Reimagining Catholic devotion to Mary: Who is she and what is her role in my life?

Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O.P., Ph.D (photo provided) Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O.P., Ph.D (photo provided)

Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O.P., is a theologian who belongs to the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Sister Albert Marie, who entered the Dominican Sisters in 2005 and earned a Ph.D. in theology in 2014, currently teaches theology at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fl.

Sister Albert Marie recently worked with another member of her community, Maria Veritas Marks, O.P., to write and compile the Manual for Marian Devotion published by TAN Books on December 21.

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On December 21 I interviewed her by email about the new book.

Catholic bookstores already seem pretty flooded with Marian devotional books and literature. What inspired you to compile a new Manual for Marian Devotion?

This book originated because TAN was beginning a series of devotional manuals. Knowing the deep devotion of our community to Our Lady, they invited us to work on the one related to Mary, and we were delighted to agree.

The manual has two major parts: a theological section and then a sampling of writings and prayers about Mary.

The first section is meant to give a straightforward but rich introduction to Mary’s place within the life and theology of the church. It outlines Mary’s place in Scripture and the Marian dogmas of the church and gives an overview of the development of Marian devotion within the church. Then we explain many of the Marian devotions common today and give the reader advice on how to integrate them into his life.

In the second major section we see the truths of the first section blossoming into earlier writing. It can be read as a tour through the storehouse of the church. We have selections from the church fathers, medieval miracle stories, selections from a few recent theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and prayers from different ages in the church.

I picture readers coming to knowabout Mary through the first section and then coming to know Mary through meditating and praying with the authors of the second half.

Who is your audience?

This book is meant for someone who has become interested in Mary and would like to know her better. The ideal reader would be asking herself, “Who is Mary, what is her role in my life and what could I do to get to know her better?”

You hold a doctorate in systematic theology. How did that theological background influence your approach to compiling this book?

It has footnotes, so the readers can do further research! 

On a more serious level, it was important to me that Marian devotion be presented within a Christological and ecclesial context. It seems to me that there are two misguided approaches to Marian devotion. The first is a largely emotional devotion. Some people feel an immediate connection to Mary’s beauty or a desire for her motherly care. For them she is an admired mother, stooping down to this earth as a kindly patroness. This devotion has some value, but usually seems a bit childish. It can be explained only with difficulty to those who do not share the insight that sparked it.

A second problematic path is the inverse of the first: some Catholics know that they should love Mary but, since they don’t not feel an emotional connection to her, do not give her a place in their lives. Those in this position often feel that Mary’s privileges alienate her from the rest of us. Or they may not connect to the idea of seeing themselves as children in need of a mother.

In the theological section of this book, we wanted to show that Mary is at the very heart of Christianity. She is part of the texture of the Christian life—surpassingly beautiful, yes, but also very human and very close to us. Anyone who knows Christ ipso facto has a relationship with Mary through whom he came into the world.

Vatican II’s emphasis on Mary as the “image and beginning” of the church is important ("Lumen Gentium," No. 68). By entering the church, we follow Mary’s footsteps. She reveals to us what Christian maturity looks like in the same way that a natural mother not only cares for her children but leads them towards adulthood. Mary’s privileges should give us hope and joy. By our baptism, we came to share in the same sanctifying grace that was hers in a fuller way by her Immaculate Conception. Her Assumption is a pledge to us that we, too, will rise at the last day.

James Kubicki, S.J., the national director of the Apostleship of Prayer, published a book on the Sacred Heart a few years ago that sought to update the devotion for people today. As with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, not all Marian devotional forms are equally popular today, with some ideas like St. Louis de Montfort’s “total slavery to Mary” feeling particularly unappealing to all but the most fervent young Catholics. In this new Manual, how did you seek to present Marian devotions in a language that will appeal to young readers like your college students?

As I mentioned, in the Manual for Marian Devotion we try to explain Mary’s place within Christianity in a clear, doctrinal way. I find that college students today are interested in understanding the truths of the faith and how they fit together. In Dominican fashion, we tried to write in such a way that appreciation and awe will not be forced on the reader by the language but will flow naturally out of the contemplation of the beauty of God’s wise plan.

