The Season of Advent could quite rightly be understood as the season of Mary. The Christian community prepares for Christmas and waits with Mary for the birth of her firstborn son. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the Church places two great Marian feasts during this time of hope and expectation: the celebration of her Immaculate Conception and the veneration of her apparition in Guadalupe, Mexico in 1531. While the Church has always venerated Mary, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a particular increase in the devotion to her cult and in Mariology more generally.
In a theologically rigorous essay from the collection Mary: The Church at the Source, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger provides some “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine and Piety in Faith and Theology as a Whole.” He begins his reflections with a brief history of the development of Marian devotion in the years between the end of World War I and the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger describes two charismatic movements that characterized the Catholic Church during this period: one Marian and the other liturgical.
The growing interest in Mariology and veneration of the Blessed Mother took its inspiration from the Middle Ages and responded directly to modern developments both cultural and political. Such devotion gained increasing prominence in Catholic circles not least because of the apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima.
The liturgical movement, by contrast, responded to the growing interest in historical research (interestingly, Ratzinger notes that it devolved into historicism). The attention to the reform of the liturgy privileged the study of Scripture and the era of the Early Church, especially the writings of the Church Fathers. It also subsumed to itself the burgeoning attention to matters of ecumenism and biblical interpretation. At the Council, the Marian element was made subservient (Ratzinger’s term is ‘integrated’) to a broader ecclesiology in a contentious vote, signaling the triumph of the movement for liturgical renewal and reform, as can be seen in the incorporation of Mariology in chapter 8 of the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, coming after the broader treatment of the Church’s ecclesiology.
Ratzinger takes issue with what he believes to be the all-too-common interpretation, and by implication the implementation, of this doctrine in the years following the Council. He argues persuasively for a more nuanced understanding of Mariology, one that does not relegate the Mother of God, and therefore the Church, to being a static symbol of ecclesiastical structures.
Such a conception can often overlook or diminish her fundamental Scriptural role as Christ’s first and most faithful disciple and intercessor.
Indeed, Ratzinger identifies three characteristics that constitute a proper understanding of Mary and Mariology. Such an understanding must emphasize the personal nature of both discipleship and the Church itself, transcending any and all categorizations of such entities as static, staid, or lifeless. Following from this, it must needs be incarnational. Because she is the Mother of God, her maternity and her womanhood cannot be ignored, and this fact must receive due attention in the Church’s self-understanding. Finally, Marian piety is affective. Mary believes in and loves her son dearly, even following him to the aftermath of the Cross itself, which is so movingly rendered in depictions known as the pietá.
Mary’s love is neither idle nor simplistically emotive according to the way in which love is so vulgarly understood in contemporary culture. It is a love that will and does embrace suffering for the sake of the beloved. At the beginning of the Gospel, Mary learns that her child, and she herself, will suffer. This does not dissuade her from the course that she has said Yes to, and unlike many of the disciples, she does not abandon her son in the hour of his greatest need. As great as the models given by those who belong to the communion of saints for Christian discipleship are, it is Mary herself who is the model par excellence for the Christian life and discipleship, and for which reason she can be identified with the Church as the Body of Christ.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Catholic Church finds itself in a precarious position beset by a never-ending scandal involving those who were thought to be its most zealous, committed members, and the ennui towards religion that characterizes much of postwar Western society. Much like at the beginning of the last century, a renewed devotion to Mary may prove essential to revitalizing and renewing Christian practice and belief in much of the West. As Ratzinger notes in his essay, to renew adherence to Marian doctrines and themes is in a certain sense to look to the Middle Ages for inspiration.
Two great medieval writers immediately come to mind when considering Mary: the monastic Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Scholastic theologian John Duns Scotus who gave a spirited and rigorous exposition and defense for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Devotion to Mary, however, permeated medieval society far beyond the monastic cell and the theological classroom. In order to get a fuller grasp of a medieval view of Mary, it is instructive to look at a fourteenth-century text, Satan’s Trial of Humanity, that was written to help students in legal studies.
