Republic Day wake-up call
September 22, 2017
A man to be followed
September 22, 2017

Filtered Marys

Students kneel in prayer in San Fernando. Photo: Appeal TnT Facebook page

By Fr Martin Sirju

The pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima was destined to come to San Fernando. Why? Because the Pro-Cathedral is here. So, despite my misgivings about the manner in which the statue was introduced into the archdiocese I readily said ‘yes’ and immediately preparations began.

I must thank the small hardworking team who managed the shrine day and night, and I mean that literally. They came from around 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, in spite of having a paid security guard from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. They did so with a generous and joyful spirit and I thank them immensely.

Some parishioners felt that the statue could have been better placed in the northern transept, in the area of the baptismal font. There would be more room for devotees and the pews would be facing the statue and accommodate more people. True. But I had other plans. I wanted to place the statue in the shrine where most of the statues of the saints are kept.There was also a double-sided gate that we could easily close at night to enable a certain amount of security. But there were theological reasons governing my choice.

First of all, putting Mary by herself is very understandable. That is what we see in most churches dedicated to her. She is so holy a woman, so close to Jesus – the mother who brought Him into the world – that Catholic sensibility would want to put her in a special category. Nothing is wrong with that. But it carries a disadvantage i.e. we put Mary too far above the other saints. She is not above them but at the centre, with them, praying for the salvation of the world. She is their Queen and ours.

Secondly, she is not a deity, neither a quasi-divine figure, but a saint, and the holiest of the lot – “O sanctissima” – “O most holy”. That is why I placed her statue in the shrine with other saints – St Martin de Porres, St Therese of Lisieux, St Jude, and St Anthony. Her prayers are most powerful but she never prays alone but in communion with all the saints.

The renowned Catholic theologian Karl Rahner asked the equally renowned Protestant theologian Karl Barth what he thought about praying to Mary: “Not to her but with her,” he answered. I have always treasured that insight of Barth and I sought to indicate it in how we arranged the temporary Marian shrine.

The shrine could not hold all the saints so we shifted a few, at the suggestion of our décor person, to the baptismal font in the northern transept. Only afterwards it occurred to me that that carried some theological significance as well.

At the Easter Vigil, when there are candidates to be baptised, we sing the Litany of the Saints. We cannot ever be faithful to those waters of rebirth unless the saints are praying for us, not only before but after.

Part of our devotion involved an all-night vigil. We began on a First Friday (September 1) into the Saturday morning. The crowd for the morning Mass to conclude the vigil was much larger than I anticipated. We ended by reciting a litany to Our Lady at her temporary shrine. I did not use the customary one but simply took the old ordo with all the names of the parishes starting with “Our Lady of Arima” and ending with “Our Lady of Tunapuna” to which the faithful responded lustily, “Pray for us”. In fact, we can create others according to vicariates including each community in all the parishes of the vicariate.

I also felt it important to deconstruct a monolithic understanding of Mary, deculturised and dehistoricised as she often is. I therefore instructed the décor person to create two panels, one on either side of the statue, reflecting eight local titles of Mary.

We had “A Caroni Mary”, “A Jewish Mary”, “A Delaford Mary”, “A Fatima Mary”, “A Toco Mary”, “A Barrackpore Mary”, “A Westmoorings Mary”, and “A Moruga Mary”. This follows from inculturation: planting the gospel – after careful study and reflection – in the cultures of peoples. We take what is good and reject what is bad in human cultures in order to proclaim the gospel.

Every Mary we know is a filtered Mary i.e. filtered through the culture in which that Mary was planted. Our statue, for instance, is filtered through European cultures and sub-cultures. The original Mary never looked anything like the visiting statue nor did she wear blue: she was a poor, peasant woman from Palestine. The statue has no Jewish features because it did not arise from Jewish culture.

Similarly, we must allow Mary to mean what she ought to mean for us in our various parishes according to our historical, cultural and pastoral experiences. La Divina Pastora as understood in Siparia is not the same as La Divina Pastora understood in Maraval; Mary for the people of Cedros, a fishing village, is not exactly the same for the people of Beetham.

All Marys are “filtered” or “refracted” Marys – refracted through the prism of culture and human experience. These are the Marys we have had here for over 500 years.