In Conversation: Mary Can Help Heal Rifts Among Churches

Editors’ note: Mary B. Cunningham, honorary associate professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, England, wrote an essay on Mary, Mother of God, in the Eastern tradition in the March 2023 issue of ONE magazine.

Michael J.L. La Civita, director of communications, followed up with the theologian in a video interview in which they discussed her path to Orthodoxy, her study of theology and in particular her scholarship on Mary.

Watch our first episode of ONE: In Conversation below and read an excerpt from their discussion, where our guest speaks about the role of Mary as a unifying figure for Christians.

“I just so strongly believe the church is one and the divisions and the schisms are a tragic part of our history, which we need to overcome and work to heal. And I do think that the Mother of God can play a role in that. Although there are branches of the Christian church that have a distrust of the veneration of the Mother of God, I don’t think anyone would deny her importance in the Gospel story and be able to relate to her in some way.

“But what the Orthodox and Catholic churches have is this rich tradition that grew over the centuries of reflection on her importance, as we’ve been saying, in the Incarnation, her essential role in that in both giving Christ and proving his humanity, and remaining a symbol of that, if you like, a symbol of the Incarnation.

“But I think we can each relate to her as well as a model to follow. She represents, for me, an example of complete selfless and sacrificial love. She just gave her life to this and to enabling what happened through Christ. It couldn’t have been easy, you know. It was a sacrifice for her, I think, and we are all called to do that. But she’s such a loving example of that and has this motherly aspect that makes her someone we can look up to and follow. So, I strongly believe she can help in this process of healing.

“Another thing is that we often make a lot of the differences, say between Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the Mother of God and people focus on things like the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. And the Orthodox say, we reject that and how could the pope have published a bull on that subject? But if you look back into the tradition, the Fathers from the very beginning were talking about her purity. They used all kinds of adjectives to talk about her virginal purity, her sinlessness, really, is what I’m trying to say, her holiness. From the moment she was conceived. The only difference I can see is that the Greek Fathers tend to stress that this was a continual process with her, that she continued to be graced by the Holy Spirit, and she continued to grow. And some texts go into this in a fascinating detail.

“I would cite, for example, Gregory Palamas’s wonderful homily on the Entrance of the Mother of God Into the Temple, in which he talks about her as a hesychast. And she is, during the period she was in the temple — which you may remember, according to the Apocryphal texts, was between the ages of 3 and 12 — she was learning to lead a life of silence. He actually uses this word ‘silence.’ And just removing herself from worldly thoughts and temptations and preparing herself, but also, above all, finding God and pursuing a relationship with God that ultimately was a hesychastic one. In other words, she was deified and became unified with God and just focused entirely on God.

“So, there’s maybe more nuance in the Orthodox tradition than just saying, well, she was absolved of original sin from the moment she was conceived and that was that. But there’s a richness in the Catholic tradition, too. And, ultimately, I think we’re saying the same thing and we venerate her in the same way.

“And one final thing I wanted to say was there’s something that can offer a little window of new revelation in the Mother of God. And I think we see that, especially in the Catholic Church, for example, in all these stories of apparitions to very humble people, like Bernadette of Lourdes, which the bishops of the church probably had grave doubts about when they first heard about it. But somehow, the church gets behind those apparitions and believes them, that she can appear to the humblest of people in the most unlikely circumstances. And somehow you can break the sort of orderly flow of things and have Divinity breaking through, through the Mother of God. And that’s a great glimmer of hope for me.

“You know, it occurs in different ways. You have healing icons in the Orthodox tradition, but she’s somehow at work in our church today in ways that are often quite unexpected, but very real and to which people relate — perhaps because she is a woman, perhaps because she has this motherly aspect — but you always have to stress they’re coming closer to Christ and to God through her. She’s not an object of worship in herself, but she is another conduit for us along with the saints.”

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