I think Louis de Montfort’s “total consecration to Mary” is an excellent example of the way in which a richer doctrinal understanding can help give new life to older practices. Phrased in the language of “slavery,” consecration to Mary is distasteful to many. Understood as a way of wholeheartedly embracing our identity as members of the church, it is appealing. To quote the Manual: “Marian consecration builds on strong theological foundations. It is a deepening and reaffirming of our baptismal consecration. Mary’s faith is the church’s faith, so consecration to her signifies entering deeply and without reservation into the baptismal vocation of the Christian. It is opening ourselves to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with and in imitation of Mary."

In his essay “Courage for Devotion to Mary,” the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once described how modern people after Vatican II spontaneously began to abandon what is accidental (and sometimes what is essential) in Marian devotions, highlighting the need for a reinterpretation of old and new forms to ensure their survival. In your research for this book, what developments in Marian devotions did you notice and which ones do you find particularly relevant for U.S. Catholics today?

One type of Marian devotion that has been re-interpreted fruitfully is that of pilgrimage. I think the concept of pilgrimage—travelling to a holy place of prayer and sacred presence—is appealing to U.S. Catholics. Today’s world is a world in motion, so on one level this devotion appeals to our desire to enlarge our experience. A pilgrimage, even a mini-pilgrimage by car to a shrine a few hours away, embodies our search for God. A pilgrimage to a more distant location reminds us of the universality of the church, something important to remember in our global society. 

On another level, the mindset of pilgrimage can be profoundly corrective to several current-day deviations. It breaks the busyness of our hectic lives. It reminds us to make space for God, for listening. It tells us that we are only travelers through this life. It reminds us of the value of presence—something that technology is weakening.

Of course, the texture of a pilgrimage has changed since, say, medieval times, when a pilgrimage was a much more penitential journey. Yet even the small discomforts of a relatively “easy” pilgrimage teach us to bear suffering cheerfully with Christ.

As a Dominican sister, you belong to an order traditionally credited with popularizing the rosary as a common form of devotion to Mary. What role does Marian devotion play in your own spirituality and prayer life?

In our community, we pray the rosary together daily, and consecrate ourselves to Mary. As women religious, we see part of our role as embodying the Marian role of the church. I love this idea of making Mary’s love present through our lives. I personally find the idea of entrusting my life to Christ through Mary to be a source of strength and peace.

We have an evening prayer in our community which begins, “Our Lady of this house…” The idea that Mary belongs to every Christian so closely that we can address her not only as “Our Lady of Fatima” and “Our Lady of Lourdes” but “Our Lady” of each of the houses in which we live captures, for me, the living and personal nature of the church. Mary looks down on each of our houses—the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us, makes the Marian church present wherever we are.

How do you pray?

In the Dominican monastic tradition, an important element of my daily prayer is the Divine Office, chanted in common. Even before I entered our religious community, I loved to pray with the psalms. They wisely gather up every human experience and emotion and direct them towards God: joy at the beauty of his creation, trust at the mystery of suffering. My two favorite psalms are Psalm 18, which begins, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” and Psalm 43, which asks, “Why are you sad, my soul?... hope in God, for I will again praise him.” These two moments of joy and courageous determination in the face of uncertainty sum up much of the Christian life—mine and Mary’s.

I love to think about Mary’s hidden life at Nazareth whenever I am taking care of daily tasks. Although I teach at a university, I think that quiet faithfulness in daily life is worth more to the church than any number of lectures or papers.

Who have been the biggest influences, living or dead, on your faith?

I have never been much of a hero-worshipper, so I probably need to say that it was my parents. They baptized me, taught me the basics of the faith and encouraged me to study further on my own. My mother used to say that every child comes into the world seeking something and that what I wanted was the truth. Being shown that the Catholic faith offered a reasonable and coherent worldview did more to set me on the path to God than anything else. I should probably also include my maternal grandmother. She was a devout, balanced and loving woman. Her goodness offered me tangible proof that a life of faithfulness to God is transformative, that God can be trusted to be faithful in the nitty-gritty details of daily life right up until the end of life.

What do you want people to take away from your life and work?

Speaking specifically to the Marian Manual, I hope that it will be an encouraging companion for those seeking to know our Blessed Mother. Speaking more generally, I hope that those who read my writings or hear my lectures remember the truths I am teaching. I hope that people who spend time with me experience and remember God’s love for them. 

