John Gayford considers devotion to Mary before and after the Second Vatican Council


The period between 1830 and 1960 was a time of increased Marian devotion within the Roman Catholic Church. There were a number of reasons for this. Nuns from Marian religious orders with a love of Mary were teaching primary school pupils and were supporting this with popular sentimental hymns. Institutes of academic Marian theology were being set up throughout the Catholic world. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary had been declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 by Ineffabilis Deus (ineffable gift of God). The Assumption of Mary into Heaven Munificentissimus Deus (most bountiful God) declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950. These dogmas separated the Catholic Church from the rest of Christendom. A peak in Pius XII’s pontificate (1939-1958) gave Mary a role as Mediatrix (intercessory role of Mary in salvific redemption); and pilgrimages, Rosary and apparitions of Our Lady took prominence. A fallacious belief held she had the key to the back-door of heaven. The Roman Church was thinking that Marian doctrine and devotion had to be re-examined: the Second Vatican Council was an optimum chance to do this. 

Pope John XXIII in January 1959, soon after he was appointed, announced his intention to hold a general council of the Church. This came as a complete surprise and received hostility from some of the Curia in Rome. The Council took place 1962-1965, going on much longer than was expected with radical reforms. Each of the bishops was allowed to bring personal advisers (periti from the Latin word peritus meaning an expert) these included women and non- Roman Catholics. The number of periti increased as the Council progressed. Invitations were sent to non-Roman Catholic Churches to attend but without the right to speak or to vote. Observers had been invited to attend previous councils, this was the first council where it became a reality and travel was easier and safer. At first several of the Orthodox Churches were reluctant to send observers under these conditions but agreed as the Council progressed. In the end all churches agreed to send observers with the exception of the Baptist and Pentecostal churches. As a result a dialogue was developed which included further discussions on Marian topics outside the council.

Vatican II did not promote as elevated Mariology as some had wished. By including Mary in a document on the Church in chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium some of the anxiety of Reformed Churches was freed. Controversial questions were left open and some rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants was possible. It was found that the various Orthodox Churches held Mary in high esteem but without dogma. They could accept the Immaculate Conception by means of the fact that they did not accept the doctrine of original sin. Mary was a girl who did not sin and so God could choose her to be the mother of Jesus. The Coptic Church holds Mary in high esteem with imaginative titles like ‘A light in the Wilderness’; ‘Undefiled Innocence’; ‘The Ever Holy’ and ‘Ever Virgin’. They state Christ is worshiped and Mary is venerated. The Ethiopian Church calls her a double Virgin, a virgin in body and a virgin in spirit. Catholic and Orthodox churches may not word their Marian doctrine in the same way but they both have a similar devotion to Mary; encouraging as this is, it has led some to express the rather over optimistic view that Mary could be the bridge to unity.

When the Mass was in Latin Pope Pius XII approved the use of the Rosary during the liturgy, pausing at significant moments like the Consecration. With the Mass in the vernacular Pope Paul VI in his exhortation Marialis Cultis 1974 commended the use of the Rosary in preparation for Mass but not during the liturgy of the Mass.

The commission of the Second Vatican Council planned four Schemata (unit of understanding for discussion). Before the Council began there was heated debate if Mariology was to be a separate Schema. This was put to the vote and by the narrowest of margins the decision was made to avoid a separate Schema on Mary but to include it in the Schemata on the Church. Before the Council discussed Mary there were five drafts which brought the two sides to agreement on the procedure. A reason why this seemed wise was that to proceed otherwise would be a serious obstacle to ecumenism, a principle objective of the council. Thus we find the conclusions on Mary in Lumen Gentium chapter VIII (The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and in the Church) as the first document to be solemnly proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on November 21st 1964. 

Mary is declared as the Mother of God – in Our Lord Jesus the divine Son – as announced by the Angel Gabriel (St. Luke 1:26-35). She is held as a member of the Church occupying a place only second to Jesus. After an introduction, the role of the Blessed Virgin in the Plan of Salvation is proclaimed. Mary is mother of the Son of God, a beloved daughter of God and temple of the Holy Spirit. In this context she is a unique member of the Church as a model of faith and charity. She is part of the mystery of the Incarnate Word and the mystical body of the Church. Mary is proclaimed as mother of Christ and also mother of humanity, especially of faithful members of the Church who should include priests. The Council did not set out to give a complete doctrine of Mary.

