THIS WEEK A LARGE BOX SHIPPED from California and addressed to ""His Holiness, John Paul II'' will arrive at the Vatican. The shipping label lists a dozen countries--from every continent but Antarctica--plus a number, 40,383, indicating the quantity of signatures inside. Each signature is attached to a petition asking the pope to exercise the power of papal infallibility to proclaim a new dogma of the Roman Catholic faith: that the Virgin Mary is ""Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces and Advocate for the People of God.''
Such a move would elevate Mary's status dramatically beyond what most Christians profess. But in the last four years, the pope has received 4,340,429 signatures from 157 countries--an average of 100,000 a month--supporting the proposed dogma. Among the notable supporters are Mother Teresa of Calcutta, nearly 500 bishops and 42 cardinals, including John O'Connor of New York, Joseph Glemp of Poland and half a dozen cardinals at the Vatican itself. Nothing like this organized petition drive has ever been seen in Rome. But then, it isn't often that Catholics beg a pope to make an infallible pronouncement.
If the drive succeeds, Catholics would be obliged as a matter of faith to accept three extraordinary doctrines: that Mary participates in the redemption achieved by her son, that all graces that flow from the suffering and death of Jesus Christ are granted only through Mary's intercession with her son, and that all prayers and petitions from the faithful on earth must likewise flow through Mary, who then brings them to the attention of Jesus. This is what theologians call high Mariology, and it seems to contradict the basic New Testament belief that ""there is one God and one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus'' (1 Timothy 2:5). In place of the Holy Trinity, it would appear, there would be a kind of Holy Quartet, with Mary playing the multiple roles of daughter of the Father, mother of the Son and spouse of the Holy Spirit.
""Personally, I'm confident that there will be this recognition of Marian truth before the year 2000,'' says Prof. Mark Miravalle, 39, the leader of the petition drive and a lay theologian at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Miravalle has met with the pope several times and published three books since launchinghis bold initiative at a Marian conference in 1993. An infallible papal definition, he says, would put these doctrines ""at the highest level of revealed truth.''
Rumors of the potential new dogma have triggered blister-ing criticism from other Christian denominations and ignited a battle within the church itself. ""Calling Mary a Co-Redeemer is a heresy in the simplest sense,'' says the Rev. George G. Passias, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. ""It is one thing to ask Mary to intercede with her son, but it is another thing to exalt her as the Mediatrix between God and men.'' Episcopal theologian R. William Franklin, a veteran of the ecumenical dialogue between the Anglican and the Roman Catholic Churches, is equally outraged. A new papal dogma on Mary, he warns, ""would be a further nail in the coffin of ecumenism'' by stressing two points that Protestants cannot accept: ""the Marian de-emphasis of Jesus and the re-emphasis of the dogmatic authority of the pope.'' But, says Franklin, ""I don't think the church gives a damn. It'san arrogance which stems from the mystical Marian devotion of the current pope.''
The proposed dogma would likely cause serious rupture among Catholic theologians as well. Last June the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, reported that the HolySee had asked a commission of 23 Mariologists to study the proposal. These are specialists in the theology of Mary and the scholars most likely to applaud the initiative. But, by a vote of 23-0, the commission advised against promulgating the new dogma. It was, the panel argued, contrary to the teaching of Vatican Council II, ambiguous in its wording and insensitive to ""the ecumenical difficulties'' such a definition of dogma would cause.
But the Virgin Mary is no ordinary religious figure, nor just another pretty face. For nearly two millenniums, she has been the dominant female figure in Western culture. For her, men have erected many of the most beautiful churches in the world: Chartres and NOtre Dame in France, Hagia Sophia in what was once Constantinople and Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. In her, poets from Villon and Dante to Hopkins, Eliot and Auden have found inspiration for their genius, and Schubert--among numerous composers--for his sublime ""Ave Maria.'' The Annunciation, when an angel of the Lord appears before the startled teenage virgin to announce that she will bear a child, may well be the most painted scene in the history of Western art.
In many ways, the 20th century has belonged to Mary. From almost every continent, visionaries have reported more than 400 ""apparitions'' of the Virgin--more than in the previous three centuries combined, Miravalle estimates. Taken together, these visions point to what the Marian movement believes is a millennial ""Age of Mary,'' which will produce a final dogma that confirms her ongoing maternal mediation between God and humankind.