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Crystal Watson
1 year ago
As a Catholic convert it's really hard for me to understand the Catholic devotion to Mary. She's not spoken of much in the NT (aside from the nativity stories) and in some gospels doesn't even have a name. She's said to be an example of discipleship but she isn't mentioned among the disciples and there's even a passage where she doubts Jesus' sanity. She's said to be a perpetual virgin but the gospels say Jesus had brothers and sisters, and the idea that she was immaculately conceived is just incoherent - even Thomas Aquinas didn't believe that. It's as if the church has constructed legends about her.
Lisa Weber
1 year ago
Thank you for this thoughtful comment. My sense is that Mary is a blank slate that people write on. There is almost no information to refute anything that is said. Mary is mostly a summary of Catholic hopes, dreams, and ideas separate from the reality of Mary the person who gave birth to Jesus. Personally, I am not interested in acquiring another mother in either Mary or the Catholic Church. I also get tired of the endless focus on Mary's perpetual virginity because it is a private and completely irrelevant piece of information.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year ago
If the Virgin Mary brought us the Incarnate Word in her own body, as flesh of her flesh, why is the redeemed body of a baptized woman, of the same flesh, not "proper matter" for priestly ordination?
Crystal Watson
1 year ago
Thus all the special constructs about Mary. The church has worked so hard to make Mary a deity because it has such a low opinion of women.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year ago
Hope it is not so simple, the institutional Church is also a victim of our patriarchal heritage... the disciple is no better than the master...you may be dreadfully right, and overcoming ecclesiastical patriarchy seems to be a hopeless proposition at the moment, but "nothing is impossible with God."
Andrew Di Liddo
1 year ago
I am a cradle Catholic and I read this article and the comments through a prism of my own (incomplete,imperfect) formation. Sister Albert Marie so eloquently but simply states:
It seems to me that there are two misguided approaches to Marian devotion. The first is a largely emotional devotion. Some people feel an immediate connection to Mary’s beauty or a desire for her motherly care. For them she is an admired mother, stooping down to this earth as a kindly patroness. This devotion has some value, but usually seems a bit childish. It can be explained only with difficulty to those who do not share the insight that sparked it. A second problematic path is the inverse of the first: some Catholics know that they should love Mary but, since they don’t not feel an emotional connection to her, do not give her a place in their lives. Those in this position often feel that Mary’s privileges alienate her from the rest of us. Or they may not connect to the idea of seeing themselves as children in need of a mother.
Personally, I have experience both of these but was troubled enough to seek further as to why I had not learned deeper devotions. One exercise I did while belonging to a large parish that was in pain through a recent merger of two parishes into one was to approach parishioners that I found receptive and just plainly, simply ask them about their favorite devotions or any devotions they practiced. The answers were astounding and the stories I heard were jaw dropping to me. I then started to do my own spiritual sit ups (exercises) of growing my own devotional life with some assistance along the way. I re-learned the Rosary first and was praying that twice, sometimes 3 times each day. I was fortunate to find a Franciscan priest as a spiritual director who when he heard this, asked me to learn Christian Prayer andThe Divine Office. He helped me with this and I also took a Bible Study at my parish on the Book of Psalms. I simply had to acknowledge that I needed assistance in growing my faith and I sought ways to do that. I always seek opportunities for adult faith formation programs, which, depending on my current locale, are oftentimes few and far between. I believe it is tragic for some of us to get stuck in those two circumstances I quoted above from Sister Albert Marie and not grow beyond those places. I would certainly like to meet a Catholic or a Christian who is fully formed in their faith. I have yet to find one and I revel in the richness of our faith and that I can learn anew every day.
Rhett Segall
1 year ago
There are two scriptural passages nurturing the Marian dimension of my Christian vocation; one is from Matthew, the other is from Luke In Matthew 2: 19 ff the angel tells Joseph "..do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her." In other words that which comes from Mary is of the holy Spirit and "we should not be afraid to "take Mary...into your (our) home" From Luke 1:43ff: "And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears the infant in my womb leaped for joy." In this context I see Mary as a gift nurturing the Christ life within. There are theologians who see this as the moment of John's "baptism", i.e. (immersion) in Christ. So Mary is meant as gift and mother, to be received with joy for those who are so moved, and not as imposition.
Crystal Watson
1 year ago
But bible scholars mostly agree that the nativity narratives are not based on first hand information, as the rest of the gospels supposedly are, but were 'made up' and not historically reliable, which tends to discount the worth of the information about Mary in them.
Rhett Segall
1 year ago
I would question your assertion, Crystal, that bible scholars "mostly agree" that the infancy narrative are "made up". Be that as it may, I would highly recommend "The Infancy Narratives" by Benedict XVI who traces the sharing of these events back to Mary herself, who shared them with the Christian community at the proper time and place. I would agree that if these events are "made up" they should have very little weight in the Christian community. But it is the Catholic conviction that it is the holy Spirit that has enabled the community to preserve these memories as that which really happened. Benedict makes a very persuasive case for this..
