To help begin to explicate what Lumen Gentium 62 might mean by the “subordinate role of Mary” (see Todd’s post below), I thought that I’d post the following from my disorganized notebook. It concerns Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae and ecumenism. I think that I posted some version of it in the comments sections of some blog back when I did such things:
There was a very interesting article in Ecumenical Trends (May, 2003) by Fr Thomas P. Looney, CSC, of King’s College entitled “The Rosary: An Aid to Ecumenism?”. Fr Looney began by noting that the Pope, in the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, had written, “If properly revitalized, the rosary is an aid and certainly not a hindrance to ecumenism.” Indeed, in the letter, the Pope proceeded with a good deal of ecumenical sensitivity, which is, of course, different from a false sort of irenicism. John Paul II insisted on the Christological center of Christian prayer – “although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed, with and through her.” He acknowledged that, without the contemplative aspect of the rosary, “the beads … could come to be regarded as some kind of amulet or magic object, thereby radically distorting their meaning and function.” The strongest warning in the letter actually concerns the danger of a mechanical recitation of the prayers (“to heap up empty phrases”). The Pope also noted parallels with other forms of spirituality, particularly the “prayer of the heart,” so notable in Orthodox Christianity.
The rosary, the Pope said, shares a Protestant emphasis on the Word, since it “has all the depths of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium,” and it also shares the Orthodox emphasis on icons, since it leads us “to contemplate the beauty of the face of Christ and to experience the depth of his love.”
In the letter, the Pope also put forth, in Fr Looney’s words, “an ecumenically sensitive theology of Mary”: Mary’s role in salvation is “radically subordinated” to that of Christ; the humanity of Mary, “first among believers,” is emphasized. Through the rosary, we see Mary as a disciple in obedience to the Word, as a teacher who invites us to penetrate the mystery of the life of her Son, and as a contemplative who cherished and reflected upon the experience of Jesus.
The three prayers of the rosary are themselves strongly Christological and trinitarian. Fr Looney writes, “The Our Father is prayed immediately following the remembrance of a particular aspect of the life of Christ: thus, it expresses the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry leading us to a deep intimacy with his Father; in this intimacy, we know one another as brother and sister.” Looney points out that the Pope claimed that the Hail Mary is itself quite Christological: “The centre of gravity in the Hail Mary, the hinge as it were, which joins its two parts, is the name of Jesus.” And, of course, the Lord’s Prayer and the ten Hail Mary’s culminate in the praying of the Glory Be to the Father.
There are, to be sure, things in the apostolic letter and perhaps in the Rosary itself that might trouble Protestants, ranging from Mary’s intecessory role to the significance of apparitions and particular forms of prayer. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that the rosary can be an instrument of ecumenical vitality and we should try to pray at least some version of the rosary in common with our Orthodox and Protestant brothers and sisters.