Is the Queenship of Mary Relevant to Today’s Catholic?
The Queenship of Mary celebrates what God wants for all of us, realized most fully in Mary.
Aug. 22, but for the Sunday which this year takes precedence, is normally the Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pope Pius XII established this feast in his 1954 encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam. Originally observed on May 31 (Ad Caeli, 47), the 1969 reform of the Roman Calendar moved it to Aug. 22. Two reasons argued for the change: (1) as the octave day of the Assumption, it completes the glorious mysteries of Mary’s life; and (2) May 31 could then become the Feast of the Visitation, which makes sense before the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24).
The question is: What sense does the “Queenship” of Mary have for today’s Catholic? Some Mariologists (theologians who specialize in the Blessed Virgin) have suggested we downplay the title. “Today there is a notable reluctance to apply the title ‘queen’ to the Blessed Virgin. It is judged to belong to a bygone age. Some say it brings to mind more a Mariology of privileges than a Mariology of service.”
I say these arguments are simplistic at best, false at worst.
Our Lady was the recipient of great privileges precisely because she was the Lord’s servant. “The Almighty has done great things for me,” she sings in the Magnificat, precisely having looked down “with favor on his lowly servant.” Mary does not seek to be “lifted up.” Her elevation is God’s Work, not her own.
The Christian tradition has long recognized the regality of Mary: just read Ad Caeli Reginam to get a brief survey of how Mary’s Queenship has been acknowledged by the Church’s saints and in her spiritual life.
One wonders whether this artificial divide between “a Mariology of privileges” and “a Mariology of service” is less a matter of good theology and more a matter of bad philosophy. For at least three centuries, Western thought has been plagued by the baneful influence of Immanuel Kant, who wrongly branded any ethic that took account of one’s own interest as “heteronomous.” A “genuine” ethic, according to Kant, was one in which one disinterestedly pursued the good.
That is certainly not Christian thinking. “The good” is eternal union with God. In fact, it’s “the highest good.” At the same time, there is no abstract union with God. There’s only my union with God and your union with God and his or her union with God.
So the pursuit of what is objectively good and what is subjectively good are not opposed, as long as “the” good is a true good and pursued rightly, i.e., in proper order according to an objective hierarchy of good and value.
So the fact that Mary’s life is one of service led to her being the privileged handmaid of the Lord — privileged from the moment of her Immaculate Conception — are not two mutually exclusive things. That God rewards us with his Grace for our good works does not make the latter any less good. Indeed, it makes them more.
Mary followed God not because she would become a queen but because that is what the love of God entailed. At the same time, Mary does not follow God out of duty but out of love, which neither is nor should be “disinterested.”
Perhaps the problem of this title comes from our experience of queenship or royalty more generally. With nearly 70 years on the British throne, perhaps we associate “queen” with Elizabeth II. And since the modern experience of queenship is one of royal figurehead, maybe we imagine Our Lady as simply some privileged spiritual aristocrat. Worse, our “princess-happily-ever-after” stories might incline us to think the words of Evita in “High Flying, Adored:”
“Local girl makes good …
I was stuck in the right place at the perfect time
Filled a gap, I was lucky.”
Well, Mary is no figurehead. Her “queenship” does not exist in ritual roleplays, even less of obeisance to the local girl from Nazareth. Nor was she so much accidentally “stuck in the right place at the perfect time.” Her place in history was Providential, planned by God before she was even conceived, planned from the beginning of the world when he promised “a woman” (Genesis 3:15) who would crush the ancient serpent’s head.
The prominence the Church now gives to the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe might help illumine for us the Queenship of Mary.
Jesus’ “kingship” is grossly misunderstood throughout most of his life. That’s why, especially this year when we read the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly enjoining the beneficiaries of his healings and other good works to keep silent. The “Messianic Secret” is not a false sense of humility but an effort by Jesus to restrain premature attempts to explain who he is which threaten his ministry by reducing him to a worldly king, feeding the hungry and ensuring his pals get ringside seats at the apocalyptic fight of the eschaton.
Jesus’ kingship is only proclaimed fully after the Resurrection, when the true sense and meaning of that kingship is apparent. The greatness and magnitude of that kingship is such that the categories of political and temporal kingship simply crack because of their inadequacy.
Mary’s queenship is likewise only proclaimed after the Assumption, when the true sense and full meaning of that Queenship is apparent. The greatness and magnitude of her queenship as handmaid of the Lord is such that temporal regal categories are simply inadequate.
Which leads us to Mary’s queenship … and ours. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the Christian as participating in Jesus’ threefold office: like Christ, the Christian is called to be a priest, a prophet and a king.
But our kingship — like Jesus’ and Mary’s — has peculiarities the world’s criteria does not quite know how to handle. For one thing, Christian kingship is paradoxically extraordinarily democratic: all peoples are called to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart as God’s chosen possession …” (1 Peter 2:9). No one is excluded from God’s call unless he engages in self-exclusion.
For another thing, that kingship is not one of “lording it over” (Matthew 20:25) others but, above all, ruling one’s self. Because one can make one’s self a slave through sinning (John 8:34), so the self-dominion and self-mastery made possible by God’s grace is what Christian royalty means.
It is therefore fitting that he “who was without sin but made sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) should be celebrated by the Church on the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and she who was “conceived without sin” under the title of her queenship. While their primacy and supreme expression of that royal self-dominion was Jesus’ right and Mary’s privilege, both — as the new Adam and the new Eve — also show us the royal dignity to which we are called precisely through modeling their path totally embracing the Father.
That royal dignity also reminds us that noblesse oblige — and that our duty to bear witness to the Truth and the Good is not an expression of judgmentalism but an essential part of whom we as Christians are called to be, protecting our own royal dignity from the stain of sin while prophetically bearing witness to Truth and Goodness when it is under assault in the world today.
Far from being a feast that simply celebrates something about Mary and her “reward” for a life well-lived, the Queenship of Mary celebrates what God wants for all of us, realized most fully in Mary, and a model to which we, as “priests, prophets and kings” are called to aspire.