James Spencer Northcote was a convert to Catholicism, having been a married Anglican minister. At the death of his wife, also a convert, he entered the Catholic priesthood and eventually became president of St. Mary’s College at Oscott. Between the years 1856 and 1860 he gave a series of lectures to refute the Protestant claim that, according to the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary is nothing but an ordinary woman. They were later published, and furnish some of the best rebuttals in print against those who attack Catholic devotion to our Beloved Mother Mary. We present them in a slightly condensed form.
All that has been said in the last two Lectures about the honor due to the Saints has belonged to Our Lady only in common with the other glorified members of Christ's Mystical Body, whilst everyone knows that the Church honors Mary with a very special devotion far beyond that which She bestows on any other Saint. It is a difference of degree, however, rather than of kind; whereas the worship we offer to God is altogether different in kind from that with which we approach any of His creatures. The prayers which are addressed to one Saint might be addressed to another, and to the Queen of Saints; but they could not be addressed to God without impiety, because they suppose some higher Being to Whom they are ultimately referred.
And here I might very well be content to leave the subject of devotion to our Blessed Lady, having explained the three principle acts in which it consists—prayer, praise, and imitation, and having shown the theological and scriptural ground on which it rests: viz., that honor is due to every creature for God's sake, and higher honor in proportion to the nearness of its relationship to God. There are some, however, who might almost be persuaded to admit as much as this perhaps, but who nevertheless shrink from what they consider the excess of Catholic devotion to Mary, and in particular from the ordinary statements about the universality of Her Patronage and about all graces being given through Her intercession. Now, I am not going to examine and weigh the particular words and phrases used by this or that writer, which would be an endless and unprofitable task; but I do not think I ought to omit, in a course of Lectures like the present, a broad general statement about our Blessed Lady’s powers for which anything like a general consensus of Catholic writers can be alleged, and which enters largely into the popular belief.
No one will deny that the power and extent of Mary's Patronage occupies a far more prominent place in every Catholic heart throughout the whole Church, than that of any other Saint, however eminent or however intimately connected with this or that particular place, or class, or subject. We believe in the Patronage of all the Saints. It is an article of faith that they make intercession for us and are our patrons and protectors in divers ways. But the Church at large has not authorized any general solemnity for the whole body of the faithful in honor of the Patronage of any Saint—save only our Blessed Lady and St. Joseph; thereby plainly indicating that of these She believes the power of intercession to be universal and infinite, whereas of all other Saints it is only partial and limited. In explanation of this difference, it might be enough to say generally, that its cause is twofold; partly, the higher degree of sanctity which these Saints attained above all others, and partly—what indeed is intimately connected with that sanctity, yet distinct from it—the personal relationship, so to speak, which existed between them whilst yet they were in the world, and the God-Man, the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ Our Lord. For we must remember that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, having once become Man, remains such forever, and that all the relations therefore, which He vouchsafed to contract with any of the children of men here upon earth, being Divine, are in a certain sense eternal.
As He did not cease to be God when He came down to this earth and became Man, so neither did He cease to be Man when He went back again into Heaven. His human nature remains forever an inseparable part of Himself; and part of that nature is filial love for Her whom He had chosen to be His Mother, and for him whom He did not refuse to call Father, to whom He gave the authority of a father over Him. It might be enough then to rest upon this foundation our belief in the infinite might and universal extent of their Patronage as compared with that of any other Saints. I wish, however, with reference to our Blessed Lady—for we are not now concerned with St. Joseph—to show how naturally this belief in Her position in Heaven falls in with, and seems indeed almost necessarily to flow out of, what the Gospel tells us about what She said and did upon earth.
I will not repeat what has already been said about the Saints continuing to take an interest, in God's presence, in what occupied their thoughts and affections during the period of their exile, nor vindicate to them afresh their power of assisting those in whom they take an interest. It is hard to believe that any Christian who has ever given any attention to the subject can find a difficulty in understanding why the founder of an orphanage, for example, should look for special help before the throne of God from the prayers of St. Vincent de Paul, or of an older St. Vincent—Ferrer, who had labored in the same work two centuries before; or why missionaries in heathen countries should pray to St. Francis Xavier; or those who have charge of the sick, to St. John of God; and so on, through the whole calendar of Patron Saints. For in the Kingdom of God those fruits are ripened whose seeds were sown upon earth; glory is but the development and the crowning reward of grace, and as grace does not destroy but beautifies and elevates nature, so neither does glory obliterate the special fruits of grace, nor do souls lose their identity by passing through the portals of death. On the contrary we believe that the Saints in glory retain special characteristics arising out of the works which they did in grace, and that time will thus set a mark, as it were, upon eternity.
