Blessed John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Mater that the “Church journeys through time toward the consummation of the ages and goes to meet the Lord who comes” (2). That we are this moment engaged in a movement from origin to eternity, traversing a path within the Church which leads from birth to final beatitude, is indeed wondrous and spectacular.
By F. K. Bartels
21 September 2011
It is a privilege to be born in this time, a time which John Paul II refers to as “salvation time”: in the fullness of time the Father sent his Son, the eternal Word who assumed human flesh and dwelt among us (see John 1:1, 14). This “fullness,” notes John Paul II, “marks the moment when, with the entrance of the eternal into time, time itself is redeemed, and being filled with the mystery of Christ becomes definitively ‘salvation time.’ Finally, this ‘fullness’ designates the hidden beginning of the Church’s journey” (RM 1).
This “hidden beginning” of the Church’s journey originated inside the holy, grace-filled womb of the Virgin Mary (see Luke 1:28), when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, assumed human nature and became Jesus the Christ. At that moment, Mary became the Mother of God and the Mother of the body of Christ. Thus Mary of Nazareth is the Church’s own beginning (RM 1). The Church, explains John Paul II, “proceeds along the path already trodden by the Virgin Mary (RM 2), who advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and loyally persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross” (see also LG 58).
Just as Mary cannot be understood apart from her Son, the journey of the Church cannot be understood apart from Mary. For the Virgin Mary is, by her fait, the first Christian and the first disciple. Further, she is the spiritual mother of all the children of God, given us by our Savior from the Roman cross: “when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27).
John Paul II observed that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s “exceptional pilgrimage of faith represents a constant point of reference for the Church, for individuals and for communities, for peoples and nations and, in a sense, for all humanity” (RM 6).
The Pilgrimage of Faith: No Room For Doubt
In reflecting on the Virgin Mary’s pilgrimage of faith, we learn a great many things. First and foremost, we see her total commitment to the Father’s will. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary spoke these words in filial trust even though she did not yet fully understand the Father’s plan of salvation. She did not yet know the trials, pain and sorrow she would face as the mother of the redeemer; nevertheless, in complete abandonment, Mary fully assents with both intellect and will to the salvific plan of God.
It is important to recognize that Mary gave her fiat in a condition of incomplete knowledge—because Mary is not divine, but rather completely human, she lacked total understanding of God’s plan. We could say that Mary’s fiat was given in partial “darkness,” for she could not, as a created being, enjoy the total “light” of a supernatural intellect. Nevertheless, the human condition of finite “knowing” is not a problem for Mary, for she assents unreservedly and eternally to the will of God.
Here we arrive at a distinction which applies to contemporary Christendom: the difference between doubt and difficulty. It is perhaps safe to say that there are no Catholics who do not experience some difficulty with a particular tenet of the Faith. But there are, however, many Catholics and other Christians who doubt, which is altogether different—in fact, it is a problem which can inflict great harm.
For our purposes here, difficulty is best defined as incomplete understanding. There may be any number of doctrines of the Faith which we fail to completely understand—that is why they are called “mysteries.” Examples might include the Holy Trinity, the transcendence of the Father, or the change of substance from wheat bread to the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ during the consecratory prayer at Mass—an effect termed as transubstantiation.
There is nothing wrong per se with a lack of understanding—although we should strive to correct the situation insofar as is possible through study. Where we do go wrong, however, where we do fail to follow the path which Mary has trodden, is when we choose to doubt what God has revealed. For doubt is very different from difficulty. In the context of faith, to doubt is to reject, to dismiss, or to otherwise intentionally hesitate in our belief. Doubt is something we willfully choose and act upon. It is a turning away from some truth that God himself has revealed.
Examples of dogmas and doctrines of the faith over which we find persistent doubt include: the divine founding of the Catholic Church; the primacy and infallibility of the Pope; Catholic bishops as successors of the Apostles; and moral tenets of the Faith such as the intrinsic evils of artificial birth control and intentional abortion.
The Journey of Faith: Our Own Personal Fiat
The true Christian disciple assents to what God has revealed even in the midst of incomplete understanding—that is what faith is all about. Faith is exercised in man’s response to God, who has revealed himself to man, and who infuses man with the superabundant light of faith (CCC 26). In faith we seek to understand while we, at the same time and with the help of God’s grace, annihilate doubt. For this reason, the devoted Catholic assents to all that the Church teaches as the voice of Christ on earth. Although we likely fail to understand to some degree, we do not fail in our own personal “fiat.”
As Catholics enter into a relationship of love with Mary, the exemplar of faithful discipleship and trust, we strive to follow her pilgrimage of faith; we freely labor to live according to her perfect journey: a path to which every Christian and, in a sense, all of humanity is called.
An essential aspect of this path into holiness and toward eternal beatitude is the Bride of Christ—the Catholic Church—for she was preordained by the Father from the very beginning of time: “To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. The Church is ‘the world reconciled.’ She is that bark which ‘in the full sail of the Lord’s cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world’” (CCC 845).
Mary is the symbol and most perfect realization of the Church (CCC 507). It was St. Augustine who said that Mary is “clearly the mother of the members of Christ . . . since she has by her charity joined in bringing about the birth of believers in the Church, who are members of its head.”
Let us trust in the Father and the Church he willed should exist, as did Mary entrust herself to God’s salvific plan; let us consecrate ourselves to Mary’s Immaculate Heart and beg that, through her prayerful intercession, we may obtain the graces necessary to see according to the infallible and divinely penetrating eyes of the Church—thus we shall see reality as it is, as God himself has disclosed it in its fullness. In accordance with the teaching of Blessed John Paul II, let us enter into “salvation time” and journey in the Church along the path which Mary has trodden, navigating the temporal sea of life toward the consummation of the ages, as we go forth to meet the Risen Lord who comes.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.