To traditional points of pilgrimage, such as Lourdes and Fatima, the movement has added Medjugorje, a backwater Croatian-speaking enclave of 250 families in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where six children say they began receiving visions and messages of the Virgin in 1981. Today, it has become the new Fatima, visited by an estimated 10 million to 20 million pilgrims to date. On returning home, many report their own visions of the Virgin, so that places like Phoenix and Cleveland now have their resident seers. Tracking Mary has become a cottage industry. In the ripening apparition subculture, there are hundreds of small-circulation Marian newsletters, magazines and newspapers--not to mention illustrated books and pamphlets, plus graphic videotapes showing weeping statues, miraculously bleeding communion hosts and visitations with prophesying hometown seers. Mary has her Web sites, too, where devotees post the latest messages from visionaries abroad and provide chat rooms to discuss the meaning of it all. Here, old-fashioned Catholicism blends easily into New Age hunger for the supernatural. ""It seems like everybody and his brother is having visions, and I try to keep my distance,'' says conference regular Wayne Weibel, who converted to Catholicism after making a pilgrimage to Medjugorje.
At another level, this thriving Marian subculture has its own conference circuit stretching this summer from Modesto, Calif., to Charlotte, N.C. Many Catholics who were once in the charismatic movement have migrated to Mary as the Holy Spirit's more interesting spouse. ""There's a conference somewhere every weekend,'' says Robert Schaefer, whose tiny Queenship Press in Santa Barbara, Calif., publishes Miravalle and other Marian authors. Last week, as he prepared to send box No. 100 off to the Vatican with 20,000 signed petitions from South India inside, Schaefer allowed that ""there's more interest in Mary than there ever was before.''
Not all of it, however, is driven by Marian apparitions. Feminists who 20 years ago dismissed Mary as the oppressive Virgin-Mother created by a clerical patriarchy now celebrate her as a ""free woman'' who chose to say yes to God at the Annuncia-tion where Eve said ""no'' in the Garden of Eden--and thus made salvation history possible. Even liberation theologians have found in the humble Mary an apt symbol of God's ""preferential option for the poor.''
The secret of Mary's mysterious power may be just this: having no history of her own, she entices every new generation to draw her portrait. The Bible offers only scraps to build on. Mark, the earliest Gospel, suggests that Mary did not understand or approve of what her son was up to. Matthew is more benign, mentioning the virgin birth. Luke pays her the most attention, presenting Mary as the obedient handmaiden of the Lord and spokeswoman for the outcast. It is only in Luke that Mary is hailed as ""full of grace,'' and promised that ""all generations will call you blessed.'' In John, the latest of the Gospels, a request from Mary prompts Jesus to turn water into wine, the first miracle of his public life. And unlike the other Gospels, John places Mary at Jesus' crucifixion--thus signaling that she was, after all, a disciple of her son.
From this meager line of development, Mary gradually grew in stature. Astonishingly, this obscure Jewish mother absorbed and transformed the most powerful pagan goddesses. She was the Madonna who gives life, but also the PietA who receives the dead. Once asceticism became the privileged road to Christian holiness, she became the perpetual virgin, the model of chastity and self-denial. In 431, the Council of Ephesus issued the first dogmatic statement on Mary: she was to be honored as Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God. Thereafter, theologians were unceasing in their efforts to probe the mystery of her meaning within the fabric of the whole Bible, Genesis to Apocalypse. ""Concerning no other human being, none of the prophets or apostles or saints, has there been even a small fraction of the profound theological revelation that has been called forth by the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary,'' observes Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan in his recent book, ""Mary Through the Centuries.''
The Middle Ages brought Mary to the height of her cosmic influence. While theologians explored the orderly and abstract equations of the Holy Trinity, Mary broke loose, like some wild but marvelously human variable. To the poor especially, hers was the compassionate face of a maternal God. No less a theologian than Thomas Aquinas argued vehemently against the popular conviction that the merciful Madonna was born without the taint of original sin. But in the 19th century, long after many Protestant reformers had rejected the cult of the Virgin as popish nonsense, Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception Catholic dogma.
With that single act, Mary became forever identified, in the eyes of the church's harshest critics, with papal arrogance. Sensing themselves besieged on all sides by an aggressive secularism, Europe's Catholics turned with ever more ardor to their heavenly patroness. To Marx's economic man, Nietzsche's superman and Goethe's Faust, the church offered a feminine anti-type: a worried and judgmental mother who warned of war (rightly, as it turned out) if humankind did not repent and reform. Visions proliferated, especially to peasant children, at places like Lourdes and Fatima. Religious vocations flourished. Hundreds of orders of priests and nuns sprang up, all dedicated under one metaphor or another to Mary the Immaculate Mother. By the middle of this century, shrines to assorted ""black'' Madonnas like Guadalupe in Mexico, Montserrat in Catalan Spain and the pope's beloved Czestochowa in Poland were pulsing centers of national, as well as religious, identity. By the middle of the 20th century, when the dogma of Mary's assumption into heaven was proclaimed, Mary was the very marrow of Catholic culture. Jesus, it often seemed, was proud to be her son.
