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By Deacon Pete Velott
Most Catholics who have been educated in their faith from childhood grow up with a mature understanding of Mary, the mother of God. However, for those of us who began our education in the Catholic faith later in life, especially those who were actively involved in Protestant Christianity, our understanding of Mary and Marian devotions can be very limited.
I grew up in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. Most of the kids I ran around with were Catholic, but I was raised in a German culture where all children were expected to go to Sunday school even if their parents did not regularly attend church. It was thought that when we matured we would make a good decision as to which of the major Protestant churches we should be affiliated with.
As you might guess, in Sunday school I was taught that Catholics worshipped Mary and this was evil. On the other hand, my childhood Catholic peers whom I respected didn't appear to be evil in their love of God and they didn't appear to worship idols or Mary or anything of that kind. I thought that maybe my Sunday school teachers were meeting the wrong kind of Catholics and that I was lucky because the Hardin, Fisher, and Corcoran kids in my neighborhood were just great.
Years later when I studied to be in full communion with the Catholic Church, I became aware that I didn't have any spiritual understanding of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. When I heard my fellow Catholics refer to the Queen of Highways, Queen of Heaven, Queen of Peace, and so forth, I had to admit that these descriptions had little meaning for me.
When we are faced with issues of not understanding and therefore not being able to accept intellectually something about our faith, we have several routes we can take:
First, we can choose to ignore the issue and let it fester below the surface of our spiritual life.
Or we can choose to dismiss the teaching and say it is not important, sometimes referred to as being Kmart Catholics who just pick some things off the shelf of Catholic teachings and making them part of our faith while passing by other teachings and not buying them at all.
Or finally, we can continue to reflect on the teaching until we are able to understand it and accept into the way we live our lives.
In my early years as a Catholic, I chose to ignore the issue of Mary and let it fester under the surface of my spiritual life. Still, it became a constant point of irritation for me. The first thing that happened was my involvement with a religious order. Guess what that order was called: Yes, the Marians of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now it is rather difficult to ignore Mary as an aspect of your faith when you are involved with men who have dedicated their entire lives to the mystery of Mary Immaculate. If that wasn't enough, I took a job at a seminary preparing young men for the priesthood. By that time, I didn't have just a little festering under the surface of my spirituality, but a massive hole in my integrity as a Catholic.
One day, I took a walk after lunch and I decided to say a Rosary and reflect on the issue of Mary. Rather than use one of four mysteries the Church has set as appropriate for reflection on the Rosary, I chose to think of Scripture passages that described the life Mary lived as the mother of Jesus. These are the gospel citations I began to use that day and for weeks after:
1st decade — "...with that the angel left her..." (Lk 1:38). This citation led me to reflect on the faith and courage that Mary, as a little girl barely in her teens, likely had to cope with becoming pregnant before her marriage to Joseph. Awesome! It was one thing to believe while the angel was with her, but as the last words of the Annunciation state, she was left to do this on her own.
2nd decade — "...his mother meanwhile kept all these things in memory..." (Lk 2: 51). This quote brought home to me how much Mary had to accept about her Son that was beyond all human understanding. For example, the comments of Simeon and Anna in the temple; the acts of Herod and the flight into Egypt; the loss of Jesus in the temple as a youth and His response to her: "Didn't you know that I would be about my Father's business." There was so much that could not be understood that "... His mother meanwhile kept ... in her memory..."
3rd decade — "When his family heard of this they came to take charge of him saying, 'He is out of his mind'..." (Mk 3:21). This really describes how a family would react if one of their members were to leave his vocation one day, become an itinerant preacher taking on in a very forceful manner all the powers of the government and the church. Yet Mary, as a young widow, surrendered all of her fears, anguish, and doubts to the mercy of God and let her Son continue as He was called to do by His father. Again, as the young people like to say today, awesome!
4th decade — "Jesus said to his mother, 'Woman there is your son' ... in turn He said to the disciple, 'There is your mother'" (Jn 19:26). What mother today could go and see her son publicly humiliated and follow quietly to view His execution? It would be like sitting in the witness gallery and watching you[r] son given a lethal injection or his body writhing in pain as thousands of volts of electricity burn through his body. Then, just before the moment of death, the son expresses concern about her instead of himself and making sure that his friend is charged with the care of his mother.
5th decade — "From that hour onward, the disciple took her into his care" (Jn 19:27). Kathryn Emerick, an un-travelled, stigmatic mystic of the 19th century, had visions of the Virgin Mary on a peaceful mountaintop. Her visions were so precise that she even knew the latitude and longitude of this site, which turned out to be the top of a hill called Panaya Kapua about a day's walk outside the Roman city of Ephesus in what is today the country of Turkey. Later, a team went to that particular site and found the ruins of a small 1st century home. One tradition of what took place after the death and resurrection of Jesus is that John, in keeping with his Lord's directions took Mary with him to Ephesus where he went to evangelize. This story makes me marvel how God gifted her with time to reflect on and recognize the truth of the Word in her life. What a beautiful gift from God: time to reflect on the meaning of the Word in our lives.
By using these scriptures and the Rosary to reflect on the human aspects of Mary's life, over time I began to understand why the early Church fathers developed the devotions we now practice in the Church today. So you see, it is possible for one with a Protestant background to eventually understand the mystery of Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos — God bearer), and make her the queen of his spiritual life.
I offer these scriptural reflections for all who need to increase their knowledge and love for Mary.
Mary, full of grace, pray for us.
Deacon La Rue H. "Pete" Velott has served as director of deacons in the Dioceses of Las Cruces, N.M., and El Paso, Tex., and as assistant director of deacons in the Diocese of Scranton, Pa. He served in several diplomatic missions in the Middle East and retired as a senior foreign service officer in 1985. He was ordained a permanent deacon in September of that year by James Cardinal Hickey. He and his wife, Joan, live in Shippensburg, Pa.