I received a letter recently urging me to promote the Rosary as an ecumenical prayer. The idea was to encourage Catholics to invite non-Catholics to their homes to pray the Rosary together. The point was made that the prayers were mainly from Holy Scripture and therefore ecumenically acceptable, and that Mary herself could be a focus of unity among Christians.
The idea is a commendable one, but I wonder how far it will get. I remembered an incident five years ago when a Catholic charismatic prayer group opened its arms to other Christians. One night the group leader turned Our Lady's picture to the wall so as not to offend the Protestants. It led to a walkout by the Catholics and the complete transformation of the group.
Mary was certainly not seen there as a focus of unity.
Of course, she could be, but it will take time.
In recent years devotion to Mary has made a comeback. Some commentators have noted this phenomenon with regret, seeing it as a retrograde step. I welcome it. It may at times be associated with an over reliance on private and sometimes quite bizarre revelations but on the whole it represents a healthy return to one of the longest and most significant traditions of our Faith.
Devotion to Mary does not detract from the honour due to Jesus Christ our Saviour. It nourishes it and leads us to a deeper and more personal awareness of the continuing presence of Jesus in the Church and in our lives.
Any attempt to find ecumenical ground about Mary will necessarily have to be biblically based.
In that context it is useful to point to a remarkable event, the coming down of the Holy Spirit on Mary, a woman. The Spirit which rested on chosen figures in the Old Testament descended on Mary at the Annunciation. Her unique role and greatness were at that time proclaimed, for all time. Mary is linked irrevocably to the Messiah in this event, not only because she was the mother of the Messiah, but that her motherhood occurred through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is difficult to see how her uniqueness could ever be denied by Christians who base their faith on the Bible. The Annunciation of Mary has the potential to bring Christians together in faith.
Early Christian tradition saw Mary as the new Eve, just as Paul described Jesus as the new Adam. Her link with the Messiah was extended in the parallel between Mary and Eve. Whereas in Eve's disobedience evil took possession, so in Mary's obedience original evil was, through her Son, reversed and overcome.
It is perhaps in the title "Theotokos" proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus (431), that we find the origins of the current devotion to Mary and the cluster of liturgical feasts in her honour.
As "Mother of God" her special powers of intercession were acknowledged and taken to heart by ordinary people among whom devotion to her flowered.
Despite admitted exaggerations, devotion to Mary goes deep in the prayer life of the rank and file Catholics who have no difficulty accepting that Mary can pray for them. It does not take from Jesus. It is an acknowledgement of the Communion of Saints and of Our Lady's special place among the saints.
In some circles devotion to Mary is discouraged, even, sadly, ridiculed. To some, Mary is too docile, too other-worldly to be a satisfactory model for modern women. Maybe her strength in exile, her ability to "make the hard decisions," her fortitude at the Cross when the Apostles took flight, could correct this image of docility, offering a more realistic and biblical picture of a strong but gentle woman.
Mary is a powerful model for women as she is also, in these very same qualities, for men.
The Feast of the Annunciation is not just a feast of Mary. It is a reminder to us all that the Saviour, God's own Son, took flesh and dwelt amongst us.
The ecumenical role of Mary is elusive but it is certainly possible to develop it further. Her greatness was biblically based, perhaps more at the Annunciation than anywhere else.
Bible Christians may well find that their understanding of the Catholic position on Mary is a distortion of the truth and come to discover that she unites rather than divides.
The unity we all seek among followers of Christ may come one day, but it will not be achieved while certain Christian groups move further and further away from biblical truth and from the wisdom of the ages on matters of belief and morals. May Mary's faith and witness lead us to follow her Son more closely, as he is "the way, the truth and the life."
Her message at Cana was simple and straightforward: "Do whatever he tells you" (John, 25).
March is the month of the Annunciation. The Most Rev Barry J. Hickey, Archbishop of Perth W.A.), has written this article specially for 'AD2000'.