Mother of Unity

ZANESVILLE, Ohio — In 1854, Pope Pius IX made a decision that changed Catholic-Protestant relations forever. Some thought his proclamation of the Immaculate Conception — the dogma that Mary was conceived without original sin — would cause a rift between Catholics and their separated brethren. For many, it has.

But for many Protestants, the way the Church defined Mary's immaculate conception made a difference — such a difference, in fact, that they became Catholic. Former Presbyterian minister Marcus Grodi still remembers his reaction to Mary shortly after he converted to the Catholic Church. “I had been a Catholic for about five months when I was invited to participate in a Marian procession,” said Grodi, president of the Coming Home Network and host of EWTN's “The Journey Home” television program. “They were carrying a Mary statue on a platform, and I thought, in some pagan country, this could look like we were carrying our goddess. If you don't understand what it's all about, it would seem pretty weird and could pose problems for unity.”

The Marian procession struck at the heart of Grodi's Protestant misconceptions about what Catholics believe about Mary. Often seen as a sign of division between Catholics and Protestants, Mary is increasingly becoming a sign of unity.

“Mary can be a sign of unity for all Christians by studying her life and impact together,” said Dwight Longenecker, a former Protestant and author of Mary: A Catholic Evangelical Debate. “Mary can be the starting point for a discussion on the Incarnation which can be fruitful and illuminate the things we do share. Remembering that unity is not conformity, we can acknowledge shared hopes and beliefs while still being quite clear on our differences, and Mary can be a catalyst for these discussions.”

Among those differences is the Catholic doctrine of Mary's immaculate conception.

Many Protestants have difficulty with this teaching because it is not explicitly found in Scripture. Neither is the Trinity, say many Catholic apologists.

“The Immaculate Conception, while not explicitly set forth in Scripture, is nonetheless a biblical teaching,” said Leon Suprenant Jr., president of the Steubenville, Ohio-based Catholics United for the Faith. “The first promise of a redeemer in Genesis 3 contains a reference to the enmity, or complete opposition, between the redeemer's mother and Satan.”

Furthermore, Suprenant points out that when Mary conceives of the Holy Spirit, she is greeted by the angel as already being “full of grace,” even though Christ has not yet died on the cross for sinners. “All generations call Mary ‘blessed’ [Luke 1:48] not because of her own merit, but because the Lord had done great things to her, including preparing her as the immaculate vessel by which he would enter the world,” Suprenant said.

Suprenant emphasized that “this teaching should not be understood as a point of conflict with Protestants so much as a further basis for recognizing them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

“Of all the people I've interviewed, the No. 1 barrier that slows them down is Mary,” Grodi said. Grodi has worked with nearly 1,000 Protestant ministers and has interviewed more than 400 on his television program. “The No. 1 issue that draws them is authority. Once many of them accept the issue of authority, it gets them over the speed bump of Mary.”

Still, issues with Mary often remain.

“It always lingers,” Grodi said. “The immediate underlying issue is not the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or her Assumption, but the fact that she creeps into one's prayer life. When converts are used to praying only to God, Mary remains a barrier because of their misunderstanding on the communion of saints.”

Kenneth Howell, a Presbyterian convert to Catholicism, agreed.

“Mary played little or no role for me with my Calvinist background,” said Howell, who serves as director of the Newman Institute of Catholic Thought at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. “Yet the more I came to understand the biblical foundations for Catholic doctrines, the more I became open to seeing her as a vital part of my spiritual life.”

After his conversion, in June 1996, Howell remembered that becoming Catholic meant having a close relationship with the Mother of God.

“I said, ‘Lord, help me to love your mother the way that you do,’” Howell said.

Over the next several months, Howell's prayer life became more Marian.

“I felt the need for the inter-cession of the saints, but wasn't sure how to do that. As I began to pray more and include Mary in my prayers, I noticed that my love for Christ was growing,” Howell said. “We go to Jesus the way that he came to us — through Mary.”

He also recalled the first time he prayed the rosary.

“I told God, ‘If I'm doing something wrong here, please forgive me,’” Howell said. “I had all the natural Protestant fears of honoring Mary too much.”

Mary also often plays a role in bringing lost Catholics back home.

Catholic attorney Larry Behr flirted with agnosticism, Buddhism and atheism during his college years. After returning to Christ at the age of 21, he rediscovered Mary through a confrontation with a sinful man in a bar.

“The man told me that his best friend was Mary,” Behr said. “I was struck by the fact that Mary had been caring for him despite his sinfulness.”

Behr immediately set out to read more about Mary.

“Mary brought me into the Church,” said Behr, who is now working to erect the Arch of Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary — the world's tallest monument as a tribute to Mary and a call to conversion — in Buffalo, N.Y. “I'm appreciative of her power to draw people to the Church. That is who she is in God's plan of salvation. She is our mother, and the mother is the unifying force in any family.”

Misconceptions and prejudice lay at the heart of many Protestants' feelings toward Mary.

“Many of our separated brethren don't even know that the Reformers had a devotion to Mary,” Grodi said. For example, even after his break with the Church, Martin Luther continued to describe Mary as the Mother of God. Some Protestants are rediscovering that.

Embracing Mary

In recent years, an increasing number of Protestant scholars and laypeople have become more open to examining Mary and her role in salvation history. Last year, Mary graced the covers of the Methodist publication Good News, the magazine Christianity Today and The Lutheran, the official publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Some are even finding a place for Mary in their devotional life.

The British-based Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been bringing Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox together for more than 30 years to focus on the role of Mary. Founded by Catholic layman Martin Gillett, the international society exists to advance the study of the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Church and promote ecumenical devotion.

Swedish Lutheran emeritus bishop Martin Lönnebo developed a Lutheran “rosary” called the “Wreath of Christ.” Created with a set of 18 beads or pearls, the wreath is meant for silent meditation upon the life of Christ from Bethlehem to the resurrection.

Former Anglican Longenecker said the rosary is something Protestants are willing to share if it is used to penetrate the love and mystery of the Gospels.

“Their prayer lives are lacking in the area of meditation and contemplation,” he said. “This is an easy and scriptural way for them.”

Grodi noted that Pope John Paul II often references Mary in his documents on ecumenism.

“The Holy Father's lead has called us to see Mary as the key way to bring people together,” Grodi said.

“Mary's consent was the human cooperation of God's plan of salvation,” Howell said. “In her saying, ‘Let it be done unto me,’ she was uniting heaven and earth by allowing the Son of God to be a part of her life. She was uniting her humanity with Christ's divinity. In that, she becomes a sign of unity. That is true whether people recognize it or not.”

Tim Drake is the author of Young and Catholic:

The Face of Tomorrow's Church.