Catholics are called to begin the New Year with a Mass honoring the Solemnity of Mary. The clarion call may seem obscured by the late-night festivities of New Year’s Eve. But the call to honor Mary’s Solemnity has a rich tradition and complex history. Mary lies at the center of my conversion story as well. Learn the history of the Solemnity of Mary, along with the heresies it continues to fight and the conversions it seeks.
Mary at the heart of my conversion story
My path to Catholicism was marked by complexity, brokenness and confusion. My father was a second generation Italian immigrant who was the first to receive a college education in his family. As an engineer, he favored a simplistic faith in science, and he renounced his Catholic faith as immigrant superstition. (He had a complete re-version before his death, praise God.)
When he married my mother, an Episcopalian, they “pulled off” an Episcopal wedding in a “high church” liturgy. Family lore says the Italians didn’t notice the service was not Catholic. Seems doubtful, but no living relatives remain to refute it.
I was baptized Episcopal, and my mother went to church occasionally. The only church-visiting memory she shared with me was an evening she took me and my brother to a special concert in the church basement. Peter, Paul & Mary performed that night. Not the disciples or the Blessed Mother, just the folk band.
My parents had a messy divorce, and eventually my father remarried another divorced Catholic. Somehow I received a First Communion, but we rarely went to Mass. I remember the white dress my step-mother sewed for me in great detail, but nothing else. My early faith history revealed a ping-pong pattern between the Episcopal and Catholic churches.
Church attendance was a rare and confusing experience in my life. We went so rarely that I did not know the sequence of the Mass at all, when to stand and kneel, what to say. It was a source of deep embarrassment for me. My Italian grandma taught me all my basic prayers, in the quiet of the evening, in my room, which she shared with me during six months of the year when she lived with us. She taught me personal piety. But I have no memory of her ever going to Church.
My step-mother had received a rich Catholic education, which most of my sisters enjoyed. She often renounced my grandmother as ignorant of faith essentials. This was a great paradox to me: My grandmother was so devout, my step-mother not; yet the latter claimed a superior knowledge, and no one went to church. We had one crucifix in our house, which stood next to a reproduction of a Picasso painting of a blue nude lady, which somehow became linked to Mary in my mind, since she always wore blue. More confusion.
When I came near Confirmation age, my step-mother insisted I be confirmed, and attend classes. It seemed the greatest hypocrisy to me, to confirm a faith I had no knowledge or experience of. I refused, and she was furious at my defiance. On occasion I would ride my bike to the convent near my home. Looking back I can trace that longing. And I see now the confused longings in my step-mother’s heart too, to share a faith that had once sustained her. I must note that great respect was always shown the Church in our home, despite the abject neglect of things spiritual.
I met my husband while in graduate school. This is where the Lord worked my conversion. He brought my mind to Him, through my study of medieval political philosophy. He brought my heart to Him through my husband, who sang hymns to woo me. He was then discerning a call to the Episcopal priesthood. My husband taught me about worship, the liturgical expression of faith. Our journey led us home to Rome, after a decade and three children baptized in the Episcopal Church. Two more children were fruits of our conversion.
Mary was a pivot point in my conversion process. My grandmother taught me devotion to the Blessed Mary. My husband showed me solemnity in worship. In our old Episcopal Church, there was a Marian chapel off to the right of the altar. We prayed the Angelus at the end of the service. We prayed the Hail Mary. We sang an Anglican hymn, “One Step From Rome.” It took time for me to understand, we were a far leap from Rome, a long journey home.
Somehow we connected to a young priest at the local Catholic parish. He came to our home every other week for a year, and we read the entire (new) Catechism of the Catholic Church. We wrestled honestly with hard questions. When we came to the Easter Vigil (1996) to make our confession of faith, I gulped over a couple of doctrines when I said aloud, “I believe all that the Catholic Church teaches is truth according to Scripture.”
Those gulps centered on Mary. I had acquired the protestant fear that honoring Mary would somehow detract from Jesus. It seems absurd to me now, but it was once so real. As if one could separate Mary from Jesus? Mary points to Jesus: She is the open gate leading us to Jesus. Her great yes made possible God’s saving work in this world. Just as she held His Body in her womb, so she holds His Church in her queenship.
The ancient Church fathers left instruction that those seeking baptism should not be delayed, because so many truths are revealed from within the arms of Mother Church. This was true for me. Gradually my protestant fears gave way to a full understanding of Mary’s Solemnity. This did not happen through purely rational processes; rather, it was as if scales gradually fell from my eyes. Doctrines I had once gulped over gradually appeared obvious and clear before me.
It also took some struggle in our Church’s history for the faithful to really “get it” about Mary in the economy of salvation. Nestorius railed against the term “Theotokos,” Mary as “God-Beaer,” as well as the Latin translation, “Mother of God.” He claimed that Mary could be the mother of Jesus’ humanity, but she could not contain his divinity. This Nestorian Heresy was renounced in the 5th century Council of Ephesus. The term “Theotokos” and “Mother of God” were affirmed for all time.
The Church has also affirmed Mary as the Mediatrix, in her cooperation with the incarnation and in her intercession as Queen of Heaven. Read this excellent article by Fr. Hardon.
In 1974, at the Vatican Council, the Church moved the Solemnity of Mary feast day back to January 1, a tradition that had been observed in the early Church in the city of Rome. That feast had been celebrated in May and in October in previous eras.
Pope Pius XVI wrote about moving the feast:
In the revised arrangement of the Christmas season, we should all turn with one mind to the restored solemnity of the Mother of God. This feast was entered into the calendar in the liturgy of the city of Rome for the first day of January. The purpose of the celebration is to honor the role of Mary in the mystery of salvation and at the same time to sing the praises of the unique dignity thus coming to “the Holy Mother…through whom we have been given the gift of the Author of life.” This same solemnity also offers an excellent opportunity to renew the adoration rightfully to be shown to the newborn Prince of Peace, as we once again hear the good tidings of great joy and pray to God, through the intercession of the Queen of Peace, for the priceless gift of peace. Because of these considerations and the fact that the octave of Christmas coincides with a day of hope, New Year’s Day, we have assigned to it the observance of the World Day of Peace (Paul VI, , Feb. 2, 1974, no.5).
On the Solemnity of Mary, Our Lady embraces the late-night revelers, the protestors calling for World Peace, as well as Mass-goers. If you’re watching football on New Year’s Day or feasting with family and friends, know that the Queen of Peace points to the Prince of Peace, embracing all.
And it’s also exciting to note, that Mary is also being honored by Muslims and revived by some Protestants . Mary convicted me in my conversion process. As Queen of Peace she continues to work with her Son to convert the world.
Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!