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Mary Icon of the Church - Part 3

Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm.

Celebrated in the Eucharist

Where is the heart of the Church? It is not in its institutions, however prestigious, even necessary. Vatican II teaches us that the “source and the summit” of the entire Christian life, and hence of the Church is the Eucharist (see Church 11). In the Eucharist we have all that is essential to the Church:

we come to acknowledge that we are sinners; we hear the Word of God and respond to it; we make intercession; we share in the Paschal Mystery of the Lord’s death and glorification; we enter into intimate union with him; we are sent out to proclaim the good news and to share the love we have received.

We look to Mary in the gathering of the Church that awaits the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). The community assembled after the ascension, and are waiting for the Lord’s promise of the Holy Spirit. They are in prayer; they keep recalling the events of the death and glorification of the Lord. Once they have received the Spirit they preach, celebrate the Eucharist and gather others into the company of believers (Acts 2:42.47). Mary is present in their midst, just as she is present in every Eucharist and is named in its most sacred part, the Eucharist Prayer. She is the perfect worshipper of the Paschal Mystery (see Paul VI, Exhortation (1974) Marialis cultus – To Honour Mary, n. 20). Through the Eucharist she wishes to conform us to the image of her Son. In the Eucharist we will find her as Mother, Patroness, Sister and Companion.

There are any number of ways in which we can as it were get the Church wrong. The great Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar who died a few years ago, and is the favourite theologian of the present Pope, speaks of four dimensions of the Church, each one associated with a key figure. There is the Pauline dimension of preaching, theologizing and evangelization; there is the Petrine dimension of structures and authority; there is the Johannine contemplative element. But undergirding all these is the Marian dimension. The Church is most authentic when it is patterned on her. One of the contemporary problems of the Church, one that in fact goes back several hundred years, is a tendency to give too much emphasis to the institutional or Petrine aspect, to the detriment of the receptive or Marian aspect. With this deformation all sorts of distortions follow. We look to what is effective and efficient rather than to what is beautiful and mysterious. When we think too much in terms of the Petrine dimension of the Church, rather than in a Marian key everything goes awry. I am not dismissing the Petrine or institution dimension of the Church or denying its importance; but I am insisting that though the Petrine aspect of the Church is indeed essential, it is secondary to its Marian features. We could develop this important insight in a number of ways. Each one shows both the Eucharistic heart of the Church and the primacy of its Marian characteristics.

Firstly, grace is more important than structures. We have structures in order to provide and support the work of grace at every level. Thus the sacraments are to bring us to new life; institutions such as the parish or diocese are to provide a zone in which people can come to healing and love. In the case of Mary, God chose her from all eternity, filled her with grace from the first moment of her being, and brought her into Trinitarian life. It was only then that she became the Mother of the Lord.

Secondly, faith is more important than teaching. The whole point of teaching is to engender the response of faith. And faith is more than belief, or the ability to make accurate statements about divine revelation; it includes the whole response of the individual and the community. Teaching is only a service of the faith of the Church. Mary’s yes in faith is the pattern of the whole life of the Church.

Thirdly, receiving is more important than giving. The initiative in all things holy is not ours but God’s. His love touches us first before we can give. Mary is most blessed not so much by what she did, but by what she received: the great mysteries of her Immaculate Conception, Divine Motherhood, Perpetual Virginity and Assumption are all gifts that Mary received; she is par excellence the receptive one. Too often we look to what the Church does, rather than to what the Church receives.

Fourthly, service is much more important than power. One of the hard lessons that Jesus had to teach his disciples was that greatness in his kingdom comes from being a servant, even a slave, rather than from power (Matt 20:25-28). Mary who proclaims herself servant I slave is the perfect model for the Church. There is indeed power in the Church, but it must always be employed as service to build up.

Fifthly, therefore love is more important than authority. The Church was, as we have seen, born out of love on Calvary. Love will always be its highest norm, the supreme law of the Church. We must, of course, be careful not to fall into the trap of pleasing rather than serving. The idea is in wide circulation that we must satisfy people, answer their felt needs, offer them what they regard as fulfilling. Love, however, is not always easy, and it may not be immediately satisfying. There is a role for authority, even for an authority that will teach hard truths. But authority still must serve love, though it may not answer popular demands or immediate gratification. Calvary is clearly proof that love at times can be most difficult and painful.

Sixthly, poverty is more important than sufficiency. The whole Paschal Mystery is a celebration of poverty: Christ though rich, became poor for our sakes that we might become rich (2Corinthians 8:9); he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7). God’s plan in the weakness of the Cross is the highest wisdom, but a wisdom that could not be grasped by Jews or Greeks (1Corinthians 1:18-2:5). Luke presents Mary as one of the poor of Jahweh, the anawim. Whenever the Church is rich and self-sufficient, it is already interiorly decayed. The lesson of poverty is a hard one for the Church to learn at every level.

Seventhly, adoration is more important than intercession. Mary teaches us to celebrate the greatness of God. It is important that we pray for the needs of the Church and the world, and the Mass is a privileged place for such prayer. But we come into fullness of life as we enter into the mystery of the Trinity in adoration and surrender.

Eighthly, therefore contemplation is more important that action. There is a long tradition in the Church that takes seriously the saying of the Lord to Martha: “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Action is of course important, but to be fruitful, it needs some basis in contemplation. To serve my brothers or sisters generously and without selfishness, I need to contemplate them in the heart of Trinitarian love. If I do not see them with God’s eyes, I will inevitably fail in my love.

Ninthly, obedience is more important than commands. The Church has been infiltrated by many values of the world in our time. Obedience is quite out of favour in a society that values freedom and the worship of the self. Commands are resented. But we need obedience if we are be modelled on Christ, who passionately sought the will of his Father (John 4:31 – a major theme throughout John).

Finally, we can sum up what we have been saying about the Marian and the Petrine dimensions by indicating that in some profound sense the feminine is more important in the Church than the masculine. This is a difficult area to speak about: one runs the risk of being beaten down by both feminist and patriarchal wings in the Church and society. It is hard too to avoid stereotyping, but there is some value in the insight of the predominant importance of the feminine in the Church. Of course there is a complementarity of the sexes and the Church needs both. But at this present time it would seem clear that we need much more of what are often called feminine traits; these are not exclusively feminine, but they are more feminine. In some modern psychologies we tend to associate more with the masculine what is aggressive, rational, dominant; we associate more with the feminine traits like compassion, affectivity, receptivity. It would be my contention that the Church does not need more dominance and manipulation; the Church would not be better if all its women strove to model themselves after Baroness Thatcher, the former English Prime Minister. The urgent task is that all, especially men, pattern themselves on Mary. I would very strongly resist a division in the Church or spirituality which would point men towards Christ and women towards Mary. Mary is the perfect model for both men and women in the discipleship of Christ by both men and women. It is my contention that what we find is a Church in which almost everything that is faulty and in need of renewal tends to be masculine rather than feminine. Men and women need to look much more carefully at the Marian paradigm of the Church.


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."