Mary’s Titles and Honors Defended in the First Ages of Christianity – by Father B Rohner, OSB

statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, date and artist unknown; Butare, Rwanda; photographed in June 2009 by Rytc; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIn the daily office of the Blessed Virgin, our holy Mother, the Church, utters these remarkable words, “Virgin Mary, rejoice, for thou alone in the whole world has cast down and broken all heresies.” Mary had already by anticipation cast down all the heresies of the whole world, by giving to mankind, in the fruit of her chaste womb, the Way, the Truth and the Life. She has also destroyed heresy throughout the world and throughout all time, by her supplications before the throne of God, by her guidance and protection of Christ’s Church, and by virtue of the support and defence which persons exposed to heresy found in her protection.

The heretics of the early ages directed their poisoned arrows almost exclusively against either the divinity or the humanity of Christ or against the sacred person and the work of the Son of Mary. But neither of these two natures in Christ can be assailed, without at the same time calling into question and imperiling, if not destroying, the peculiar maternity of Mary. She was and is the mirror on which are reflected the shadows of the attacks directed against the Son of God. Inasmuch as the honors and the titles, the virginity, the maternity, the immaculate conception, in short the entire exalted position occupied by Mary in the great work of salvation and sanctification, all remain unconquered among the assaults of the enemy, and have become the common deposit of Catholic faith, so, too, does she continue to be the victor over darkness and falsehood-she who crushed the serpent’s head. In addition to all this we possess from antiquity of Christendom several proofs founded directly on Scripture-written and traditional proofs of the faith then held concerning the Blessed Virgin, concerning her dignity as Virgin Mother, as well as of the consoling devotional practices founded on these high dignities.

The Apostles’ Creed

How many times, Christian reader, in the course of your life, you have recited with strong faith and believing sentiments that clear, short and admirable confession of our Catholic faith which we call the Apostles’ Creed, and which, according to universal opinion, was composed by the apostles themselves, or at least in the first days of Christianity. In tWelve short and comprehensive articles, all easily understood, it expresses the chief sublime truths of our religion. In this confession of our Catholic faith, we acknowledge as divinely revealed and undeniable truth that Jesus Christ was conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. By this same confession have all Christian generations, from the time of the apostles to our day, all worshipers of Jesus Christ, in every age, of every clime and of every tongue, acknowledged the sublime dignity of Mary as Virgin Mother of God and defended this article of faith against all the hostile attacks of unbelievers.

As often, then, Christian reader, as you pronounce the third article of our creed or confession of faith, namely, “Who was conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary,” confess heartily and with joyous faith the sublime prerogatives of your holy protectress.

The Fathers of the Church

There are whole libraries of comprehensive books which contain the best written proofs and defences of devotion to Mary, extracted with care and judgment from the writings of the Church Fathers and commentators, since the days of the apostles down to the latest times. For you, Christian reader, it may suffice to cite here a few of these Fathers.

Saint Irenwus, Martyr, archbishop of Lyons (died 202) and a pupil of Saint Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of the apostles, undertook to controvert and defeat, in a very learned and able book, all the attacks made against the Catholic Church by the heretics of his time. With dogmatic precision he pointed out in this book the excellence and dignity of Mary, by contrasting her with our mother Eve. He says, “As Eve, by the language of the angel of darkness, was deceived and withdrew herself from God by her disobedience, so was Mary informed and advised by the words of an angel of light that she would carry God in her womb, as a result of her obedience. As the devil had persuaded Eve to abandon God, so did the angel induce Mary to follow God. Thus she became at once the mediatrix for Eve.

“Again, as the whole human race had been subjected to death by a virgin, for such was Eve before the Fall, it was afterwards freed from death’s power by a virgin, whose obedience neutralized the disobedience of Eve and made it good. Finally, as the sin of the first man was cancelled by the sufferings of the Son of God, so did the simplicity of the dove, or Mary’ win the victory over the malice of the serpent, in order that we might be liberated from the bonds which had held us captive.”

Saint Justin, surnamed the Philosopher, (died 166) had sounded the praises of the Blessed Virgin, even before the time of Saint Irenaeus. He explains that well-known passage in Holy Scripture, where a woman from the crowd interrupts the Saviour in His teachings and working of miracles, by suddenly crying out, “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that gave Thee suck,” whereupon the Son of God, with apparent rebuke, replied, “Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11:27,28) This doctor of the Church teaches and proves that Mary is the one here praised by the Saviour as having kept the word of God. He writes, “The Saviour, when He uttered the above words, did not deprive His Mother of her legitimate honor,but rather shows by what manner of the maternal right she was the most blessed and happy. For if he who hears the word of God and keeps it, is God’s brother and sister and mother, Mary was one and did the other. Therefore His own Mother was necessarily praised and commended, for to hear the word of God and to keep it is the sublime and infallible impulse of virtue and of a pure heart which is entirely and always absorbed in the contemplation of God. As God did not choose the next best woman, but the very best, to be the Mother of God, one who surpassed all other women in virtue. so did He rightfully wish that His Mother should be declared blessed because of the same virtues, on account of which the honor of being chosen Virgin Mother was conferred upon her.”

