By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published May 30, 2023
I’ve always been fascinated by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary possesses a mystery and allure that is particularly appealing to those undergoing the conversion process, and for Protestant converts, she retains an aura of secrecy. I still have a small statue of Mary that I purchased over 30 years ago at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. I was living with my Baptist parents at the time, and I smuggled my Mary into their house in the inner pocket of my raincoat.
Mary is an important part of my OCIA program, and I spend an entire class on the major Marian doctrines, for converts are curious about the high regard in which Catholics hold Mary and Marian devotions.
Sixty years since its initial publication in 1963, Karl Rahner’s book of short reflections on Mary has essentially become a standard curriculum for the contemporary understanding of Mary—critically the idea that “Mary because of her role in the redemptive work of Christ is at once Mother of God and mother of all the faithful: as Mother of God she is to be honored above all the saints, as mother the faithful she is to be loved and cherished by every Christian.”
The book clearly explains the fundamental Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, Divine Motherhood, Perpetual Virginity, the Assumption, and Mary as Mediatrix of grace.
Karl Rahner was a German Jesuit Priest who lived from 1904-1984 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1932. He remains one of the most influential (some would say the most) theologians associated with the “New Theology” of the 20th century, which had a major influence upon the Second Vatican Council.
Rahner was pre-censored by Rome in 1962, meaning that he had to have permission to lecture or publish, but by the end of the year St. Pope John XXIII lifted the censorship and invited Rahner to Vatican II as an expert consultant.
At the council, Rahner served as one of the authors of the Vatican II document, Lumen gentium, “The Light of the Nations.”
Rahner is one of a few other major modern Catholic figures that I have for 12 years avoided discussing in my column because his productivity and legacy are enormous. Like Chesterton, for example, he was almost too prolific to appreciate fully without immersion in his work. He published thousands of works, taught and lectured at numerous universities and seminaries, and clearly shaped contemporary Catholicism.
Understanding love as a gift
Rahner is big, and as such, he is viewed with both skepticism and awe in the ongoing dialogue in the church between so-called traditionalists and progressives.
The crucial idea in Rahner’s theology is that the essence of human experience is to become fully aware of God’s existence, God’s revelation to humanity and God’s desire for communion with all people in total love. In this theology, the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is crucial, because of its link to Grace, understood by Rahner as God Himself. For Rahner, God is mystery, but moreover, God is love and this love can only be understood as a gift.
Because of Mary’s critical role in the Incarnation, in Rahner’s view she is a fundamental part of the whole understanding of Catholicism and not a separate cult.
The full title of Rahner’s book on Mary is “Mary Mother of the Lord: Theological Meditations.” The 1963 first edition was published by Herder and Herder and translated from the German into English by W.J. O’Hara. Like almost all Catholic books of the period, it carries the marks of both Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.
In a short preface to the book, Rahner explains that the eight chapters were initially lectures delivered at the University Church of the Holy Trinity in Innsbruck during May devotions. Rahner barely edited the talks; the lectures are printed almost exactly as they were delivered.
The first brief chapters of the book are an adamant defense of the fundamental Catholic belief that Mary as the mother of Jesus Christ is likewise the Mother of God. This is why, Rahner explains, “Mariology is not merely a piece of the private life-story of Jesus of Nazareth, of no real ultimate significance for our salvation, but an affirmation of faith itself concerning a reality of the faith, without which there is no salvation.”
Then, brilliantly, Rahner links Mary’s divine motherhood to our collective humanity. Through Mary, Rahner writes, “We are those who have been called away from the loneliness and isolation of the individual into the unity of the love and grace of God.”
As an ecumenist, Rahner was aware that he must address a Protestant audience largely skeptical of Catholic teachings on Mary. His connection of Mary not only to Christ but also to universal brotherhood is one way that he beautifully affirms the importance of Mary in Christian, not just Catholic, theology. As Rahner puts it, “We cannot pray here together if outside we cannot get on together in love and mutual trust, associate in mutual forbearance. Consequently, devotion to Mary is something that, by the very root from which it springs, has something to do with love of one’s neighbor.”
As the book progresses, Rahner takes a holistic approach and less of what he calls systematic or programmatic dogma. He intends to show how the primary Catholic beliefs about Mary are logically, yet also beautifully, connected. “Mariology fits into the structure of theology as a whole.”
Embracing courage to understand grace
As Rahner begins to explore the specific Marian teachings, beginning with the Immaculate Conception, he reveals even further his great gift for demonstrating how the parts fit within the whole. His contextualization of the Immaculate Conception is at once vast and simple: “The Immaculate Conception means that God surrounds the life of man with redemptive love. He dwells in awe inspiring glory … The Immaculate Conception also means that God surrounds this life of humanity with loving fidelity. It means not only a holy, blessed beginning, not only the undefiled purity of Mary’s origin, but a beginning that originates from God who is faithful. The beginning was what it was because the end was to be blessed.”
Rahner emphasizes that as a human being, though mother of the Word Incarnate, Mary’s most profound gesture was simply to say, Yes. “The Word was made flesh because a maiden of our human race knelt down at the angel’s message and in the freedom of her heart and with the total unconditional gift of herself said: Be it done unto me according to thy word.”
On Mary’s perpetual virginity, Rahner demonstrates that Mary’s virginity is an outward sign of God’s gift of himself to humanity; she is called to “visibly represent and proclaim [that gift] by all she was, even in her physical existence.”
As he demonstrates in each of the talks, Rahner shows clearly that Mary’s example of virginity is not just a model of purity, but an example of embracing courage to better understand God’s grace.
The talks on the Assumption and Mediatrix of Graces are brilliant in their demonstration of “presence in absence.” They summarize Mary as “the perfect achievement and work of redemption” whose unspoiled union of body and soul is a reminder of what we may look forward to; our belief in what she has attained affirms our own hope in our own resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Rahner’s little book on Mary is just over 100 pages, and yet it has the effect of a cascade. I wish I could have heard Rahner deliver these talks; the language unrolls like a spool, as if the Holy Spirit is indeed speaking through him. The book concludes with a prayer of consecration to Mary, perhaps the most beautiful Marian prayer I have ever read.
“Mary Mother of the Lord” is one of the best books I know to explain clearly yet eloquently what the church teaches about Mary. It is also a wonderful book to share with Protestant Christians who want to know more about what Catholics really believe about her. While you may choose to read the book as a refresher; I would encourage you to read it more properly as a devotion. It is a perfect book to close out the month of May.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of OCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.