A while back, two years ago actually, I went to the movie The Passion of the Christ with friends: Protestant friends. Afterwards, we went out to a local tavern and enjoyed what turned out to be quite lively and pleasant conversation. One of the participants in the conversation, a good friend, made the comment, “in The Passion of the Christ, we were presented with the great beauty of Mary’s humanity, not the picture of some saint.” This comment struck me as quite incongruous. What is there about Mary’s humanity, her “humanness” as it were, which would contradict her being recognized as a saint, a resident of heaven? What sort of understanding of the Catholic canon of saints did my friend’s opinion reflect?
I am a convert from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. Such conversions do not happen overnight. From the first uncanny inkling that there night be something to this Catholic Church, to the joy of being received into her, many tumultuous years went by. It all began with reading a book by Alan Schreck, Catholic and Christian, which presents Catholic explanations on a number of topics typically misunderstood by Protestants. The explanations seemed quite reasonable, and, as I weighed them one by one in my mind, they initiated a development, slowly but surely, which would eventually change my Christian views completely.
I began to read about Christianity from a Catholic point of view, from authors such as G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Karl Adam, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Hans Urs von Balthazar, Joseph Pieper, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Avery Dulles, Patrick Madrid, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, David Currie, Karl Keating, James Pearce, Scott Hahn, etc. They made some very strong arguments for the truth of Catholicism. I also discovered the very early Church Fathers: St. Clement, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, St. Cyprian, Tertullian, Origin, who were members of the pre-Constantine Church of the Catacombs. It was very hard, but I had to admit it was true; the very early Church was many things, and opinions vary as to what those things mean for us today, but it was not Protestant. The Church gathered around the Eucharist, which was a re-presentation of the Sacrifice on Calvary. The Eucharist was heaven come to earth; a true communion with the living God, whose very Son had taken on human flesh. To worship in such a Church was to touch, to taste, to see and to know the Supernatural, the Eternal, and the All-powerful in the bread and the wine become His Flesh and Blood. Unity was expressed around the office and authority of the bishop. The bishop of Rome exercised an authority which was different from the other bishops, not just in degree, but in kind. No, this was not the Protestant church.
As each issue presented itself I would study, consulting both orthodox Catholic sources, as well as the best of Protestant arguments against the Catholic position. And I was in a position to do so; I was a tenured faculty member at Trinity International University in Deerfield Illinois, one of the leading Evangelical Protestant institutions in the world. I had access to an excellent library and to some of the best-trained minds in the Evangelical scene. Over time, a pattern emerged. With almost every issue, I would begin to see some good sense in what the Church teaches. I began to notice that my thinking up to that point had been founded, at least in part, on misperceptions or false assumptions. This was disturbing. The whole reason I became a Christian in the first place was based on conviction that Christianity was true. As I persevered in study it became clear that many Protestant arguments against Catholic doctrines such as the visible Church, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the authority of a bishop, the authority of the Pope, Purgatory, salvation by faith formed in love, and finally Mary, the Rosary, and the communion of saints are based upon misperceptions, exaggerations, and even purposeful misrepresentations of what the Church really teaches. I began to realize that I had been misled into a way of thinking which was not entirely free of bigotry and unexamined anti-Catholic bias, with its own prejudice and its own intolerance.
So when my friend made her comment about the saints I suspected she was operating under of one of those classic Protestant misperceptions. She had been raised in a very conservative branch of the Lutheran Church. It has been my experience that some pretty big accusations are brought against the Catholic Church by people from such denominations. My friend had likely been told that Catholics are guilty of idol worship, necromancy, salvation by works, and being duped by a Roman power-monger. Such biases run deep.
It is exciting and humbling when someone you know and respect asks about your faith. But answering takes time, it can’t be done quickly, certainly not all at one sitting. The Catholic faith is both colorful and complex, and all of its various topics and themes are intertwined. The issues are so closely related that addressing one of them immediately necessitates at least skirting a number of others. In reality however, each conversation begins with one topic at a time; in this case the topic was Mary and the saints.
The following represents much of what I said, and more of what I would have said if there had been time, in attempting to answer to my friend’s question.
What, or . . . who, in fact, is a saint?
In the real world of language use, words develop in such a way that one word often gets used to cover more than one situation. A chair can be sat on, it can be a person in an academic department, or it can be a verb designating what that person does, she chairs. A table can be where you find a chair, it can be a graph in a book or a verb used to express what the chair proposes when an issue needs to be postponed until later, or perhaps forever; a proposal is tabled. The real world of vocabulary development is alive; words take on multiple meanings over time.
The word saint is used in the scriptures to designate someone who is holy, set apart. More specifically it designates someone who has been set apart by his faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, there is a sense in which every Christian is a saint, set apart by the Word of God. At the same time there is another sense which speaks to a future perfection of the holiness of those in heaven, where no unclean thing shall ever be. In describing the heavenly Jerusalem St. John declares, “But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21: 27).
In other words there is a holiness every Christian still looks forward to. When a person enters Paradise (like the thief on the cross), it can be said that his holiness has become complete. Such a person is then a saint in the second sense of the word. But we on earth, who still populate this valley of tears, are saints only in the first, less perfect sense.
Paul makes a strong statement about that future perfection, which we hope one day to enjoy: “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Quite early on in the Church’s pilgrimage, as the generation of the apostles began to pass away, members of the Church, aware of the great power of the prayers possessed by leading figures in the Church, realized that these prayers would not cease after death. One can well imagine possible conversations with Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, or quite pointedly, Mary the Mother of Our Lord, “you will be in Paradise! You will be with Jesus, will you please ask Him to heal my brother of his leprosy”, or “will you ask Our Father to protect our children from the anti-Christian errors they are hearing on the streets” etc. The early Christians particularly addressed such prayer requests to those about to suffer a martyr’s death.
