The First Disciple?

Truly Our Sister
A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints
Elizabeth A. Johnson
Continuum, $26.95, 368 pp.

Few topics pose as great a challenge to Catholic theology or to the search for an appropriate theological method as the popular devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. No account of Roman Catholicism as a lived religion would be complete without considerable attention to the role Mary plays in the prayers and hopes, the hymns, paintings, sculpture, and architecture, the liturgies, dramas, street festivals, and pilgrimages of the Catholic people.

Yet we know very little about this woman. Her role in the stories of the New Testament is small and somewhat ambiguous. Most contemporary New Testament scholars do not assume that the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, which include the Annunciation story, the Magnificat, and the Christmas story, contain much reliable historical information. In addition, it is difficult to be sure what Mary’s attitude to Jesus’ public ministry was or whether it changed over time. The early tradition showed rather little interest in the relationship between Jesus and Mary or in most of those called “sisters and brothers” of Jesus. The biblical testimony, in other words, does not in itself explain the role Mary has played in the Catholic imagination.

What could explain it? Would studies of folklore and popular culture make a helpful contribution to our understanding? Would a psychological reflection on the history of Marian devotion be illuminating? Was this an example...

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About the Author

Robert J. Egan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, teaches theology and spirituality at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.