trip.

Let me recall an incident from 1980. My college, which was next door to a major seminary, had the custom of Eucharistic exposition on Wednesday nights. Exposition concluded with Night Prayer and Benediction.

It was October, a month Catholic traditionally dedicate to the Rosary. My senior class, therefore, decided we would gather to recite the Rosary prior to Night Prayer. We did this for two weeks when, suddenly, my classmate was taken to task by the rector, who told us we could not let the Rosary lead into Night Prayer and Benediction because (shades of Munsterman) we were “confusing our Christological mysteries with our Marian mysteries.”

I’ll admit that back then, this undergraduate found the logic of that position dumbfounding. It reminded me of a line in an old Honeymooners episode, when Ralph Kramden announces, in defense of his position (the superiority of men) that “there’d be no America without Christopher Columbus.” Alice soberly responded, “There’d be no Christopher Columbus without his mother.”

I would answer my rector’s theological misunderstanding today differently, thanks to a book I’ve just finished reviewing: Wilfrid Stinissen’s Bread That Is Broken. The Eucharist is the absolute extension of Jesus’ sacrifice and Jesus’ love. The Eucharist is what every Christian must strive in his actions to be. No one did that better than Mary. Far from being a confusion of our “Christological and Marian [and even sacramental] mysteries,” each mutually illumines and explains the others.

Pope St. John Paul II never tired of reaffirming that “Jesus fully reveals man to himself.” I have yet to see a full-throated development of the Marian flip side of that truth: Conceived without sin, true woman, Mary also “fully reveals man to himself.”

My point: The counterpoint of Christ and Mary is a false binary. Perhaps high pre-conciliar Mariology was prone to certain excesses, but what Munsterman et al. offer is a (dubiously) “post-conciliar” non-Mariology that is so low as to be practically imperceptible.

Munsterman accuses the bishops’ conferences planning national consecrations as running opposite to what the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy prescribes. Reading the relevant section (204) hardly bears out the charge.

“Consecration” is the heart of his problem. One might “entrust” himself to the Blessed Mother, but “consecration” properly understood is in permanent relation to God alone and related to Baptism and Confirmation:

“Liturgical theology and the consequent rigorous use of terminology would suggest reserving the term consecration for those self-offerings which have God as their object, and which are characterized by totality and perpetuity, which are guaranteed by the Church's intervention and have as their basis the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.”.

Now, the same text in the directory also admits that “consecration” to Mary is a term that has long existed in the Church’s popular piety, albeit “in a broad and non-technical sense.” It recognizes that this practice has a long pedigree, earned the “frequently expressed appreciation” of many popes, and that the most authoritative classical spiritual writer on consecration to Mary — St. Louis de Montfort — “‘proposed to the faithful consecration to Jesus through Mary, as an effective way of living out their baptismal commitment.’” The quote in the quote is from St. John Paul’s encyclical, Redemptoris Mater. Indeed, in the encyclical John Paul speaks of “consecration to Christ through the hands of Mary, as an effective means for Christians to live faithfully their baptismal commitments” (48). So much for the connections among Christ, Mary, and baptism Munsterman thinks are strained.

Perhaps there is a need more cleanly to delineate “consecration” strictu sensu from other forms of “entrustment.”  The directory, using the example of “‘consecrating children to Our Lady,’ by which is intended placing children under her protection and asking her maternal blessing ... for them,” concedes that “some suggest” using “‘entrustment’ or ‘gift’” as substitute terms. But that is hardly the full-throated requirement Munsterman suggests to be. With 300,000 dead from Coronavirus worldwide, “placing children [i.e., all of us, since we were all entrusted as sons of the Woman, John 19:26-27] under her protection and asking her maternal blessing for them” doesn’t sound like so bad or dangerous an idea.

One comes away from Munsterman’s prescriptions with a feeling of déjà vu: This demand for throwing the devotional baby out with the “pure” liturgical bathwater already had Act I back in 1970, when a “hermeneutic of quasi-disruption” governed the wholesale and enforced abandonment of traditional liturgical practices in the name of aggiornamento that, from a half-century perspective, seems in some ways as dated as a 1970s disco ball. Amazingly, while Munsterman invokes the directory, we should recall that both Vatican II’s Sacrosanctam Conciliam and the directory called for the renewal, not the abandonment, of popular devotions. They called for organic and continuous development, but the practical result of what is urged — back then and now — is a disruptive break.

For whom is this “consecration” “controversial?” Devotion to the Communion of Saints is a hallmark of Catholic piety that has a long tradition, reaching back to Christian antiquity. “Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” without the intercession of the Church Triumphant in heaven is very much a product of the individualist Reformation. Since we are urged to be “tolerant” of identity, well — this is our Catholic identity. Our identity will not be measured by somebody else’s theology.

Mary’s care for her children, especially those suffering and in need of assistance, is a long-established spiritual tradition, perhaps in our own times most preeminently at Lourdes.

But Munsterman mentions only Fatima, which he charges is overgrown by “maximalist interpretations” tainted by “apocalyptic overtones.” The sinful world that Our Lady of Fatima spoke of doesn’t seem to be far off the mark of our post-Christian world — including Munsterman’s Europe, gliding on the last gases of its Judeo-Christian heritage. Nor does “apocalyptic” seem exaggerated, considering that Fatima came in the last days of a worldwide conflagration called “the Great War” that only got denominated as “World War I” when the Second World War outdid its horrors (horrors whose end 75 years ago we mark this week) and by the various wars, plagues, and barbarisms that have since ensued amidst our glorious “end of history.” While conversion is an ever-demanded requirement of Christianity, I see no basis — especially in the middle of the COVID contagion — to suggest that message isn’t particularly apt sign for our times.

No, our world needs conversion, Jesus’ central message (Mark 1:14) and the central message of all modern Marian apparitions. Our atomized world of isolated individuals also needs the Communion of Saints, at whose pinnacle stands Mary, Regina Coeli. And our world needs to recover a sense of maternal care, even in the midst of suffering, that the Mater Dolorosa who is our exemplar of Christian life par excellence, understands.

No — the bishops are not “misguided” in consecrating their countries to Mary. They are long overdue.

All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.

Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Joseph Cordileone attends the mass and imposition of the Pallium upon the new metropolitan archbishops held by Pope Francis for the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

A New Era?

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has a profound understanding of what the U.S. bishops have called the preeminent issue of our time, and his stand is courageous.