At Vatican Council II, in the 1960s, the bishops fought fiercely among themselves over what to teach about the Virgin Mary. A conservative minority wanted yet another declaration of her exceptional role in salvation. Words like Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix were in the air. But progressives, tutored by Biblical scholars, succeeded in curbing what some saw as dangerous deviation toward Mariolatry. The mood of the council was captured nicely by the late Sister Corita Kent, a popular religious artist: ""The nice thing about Mary,'' she said, , ""is that her son turned out so well.''
The latest face that Mary wears is--like all the others--a mirror that reflects the age. As the world edges toward the new millennium, she emerges as an apocalyptic figure prophesying doom. Ironically, many of the Catholics who clamor loudest for new papal dogmas are barely distinguishable from those fundamentalist Protestants who preach that the end times are at hand. ""If we refuse to define [the Marian dogmas], I think trial and persecution and tragedy will follow,'' says Mother Angelica, 74, the fiercely old-fashioned nun whose Eternal Word Television Network reaches 55 million homes in 38 countries from her convent studios in Birmingham, Ala. Two weeks ago she featured Professor Miravalle and his petition drive on her talk show, ""Mother Angelica Live.'' ""If the Holy Father would define this dogma,'' she believes, ""it would save the world from great catastrophes and loosen God's mercy even more upon this world.''
Catholic tradition has for centuries rejected apocalyptic prophecies, especially those that come from private revela-tions. But the dark Madonna who speaks to contemporary seers is an avenging mother cut loose from traditional moorings in the church. In Signs of the Times, the leading journal of the ap-paritions movement, editor Maureen Flynn and her husband, Ted, have pieced together a millennialist scenario from all the messages of Mary dating back a century. They foresee a super-natural warning, the world's greatest miracle, followed by three days of darkness they call ""the great chastisement.'' Says Ted Flynn: ""I am amazed that more people don't know about it.''
Professor Miravalle knows all about these prophecies. He twice visited the most popular of these latter-day visionaries, Ida Peerdeman, who died two years ago in Amsterdam after conveying reams of messages from Mary. It is Peerdeman who first disclosed the Madonna's prediction that John Paul II will proclaim as ""the final dogma'' her roles as Co-Redeemer, Mediator of All Graces and Advocate of Mankind. Miravalle insists that his Vox Populi movement ""was up and running long before I heard of Ida Peerdeman.'' All he's asking for, he says, is a ""development of doctrine''--not a new belief--to solidify ""Marian truth.''
Since June there have been a number of conflicting com-mentaries on the proposed dogma published for the Vatican's consumption. In one, French theologian RenE Laurentin, an internationally known specialist on Mary, strongly opposes the proposed dogma as un-Scriptural and an affront to the unique-ness of Christ's redemptive death. All this suggests that there is a battle going on behind the scenes for the mind of the pope. But John Paul has a mind of his own. His devotion to Mary seems to have no limits. His papal motto, ""Totus tuus,'' means ""All yours''--a reference to Mary. He firmly believes that it was the Virgin of Fatima who rescued him from a gunman's bullet--and almost certain death--in 1981, on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, as it turned out. He rarely delivers a homily or issues an encyclical without praising the Virgin Mary. He routinely uses words like Mediatrix, Advocate and occasionally even Co-Redemptrix. This year he concluded a series of 50 Wednesday-noon addresses on various aspects of Mariology, including one in May in which he went well beyond the silence of Scripture to claim that Mary was the first to experience the Risen Christ at Easter. It was, he said, only ""fitting.''
All this gives confidence to the leaders of the petition drivethat the pope will heed their pleas. They, too, see the enhance-ment of Mary beyond Scriptures' meager details as befit-ting the Mother of God. Moreover, they have precedent on their side. John Paul has declared a jubilee celebration for the millennium--a perfect occasion for defining a new dogma. The only time that papal infallibility has been exercised since 1874--the year Vatican Council I made papal infallibility itself a Catholic dogma--was another jubilee year, 1950, when Pius XII defined the dogma of Mary's immediate Assumption into heaven, meaning that her body was spared decay. One difference is that Pius XII first conducted a long and wide consulta-tion with all the bishops of the church. Miravalle thinks that his petitions are ""one indication of similar collegial support'' for the new dogma. But there are some 2,700 Catholic bishops and at least 90 cardinals yet to be heard from, and signing a petition is hardly the same as thoughtful consultation.
No one knows what, if anything, John Paul II will decide to do. He has publicly acknowledged that the papacy, with its power to define infallible dogmas, is a major obstacle in the path of a reunited Christianity. But he also sees the world caught in what he has called a ""culture of death''--which is very much the view of the millennial Madonna. No doubt, as New York City's Cardinal O'Connor has written, the pope could find language for a new Marian dogma that would not drastically offend other Christians. But language is not the only issue.