The Role of the Blessed Virgin, the Plan of salvation which is demonstrated in the Old and New Testament, together with venerable tradition of the Church, gradually became clearer. She bears a son called Emmanuel (meaning God with us) but stands among the poor and humble of the world, full of God’s grace and confident with hope of salvation. It was the Father’s will that the predestined mother of his Son should give her assent. ‘Be it unto me according to your word,’ was Mary’s reply to the angel Gabriel. She was able joyfully to show her Son to the shepherds and the Magi. Later she presented Jesus in the temple, making the offering of the poor. Simeon predicted contradictions and pain. Mary embraced her faithfulness even to stand at the foot of the cross. By these acts of devotion she is united to her Son and shines as an example prompting the faithful to come to her Son. By bringing the redeemer into the world Mary showed her cooperation in God’s plan of redemption and this is why she can be called Mediatrix without diminishing Christ in his role as the sole mediator between God and mankind. This according to the council fitted in with the Immaculate Conception of Mary and her Assumption into heaven. The Cult of the Blessed Virgin in the Church accepts that Mary is rightly by grace exalted above all humanity and the angels to a place after her Son. From early Church history she is proclaimed as the Holy mother of God. As she said recorded in St. Luke 1.48 All generations will call me blessed because the Almighty has done great thing for me. Mary is the sign of true hope and comfort for the pilgrim people of God. The synod proclaimed with joy that separated brethren might give honour together to Mary the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

At the time of council there were two different approaches to Marian doctrine. Christotypical is when Mary is drawn into the divine plan as mother of God and uniquely associated with her Son’s work of salvation even as subordinate, an ‘Advocate’, ‘Helper’ and ‘Benefactress’. She progressed through these weaker titles to “Mediatrix” with the hope that this could give ecumenical appeal. This view dominated Catholic thinking before the council. Ecclesiotypical in which Mary is a fellow believer, as a member of the Church. This view had ecumenical appeal as it embraced Mary as having our shared orientation. It was by combining these two approaches that further division in council was forestalled. We note neither the dogma on the Immaculate Conception of 1854 nor the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary of 1950 were up for discussion. It was an ecumenical council in attendance but the Vatican retained control. In spite of any short-comings, advances were made in understanding of the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic Church holds in tension both traditionalists who want to take the Church back to teaching and to liturgy from before the Second Vatican Council, and those who want to progress in modernism.

In the Anglican Church towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century devotion to Mary significantly increased. New churches were being dedicated to Mary, stained glass windows showed biblical scenes depicting Mary became popular. Beautiful statues of Our Lady with votive candles appeared. Marian shrines like Walsingham were established or revived. Roman Marian prayers were adopted for Anglican use and the Angelus was to be heard from Anglican Church bells. Books were written by Anglican theologians, views were expressed that the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption had been misunderstood. The Theotokos doctrine does not threaten the divinity of Jesus but has reference to the Annunciation making it scriptural. Flowers and votive candles as a sign of Catholic devotion to Our Lady are now more common in Anglican cathedrals and some parish churches. As a result of Vatican II the subject of Mariology and devotion was now open to Ecumenical dialogue with surprising agreements. Mary’s unique vocation has a place within the work of Christ and his Church and is backed by scripture and a renewed interest in patristic writings. Lutheran and Methodist could also join in this debate. The Anglican Church has its own divide between Catholics and Protestants, united on scriptural authority, but with different interpretation of each text. 

The Second Vatican Council achieved its intention of opening the doors and windows of the Roman Catholic Church giving a new look at dogma and liturgy. In this way other churches were able to share treasures of the Catholic Faith in a new and more acceptable way especially the Churches of the reformation. This was notable in terms of Marian doctrine and liturgy with the establishment of ongoing dialogues. The pictorial images of Mary have transformed since the Second Vatican Council. Before the Council she is depicted in royal splendour with a gold crown on her head and a halo of stars and could be seen as a rival to Our Blessed Lord in full glory. After the Council she is seen as the mother of Jesus with the infant Christ in her arms, or as the sad mother at the foot of the cross as she watches her Son die. The first image divided Catholics from Protestants but the second image is acceptable to modern Catholics and Protestants at the same time. Yet it is the same Mary who is Mother of God who brings her divine Son to our lives and in that way aids our salvation. We can ask for her prayers now and at the hour of our death. Amen.


Vierges Noires (Black Madonnas)

Notre-Dame de Sabart, Tarascon-sur-Ariege


Tarascon-sur-Ariège has a memorable setting surrounded by hills on all sides. The chapel of ND de Sabart on the outskirts of the town goes back in its origins to Charlemagne, who dedicated a chapel of Our Lady of Victories to commemorate a victory over the Saracens circa. 778. In part Romanesque, this chapel was substantially restored in 1865.

The venerated Renaissance statue of Our Lady, strictly not a BV, was solemnly crowned by the then Bishop of Pamiers, Mgr Guiller, on June 7th 1954. Unusually she is ‘supported’ by the presence of statues of Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima and particularly by ND de Meritxell, the chief BV of Andorra, a shrine ‘twinned’ with ND de Sabart since 2006.