Something About Mary

Julie Swenson, a Minneapolis publicist, went looking for Mary half-heartedly a few years ago, when she visited Fatima, the Church-sanctioned site where Mary appeared six times to three shepherd children near the town of Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. “I went to Fatima as a stop during Christmas vacation with my fiancee and his dad and a troupe of others, including Deepak Chopra.”

According to Julie, Fatima is a tourist town “not unlike Wisconsin Dells.” Glow-in-the-dark Virgins and other miracle trinkets are plentiful, and Julie still has a half-dozen glowing Mary statues tucked away in the back of a closet. “They definitely freak me out,” she admits.

But what struck Julie most at Fatima was one particular miracle-seeker. “It was a lonely man walking on his knees. He was dirty, I mean the kind of dirty only found among the poorest of the poor. His clothes were threadbare, and I’m sure he hadn’t eaten in days, but there he was kneeing his way to a miracle across the stones in the rain without an umbrella. I wondered what would make him do this. Who was sick? Who was lost? What miracle did he need?”

Michael Donahue, a psychology professor in California, has researched Marian apparitions and is lucent about the changing nature of Mary in these modern times. “I was especially influenced by a book called Encountering Mary by Sandra Zimdars-Swartz,” says Donahue. “This author looks at the development of these apparitions, which had, historically, served to re-inspire devotion or asked for some new form of devotion.”

Donahue points to the recently released memoir Looking for Mary by Beverly Donofrio—author of Riding in Cars With Boys—as a good source for understanding the sort of individual who might tend toward a pilgrimage of Marian devotion. “Donofrio really captures the mentality of the Marian devotees,” Donahue says. “When you read her book, you get a true sense—not from Donofrio herself, but from the crowds she interviews—of the seeking, and the will to believe without question, that typifies these pilgrims. Donofrio recounts her conversations with devotees, who believe that if they ask Mary for something, she will do it. If they expect a miracle, it will happen. Donofrio moved through it not wanting to be sucked in, but the voice you hear of those devotees struck me as very authentic.” Medinger also mentions the pilgrim Donofrio. “She’s hilarious and moving. Ultimately her home becomes a shrine to Mary. What she’s doing internally is creating a shrine for Mary within, waiting for her to come back home and move in.”

Which, according to Pope John Paul II, just may be the most direct route to salvation. No surprise, given his lifelong devotion to Mary and his belief in her divine intervention during the attempt on his life in 1981. In order to learn to contemplate and to love the face of Christ, he says, “We must go to Mary, who, fully accepting the plan of God, formed her Son in a singular way, supporting his growth.”

Formed her son in a singular way? Supporting his growth? That seems a terribly mundane description of motherhood itself. How has such an everyday accomplishment managed to inspire millions and millions of people—not all of them believing in the immaculate conception or even the divinity of Jesus Christ—to trek across the globe to kneel in the dust in the general vicinities where Mary may or may not have? The question asked may be the question answered. It could be Mary’s flesh-and-blood humanity, her earthly motherhood—with all the word implies—that lies at the heart of her enduring capacity to inspire the love and devotion of the masses. Perhaps she is not just the mother of God, but the mother of us all.

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