That Christ never on any occasion behaved in a disobedient, disrespectful or harsh manner towards His parents, is clear from what Saint Luke, the Evangelist, testifies of Him and them: He came down from Jerusalem and was subject to them.

Saint John Chrysostom, the holy and eloquent patriarch of Constantinople (died 407), eulogizes in his sermons Mary’s grand prerogatives, and stirs up devotion to her; and awakens confidence in her with an enthusiasm and power which were altogether peculiar to his own golden heart and golden lips. Thus, once in the presence of an immense congregation, he exclaimed, “It was not a woman of wealth and grandeur that the Son of. the living God chose for His Mother, but a lowly virgin whose soul was adorned with every virtue. For as the Blessed Virgin Mary had preserved her virginity in the most stainless and pure condition, she was made worthy to conceive, in her chaste womb, Christ Our Lord. To this most holy Virgin and Mother of God, then, let us have recourse and become participators in the fruits of her powerful intercession.

“Oh, all you who seek to preserve holy purity, fly to this tender and chaste Mother of Our Lord and Master.

“Verily, beloved brethren, the Blessed Virgin Mary was a great wonder-work, for who, among all creatures, has been found greater or more highly distinguished than she? She alone, in sublime exaltation, towers aloft over heaven and earth. What, or who, is more holy than she? Not the prophets, not the angels, not the apostles, not the martyrs, not cherubim and not seraphim. Indeed, among all created beings, visible or invisible, none can be found greater, purer or more glorious. Would you know how much higher the Blessed Virgin stands than all the heavenly powers? Behold! These stand before the throne of God with fear and trembling, hiding their faces; but Mary approaches the throne of God with confidence and offers the human race to Him whom she has brought forth. Through her, too, we also obtain forgiveness for our sins.

“All hail, then, Virgin Mother. Thou art our heaven and our throne; thou art the ornament, the honor, the brightest jewel of our holy Church. Pray unremittingly for us to Jesus, thy Son and Our Lord, in order that through thee we may find mercy on the day of judgment.”

Christian reader, has any speaker or writer, even the most enthusiastic among all the modern panegyrists of Mary, ever dilated more beautifully, more fervently, more eloquently, about our beloved Mother, than this renowned teacher and doctor of the fourth century?

However, on the other hand, the Catholic Church and her divinely guided bishops, even in the first centuries, placed the most cautious safeguards around her sacred deposit of faith. Hence, in regard to the devotion to Mary, she set forth the most exact bounds and used the utmost vigilance in preventing excesses. Such a course was made necessary lest the newly converted Christians, who had been more or less accustomed to idolatry and schooled in it from infancy, should be tempted to mistake the pure and holy Virgin for some pagan goddess. Thus, there arose in Arabia, in the fourth century, a sect composed of women, called Colly-riden, who actually tendered divine honors to Mary and offered, in sacrifice to her, a certain kind of peculiarly prepared bread. Saint Epiphanius, the bishop of Cyprus (d. 403), with great zeal and holy enthusiasm set his face against this ill-judged and exaggerated exaltation of the Blessed Virgin.

How unfounded, then, Christian reader, is the reproach made by heretics that the Catholic Church gives divine homage to the Mother of God ! In all ages her doctors and writers have opposed most vigorously the sin of idolatry. Saint Epiphanius writes, “In such devotion, that is, the giving of divine honors to Mary, poisoned as it is with idolatry, we cannot help discovering a devilish invention. The body of Mary was the temple of holiness itself, I admit, but she was not God. Chosen by God, and highly exalted as she was, she is still a woman of the same nature as any other, although the distinguished prerogatives that have made her holy in body and soul Were extremely great. This being the case, how could the treacherous poisonous serpent thus lead souls into this error? By what hidden snares did he entrap them and lead them into a labyrinth of superstition? Mary, of course, is to be honored, but only to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost is adoration to be offered. The command which God imposed so strictly on our first parents not to eat of the fruit of the tree, did not mean that the evil was in the tree itself, but merely that by occasion of the tree disobedience would be committed.

“Therefore, let no one attempt to taste this new fruit of error which has been produced by ill-judged and excessive homage paid by the thoughtless and ignorant to Mary. Stately and beautiful as was the tree of Paradise, it was not created that man should eat its fruit. Hence, too, excellent, holy and exalted as Mary was and is worthy of our respect and love, yet we must not otter her the adoration which belongs to God.”

– text taken from Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Her Feasts, Prayers, Religious Orders, and Sodalities, by Father B Rohner, OSB, adapted by Father Richard Brennan, LLD, published in 1898 by Benziger Brothers; it has the Imprimatur of Archbishop Michael Augustine, Archdiocese of New York, New York, 22 June 1898