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A theological time-bomb

Every year at Christmas time, the Pope meets with the senior officials of the Roman Curia for a review of the year just past and a look into the year ahead; wags would say it’s the closest thing the Vatican gets to an office Christmas party. Three days before Christmas, 1987, Pope John Paul II surprised more than a few of those present by skipping the year-in-review and proposed a different way of looking at the Church than Roman ears are accustomed to hearing.

The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had suggested that four biblical images of the Church, based on four great New Testament figures, shape and reshape the Church in every age. The Church of evangelization is formed in the image of Paul, apostle to the gentiles. The Church of contemplative prayer is formed in the image of the apostle John, who rested his head on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper. The Church of office and jurisdiction is formed in the image of Peter, to whom the Lord consigned the keys of the Kingdom. And then there is the Church of discipleship, formed in the image of Mary, whose “be it done unto me according to your word” was, in a sense, the very beginning of Christian discipleship.

Speaking to representatives of the “Petrine Church,” who not infrequently think themselves the center of the Catholic world, John Paul suggested that the “Marian profile” in the Church is the most fundamental of Christian realities. Mary, the Pope said, was the first disciple, whose “yes” made possible the incarnation of God’s son. The incarnation was “extended” in history through the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ. Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven prefigures the glorification of all those who will be saved. Thus, John Paul taught, Mary provides a “profile” of what the Church is, of how the people of the Church should live, and of what that redeemed people’s destiny is.

The Pope then gave the screw another gentle twist. The “Marian profile” in the Church,  the Pope said, is even “more…fundamental” than the “Petrine profile.” The two cannot be divided. But the Church formed in the image of Mary — the Church of disciples — preceded and made possible the Church formed in the image of Peter — the Church embodied by the distinguished churchmen present at the Pope’s address. Indeed, the “Marian Church” made sense out of the “Petrine Church,” for, as the Pope insisted, office and jurisdiction in the Church exist only “to form the Church in line with the ideal of sanctity already programmed and prefigured in Mary.” The Church formed in Peter’s image and the Church formed in Mary’s image complement each other. But, the Pope insisted, “the Marian profile is…pre-eminent,” and is certainly richer in meaning for every Christian’s vocation.

The message was unmistakable. Authority in the Church serves discipleship. The power of the keys serves sanctity. Here was a richly textured theology of Mary chipping away at some old-fashioned assumptions about the centrality of the Church-as-institution — and at the very epicenter of institutional Catholicism.

The Pope concluded by quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar approvingly: “A contemporary theologian has well commented: ‘Mary is “Queen of the Apostles” without any pretensions to apostolic power; she has other and greater powers’.”

Like John Paul’s theology of the body, John Paul’s Mariology — his theology of Mary — is a theological explosive with a long fuse. When it detonates in the Church at some point in the next few decades, the results will be, quite possibly, revolutionary. How many of today’s seemingly endless quarrels — over who’s-in-charge, over the role of women in the Church, over the relationship between the ordained priesthood and the priestly gifts of all the baptized — would be put on a much different footing if the Church plumbed the depths of its “Marian profile” as described by John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar? And might such a reflection, carried out with other Christian communities, transform Mary from ecumenical roadblock to ecumenical “key,” with both Protestants and Orthodox?

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Points to ponder this during this Marian month of May, as we reflect on Mary, first of disciples and Mother of the Church.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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