Mark Shea's overwhelming impression of the importance of the place of Our Lady on his reception into the Catholic Church, by way of a 'no church background' childhood and an Evangelical young adulthood', was expressed in the words, 'Strangely and suspiciously tall'.
Mark P. Shea is an internationally-acclaimed American writer and speaker. In addition to contributing articles to many magazines (including National Catholic Register, Catholic Parent, This Rock and Crisis) he is the author of several books: By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor), This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers The Real Presence (Christendom Press), and Making Sense Out of Scripture (Basilica Press).
His latest work, a trilogy on Our Lady, titled Mary, Mother of the Son (Catholic Answers), was launched in Melbourne at the Cardinal Knox Centre on 4 February 2010.
Mr Shea, both in his books and in his talk at the launch, seemed to be addressing his former Evangelical brethren as his immediate audience. He was really directing his insights to those inside, or outside, the Church from an Evangelical background, and to the questions these people would be asking: Why is Our Lady seemingly as central to the Church as Christ? and Where is the Scriptural basis for her being accorded such status?
This does not make his treatment of Our Lady's place in the Church any less refreshing, clear and valuable for cradle Catholics, or Protestants for that matter, than for those of an Evangelical background.
Mr Shea's descriptions of Our Lady's place in Catholic life is amusing but accurate. When saying the Rosary we say ten Hail Marys to one Our Father - Our Lady must be important! Pictures of God putting a crown on Our Lady's head - Our Lady must be important! Hanging in the hall a picture of Our Lady with a sword through her heart - She is obviously a central character in a great drama!
So whereas Evangelical Protestantism is masculine in culture, centred on God in His power and might and majesty, the culture of Catholicism accords status to the feminine, with Our Lady a central figure. This, says Mark Shea, is linked to the 'incarnational' reality of the Catholic Church - the 'real presence' and the 'real authority' of the Church being centred in a man, a mere human being.
So, at the very outset, God became incarnate through Mary: 'Without Mary the Church would never have reached the world.' When he realised this Mark Shea realised that perhaps Catholics might be right in the emphasis they put on Mary. That Mary is not put up in opposition to Christ but rather it is through Mary to Christ.
That second obstacle Evangelicals find difficulty with is to find the basis for Marian devotion in the Scriptures. Mark Shea pointed out that Scripture has to be read and understood through the lens of apostolic tradition - that one needs to see the place of Our Lady in apostolic tradition rather than merely to look in the Scriptures to decide what, if anything, to make of her. So he turned to the four Marian doctrines.
The first point he made is that all the Marian doctrines are about Jesus. They do not promulgate idolatry or a cult at odds with Christian belief in our salvation through Jesus. Our Lady cannot be left out of the picture since she is central to it as God chose to be born of Mary to come into the world to save us. He could have done it some other way - but He didn't.
The declaration of Our Lady as the Mother of God, the Theotokos or God Bearer, at the Council of Ephesus, was to lay to rest the Nestorian heresy that Christ did not have a divine but only a human nature. This would mean that Mary was the mother of the man but not the mother of God. The declaration of Our Lady as the Theotokos was about Jesus, that He is God and man. In Mark Shea's words, 'The title Theotokos reveals the truth of our salvation through Christ - if He in His manhood is separate from God then He can't offer us to partake in the life of God because He doesn't do so Himself.'
On the perpetual virginity of Mary, Mark Shea asked if it was at odds with the doctrine that she is the mother of God. He said there is no evidence that she had any other children and that the claim from Scripture that some of the disciples were referred to as Jesus' 'brothers' is not conclusive as in Jewish culture at the time 'brother' had a fairly loose meaning.
As opposed to this he made the point that in Jewish culture the son had a serious moral duty to look after his widowed mother. At the foot of the cross Jesus gave the care of his mother, not to any of the four who are referred to at times as Jesus' 'brothers' but to John who had not been so referred to.
