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Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture
By Jaroslav Pelikan.
Yale University Press, 267 pages, $25.

In 1938 a famous Jewish novelist had to flee his native Austria after its annexation by Nazi Germany. Because of his poor health the journey was slow going, and in 1940 he and his wife found themselves more or less trapped in a small town called Lourdes in Vichy France. Because the Petain government was scarcely less zealous in deporting Jews than were the Germans and Austrians, he desperately needed to get a safe-conduct pass before Vichy’s suspicious bureaucrats caught on to the real reason for the urgency of his flight.

While anxiously waiting for the slip of paper that would mean the difference between life and death, he began to read the records of the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes to a peasant girl of the area named Bernadette Soubirous. Intense and careful study convinced him of the authenticity of these apparitions with their attendant healing miracles; and so, in the very grotto where in 1858 Our Lady first revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception to fourteen-year-old Bernadette, he made a vow to the Blessed Virgin that if he and his wife escaped to America, he would write his next novel about the miracles and apparitions at Lourdes.

The novelist’s name was Franz Werfel, and the novel he wrote when he finally made it to America was the immensely successful Song of Bernadette, which he also helped to transform into the Academy Award-winning film of the same name.

Jaroslav Pelikan does not cite this story, but it is one of the few that go unmentioned in Mary Through the Centuries, a fascinating account of the intense popularity of, and the phenomenally varied devotion to, the woman whom her cousin Elizabeth called “the Mother of my Redeemer.” And for all who have taken Jesus for their Redeemer she has become their Mother as well. As Pelikan makes clear in his Introduction, the twentieth century has witnessed no diminution of her popularity. In fact, quite the contrary, as the runaway success of the Werfel novel proves, or––to cite just some of the evidence Pelikan adduces––the acclaim of Catholics the world over when Pius XII infallibly declared Mary to have been assumed body and soul into heaven, or the fact (which was new to me) that on May 13, 1946, 700,000 pilgrims, almost a tenth of the population of Portugal, gathered at Fatima in honor of Mary as Queen of Peace to thank her at the end of World War II.

Equally striking about Mary’s popularity and the intensity of the faithful’s devotion to her is how noticeably lay-driven it is. The novelist Emile Zola once sneered that this was due to the manipulative power of the clergy over the “invincible ignorance of the unenlightened masses,” but Pelikan rightly insists that this simply is not so. On the contrary, he says, official reaction at all levels has never been instantly enthusiastic, but has always insisted, at least in modern times, in approaching claims of Marian apparitions with rigor and caution.

And when that approval comes––only ten times by Pelikan’s count––it always has something almost reluctant and compelled about it. Ecclesiastical recognition is nearly always a later concession based on a groundswell of prior approval by the laity. It is peasants and humble people of low estate to whom Mary appears and who so readily take up her cause. It seems apt, since Mary was the one in salvation history who exalted her Lord precisely for “putting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting those of low degree.”

Nonetheless, and I say this despite the somewhat misleading subtitle, this book is not primarily about Mary’s relationship with the “culture,” and still less with the simple faithful who are Mary’s true devotees. Rather, it deals almost entirely, except for a paragraph at the end of each chapter on a painting or icon chosen as the frontispiece for that chapter, with her place and role in the development of doctrine. However, this book is far from being a technical theological treatise, and so it does to that extent deliver on its title’s promise, for it keeps its eye resolutely on the laity’s role in that development. Moreover, the author wears his learning lightly: each chapter reads like a fairly short, smoothly written magazine article, and only those readers who insist on looking up the endnote references will realize the staggering erudition that has gone into the writing of this book.

True to his stated purpose, Pelikan insists that Mary’s role has been crucial to the Church’s cultural mission, broadly defined. In one of the most remarkable passages of the book he says:

There is good reason to believe that neither the intellectual defense of Christian revelation by the apologetic enterprise in nineteenth-century Roman Catholic theology, including the revival of Thomistic philosophical apologetics, nor the political defense of the institutional church and its prerogatives against the anticlericalism of that time was as effective a campaign, particularly among the common people, as the one that the Virgin Mary waged. For it has been well said that “Rome is the head of the Church but Lourdes is its heart.”

That is a remarkable affirmation, coming as it does from America’s premier Lutheran historian of dogma. Indeed, the attentive reader can occasionally pick up a certain undertone of impatience with either a Protestant refusal to countenance a development of dogma regarding Mary (even among Protestant churches that generally have no difficulty with developments enshrined in the decrees of Nicea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon) or with a feminist reductionist criticism of Mary as the ideal of humility and obedience for women.

Regarding the first, Pelikan shows that every Marian dogma underwent the development it did because some other doctrine crucial to revelation was at stake, and this is true even of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which, Pelikan carefully explains, preserves Mary’s assent to the Incarnation as itself entirely the product of God’s grace and yet one which was––as his chapter on the Annunciation makes clear––of her own free will. He cites the early Church Father Irenaeus, who describes this paradox wonderfully: “Just as Eve was led astray by the word of an angel,...  so Mary by an angelic communication received the glad tidings that she would be the bearer of God.... And if the former disobeyed God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God.” The renowned conflict between grace and free will is best resolved here.

And regarding the second, it is this very juxtaposition of Eve and Mary that so often gets lost in feminist polemic against the portrayal of both Eve and Mary in the Bible, for Eve’s susceptibility to temptation was highlighted precisely to bring out Mary’s freedom to obey God––both engraced and yet calling upon all her active strength, as the few scenes of her in the Gospels during Jesus’ earthly ministry so amply show. In fact it is to the very chapter on the Annunciation, where Mary proclaims her “lowliness,” that Pelikan gives the title “Woman of Valor,” for he insists that her obedience was active and co-operative in every way.

In a recent interview the author averred that writing this book proved to be unusually demanding, and clearly it required of him the full panoply of his knowledge of world history, his unusual range of languages, his deep philosophical background––and, as he said, his faith. To judge by its gentle tone, the suavity of its style, and the grace of the writing it seems also to have called forth his love as well. Nietzsche, in a passage rarely quoted by his epigones, once said that “anything that constrains a man to love less than unconditionally has severed the roots of his strength: he will wither away, that is to say become dishonest. In producing this effect, history is the antithesis of art: and only if history can endure to be transformed into a work of art will it perhaps be able to preserve instincts or even evoke them.” Pelikan’s book is saturated in reproductions of art, many in full color. But its glory is that it itself is the work of art Nietzsche so praised in all honest history: history written in love.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.

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