Because it was meant to help students learn legal procedure this text concerns a trial. But it is not just any trial. It was the trial of history itself, in which nothing less than the salvation of humanity was at stake. The devil, Satan, had submitted a brief demanding the restitution of his rights. The details of the case were straightforward. God had given dominion over the human race to the devil following the fall of Adam and Eve. Indeed, it was the devil’s special prerogative to punish humanity on account of its sin. After all, “the wages of sin is death.”(Rom 6:23). Yet, once Christ had redeemed the human race by means of his Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection, the devil could no longer exercise this jurisdiction as he had before. He felt, understandably in a certain sense, that his rights had been impinged unfairly. Indeed, in his opinion he had been deceived by the Second Person of the Trinity assuming human flesh, so that he had unwittingly undone his own dominion by working to kill what he took to be the hapless Jesus of Nazareth. To his mind, this was unjust, and he demanded that the court recognize and restore his rights.
Unfortunately for the devil, the judge for his case was none other than the very person who had accomplished humanity’s redemption: Christ himself, the supreme Judge and Ruler of all. One can sympathize with the devil’s belief that this arrangement was less than ideal. Could he be sure that he would receive a fair and just judgement from a judge who in no small way was a party in the case and whose unbiased consideration of the matter before the court could not exactly be assured? Of course, Christ could not recuse himself, because there was not a more qualified judge inside or outside of creation. Unfortunately, for the devil, this was only one of the issues with the procedure of the trial with which he would have to contend.
To have a proper trial in the Middle Ages it was not enough to have a judge and a plaintiff; there also needed to be a defendant or in lieu of him or her a counsel for the defense. Indeed, Bartolo of Sassoferrato, a fourteenth-century professor of law, penned this version of Satan’s Trial of Humanity to teach his law students about proper legal procedure. The pedagogical nature of the text demanded that this trial have all of the required parts and that correct legal procedure be followed. Thus, there needed to be a defendant to stand and reply to the charges of the devil. But who could it be? All of humanity was implicated in the devil’s complaint, but, of course, all of them could not rise to their own defense nor would such an arrangement be tolerated in a correctly functioning court of law. There needed to be a counselor or an advocate to plead on behalf of the human race. Only one person fit that criteria: the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The devil was incensed. It was bad enough that he could not be sure that the judge was unbiased. With this development it seemed that there would be no way to assure him a fair, let alone a favorable, verdict. The devil had some solid reasons for his outrage. First and foremost, she is the mother of the judge! How could he hope to persuade the judge with the Mother of God pleading to her son that he should spare humanity? Indeed, at one point in the proceedings, Mary attempts to influence her son with some courtroom theatrics that would make Perry Mason blush when she exposes her breasts to the judge. Secondly, she is a woman, and therefore, barred by custom and law from performing such a function in court. Mary responds to these objections in full accordance with the legal conventions of the time and argues before the court that she, notwithstanding the fact that she is a woman, is allowed by statute to stand and plead at the bar.
Mary’s defense of her right to be the advocate for the human race rests on two principles. First, she is implicated in the charge. As a human being, even one without sin, it is her right and prerogative to defend herself against what she believes to be the unjust accusation of the devil. It was accepted in medieval jurisprudence that anyone, regardless of gender, could respond in court to an accusation (normally, this would be done by a man, often a relative, in the woman’s place, but not always). Second, she is a key party in the action under scrutiny. As the Mother of Christ, she is as much to blame for the devil losing his dominion over the human race as her son is, in a certain sense. Since no other male member of the family is as suited as she is to the role of advocate (an interesting commentary on the medieval view of Joseph), the law allows her to stand and argue in defense of herself and her fellows. In this way, Mary takes on the double role of both advocata and redemptrix, relieving the judge of his essential role as the Redeemer of humanity, the very thing that distinguishes Christ as Christ, so that he can exercise the role that he has assumed since his Ascension, Judge. As one can easily imagine, she successfully defends humanity against the charge of the devil and wins the case.
