The growing appeal of the mother of Jesus

A painting of Mary and a young Jesus. Dreamstime photo

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, but it is also the holiday in which his mother, Mary, has her most prominent role. In the Christmas story, the pregnant Mary and her husband, Joseph, must travel by donkey from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem, and she gives birth in a stable in nearby Bethlehem — scenes that are touchstones for Christians across the board. Increasingly, however, interest in the Virgin Mary is spreading beyond the familiar Nativity images. Protestants who once saw Marian devotion as a reason for separating from Rome are finding Mary to be a source of commonality in dialogues with Catholics, and there is evidence that Catholics in the United States — in part because of the influx of Latinos who often maintain a deeper connection with “the Blessed Mother” — are rediscovering Marian devotion after decades in which such popular piety was de-emphasized.

Mary is also a focal point for theologians and others who want to explore explicitly female aspects of Christian devotion. Even people who do not consider themselves churchgoers are using Marian prayers and rosary beads as aids to spiritual growth.


Why it matters

The role of women has been contentious in many religious communities in recent decades, just as it has for the wider society. In many respects, Mary of Nazareth is a point of contact for secular and religious debates about women. Feminists have sought to re-imagine Mary as a strong-willed woman who could be considered a modern role model, while many social conservatives have tried to depict her as the ideal of traditional motherhood — obedient and largely passive. Whether it is the search for the “sacred feminine” in religion, or the effort to accommodate motherhood to modernity, Mary, mother of Jesus, is finding adherents both inside and outside faith communities.


The veneration of Mary began early in Christian history and grew quickly, to the point that the church began to formulate the precise terms that believers should use to think about her (worship is reserved for God alone). These doctrines emerged from the church’s recognition that Jesus Christ was both God and man, which gave rise to speculation about the nature of the woman who gave birth to this divine Messiah. The Council of Ephesus in 431 gave her the title of “Mother of God” (theotokos), which elevated her role among believers still further. In medieval Europe, popular piety surrounding the Virgin Mary reached new heights. Great cathedrals were dedicated to her and people of all ranks recited the rosary, in which a string of beads is used to keep track of the number of times the supplicant has recited the “Hail Mary,” along with other prayers.

The Reformation was a watershed. Catholic veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary became a wedge issue for Protestants who rejected Marian devotion and iconography as extra-biblical traditions or even outright superstition. The Counter-Reformation led to a heightened emphasis on Marian devotion as a marker that would distinguish Catholics from Protestants. The challenges posed to the Catholic Church by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the secularizing trends in 19th-century Europe also renewed Marian fervor. The period was marked by a number of Marian visions and apparitions, and the enshrinement of the Immaculate Conception (the teaching that Mary was conceived without sin as a pure vessel to give birth to Jesus) as dogma. All of these trends widened the divide between Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox, who always maintained a high view of Marian devotion) and Protestants over the role of Mary.

After the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), popular Catholic piety like that surrounding the Virgin Mary declined, though it has experienced a resurgence. At the same time, many Protestants are seeking ways to recover a reverence for Mary without embracing Catholic doctrine and practice. Some of this impetus comes from an evangelical re-engagement with ancient aspects of Christian history. Some of it stems of popular culture, particularly movies such as The Nativity Story (2006) and The Passion of the Christ (2004), which brought the historical role of Mary to a wide audience.

Within the Catholic Church in the United States, Marian devotion has been given a boost by the influx of Latinos, especially Mexicans, whose attachment to the Virgin of Guadalupe—she appeared to a native farmer in 1531 near what is now Mexico City—is the most vivid public manifestation of Catholic piety in many cities.

In addition, the emergence of Islam in the United States and on the global stage has focused attention on Islam’s respect for Mary. In fact, Mary is the only woman mentioned in the Quran, and she is a point of common reference for Christian-Muslim dialogues.

Finally, Marian apparitions are occurring with great frequency. Whatever the reality of these visions, experts note that appearances by Mary are more common than appearances by Jesus, and that these events indicate a powerful attraction to the many unique aspects of the Virgin Mary.

Within this wider context of commonality, experts in ecumenism say three historical sticking points for Protestants remain problematic. Two of them regard Catholic dogmas: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (defined in 1854) and the dogma of the Assumption (declared by the pope in 1950), which holds that Mary was bodily “assumed” into heaven. A third point, that of Mary’s role as a mediator — someone Christians can pray to so that she can intercede on their behalf before God — is also a source of contention.

Traditional Christian doctrine states that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. The issue of whether she remained a virgin all her life, as Catholicism teaches, or whether she may have had other children after Jesus, as many Protestants think, was raised in 2002 with the discovery of an ossuary, or bone box, in Israel that reportedly held the remains of James, the brother of Jesus. Experts say, however, that the question is largely an academic one that does not play a central role in ecumenical dialogues.