According to St. Paul, Jesus Christ is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. He always intercedes for us: “Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:34) When the saints arrive in heaven they join in. They do as they see the master doing. Indeed, who would they be if they did not intercede for us?
Furthermore, Christ promised that those who were faithful on earth would be given commensurate responsibilities in heaven: “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.’’’ (Matt. 25:23) Of course, in heaven, the great task, the one into which all enter to greater or lesser degree, with greater or lesser authority, depending on their faithfulness with “few things,” is the ministry of intercession.
Lastly, there is a track record throughout time of those prayers being answered. Granted, the testimony is riddled, as all human records are, with some fabrications and exaggerations. Nevertheless, innumerable supernatural interventions, miraculous healings, and other wondrous occurrences dot the landscape inhabited by those who pray with the inhabitants of heaven.
Thus, it is quite appropriate to call the citizens of heaven saints. Granted, the use of the word is slightly different from Paul’s usage in his letters, which address citizens not of heaven, but of Ephesus (Eph. 1:2), Philippi (Phil. 1:1), or Colossae (Col. 1:1) but it is closely related. The sainthood or sanctification of those on earth is not yet complete, whereas the process for those above is in fact complete.
It is appropriate to enlist the prayers of the saints in our lives. We are One Body in Him who is the God of the living—not the dead—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Yes, of course, a saint now glorified in heaven is a wonder to behold. Have you ever read C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce? Glorified beings are . . . well, glorious! So, of course Mary is sometimes depicted in all her heavenly glory, beginning in Revelation 12 and continuing throughout history. But, in response to the initial observation about Mary, we look to her as the saint of saints, the captain of the heavenly prayer team, the Queen of heaven, because of her humility, her femininity and her motherliness, on earth, not in spite of it. There is no contradiction here. Never was a mother more perfectly motherly than the Mother of Our Lord. She is now regarded as a saint because of the beautiful and, we believe, perfect humanity she possesses: a humanity which, while on earth, was fragile, neither all-knowing nor all-powerful; a human-ness which depended totally upon God in its weakness, neediness and vulnerability.
So, yes! when the depiction of Mary’s humanity in Gibson’s film is admired, we Catholics chime right in, “Yeah! What a Mom!” When it is implied that this is somehow in contradiction to what we believe about her as a saint, we ask, somewhat dumbfounded, “huh?”
The tapestry of Catholic thought is one whole cloth. It is difficult to talk about one part of it without drawing upon other parts. So, quite naturally other questions followed. My friend also challenged me about our belief that Mary is and always has been without sin. “Obviously”, she asserted, “you see her as some kind of God, and not as just a human mother, because no one is without sin except God Himself.”
Is that true? To attribute sinlessness, purity, or innocence to an individual is to claim deity for them? I think not. Adam and Eve were certainly without sin until the Fall. Believing that is not tantamount to deifying our first parents. So, it is possible to believe that someone is without sin without deifying them, even in Reformed traditions like Lutheranism.
In heaven there is no impure thing. We hope we will be in Heaven. Logically, we will have to be, in fact—in our very essence—pure, without sin. We will be so because God, by Grace, has made us so. It is His work that makes us pure, clean, and without blemish or fault; in a word, holy. Listen to the Apostle Paul, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Believing this is not the same as saying we will one day be more than human, nor does it provoke the accusation that we think we will become “some kind of God”. By the same token, claiming that God preserved Mary from the stain of original sin does not deify her.
The Church has always believed that Mary’s sanctity is in a special category; that the complete sanctification which we are given in heaven, she was given in advance, by Grace, in order to become the Mother of God’s only Son. She is the one human being—except for her Son, the God-man—who turned out exactly as she was always supposed to. The detour through the pit of sin was circumvented, ultimately by the power of her Son’s salvific work on the Cross and by the Grace that flows from it. She was perfectly human, but by Grace, by Grace alone, she was preserved from the horrible stain of original sin.
Throughout Church history the Fathers and Doctors may have disagreed about when Mary’s purity began (at conception, just after conception, at birth), but they have all agreed, with startling unanimity, that her purity was and is unique. This has always been believed in the Church. We believe it as firmly as we do the Incarnation—an idea which is considerably more elaborate and, in the truest sense of the word, fantastic. You believe the one dogma, the difficult one, the one which requires some real work; God became a man! You should also believe the other: God preserved His Son’s earthly Mother, who carried Him into the world, from the stain of original sin. You swallow a camel and strain at a gnat.
To conclude, it would be good to point out that the Marian dogmas serve one purpose and one purpose alone: Christology. We believe that the truths about Mary serve not only to preserve and protect, but also to elucidate and illuminate the teachings about Jesus. They protect our view of Christ from dissolving into a Christ who is not only less God but also one who is certainly less human; a Christ who is less of a Savior. My observation of the non-Catholic world confirms this; lose Mary and the fullness of Catholic teaching about her, and eventually you lose the fullness of Christ.
Indeed, in Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, Mary makes all of the things we believe about Jesus come alive. That is exactly what the Rosary does as well, or any other practice of Marian devotion. The Son is born through, and becomes one of us through His Mother. When we see through her eyes, we truly see the Son, not only fully God, but fully man. Gibson’s movie is in this regard authentically Catholic.