In this piece, Mary quite literally takes on the role for which she is so well known from the great hymn Salve Regina: our advocate. She pleads before her son to spare the human race and to act with mercy and compassion for fallen humanity. She reminds him that he is their Savior. In this way, Mary becomes not only the perfect example of Christian discipleship, and but also the originator of, and model for, all religious vocations. Like Mary, priests and religious, an increase of which is so needed in these days, offers their prayers, and indeed their lives, for the salvation of all.
Mary’s life evinces not only the way in which a disciple of Christ should follow him but also illuminates those things that are so important to fostering such a life. It is a great temptation to think of a religious vocation as a thing in isolation, a private affair between a person and God, and one that requires some kind of moment of profound grace, interior feeling, or inspiration. Indeed, Mary had perhaps the most profound and dramatic experience in this regard: the visitation of an angel announcing to her that she would give birth to the Son of God. And yet, one wonders how prepared she would have been to say “Fiat” in that moment if she had not had such a family and community that supported and confirmed her in her devotion and belief.
Beyond the fact that she was immaculately conceived as a necessary precondition to bearing the Incarnate Word, it was also essential that she have parents like Joachim and Anna who did not think that religious faith and submission to the will of God was something odd or only for a certain kind of fanatic. One wonders if part of the reason for such a paucity of vocations in Europe and the Western Hemisphere is in no small way because of the general sense that a religious vocation is inherently odd and is not held even by a majority in the Christian community as a normal, let alone an exemplary, form of life.
The exemplary role of Mary and her indispensable role in the fostering of vocations is perhaps most evident in the office of priest. As much as the priest imitates Christ, especially as he performs the liturgical action in persona Christi, so too he follows the example of the Blessed Virgin. In both his personal prayer and above all in the sacrifice of the Mass, the priest intercedes at the foot of the Cross for the needs of the faithful and the relaxation of divine judgment for their sins. In a sense, he also gives birth to Christ in the Eucharist, and although thankfully the transubstantiation of the species of bread and wine occurs without any merit on the part of the priest, as Augustine made clear so long ago, it cannot be denied that the priest plays an essential role. Finally, it is in the faithfulness to the teachings of Christ and his bride the Church, by which the priest, and all of the faithful, most show their imitation of Mary who never doubted in the salvific work of her son, who did not disappear when trouble came, and who stood heartbroken at the foot of the Cross.
The opposite of these traits has been all too frequently present in the Church, especially among her leaders, since the middle of the twentieth century. Rather than attend to the spiritual needs of the faithful and their formation in religious teaching, too many of those who have been charged with the care of souls demonstrated the depths of their despairing faithlessness by their indulgence for destructive sexual appetites among the clergy and religious, and a myopic concern for avoiding scandal rather than adhering to the demands of justice.
The way out of this situation is through a renewal of devotion, naturally among the faithful, but more acutely in the lives of young men and women who are willing to live their lives radically following Christ under the example of Mary their Mother by saying “Fiat” to the service of the faithful and the Church in religious vocation. If this kind of renewal is not fostered by the entire community of believers, if the faithful continue to neglect their discipleship under the inspiration of Mary and the saints, then the devil will continue to claim his due.
Editorial Statement: This reflection continues a series that accompanied the McGrath Institute’s conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of Introduction to Christianity. Posts on Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI will continue to be collected here as they are published.
Featured Image: Historiated Initial With The Virgin Mary Striking The Devil, in ‘The De Brailes Hours,’ 1240; Source: British Library Website, PD-Old-100.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine and Piety in Faith and Theology as a Whole,” in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary: The Church at the Source, trans. Adrian Walker (A Communio Book), San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2005, 19-36.
 Scott Taylor wrote a very fine dissertation on this text in 2005, in which he examines, among other things the legal and theological tradition underlying this text; see S. Taylor, Mary Between God and the Devil: Jurisprudence, Theology, and Satire in Bartolo of Sassoferrato’s Processus Sathane, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 2005, available here.