  • The Mary Page

    The “All About Mary” page at the University of Dayton in Ohio, a Marianist Catholic college, is the portal to the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, one of the largest collections of resources on the Virgin Mary in the world.

  • Beliefnet: Mary, Mother of God

    See a Beliefnet page on Mary.

  • Catholic Encyclopedia: The Blessed Virgin Mary

    See the entry on the Virgin Mary in the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia.

  • Encyclopedia of Religion and Society: Virgin Mary

    See the entry on the Virgin Mary in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, edited by William H. Swatos Jr.

  • Ecumenical Miracle Rosary

    The Ecumenical Miracle Rosary was created in 1999 by a Lutheran layman, Dennis Di Mauro, who discovered the Catholic rosary while attending a spirituality group with his wife, a Catholic. DiMauro liked the prayer but not some of the traditional Marian doctrines. So he created his own version, replacing scriptural elements for some passages, and it has caught on with some believers.

  • “What People Do and Do Not Believe in”

    A Harris Poll from 2009 found that four of 10 Americans believe in ghosts. About a third believe in UFOs, 23 percent in witches and 26 percent in astrology. One in five believe they were reincarnated from another person.  71 percent of Catholics and 79 percent of Protesants believe in the Virgin Birth, compared to 61 percent of all American adults.


National sources

  • Allan Figueroa Deck

    Allan Figueroa Deck is a lecturer of pastoral studies in Spanish at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He has commented on the importance of Hispanics to the Catholic Church in the United States.

    He co-edited edited The Treasure of Guadalupe (2006).

  • Virgilio Elizondo

    Virgilio Elizondo is a professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow at the Institute for Latino Studies and Kellogg Institute. He is widely considered the “father of Hispanic theology” and frequently comments on the intersection of Latino culture and religion.

    He co-edited edited The Treasure of Guadalupe (2006).

  • Timothy George

    The Rev. Timothy George is the founding dean and professor of divinity history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. He is a senior theological adviser for Christianity Today.

    He has encouraged Protestants to reconsider traditional views against Marian devotion.

  • Scott Hahn

    Scott Hahn chair of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio, and the founder and director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. A former Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism, his books include Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God (Doubleday, 2001), which examines the Marian doctrines and the importance of Mary in the Christian faith.

  • Lesley Hazleton

    Lesley Hazleton is a former psychologist and journalist and is the author of Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother. Hazleton lives in Seattle and describes herself as having “deep roots in both Judaism and Catholicism.”

  • Elizabeth A. Johnson

    Elizabeth A. Johnson is a religious sister of the Congregation of St. Joseph and a theologian at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. She is one of the foremost feminist theologians and has written extensively on the Virgin Mary, including the book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints.

  • Scot McKnight

    Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. He specializes in films about Jesus and the Orthodox faith. He wrote The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Paraclete Press, 2004) and is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago. He is co-editor, along with James D.G. Dunn, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Durham University in England, of The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, a collection of essays by leading Bible scholars.

    He is the author of the 2006 book The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus.

  • Kristy Nabhan-Warren

    Kristy Nabhan-Warren is a professor of religion at the University of Iowa. She has written widely on the role of the Virgin Mary in Latino cultures. Her research focuses on Catholic studies. She is the author of Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland.

  • Thomas Oden

    Thomas Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is a leading Protestant scholar of church history who has argued that Protestants should explore history and scripture to recover Mary of Nazareth as a model of spirituality.

  • Johann G. Roten

    The Rev. Johann G. Roten, an internationally recognized expert on Mary, is director of research and special projects for the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, a Marianist Catholic college in Ohio. The library has one of the largest collections of resources on the Virgin Mary in the world, and it posts the “Mary Page” with resources from the library in several languages.

  • Gene Sager

    Gene Sager is professor of philosophy at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif. He wrote a Dec. 7, 2007, essay in Commonweal magazine titled “A Gringo’s Devotion” about his journey from a childhood as an “Anglo Protestant” to his devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and eventual conversion to Catholicism.

  • Charlene Spretnak

    Charlene Spretnak is one of the founders of the women’s spirituality movement in the U.S. She is the editor of The Politics of Women’s Spirituality and author of Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church.  She is a professor emerita at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She lives in Ojai, Calif.

International sources

  • Nancy Nason-Clark

    Nancy Nason-Clark is professor emerita of sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada. She has written about the interface between religion and domestic violence for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and is co-author of Refuge From Abuse: Healing and Hope for Abused Christian Women. She worked on a four-year project funded by the Lilly Endowment called RAVE, Religion and Violence e-Learning, a web-based system for assisting religious leaders in responding to domestic violence.

