“Mary, give me your heart…so full of love and humility, that I may be able to receive Jesus.”
– St. Mother Teresa
On October 6th, I traveled on a pilgrimage with the Archdiocese of New York to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. After a four-hour drive from Manhattan through the drizzle and fog, our buses arrived at the Basilica on Catholic University’s campus. While many of my fellow pilgrims were return visitors to the Basilica, this was my very first trip. As a fairly recent convert, I found this trip especially meaningful.
For one thing, the Basilica is touted as “America’s Catholic Church,” and rightly so. In a way, the awe-inspiring Basilica is home to all of America’s Catholics, regardless of their homes and parish registrations.
In addition, the pilgrimage was an opportunity for me to visit the “house” of my confirmation saint—Mary, the Mother of Jesus. This visit to Mary’s shrine not only instilled in me a greater love for our Lord and for our holy faith, but also helped me understand the Church’s great respect for women, as witnessed through Our Lady’s veneration.
Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb
Among the most striking features of the Basilica are all of the chapels dedicated to Our Lady. While the altar and the Tabernacle are the centerpieces of the grand church, one cannot help but marvel at the devotional chapels that lovingly welcome the Basilica’s visitors.
Although I am a convert to the Catholic faith, at times, I find my old Protestant thoughts slipping back into my mind. As I stood under the newly-installed Trinity Dome, I thought (unfortunately), “Doesn’t this seem like too much for Mary? Is she embarrassed that we’ve elevated her like this?” This thought, which may be common for converts to Catholicism, lingered for but a moment. Rather, my mind switched to the real focus of the attention and admiration: Jesus.
As I stood in the chapel dedicated to Mary, Queen of Missions, I stared at the detailed mosaic. In the center of the mosaic was Our Lady, holding a globe. Around her were men, women, and children of all ages and ethnicities, adorned in the clothes of their respective cultures. They were being drawn towards the globe in Mary’s hands, seeking out the universal Catholic Church.
The implication was clear: Mary leads souls to know and love her Son. Our Lady is a centerpiece, not of the Catholic faith, but for those seeking the truth of Christ. This has been the case from the beginning of salvation history: Mary’s visit to Elizabeth brought Jesus with her (Luke 1:39-56); the shepherds and wise men found “the child with Mary his mother (Matthew 2:11); and her last words recorded in Scripture direct the listeners to obey her Son: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). When one seeks out Mary’s guidance, one is immediately led to Jesus.
A Powerful Queen
Looking at this stirring mosaic also prompted another reflection in me: Mary’s potent, dynamic role in human history. In our western culture, it’s so easy to reduce Our Lord to a mild savior who loves everyone in a safe, comfortable, predictable way. After all, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” It’s even easier to reduce Mary to a docile mother who loves all of her children, but stays out of their lives.
Yet the image of Our Lady, Queen of Missions, shatters this stereotype. In the mosaic, Mary is portrayed as a queen who actively leads humanity to Jesus. She cooperated faithfully in His work of salvation on earth; “for this reason she is a mother to souls in the order of grace” (Lumen Gentium 61). Now in Heaven, she continues to do His work among His people. As now-St. Pope Paul VI explains, “Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power” (Lumen Gentium 60), because it is Jesus Who gives power to Mary and wills that she play an important part in His work.
On occasion, this work can be quite striking, as when Mary’s appearances at Guadalupe transformed Mexico from a pagan mission territory to a Catholic nation overnight. Incidentally, the name by which the native Mexicans called our Lady, “Coatlaxopeuh,” means “she who crushes the serpent”—a reference to a serpentine idol, but also an interesting connection to Genesis 3:15. Through His power at work in His Mother, Jesus continues to crush the serpent’s head.
The Value of Women in Catholicism
Often, the Catholic Church is accused of rampant sexism. This is mostly because women are not ordained as deacons, priests, or bishops. Walk into many Catholic parishes, and you may see women wearing chapel veils or families with a brood of children. To the secular world, all of these marks of the Catholic community appear oppressive and backwards—and certainly not friendly to women.
Yet as I sat longer in the Basilica, I marveled at the art dedicated to Mary. At every turn was a depiction of Our Lady, honoring her from every corner of the globe. Between Our Lady of China, stretching all the way to the various depictions of Our Lady in Europe, it could easily become obvious to any visitor that the dignity of women is an inherent value to Catholicism.
At its basic structure, the story of the Incarnation is outstanding. An angel appears to a young virgin, in the obscure land of Israel, and says that she is highly-favored and will bear the Messiah. In His power, Our Lord could have materialized on Earth as a fully-grown man and commanded audiences in His favor. Yet he chose to be born of a lowly woman who was of little to no stature in the society of her day. Today, however, churches, universities, and other institutions are named after and dedicated to the mother of God, including the basilica in Washington D.C. The fact that God chose Mary, a lowly girl, as His mother shows us how much He loves and treasures women.
Even more, secular audiences, and some Catholics, may find the veneration of Our Lady distasteful. After all, what woman could find familiarity with, or compete with, the immaculately conceived, ever-virgin mother of God? It seems, on the surface, that the Church is obsessed with a perfect image of women, rather than the reality of womanhood.
While Mary’s sanctity is far beyond that of any human except her Son, to regard that greatness as distancing her from us would be to misunderstand her role. Catholic tradition calls her the “New Eve,” the mother of the new humanity brought forth by Christ, the New Adam. Her fullness of purity and grace is not for herself alone, but for all her children, to whom she is a mother, friend, guide, and sign of hope.
Again, Lumen Gentium indicates the truth about Mary: “The Mother of Jesus, in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God” (LG 68).
This, then, is Mary’s relationship to women: not an impossible standard, but a hopeful sign of what God ultimately intends us to be “in the world to come,” when His redemptive work is finished. Human nature’s first instinct may still be to protest that such perfection is impossible, “but not for God. All things are possible for God” (Mark 10:27).
Has the Church always perfectly honored women throughout history? No, as she is full of imperfect humans who are often selfish and self-seeking. However, as my pilgrimage ended and I boarded the bus back to Manhattan, my mind remained in the Basilica, haunted by the witness of its beauty and devotion.
I thought of the images of saints (many of them women) that lined the luminous domes and their selfless sacrifices for Christ. I thought of their devotion to a simple peasant girl who became the Mother of God. And finally, I thought of Mary’s fiat to the Holy Spirit, and how her words, echoed through time, history, and basilicas, changed the world.