What then was the special work of Mary upon earth? What is Her special privilege in Heaven? She was the Mother of Jesus; She remains the Mother of His Church. "She brought forth Jesus our Head in the flesh; She cooperates by Her charity in bringing forth us, His members, in the spirit" (St. Augustine, de Sancta Virginitate, vi.) And since Jesus, the Author and Giver of grace, came to us by Mary at the first, it cannot be counted anything strange if the Will of God should have ordained that we should receive also through Her intervention the different measures and applications of grace that are needed for our souls. "The gifts of God are without repentance" (Rom. 11: 29); and God having once decreed that She should cooperate by a distinct act of Her will in the giving of Jesus to men at the first, it might well be that something of the same kind was appointed to continue to the end. Let us look at the events of Her life.
Next after the Mystery of the Annunciation, that is of the Incarnation itself, there followed that of the Visitation, in which, as you have already seen, Mary was made the instrument of the first act of grace of the Incarnate Savior. The first application of the fruit of Redemption in the sanctification of St. John the Baptist was by means of the voice of Mary. "Behold, as soon as the voice of Thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leapt for joy." And do not say that this was unavoidable, because Jesus was in Mary's womb, and could not be separated from Her; for He might have performed this miracle of mercy on the Infant Baptist in silence, and at a distance. Jeremias the Prophet, for whose soul something of the same kind seems to have been done (Before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee—Jer. 1: 5), knew nothing of it until he was sent forth on his prophetic mission. It was done, but silently and invisibly; no outward instrument was used. God might have done the same again, had He so pleased; but He did not so please, He chose to use a human instrument, and that instrument was Mary.
Look further in the history of Jesus and Mary, when He is grown up, and is now about to begin His public ministry. He is no longer inseparable from Mary; quite otherwise; He will now be more frequently absent from Her than in Her company. But observe how His ministry begins. We have seen the method He chose for working His first miracle on the souls of men, His first spiritual work of mercy; let us now notice His first temporal work of mercy, His first miracle wrought in merely temporal matters. I need not repeat the history of the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana of Galilee. You all know how Mary there asked for and obtained, for another, a miraculous exercise of the power of Her Divine Son. She was the cause of Jesus' first miracle being wrought. He would not have wrought it but for Her. He wrought it at Her intercession, in obedience to Her wish.
Is there no meaning in these mysteries? Is it merely a fortuitous coincidence that Mary was the channel and instrument of the first spiritual grace, and the direct cause of the first temporal grace, granted by the Incarnate Word? And does it teach us absolutely nothing about Mary’s influence with Jesus, and the power of Her intercession under the Gospel dispensation? Do not say that these two histories are wonderful facts, but isolated, mere events in history, beginning and ending in themselves, but without consequences, having no general character, resting on no principle, covering no mystery, declaring no law. You might just as well say that the pardon granted by Jesus to the overflowing love of the penitent Magdalen was a fact which concerned her alone, and gave no encouragement, was no sure ground of hope, to others who have sinned like her, and like her repented. You might just as well say that the miracle of healing, which after so many apparent rebuffs Jesus granted to the poor Canaanite woman, for her possessed daughter, was a special privilege granted to her, and teaches no general lesson upon the unfailing efficacy of perseverance in prayer. You might just as well seek to strip every fact in Gospel history of its general or mysterious character, treat them as so many separate and independent facts, each standing by itself, and deny that they teach us anything about the general character of God's dealings with the children of men.
I have spoken of the miracle at Cana of Galilee as though it concerned temporal matters more than spiritual; and in itself it did so: but in its effects and consequences it was far otherwise; it was pre-eminently spiritual. For the Evangelist concludes his account of the incident with these words: "This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him." So then the disciples owed their belief—that faith without which they could not have been saved, without which it is "impossible to please God;" they owed it—under God, to Mary. God gave it to them; for "faith is the gift of God" (Eph. 2: 8); but He gave it to them through Mary's intervention. It was the immediate fruit of a certain miracle wrought in their presence, which miracle was directly caused by the thoughtful, amiable charity of Mary. Thus we are reminded of the saying of St. Augustine, that Mary brought forth Jesus our Head in the flesh, but that She also cooperates by Her charity to the bringing forth of us, His members in the Spirit.
Moreover, looking at this first miracle of Our Lord from this point of view (which is manifestly the most true and just appreciation of it), another wide and magnificent field of contemplation as to Mary's place in the economy of man's Redemption is opened out before us, of which I must set before you the outline, hoping that you will do your best to develop it to its proper limits by study and your own meditation. "Theology," says Bossuet (from whom I take my sketch of this subject), "recognizes three principle operations of the grace of Jesus Christ: God calls us, justifies us, and gives us perseverance. This is the beginning, the progress, and the completion of our sanctification. And in each of these three stages, the help of Jesus is necessary; but also—what, perhaps, you may not have observed in the Scriptures, but yet is clearly there—the charity of Mary is associated with each." He then goes on to show how in the Visitation, when Jesus by the mouth of Mary awakened and bestowed a great grace upon the helpless Baptist imprisoned in his mother's womb, we seem to have a lively image of God's grace awakening sinners, hitherto insensible alike to His threats and to His promises, and calling them to repentance and amendment of life; in the consequences of the miracle at the marriage feast of Cana, we have a plain instance of the gift of justification, since thus only did the disciples believe with a full and entire faith; and lastly, in St. John standing at the foot of the Cross, we have a representation of all faithful Christians who persevere to the end; and to them Jesus Himself gives Mary to be their Mother.