    She wrote a 2007 essay, “The Role of Marian Imagery in the Lives of Ordinary Catholic Women,” which appeared in the book, What Do We Imagine God to Be? The Function of “God Images” in Our Lives.

    Regional sources

    In the Northeast

    • Francis X. Clooney

      The Rev. Francis X. Clooney is a Jesuit priest and the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. His interest areas include theological commentarial writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India, and the developing field of comparative theology, a discipline distinguished by attentiveness to the dynamics of theological learning deepened through the study of traditions other than one’s own.

      He wrote the 2005 book Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary.

    • Beverly Roberts Gaventa

      Beverly Roberts Gaventa is Helen H.P. Manson Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary. She wrote Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1999) and co-edited Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).

    • Deirdre Good

      Deirdre Good teaches at General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York. She has written about early writing outside the accepted body of Christian texts. She writes and lectures widely on the role of women in historical Christianity and in the present.

    • Karen L. King

      Karen L. King is the author of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, 2003). A scholar of gnosticism, the body of nonorthodox early Christian teachings, and a professor of ecclesiastical history, she appeared on a Nov. 3, 2003, ABC television special exploring the claims of the novel about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In 2012, King discovered a fragment of papyrus that is said to provide evidence that Jesus referred to having a wife. She denied that the fragment provided direct evidence that Jesus was married. She writes and comments widely on the women of the New Testament and how they are viewed today.

    In the South

    • Monsignor Arturo J. Bañuelas

      Monsignor Arturo J. Bañuelas is the pastor of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in El Paso, Texas. He founded the Tepeyac Institute and is nationally known for his expertise on border issues and culture. Bañuelas edited Mestizo Christianity: Theology from the Latino Perspective (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004).

    • Bart D. Ehrman

      Bart D. Ehrman wrote Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code : A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine and teaches religious studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ehrman can place Mary of Nazareth in her historical and modern-day context.

    • Mary F. Foskett

      Mary F. Foskett is Wake Forest Kahle Professor of Religion and director of the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. She has written widely on representations of Mary throughout the centuries, including the book A Virgin Conceived: Mary and Classical Representations of Virginity.

    • Amy-Jill Levine

      Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School is a professor of New Testament studies and of Jewish studies and director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality. She can comment on Christian-Jewish dynamics and representations of Jews by Christians throughout the centuries. She was co-editor of A Feminist Companion to Mariology. She is an expert on sexuality and the bible, religion and gender, Jewish-Christian relations and the historical Jesus.

    • Dennis E. Smith

      Dennis E. Smith teaches New Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., and is a fellow of the Westar Institute, which studies Jesus and early Christianity. He can speak about the role of Mary in the New Testament from a Protestant perspective.

    • Ben Witherington III

      Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. A prolific author and an ordained minister, Witherington can talk about the historical tensions between Christians and Jews and current cultural manifestations of those tensions. He is the author of Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, an examination of “what Jesus has to say (and doesn’t say) concerning wealth and poverty, money and spending, debt and sacrificial giving.”

      He can comment on Mary of Nazareth in history and the role of the Virgin Mary today.

    In the Midwest

    • Kathleen E. Corley

      Kathleen E. Corley is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Her expertise is on the role of women in Christianity, and she wrote an entry titled “The Portrayal of Mary and the Other Women Characters” in the collection Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History.

    • Mark Miravalle

      Mark Miravalle is a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio. Miravalle was at the forefront of a push in the 1990s to have the Catholic Church name Mary as “co-redemptrix,” or a co-redeemer, with Jesus, as well as a singular mediator between God and men and women. The campaign was controversial for non-Catholics, but also within the Catholic Church, as many Catholics considered such a view heretical. The Vatican declined to act on the petition Miravalle helped circulate.

    • Theresa Torres

      Theresa Torres is assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, religious studies and anthropology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.  She studies U.S. Hispanic Catholics, Hispanic women’s religious and civic activism, and immigration/refugee issues.

    In the West

    • Jeanette Rodriguez

      Jeanette Rodriguez, a professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University, wrote Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment Among Mexican-American Women (University of Texas Press, 1994).

    • Stephen J. Shoemaker

      Stephen J. Shoemaker is an associate professor of Christian history in the department of religious studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He has written widely on the Virgin Mary in early Christianity and in Gnostic traditions and teaches a course on early Islam.

    • F. Stanley Jones

      F. Stanley Jones is a professor of religious studies at California State University, Long Beach. He is the editor of a collection titled Which Mary?: The Marys of Early Christian Tradition.

    • David Sanchez

      David Sanchez teaches theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. He researches Guadalupan studies and iconography.

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