Anne Chapman
1 year ago
The church's hyping of Marian devotion is a bit puzzling. There are very few references to Mary in the NT. The "assumption" is based on "tradition" (sometimes known as hearsay), and the "immaculate conception" is a purely theological construct based on an an understanding of "original sin" that is itself based on myth (Adam and Eve). Sometimes the church seems to use Mary to manipulate people into the ideal woman as seen by male celibates. She is first and foremost, "obedient". She is a mother. She is also a virgin when becoming pregnant - in a passage of the NT that is questionable, as Crystal has pointed out. According to the Catholic church she is a perpetual virgin - a teaching not supported by scripture. How do modern women relate to this image? A woman who married but supposedly never consummated her marriage. What kind of marriage example is that? A woman who had only one child (not supported by NT scripture), according to the church whose celibate male leaders encourage women to have large families and works to keep modern birth control away from those who most need it. A woman whose one child was perfect - sadly few of us have perfect children. I don't relate at all to the male celibate version of Mary. Reflecting on the "Joyful" mysteries of the rosary one day, I thought only men could call them "joyful". The annunciation told Mary that she would bear a child out of wedlock - a situation that could have led to her death. She may have accepted this with docile "obedience", but it may understandably have caused a lot of fear, rather than joy. She visited her cousin, possibly to find moral support and reassurance. Her "elderly" cousin turned out also to be pregnant - two women facing possibly frightening pregnancies. Mary had to depend on Joseph not condemning her, so that she would not be stoned to death. Elizabeth was an "old" woman - maternal mortality rates were extremely high in the first century and an older woman was at great risk. So while joyful to be pregnant, there was probably some understandable fear there also. The birth of Jesus was probably joyful to Mary - the danger of being stoned to death was past, Joseph had stood by her. But the visit to the temple for Jesus' circumcision was probably ruined when Mary was told that her soul would be pierced. Finding Jesus in the temple - after days of terror, not knowing where he was, assuming he was safe with family or friends. Once she found him, he didn't even apologize, but basically told her that she was now irrelevant, that he must be about his father's business. Fathers counted more than mothers apparently. Why doesn't the church paint a portrait of a brave and courageous woman instead of one who was docile and "obedient"? Why does the church idolize virginity, teaching that marriage is an inferior state of life - because there is sex in a healthy marriage, unlike in Mary and Joseph's according to the male celibates? The church's distrust of the feminine, especially feminine sexuality, permeates so many teachings - including the Marian teachings. It paints a portrait of the ideal woman as being docile, passive, and obedient, subservient to men. It has always treated marital sex as a necessary evil, and still does although they now attempt to cover it up with updated language while continuing to oppose modern birth control, and refusing the option of marriage to western rite Catholic priests. The PTB, especially JPII, have couched the ancient teachings in flowery language to try to convince people that the church doesn't really teach what it teaches. Even Francis continues to paint a portrait of ideal womanhood as equating to the maternal, to being submisssive to males, denying any true leadership roles to women in the church - because the roles that count would involve determining governance structures and defining teachings. No women are permitted anywhere close to these responsibilities in this patriarchal church.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year ago
The incoherence of Church doctrines about many issues related to human sexuality is due, I think, to the conflation of patriarchal gender theories with our sacramental theology. Patriarchal gender theories include both the ancient versions (e.g., the Aristotelian "women are defective males") and the modern versions (e.g., the "equal but separate" complementarianism). In his Theology of the Body, St John Paul II makes it abundantly clear that what really matters for the sacramental economy is that man and woman share one and the same human nature in the flesh, and their complementarity is in unity and for unity in one flesh, physically and/or spiritually, in the image of Trinitarian communion, and not for culturally conditioned role stereotyping. But the Church sustains the stereotyping by (among other things) excluding women from priestly ordination and creating ludicrous (and, in some cases, amazingly persuasive) rationalizations to perpetuate ecclesiastical patriarchy, thereby reducing the eucharistic liturgy to a patriarchal liturgy. In a recent interview when coming back from Sweden, our good Pope Francis was effectively reduced to arguing that Mary and the Church are women/mothers with "feminine genius" and Christ is a man/father, presumably with "masculine genius." So the Christ-Church mystery is reduced to a female body with a male head? It seems to me that there is so much biblical evidence of a "masculine genius" in Mary (e.g., her fiat and her going to visit Elizabeth without asking Joseph's permission, her standing at the foot of the cross...), and there is so much biblical evidence of a "feminine genius" in Jesus (his receptivity to people's feelings, his surrender to patriarchal Israel, his surrender to the Church...) that, for the redemption and the sacramental economy, the incarnational masculinity of Jesus is as incidental as the color of his eyes. What matters is that the eternal Word became flesh, maleness of femaleness being limitations of the human condition. This has huge implications for the new evangelization, integral human development, and human ecology. But, like Mary, we must believe that "nothing is impossible with God" and keep doing the best we can within our limitations.
Sean Salai, S.J.
1 year ago