""Why waste so much infallibility on something that is not of crucial importance?'' asks Father John Roten, chairman of the International Marian Institute at the University of Dayton. Roten was a member of the commission that advised against a new papal definition and remains opposed. Instead, he suggests the pope honor Mary with a new feast day or title, rather than ""go to the extreme and make it dogma.''
Indeed, if the Assumption is to be believed, Mary already has what other Christians can only hope for: a reunion with her Son in the Glory of the Father by the Power of the Holy Spirit. What more could any mother want?
She was a virgin, and the mother of the Son of God. Beyond that, there is really very little about Mary in the New Testament. Much of what is now believed and taught about her came later; for example, the idea that shewas immaculately conceived, which was proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church in 1854, is not found in the Bible. Here are excerpts from the fewer than two dozen mentions in the Gospels that tell the story of Mary:
. . . The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ""Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you!'' But she was greatly troubled at what was said . . . Then the angel said to her, ""Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.''
. . . But Mary said to the angel, ""How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?'' And the angel said to her in reply, ""The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.'' . . . Mary said, ""Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.''
2:15-19 When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ""Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.'' So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
While he [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers appeared outside, wishing to speak with him. But he said in reply to the one who told him, ""Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?'' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.''
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, ""They have no wine.'' Jesus said to her, ""Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.'' His mother said to the servers, ""Do whatever he tells you.'' . . . Jesus told them, ""Fill the jars with water.'' So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, ""Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.'' [The water had been turned into wine.] Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory and his disciples began to believe in him.
19:25-27 Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ""Woman, behold, your son.'' Then he said to the disciple, ""Behold, your mother.'' And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
MARIAN HISTORY: VISIONS AND TRUTHS
From the nameless mother of Jesus to Mary, Mother of God, this female icon has been reinterpreted through the generations. Here is a capsule history of what the church has said about Mary, and what visionaries have reported:
At the third Ecumenical Council, in Ephesus (now Turkey), Mary's title Mother of God was made official and incorporated into prayers.
Appearing four times to an Indian named Juan Diego, Mary instructed him to tell Bishop Zumarraga to build a church outside Mexico City. After a life-size figure of the Virgin was miraculously imprinted on Diego's mantle, the bishop complied. Diego's cloak is enshrined in the church, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Catherine Laboure, a novice, saw Mary two times in the chapel of St. Vincent de Paul in Paris. Mary asked Catherine to have a medal made and to spread devotions to her. The medal, called theMiraculous Medal, was made in 1882.
Pope Pius IX declared Mary preserved from original sin, by virtue of a special grace of God and in view of her being the mother of Christ.
Mary appeared 18 times at Massabielle, a grotto near Lourdes, between February and July 1858. She referred to herself as the Immaculate Conception. Leo XIII designated Feb. 11 a feast day, and Pius X made it churchwide in 1907.
Mary appeared to four children and urged them to pray as Prussian troops closed in on the village during the Franco-Prussian War. The troops turned back. Our Lady of Hope Church was built in Pontmain after the apparition.
The figures of Mary, Joseph, John the Apostle, a lamb and a cross appeared over the village chapel in a bright light, despite the pouring rain. More than 15 people saw the silent figures.
Three young children, ages 7 to 14, saw Mary six times between the spring and fall of 1917 while tending sheep. She referred to herself as the Immaculate Heart. In 1942 Pope Pius XII entrusted the whole world to the Immaculate Heart.
In the garden of the convent school here Mary appeared 33 times in the winter of 1932-33 to five children, ages 9 to 15. She appeared as the Virgin of the Golden Heart.
Mariette Beco, 12 years old, saw Mary eight times in the winter of 1938 in her family garden. Mary called herself the Virgin of the Poor and promised to intercede for the poor, the sick and the suffering.
The issue of what happened to Mary at the end of her life was settled when Pope Pius XII declared Mary taken up, body and soul, to heaven. This was the last time to date that papal infallibility was invoked to define dogma.
Mary, calling herself the Lady of All Nations, appeared many times to Ida Peerdeman. Promising world peace, Mary told Ida to petition the pope for the "Last Dogma in Marian History," including the titles Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix and Advocate.
Visionaries here saw hideous images of genocide. In the last apparition, on Nov. 28,1989, Mary, calling herself the Mother of the World, stressed prayer and the rosary. The visions preceded the Rwanda massacres that began in 1094.
Six children have seen visions of Mary, beginning in June 1981 when she appeared to them as a beautiful young woman in golden splendor, calling herself the Queen of peace. Ten million to 20 million pilgrims have visited the site.
SOURCES: THE MARIAN LIBRARY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF DAYTON, OHIO; THE CATHOLIC ALMANAC