BY ALEXANDRA ALTER
Thanks to Defenders of the Catholic Faith
Growing up in a Lutheran church, the Rev. Roger Prehn rarely heard about the Virgin Mary, except during Christmas.
Now a pastor in Orlando, Prehn preaches in a sanctuary with a nearly life-size bronze statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. During advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, he leads his congregation in singing the Magnificat — a prayer Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke.
Until fairly recently, devotion to Mary would have caused a scandal in most Protestant churches. Many Protestants still reject Mary’s exalted status within Catholicism and worry that honoring her will put her on par with Jesus. But in recent years a growing number of mainline Protestants and evangelicals have started to rethink their centuries-old opposition to revering Mary.
”We’ve ignored Mary, and now we’re recovering her place in salvation history,” said Prehn, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church.
This Christmas, many Protestants are looking at Mary in a new light, inspired in part by growing dialogue with Catholics, the influence of Latin American immigrants who bring strong religious traditions of honoring Mary and a recent explosion of Mary-themed books, websites, popular songs and movies such as The Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story.
”Protestants and Catholics can agree that Mary was a great woman, a woman of faith and that she was the God bearer,” said theologian Scot McKnight, author of The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus. “You can talk about Mary for a long time before you have to ask whether she was immaculately conceived, sinless and perpetually a virgin.”
While Catholics and Protestants still clash over Mary’s role as a mediator between humanity and God, the devotion gap appears to be closing, said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. Growing numbers of Hispanic converts to Protestantism have a strong connection to Mary that they carry over into their new denominations, Matovina said.
At the Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal Church in Sarasota, congregants have celebrated the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day as part of their Hispanic outreach for the past three years. Earlier this month, parishioners honored the patron saint of Mexico with a special Mass, an altar adorned with candles and an image of Guadalupe and a festival, said the Rev. Dick Lampert.
Bringing icons of Mary into Protestant settings has stirred controversy elsewhere. In Chicago, some members of a United Methodist Church caused an uproar when they placed a statue of Guadalupe in its sanctuary.
Mary’s recent emergence as a pop culture icon has helped boost her appeal among Protestants, pastors and scholars say. This December, dozens of churches around the country held discussion groups about Mary tied to The Nativity Story, a New Line Cinema film that chronicles Jesus and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, and McKnight’s book The Real Mary. Several South Florida congregations, including Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, Christ Fellowship in West Palm Beach and New Birth Baptist Church in Miami, attended advanced screenings for The Nativity Story.
Rick Reynolds, executive producer for the Active Word television programs at Calvary Chapel, said the film’s version of Mary departed from earlier cultural images of her as meek and passive. ”Here’s a young woman who loved God and was willing to say, God, you chose me,” he said.
Leaders of local Catholic organizations dedicated to Mary say they’ve seen growing devotion to the Virgin among both lay Catholics and Protestants.
Monique Telson, who lives in Davie and attends St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church, said she hopes to help correct misconceptions about Mary. As a volunteer with the Legion of Mary, Telson visits retirement homes and prisons to talk to people about the benefits of praying to Mary. She said not only Catholics but Protestants, Jews and Muslims responded positively to her message. Muslims also honor Mary, who has an entire chapter in the Koran named after her.
”In following Mary, we learn to know Jesus more,” Telson said.
Sister Juana Maria of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a Catholic religious community in Miami, said many non-Catholics — including Baptists and Pentecostals — attend their weekly prayer services. Sometimes, newcomers express reservations about worshiping Mary, she said.
‘There are those who will come with the question, `What’s the basis of your faith to Mary? How is it that you can love Mary and not be unfaithful to God?’ ” she said.
That question has vexed Protestants for centuries. Mary’s hallowed place in Christian theology became official doctrine in the 5th century, when a church council pronounced her ”Theotokos,” or Mother of God. But as Marian devotion grew more elaborate in the Middle Ages, some Christians began to worry that she was replacing Jesus. After the 16th century Protestant Reformation, Marian worship was shunned by non-Catholics and treated as a threat to Jesus’ place as mankind’s sole redeemer.
The theological gap between Protestant and Catholic views of Mary deepened in the 19th century, when the Catholic Church formally established the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception — the belief that Mary herself, unlike other humans, was conceived without original sin. In 1950, the Catholic Church further elevated Mary when Pope Pius XII approved the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption, or bodily ascent into heaven.
Most Protestants reject these beliefs, arguing that they confer a divine status on Mary that has no foundation in scripture. But at the same time, many Protestants have dismissed what the scriptures do say about Mary, says Beverly Gaventa, professor of New Testament literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and co-editor of Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary.
While Mary’s part in the nativity story comes up at Christmas, few Protestants discuss her appearances in the Gospel of John, which describes how Mary urged Jesus to perform the miracle of turning water into wine, her triumphant song in the Gospel of Luke, or her place at the foot of the cross. There are more than 20 references to Mary in the New Testament, but these rarely come up in Protestant sermons, prayer circles or Bible studies, Gaventa said.
”Protestants who place such a high value on scripture have largely ignored them, except at Christmas time,” she said. “Any interest in Mary was perceived to be kind of scandalous because Mary was Catholic.”
Now many prominent theologians are now making the case for a Protestant ”reappropriation” of Mary. Protestant publications and news organizations such as Christianity Today, the Associated Baptist Press and The Lutheran have all featured articles in recent months calling for Mary’s restoration.
Some pastors and theologians have warned that elevating Mary too much could provoke another backlash among evangelicals who still hold deep reservations about worshiping Mary [Steve's note: Catholic do NOT worship Mary; we venerate her. Veneration and worship are NOT the same thing. We can venerate saints but we worship God alone]. But Notre Dame’s Timothy Matovina argues that honoring Christ’s mother has always been central to Christianity.
”By leaving her out,” he said, “we’re missing something that’s integral to the faith.”