Mark Shea also referred to Mary's surprise when the angel Gabriel told her she would bear a child. She was betrothed to Joseph already so why would she be surprised that she might conceive a child with him - unless she had already taken a vow of perpetual virginity. So the Scriptures do evidence a 'psychological reality', as Mark Shea called it, for Mary's perpetual virginity.
He also referred to the linking of Mary to the 'Ark of the Covenant' in Church tradition - meaning that she carried within her that which embodied the new covenant between God and man, Jesus. Further, the angel also told Mary that the child she would conceive was 'the son of the most high' - and she would have told Joseph.
Mark Shea opined that this indicates what Joseph would have understood as his relationship with Mary; that it would not be physically consummated. Joseph knew what happened to anyone who touched the Ark of the Covenant without authority, even by accident!
The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is not a stunt. Doctrines are important. They are not just there for the sake of it - they are there as signs. The doctrine that Mary is the Mother of God is a sign of our salvation - that we too share in the divinity of Christ as He came into the world, in His incarnation through Mary to do just that.
Similarly the perpetual virginity of Mary is a sign - a sign that Jesus is the Messiah, a sign of her pure and total consecration to Christ and to the Church, an icon or image of the Church.
The Immaculate Conception, the sign of the sinlessness of Mary has been accepted by the Church, East and West, from the earliest times. Why is this doctrine important? Mark Shea's explanation is that in the 19th century a series of ideas arose (Schopenhaur, Marx) that sought to explain everything about man's existence at odds with Christian belief - that we come out of chaos, live by warfare and struggle and go on to oblivion at death.
The image of Our Lady, as the Immaculate Conception shows us, is a sign of what it is to be human as God wishes us to be. She is human but she is also perfect and full of grace, a reflection of the perfect life Christ offers us. We are not sinless as she is, but she is a sign that sin is not natural to us, and that we are intended to be as perfect as Our Lady is perfect.
The fourth Marian doctrine, the Assumption of Our Lady body and soul into Heaven, is evidenced in Revelations in the image of the woman with 12 stars around her head, giving birth to male child who will rule the world with an iron sceptre. Who else could it be but Mary?
Then, looking at tradition, in the fourth century we get the feast of the Dormition - so the tradition that Our Lady's body was assumed into Heaven and did not decay has been there from a very early date.
Further, the cult of relics was evident in the very early Church (e.g., St Polycarp in the second century). The faithful would obtain or search for relics of saints. But no relics of Our Lady are known or recorded. The belief of the Church from the earliest times that Our Lady was assumed bodily into Heaven would explain why there are no such relics.
Why is the doctrine of the Assumption important? Well it was declared in the middle of the 20th century, and was a commentary on, a sign of, our human dignity and our destiny in the midst of a world full of death without dignity; a world which seemed to have no hope of anything beyond the grave, in which man was just an animal to work, create during life in this world and then to go into oblivion.
The Christian belief is that man has an eternal destiny, that the body will be raised up and glorified and reunited with the soul and will live forever. After the greatest bloodbath in human history the Church reasserted this belief as a sign to a tormented world that this is the true destiny of man.
Mr Shea finished his talk by reminding the audience that the last gift Jesus gave us, and the greatest, was that of Mary as our mother. And He gave us this from the cross in the midst of His agony with a love beyond all telling.
Now that he has satisfied himself (and certainly this member of his audience) that indeed tradition and Scripture allow it, nay even enjoin it, may Mr Shea revel in the joy of devotion to Mary, Mother of God and his mother too.
Mark Shea's trilogy is titled Mary, Mother of the Son (Catholic Answers).
The individual books are titled:
* Modern Myths and Ancient Truths
* First Guardian of the Faith
* Miracles, Devotion and Motherhood
Freedom Publishing may be contacted regarding their availability.
Mrs Terri Kelleher practised as a solicitor for 15 years and has been active in the pro-life cause for 30 years. She has written numerous articles and produced materials for home-schooling.