Origin of the Devotion to Mary in the Catholic Church, by Father B Rohner, OSB

detail of the painting 'Vergine orante' by Massimo Diodato, 1893; Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto, Italy; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIn God’s Church devotion to Mary flourishes everywhere, grand, glorious and rich in Heaven’s blessings. Among true Catholics, the festivals of Mary are days of happiness and joy. The grandest temples rear aloft their majestic proportions in her honor. Many confraternities joyfully take upon themselves the pleasant duty of practising Mary’s virtues and of diffusing this practice among their fellow-men. The noblest works of the most skillful artists have sprung forth out of an enthusiastic love for the holy Virgin. But was it always thus in the Catholic Church? This may be your inquiry, dear Christian reader.

The enemies of Mary and of her devotion, declare that these practices are but the unwholesome fruit of an unsound and enthusiastic piety belonging to the dark ages and that, by means of this idolatrous worship, and by other senseless practices as reprehensible as this idolatrous worship of creatures, evangelical truth, and the Church of Christ itself, which up to that time had been kept pure and unchanged, became hidden and was finally lost under the tattered garment of error. Such is the assertion which they make: on them rests the impossible task of proving it.

To us it is an easy and pleasant task to refute this false assertion. We have only to adduce proofs from history to show that devotion to Mary existed in the first and purest ages of Christianity, and that it has grown and flourished in the Church down to our own day.

Mary Was Honored During Her Own Lifetime

To convince you of this truth, dear Christian reader, it is but necessary for me to remind you of only a few incidents in the life of the holy Mother of God. Even before her appearance on this earth, she was honored by the glorious prophecies of the Old Testament uttered concerning her, and more especially by the glorious prototypes who prefigured her. Mary was honored and revered by her own venerable parents, as an extraordinary gift from Heaven and a pledge of divine grace. Mary was honored by Saint Joseph, who was obedient and devoted to her, and was the witness of her holy life. Mary was honored by the archangel Gabriel, who honored her with a Salutation from high Heaven and addressed her with the honorable titles of “full of grace” and Mother of God. Mary was honored by her cousin Elizabeth, as “the Mother of the Lord.” Mary was honored by the forerunner of Christ, Saint John the Baptist, who leaped in his mother’s womb at the presence of the Mother of God. Mary was honored by the holy apostles, whose life and soul and centre she was in the room at Jerusalem, when they were awaiting the coming of the Holy Ghost.

Yes, this humble maiden of Nazareth herself, when filled with the Holy Ghost and enlightened by His wisdom, gave of herself the most genuine testimony that till the end of time she was to be the object of the special praise and the blessings of generations. This truth she declared solemnly, when uttering the familiar words in the inspired canticle of the Magnificat, “Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” (Luke 1:48)

Devotion to Mary in the First Centuries Proved from Monuments of Antiquity

Glorious was the Blessed Virgin in her death. Her assumption was no less glorious. At once in the hearts of the mourning apostles and other believers, their respect for the Mother of Jesus was augmented by a sacred and profound longing to rejoin her in heaven. During the days of her pilgrimage on earth the humble spouse of God did not wish and would not tolerate any show of reverence towards herself. But after her translation it was but right and proper that she should take her well-earned place on the altar of public veneration.

Soon many churches were built in her honor. The cathedral at Ephesus, in which was held in the year 431 the Third General Council of the Church, whose pious and learned members in attendance defended so gloriously the title and honor of Mary, was dedicated to that Queen of heaven. In the beginning of the fourth century Peter I built a sanctuary to Mary at Alexandria. About the same time the Emperor Constantine built another in Gaul. Rome possesses several ancient churches sacred to Mary, among which Saint Mary Major, built under Pope Liberius, who died in 366, was the chief and most sumptuous. Besides this, there are other famous ones, among them the Church of Saint Mary of the Martyrs, which was the old Roman Pantheon and dedicated to all the pagan deities; Saint Mary’s beyond the Tiber, and Saint Mary’s in the Broad Road. One of the most ancient of the Roman churches dedicated to Mary is the Saint Mary’s Connedin. It is quite probable that this venerable building was erected by Pope Dionysius somewhere between the years 259 and 269. In the eighth century some Greek Christians, flying from the persecutions of the Iconoclasts, came to Rome, bringing with them a very ancient and piously venerated picture of the Mother of God, which they placed in that church. Pope Adrian I who died in 795, renovated this building,r and again dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin. The miraculous picture is still to be seen there, and together with many other existing monuments is accepted as an ocular proof that the Blessed Virgin was honored through pictures in the early ages of Christianity, as well as by the churches erected under her invocation.

Constantinople, too, the capital of the Eastern Empire which was all dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, possessed in very early times many churches consecrated to her. The church built by the holy Empress Pulcheria (died 453), possessed in the time of the Emperor Leo I a renowned relic of the Blessed Virgin. This was a veil which had belonged to her, and which was so highly esteemed that it was customary for the inhabitants to carry it in solemn procession in times of public calamity: as during the siege of the city in 821 and at the time of the invasions of the Russians in 865. Such religious processions are known to have been regularly ordered as early as the sixth century by the Emperor Mauritius, who died in 602.

