On Saturday 1 December 2007, in St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, Archbishop Denis Hart and Bishop Peter Elliott together with many priests concelebrated a Healing Mass to venerate Mary as Our Lady of Lourdes. The event was sponsored by the Knights of Malta and the cathedral was crowded for the celebration.
Some were burdened with illnesses and infirmities of one kind or another. Plainly for many active Catholics in Melbourne, devotion to Our Lady has neither waned nor died.
However, in the wake of Vatican II (1962-65) public devotion to Mary, Mother of God, declined - or, at the very least, became less conspicuous in the life of the Western Church for the next thirty years.
Statues of Our Lady disappeared from some churches; communal recitation of the Rosary, First Saturday devotions and novenas in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary vanished. Special May and October prayers became much rarer than previously; while devotions associated with the Brown Scapular and Miraculous Medal were rarely, if ever, mentioned.
The relative disappearance of Mary from public view was, some said, 'consistent with the intentions of Vatican II'â which declined to issue a separate document on Our Lady and instead treated her role in Salvation History in a chapter on the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, 1964)
Yet the Council said nothing to encourage the eclipse of veneration to Our Lady which occurred in its name.
What does the Constitution actually say about devotion to the Virgin Mary? 'Mary has by grace been exalted above all angels and men to a place second only to her Son, as the most holy Mother of God who was involved in the mysteries of Christ; she is honoured correctly by a special cult in the Church' (No. 66).
If what the Council Fathers had in mind was merely private devotion to Mary they chose their words oddly. The Council 'reminded all members of the Church that the cult, especially the liturgical cult, of the Blessed Virgin, be generously fostered, and that the practices and exercises of devotion towards her recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries be highly esteemed' (N. 67).
It is true that the Bishops asked certain extreme Marian devotees to be prudent. Pastors were asked to 'refrain ... from all false exaggeration'. However, the Council did not reduce Mary's public, visible role in the Church. This reduction occurred for other reasons like the following:
* The general secularisation of society encouraged many Catholics to concentrate their efforts in good works for the little, the less, the least, the lost and the marginalised in society. These efforts the mainstream secular society could understand, endorse and applaud.
* Exciting initiatives in liturgical renewal and the Biblical revival consumed the energies of many active Catholics.
* Vatican II's ecumenical thrust distracted more committed Catholics from devotions which might prove a stumbling block to other Christians.
* Some considered Marian devotions unsuitable for educated, sophisticated, urban Catholics in the post- industrial age.
However, there were other Catholics for whom veneration of Our Lady remained vital. Marian societies on the fringe of the Church fostered devotion while ant-like hordes of Christians made pilgrimages to honour Mary at major religious centres such as Fatima, Lourdes and Medjugorje.
More importantly, Mary herself did not remain distant, obscure or hidden. She has been appearing with unprecedented frequency in a wave of apparitions since the 19th century urging her people to remain focussed on the eternal realities.
The overall content of her messages remains the same:
* The time for conversion and repentance is short.
* The earth is soon to pass away.
* We must pray and do penance.
* God's call can come at any time.
* Ultimately, sin is the only evil.
* Human disasters are the results of sin and act as punishments and wake-up calls to repent.
However, as the years pass, Mary's tone is increasingly urgent, distraught or exasperated. Some apparitions have an apocalyptic dimension; others cut close to the bone.
In Our Lady's apparitions there is not the slightest mention of the soft-Left political issues which distract the minds of many educated Catholics; not the slightest suggestion that the Church's moral teachings require revision; nor any hint that suitably-qualified women should become priests.
Meanwhile within many Catholic schools the endless concentration on comparative religion and political- moral issues like climate change, the state of the environment and the treatment of minorities is short- changing young Catholics and directing them away from the essentials.
One does not wake up in heaven wondering how on earth we got there.
Br Barry Coldrey is an experienced secondary school teacher and author.