Thank you all for reading. Let's continue to ask Our Lady to pray for peace in our world during this holiday season.

Andrew Di Liddo
1 year ago
I do not buy the stale complaint that the church does not value women. 98% of the staff positions at parishes in the USA are held by women. Very few lay men get hired by parishes but are always welcome to labor for free. You may argue that the pay is low and that is why women get these slots but this argument does not address the fact that day to day operations of parishes are performed almost entirely by women. Someone has to value the gifts of women to allow this overwhelming vote of confidence in women. Go into any church of ANY denomination on Sunday morning and count the men and women of the congregations. Nearly 65% of all congregations are women according to statistical data supplied by the Barna Group.
Andrew Di Liddo
1 year ago
In Reference to comments that Mary is not mentioned in the New Testament and the Joyful Mysteries are not all that joyful from the perspective of a woman, I can only disagree and be disappointed in this totally uninformed perspective. In the Joyful Mystery, the Visitation, when Mary visits Elizabeth, and the indwelling Holy Spirit brings forth the most incredible prayer poem of the Bible anywhere, the Magnificat, that passage alone slakes my thirst and devotion for Mary. God, I pray, that only more of our souls magnified the Lord as the Blessed Mother's did and does. The Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville Ohio did a wonderful Marian study during this recent Advent consisting of 12 video lessons and a workbook. I highly recommend this resource. The study documents 12 direct and 3 indirect references to Mary in the New Testament. Granted, that is not many and that is the whole premise of the study which then goes on to elucidate how the Marian doctrines evolved and developed through Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments and through church approved Marian apparitions. I do not believe that Marian doctrines were cooked up by some cardinals smoking cigars and drinking wine in some back room of the Vatican for the purpose of de-valuing women. In the Study I just referred to, there is a wonderful section on Pope Saint John Paul the II's Marian thread throughout his papacy. Studying that alone blows my socks off.
Crystal Watson
1 year ago
Sure, women have many lay positions in parishes - more women than men attend church and volunteer at church and probably apply for jobs at church. That has nothing to do with how the hierarchy of the church over the centuries has devalued women. From the obedient virgin mother Mary to the Mary who was the apostle to the apostles yet wrongly deemed a prostitute by the church, the hierarchy has striven to control the roles women can and can't play, to control even what they can do with their own bodies. JPII is one of the worst examples with his demeaning "feminine genius" and his decision that women can't be priests. Pope Francis has followed right in his footsteps with his belief that women's main role in life is that of mother, and that they will *never* be allowed to be priests in the Catholic church. The church is pretty much the last western organization that refuses to see or to treat men and women as equals in worth and in opportunities. It has institutionalized sexism.
Crystal Watson
1 year ago
About the info on Mary in the NT, most of it is in the nativity stories, just found in two of the gospels (not Mark). Those stories were constructed, the two versions conflict with each other on details, they get dates wrong, facts wrong. etc. Here's something from Boston College on this ... http://www.bc.edu/schools/stm/crossroads/resources/birthofjesus/conclusion/the_infancy_narrativesandhistory.html It's hard enough to believe in God. It doesn't help when stuff that's just made up gets turned into worship material.

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