When, during the pontificate of Leo III, the earthquake of the 26th of October, 740, was threatening the city, a procession was formed under the invocation of the Blessed Virgin. Ever since that date these processions in honor of Mary have been continued in the Church. The example of Saint Pulcheria was speedily followed by several emperors, empresses, and private individuals, and there arose in quick succession, throughout the city of Constantinople, the renowned churches of Saint Mary’s of the Fountain, Saint Mary’s in the Square and many others. During an earthquake which happened in the reign of Justinian I, who died in 565, one of these churches, called Petula, was destroyed. Another was pulled down in 693, by order of the erratic emperor, Justinian II, who used the material in the enlargement of his palace.

In the beginning of the sixth century the holy monk and patriarch, Sabas, built in Palestine a temple in honor of the Blessed Virgin. According to the testimony of Evagrius, there stood in Antioch about that time several churches sacred to Mary. Justinian I founded one in the holy city of Jerusalem itself and another in Carthage. About the year 540 Bishop Injuriosus erected in Tours a sumptuous church to Mary. Already in the eighth century, Cologne, Mayence and Chur had their churches dedicated to Mary. The Church of Our Lady, in Worms, was one of the most ancient in Germany. The Cathedral of Spire, which is mentioned in authentic documents as early as 664, was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and Saint Stephen. Among the places of pilgrimage consecrated to the Blessed Virgin, you will find several, Christian reader, whose existence dates back to the days of primitive Christianity.

In the catacombs we find a great many pictures of the Blessed Virgin, dating from the first ages of Christianity. These catacombs, as you know, Christian reader, are immense subterranean labyrinths in and around Rome, in which, during times of persecution, the Christians took refuge, for the purpose of celebrating the divine mysteries, and to entomh the bodies of the martyrs.

Christian reader, enter in spirit, and with holy reverence, into one of these mysterious caverns. Let us choose the catacomb of Saint Priscilla. This is a veritable underground sanctuary dating certainly from the second century of Christianity, and it may be from the first. Let us pass in by the so-called Greek chapel. Here you discover, on the roof, a well executed picture. It is the Blessed Virgin holding the divine Infant on her knees, and in the act of accepting the offerings of the three wise men of the East. What a touching and sublime memorial of ancient faith! This self-same picture has been a subject for admiration among learned antiquarians and critical artists, who wonder at the chaste grace and delicacy of expression which is not at all inferior to the best efforts of the most renowned masters. But the believing Catholic derives his chief pleasure and satisfaction from knowing that, in these ancient pictures, he has before him an undeniable proof of the antiquity of the devotion to the Blessed Virgin as practised in his Church. In a neighboring vaulted cave is to be seen the oldest picture of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin. Mary is seated on a kind of throne, and the angel, without wings, and under the appearance of a young man, stands before her, in the act of announcing his mysterious message.

Not far from this last we find still another lovely picture of the blessed Mother with her Child. She is clothed in gracefully flowing undergarment and mantle, and wears on her head the light veil peculiar to virgins dedicated to God. Above her shines the star of Bethlehem. Antiquarians assure us that this beautiful painting must have been executed between the years of 50 and 150, perhaps under the eyes and direction of the apostles themselves.

Other pictures, equally ancient, represent the holy Mother standing with hands uplifted, and absorbed in prayer, as if for her beloved children in the Church. All the pictures of the Madonna that have been discovered up to the present time, and are known to belong to the first centuries of Christianity, form quite a collection. How many prayers and sighs and supplications and holy vows have been uttered before these images of the Mother of God, from the oppressed and crushed hearts of our forefathers in the faith, and carried up to the real original Mother in heaven!

One other memorial from the catacombs in proof of devotion to Mary, very early devotion, deserves to be mentioned to the Christian reader. Fragments have been found of about four hundred chalices, or round vessels, all of one form, and all worked in gold. On the flat side of each vessel the artist has fastened a leaf of gold, and engraved thereon, with a chisel, various figures and inscriptions. In order to preserve this work he placed over it a covering of glass.

These drinking-cups were formerly used at the Christian love-feasts, called agapes, which were held at family gatherings, and especially on the festivals of the saints. The greater number of these glasses show a picture of the blessed Mother in the attitude of prayer, and with the annexed inscription of “Maria,” the Latin for Mary. Sometimes the Blessed Virgin is distinguished and designated by a halo of glory about her head. In the beginning, this halo surrounded the head of Jesus only. In the third century we find it encircling the head of Mary, and in the fifth and sixth centuries the images of all the saints. From these significant decorations of the drinking-cups we may easily learn how devotion to Mary and the commemoration of the various mysteries of her life, held an important place in the early Church, and also how the primitive Christians loved to place Mary above all the angels and saints as being Queen of them all.

From the inscriptions which adorn most of the graves of the saints buried in the catacombs, we perceive that in ancient Christendom it was a favorite custom to confer the name of Mary on those who were baptized, whether they were new-born infants or converts from paganism or Judaism.

– 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