Reading Fr. Nichols’ new text in Mariology, There is No Rose of Such Virtue: The Mariology of the Catholic Church (Fortress Press, 2015), reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother a couple of years ago. At the time, my husband and I had just moved to Washington, DC, and I was homesick for the great state of Indiana. My mother recommended I pray the traditional Marian prayer, the Memorare, to ask for Mary’s intercession and comfort. “The ‘Memorare’”? I asked. “I’ve never heard of that prayer.” My mother, utterly shocked, immediately rattled off the prayer—evidencing how the plea for Mary to “hear and answer” had been embedded in her Catholic subconscious, formed in an ethnic Roman Catholic parish in the 1950’s greater-Chicago area. In amazement, she insisted, “Did they never teach you that in school? How is it possible that you’ve never heard that prayer?”
For now, I’ll bracket the somewhat terrifying memory of, for lack of a better word, “thin” Catholic religious education in the 1980s. Remembering this simple devotional prayer, which my mother knew so well, and I knew not at all—reminded me of other cultural practices which vanish within a generation. My grandparents spoke fluent Slovak. My mother knows a few phrases. I know exactly four words, three of which (I recently discovered) should not be used in polite company. In short, the Memorare, which was embedded in my mother’s brain as a natural spiritual response to human distress, was a completely foreign object to me. In order for the prayer to be bring me solace, I would need to first learn the words of the prayer (a prayer cast in devotional language of the mid-nineteenth century) and, secondly, think of a Marian devotion as my first natural response in times of need.
My “gap” in Marian knowledge reflects perhaps a wider trend for Catholics whose subconsciouses were formed not during the heyday of Marian piety in the 1950s, but in the post-Conciliar decades of the 1970s and 1980s. My dearth in devotional training seems to be, as Fr. Nichols’ historical tracing of Mariology suggests, the result of a phase of “Marian reform” which included the “suppression of…superstitious acts of popular piety”; a concern that Marian devotional practices, such as the rosary, were incompatible with liturgical prayer; and the influence of ressourcement movements which preferred a “low Mariology” rather than dogmatic emphases upon Mary’s role in mediating grace, or her role as co-redeemer (Nichols 145-148).
Certainly, as a Roman Catholic, I feel that I know very little about a central figure in the Church’s tradition. I wanted to read this new volume by Fr. Nichols, There Is No Rose, because, as a liturgist and a historian particularly interested in the twentieth century (coincidently an era of flourishing Marian devotions), I wanted an opportunity to closely read about Mary. To this end, Nichols’ text is well-organized and unfolds historically, tracing central Marian themes and dogmas from Biblical through patristic, medieval, neo-scholastic, and some modern texts.
As a liturgist, one of the most compelling sources of evidence which Nichols draws upon is his use of Marian hymns, iconographic depictions, and liturgical prayer texts. Also compelling is Nichols’ discussion of the relationship between the gradual adoption of Marian feasts into the Church calendar and the articulation of Marian doctrine by the Church (Nichols 26). For example, the attempt to add a feast celebrating the Conception of Mary prompted Pius IX, in his 1854 Ineffabilis Deus, to affirm the Immaculate Conception as dogma (Nichols 50). In fact, I would have enjoyed seeing more discussion of the influence of Marian piety in articulating Marian dogma, attending to the dynamic relationship of lex orandi, lex credendi.
Likewise, Fr. Nichols’ last chapter, which he titles “An Excursus on Eastern Orthodox Theology and Marian Art,” should not be neglected, as it offers the reader a compelling presentation of how devotional traditions complement and teach Marian dogma, and implicitly suggests powerful points of connection between Eastern and Western Christians. I found myself scurrying to the internet to search for the images he described; it would have been a great asset to the text if the particular icons he describes so beautifully could have been reprinted.
As a historian, I felt that the “gap” in Mariology and reflection on Marian development, which Fr. Nichols describes as occurring after the Second Vatican Council (Nichols ix), is evidenced by the sources drawn upon my Fr. Nichols. Of the sources listed in the “Select Bibliography,” 62 of 86, or 72%, were published before 1980. 41 of 86, or nearly 50%, were published before 1960. On the one hand, the large number of pre-Conciliar authors reflects the greater interest in Mariology in mid-century Euro-American circles. To this end, Fr. Nichols usefully introduces the reader to a number of sources in French and German. On the other hand, I am somewhat surprised that there are so few sources which discuss matters of Marian dogma, faith, or liturgical practice from the last quarter of the twentieth century. Similarly, a more direct discussion of Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Redemptoris Mater (1987), or his devotion to Mary throughout his papacy, might have drawn upon more recent sources.
One might argue that Fr. Nichols’ object is more descriptive of the development of Marian doctrine and, therefore, need not require the work of more recent scholarship on Mariology. Yet, it seems that some descriptions of Mary, particularly her role as “Co-Redeemer” would have benefited from a discussion not only of why Mary has been described as such by Catholic theologians, but why such titles are potentially confusing—to fellow Christians and to Roman Catholics themselves. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council’s determination to include a discussion of Mary within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, rather than devote an entire document to her, is noted twice as a concession to the concerns of “Protestants” (Nichols 81 & 149). Given the more recent interest in Mary by a variety of Christian churches, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, some discussion of “common ground” regarding Mary which addressed her role as exemplar of faith, or mother of the church, might have provided a useful balance to this critique of ecumenical concerns in the Conciliar period.
In short, those interested in tracing the development of Marian devotion will find this text useful for its clear presentation of key Marian dogmas in the Catholic tradition. In particular, Fr. Nichol’s discussion of how the Marian material within the New Testament develops key Old Testament images for Israel is compelling. Readers will also benefit from the incorporation of numerous texts and images from Eastern Orthodox theological and devotional sources. This text would be best-suited for students in upper-level or graduate theological courses which discussed Catholic doctrine, and would be especially useful for scholars seeking a concise resource for tracing mid-century Marian theological reflection.