The Hierarchical Mary and the Real Mary: Assumption Revisited


In Orlando, Florida, on the Feast of the Assumption, 825 U.S. Catholic women religious were meeting to discern their relationship with the Catholic Church’s bishops. Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the man appointed by the Vatican and ordered to oversee the sisters and exercise control over over their statutes and programs, told the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), that the Virgin Mary teaches the faithful to hand themselves over “completely to the will of God.”

Mary, stressed the archbishop, teaches that it’s only in “submitting ourselves over to the one who made us … that we find fulfillment.” Archbishop Sartain’s message was clear: Mary, said the Vatican overseer “…shows us … what God himself desires to do in us all and through the church when we let the grace of God overtake us without placing an obstacle between ourself and that grace.”

LCWR, represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. sisters.

Archbishop Sartain’s image of the Mother of Jesus is a convenient image for upper-level male administrators who want to keep lower level women, as some say, “in their place.” But is it biblically correct?

Sister Joan Chittister, writing in NCR on August 30th, offers a different perspective; and I resonate very much with Joan.

Joan writes: “In this homily [i.e. Archbishop Sartain’s homily on the Assumption] Mary is ‘quiet,’ ‘docile,’ submits herself over and has no ‘desire or a need to figure things out … or resolve them to her own personal satisfaction.’ There was, we’re told here, no ‘no’ or ‘mine’ in her. The Mary of this homily is a passive receptacle of what she understands to be the Word of God.

“Well, maybe. But it might be good to think about all that a bit in the light of the other things we also know about Mary….

“The purpose of this column is not to parse what the bishop said about Mary on the Feast of the Assumption. I prefer instead to look at what he did not say about her because, it seems to me, what he left out of that homily says much about what is expected of women in the Catholic church.

“For instance, Mary answers the angel’s declaration to her by questioning it. An angel! Someone of much higher rank, it would seem, than even apostolic delegates, and only then with a ‘Be-it-done-unto-me’ response to a situation to which, apparently, ‘no’ was a viable answer. Otherwise, why bother to have the conversation?

“Even more important, perhaps, is the awareness that despite the seriousness — even the danger — of her situation, Mary did not go to any man — to the high priests of the temple, the local rabbi, her father or even Joseph — for directions about what to do next. She went to another woman for the wisdom she needed and followed that instead….

“In another instance, at the wedding feast at Cana, Mary gives her own set of apostolic orders to no less than Jesus himself as well as to the wait staff, as in, ‘Go and do what he tells you.’

“And finally, if anyone wants to know just how influential and important a figure Mary was to the development of the early church, the very idea of her being part of the gathering of apostles on Pentecost when each of them is anointed into discipleship by the Holy Spirit ought to be enough to dispel the notion that what we have here is a woman without a strong sense of self.

“No, the Mary not mentioned in this homily on the Assumption was a woman not intimidated into the Incarnation, not beholden to male answers, not shy about giving directions about what should be done, not without a high sense of personal responsibility, and not one bit in doubt about her place in the hierarchy of the church.

“Those, I think, are precisely the qualities we see in women in our own time that make for what some parts of the church are now calling ‘radical feminism.’

“From where I stand, that is a sad misuse of language and an even sadder case of spiritual blindness.”

And so, we continue to move forward, step by step……..

(Photo: Sister Joan Chittister)

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4 thoughts on “The Hierarchical Mary and the Real Mary: Assumption Revisited

  1. Sr Joan affirms my feelings about the hierarchy of our Church, and their closed minds where women are concerned. Thank you, Sr. Joan. I continue to pray for the change we all deserve. Elevating the Church’s opinion of women, and allowing us to participate fully, will be a source of grace and goodness to all.

  2. “Radical feminism,” used as a derogatory term by anyone in the hierarchy, is just the name-calling tactics of an insecure bully, unless of course, they are pointing out Mary’s boldness questioning the angel or her courage in giving her free will yes, which of course is an astounding, extraordinary, and radical response on her part.

    Kudos to Sr. Joan

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