Every year I go on pilgrimage to Lourdes with a group of university students from London. This is the town in the south of France where the Virgin Mary appeared to a young woman called Bernadette in the nineteenth century.
When I’m sitting near the river, where the visions took place, there is such a powerful sense of the presence of the Virgin Mary. I can’t explain it, but I can’t deny it either. I know that Mary is in heaven with her son Jesus, but there is a sense that this place is important to her, and that she comes close to those who love her and to those who love her son.
The only reason I trust these experiences is because they fit with the Catholic understanding of who Mary is. In this understanding, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, and the Church gives her the title “Mother of God”, because her son Jesus is true God and true man.
From the beginning of her life, she had a purity and a holiness that was unknown since the Garden of Eden. She was completely open to God. When she was still a virgin, Jesus was conceived in her womb, not through sexual intercourse, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. She brought Jesus into the world and cared for him with the support of her husband St Joseph.
Mary stood by Jesus in his darkest moments, and offered her life in union with him on the Cross. She rejoiced in his Resurrection and became a spiritual mother to his disciples. At the end of her life she was taken up into heaven, body and soul, to be with her son and to reign as Queen of Heaven.
These are some of the key teachings about Mary, which Catholics share with many other Christians.
A few years ago I was speaking at a college in west London. In the Q&A session, there was a question about the Virgin Mary from a student who went to a Protestant church nearby. She asked: “What does the Catholic Church teach about Mary and where does it say all this in the Bible?!” I started to think of all the biblical passages I could quote. But after a long pause I shared a single thought without using any quotes. I said: “Everything that Jesus has done for us depends on what Mary has done.” If you understand this, you will understand Catholic teaching about Mary.
The more you appreciate the Saviour, the more you will appreciate the woman who gave him to us. The whole biblical story of salvation in Christ depends on Mary’s story. This is the staggering truth at the heart of the Bible: that God asks Mary to co-operate with him by becoming the mother of his Son. There would be no Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost, without the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel comes to greet Mary at her home in Nazareth.
At the Annunciation, Mary stands before God on behalf of the whole of humanity. And when she says Yes, she allows the work of our salvation to be fulfilled. Christ came into our world because she welcomed him into her womb.
Why is Mary still so important for us today? Because what was true in history is true today. She is still the Mother of Jesus Christ; still – for that reason – the Mother of God; and still the Mother of the Church. Hence her title “Our Lady”.
Mary is a spiritual mother to everyone who loves her son. If we belong to Christ, then his mother becomes our mother too. She loves us and cares for us. We are her dear children. Her maternal love is one of the greatest gifts God has given us.
We can turn to her for help and consolation. We can talk to her and ask her to pray for us. Her prayers are more powerful than those of the other saints and of the angels.
Devotion to Mary does not get in the way of faith in Jesus Christ. It deepens that faith and helps it come to fulfilment. The focus is always on Jesus.
I pray that you discover the personal love that Christ has for you, and the personal love that his mother Mary has for you as well.
English Catholics have always had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. For many centuries they have come to honour her in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk: to pray to her, and especially to remember the joy she experienced when the Angel Gabriel came to greet her.
There is a famous medieval painting called the Wilton Diptych. Mary is holding the child Jesus, surrounded by angels. Jesus leans forward to receive a flag that bears the cross of St George, given to him by King Richard II. It symbolises the king entrusting his country to the prayers of Our Lady and expresses the special connection that Catholics in this land have felt with her for many centuries. England was given the title “Our Lady’s Dowry” because in medieval English a dowry is a gift that can never be taken away.
Let me finish with the best known prayer to Mary, the Hail Mary, which begins with the words addressed to her by the Angel. You can listen to the words as I speak, and if they find an echo in your heart, then you can make them your own too:
Hail, Mary; full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Questions for reflection
If you think about heaven, how do you imagine it to be?
What does the Virgin Mary mean to you personally? How do you relate to her? What has helped you get to know her?
What questions do you have about devotion to Mary?
What practical things could help you grow in your Christian faith at this stage in your life? What resolutions or steps could you take?
This blog is extracted from SYCAMORE: The Catholic Faith Explained.In SYCAMORE you will find answers to the most common questions about life and faith, whether you want to deepen the faith you already have or are exploring the faith for the first time.
To learn more about the Catholic faith in an approachable way, or for help passing it on to others, get your copy of SYCAMORE today.