In our quest to deepen our understanding of our Catholic faith, we very often look at books and the written thought of current authors on religious subjects; now, there is nothing at all wrong with this and these authors often add something greatly beneficial to our understanding. Theology is a discipline which is constnatly growing, evolving, deepening – and that is as it should be, for the passage of time always reveals new insights and new ways of looking at things both new and old.
However, there is another body of work, one which I think we often overlook or pay insufficient attention to – and at the same time, one we should be paying particular attention to as it comes with a heavenly gurantee of truhfulness and inerrancy. That body of work is the written teaching of the Holy Fathers in any age. The Popes write, with deep wisdom and insight, on a great variety of subjects – and often, they write many times on particular subjects. Pope Leo XIII, for example, wrote numerous documents on the holy Rosary.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, Pope Paul VI wrote two extraordinary Apostolic Exhortations on the Blessed Virgin Mary; ‘Signum Magnum’ (The Great Sign) in May 1967, and ‘Marialis Cultus’ (Devotion to Mary) in February 1974. This latter document, in particular, was intended to look at “the right ordering and development of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary” and so to ensure that our devotion to the Mother of God is both authentic and in line with the teachings and perspective of the Church. Marian devotion is not, unfortunately, always in line with the mind of the Church and so is not always authentic – and at such times, this can lead to great misunderstandings and errors arising. This in turn can greatly damage the devotion of individuals and their broader faith in the Lord, as well as leaving room for far broader errors to arise.
These two particular documents followed on from ‘Lumen Gentium’, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, one of the four great teaching documents (signified by their rank as ‘Constitutions’) which came from the Second Vatican Council. The eighth chapter of this Constituion focussed itself on Marian devotion as proposed and set out very clearly by the Church, so that our devotion to the Blessed Virgin would have a sure and strong foundation, and always in true accord with the spirit and mind of the Catholic Church.
Writing on the feast of the Annunciation in 1987, Pope John Paul II published his encyclical ‘Redemptoris Mater’ (Mother of the Redeemer), subtitled ‘on the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the pilgrim Church’. Setting out his reasons for writing the document, the Holy Father wrote –
“Shortly after the Council, my great predecessor Paul VI decided to speak further of the Blessed Virgin.. in the Apostolic Exhortations Signum Magnum and Marialis Cultus he expounded the foundations and criteria of the special veneration which the Mother of Christ receives in the Church, as well as the various forms of Marian devotion- liturgical, popular and private-which respond to the spirit of faith. The circumstance which now moves me to take up this subject once more is the prospect of the year 2000, now drawing near, in which the Bimillennial Jubilee of the birth of Jesus Christ at the same time directs our gaze towards His Mother.” (para.2-3)
And so ‘Redemptoris Mater’ is very much a document intended for the age in which we presently find ourselves living, both in the Church and in the wider world.
The Holy Father begins by looking at Mary in the mystery of Christ, before moving on to the Mother of God at the centre of the pilgrim Church and finally an exposition of Her maternal mediation. To end, he draws some conclusions from all that he has written.
It is a fairly short document and the language is both beautiful and easily understandable. It offers much for all of us to consider, all of it spoken with the voice of the Lord’s own Shepherd upon earth, so ther eis no concern over it’s content or authenticity.
The links above to the four documents referenced in this piece all lead to the official English translations found on the Vatican website. It doesn’t take long to read these works, and it may be that in looking at them, you find within them nourishment for your soul, for your life of faith and as an aid in deepening and grounding your devotion to the Mother of God.