Those who have studied Sacred Scripture most deeply, and learnt something of its hidden meaning, and the lessons of instruction, and even of prophecy, which are often wrapped up in its most simple facts, will best know how to appreciate the truth and beauty of this interpretation of the Gospel incidents to which it refers; and nobody who has studied the Lives of the Saints and the History of the Church will be at a loss to supply instances in which the intervention of Mary has been distinctly manifested, both in the conversion of sinners and in their encouragement and perseverance to the end; thus confirming the interpretation suggested by the important testimony of the facts. But this is a field which, however tempting, we must not enter. It came legitimately within the scope of this series of Lectures upon the Gospel History of Our Lady, to show how the facts which are recorded of Her by the Evangelists, point Her out as holding the most important place, next to Jesus, in the great work of our redemption; it would be altogether another work to show how She has actually filled that place in the history of the Church; how the Holy Ghost, by Whose operation Jesus was conceived of the Blessed Virgin at the first has continued to use the same instrument as one chief means of carrying on His work in the world; and I think it would not be difficult to show by the light of history, that next to the Cross of Christ, devotion to our Blessed Lady has been the most powerful instrument in the regeneration of the world by Christianity.
But, as I have said, this is a subject quite beyond our present scope: one word only we may be allowed to say in conclusion, that, as in the Gospels Mary appears the Mother of Jesus, and is given by Himself from the Cross to be the Mother also of His disciples, His Mystical Body, the Church, we have a right to look in the Church’s devotion to Her (if it is to be in harmony with the Gospel) for those characteristics of pre-eminence and universality which naturally become the position of a mother in the bosom of her family. And certainly it will not be denied that, tried by this test, Catholic devotion to Mary will not be found wanting. Other Saints may be known, loved and honored, only by particular classes or in particular countries; but within the limits of Catholic Christendom, Mary is loved and honored everywhere and by all. What St. Paul says of our Blessed Lord, is true also of His Holy Mother. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3: 28).
She is especially beloved and honored by women, because She is a woman, and because She has exalted the honor of Her sex, restoring it (and more than restoring it) to its original dignity; reversing the fault of our first mother Eve and taking the initiative in the work of Redemption, even as Eve had done in the work of our ruin; because She was also the model of Her sex in all its condition and capacities, as virgin, wife, mother, and widow—and because She set forth in Her life the most perfect example of the special virtues of woman: modesty, silence, reserve, retirement, gentleness, obedience, obscurity, and the rest.
But experience shows that devotion to Her is no less attractive to men; it is not possible to name any Doctor or Saint of the Church who has not been distinguished by a tender and filial devotion toward this Heavenly Mother; it has even been made a reproach against the devotion altogether, that it is a mere matter of sentiment, imagination, and feeling, the chivalrous admiration of ideal feminine perfection, a generous homage paid to “the weaker vessel,” as the very type of gentleness, goodness, and beauty.
Look again at the various stages of life. Jesus and Mary are the earliest names lisped by a Christian child; they bring the first ideas of faith into the infant mind by means of that relationship which they first and most readily understand—that of mother and child. As the child grows up and the passions develop and strengthen, what more general or more effective protection against the seductions of sense and the violence of temptations than the love and veneration of this spotless model of purity, the Blessed Virgin? How many wrecks have been avoided at this most critical season of life by keeping the eye and the heart steadily fixed upon this bright Star of the Sea? And amid the multiplied interests of more mature years, what stronger anchor of the soul to heavenly things, who is more frequently invoked than Her of whom "it has never been heard that anyone has had recourse to Her in vain"? Finally, the very picture of devout old age is of one "telling his beads" (reciting the Rosary). Old age renews its youth at the altars of Mary; it is ready with aged Simeon to sing its Nunc dimittis, as he did when he received Jesus from Her arms: it cries out, after the weary exile of this life, "Show unto us the blessed fruit of Thy womb, Jesus."
Look again at the various intelligences of men. Contrast the deep learning and subtle intellect of the theologian with the simple unquestioning faith of the humble peasant who knows nothing beyond his catechism. How wide asunder they seem to stand; yet in devotion to Mary they meet as brothers, and it would be hard to say which surpasses the other in this particular. It is easy to see this by watching the devotions of the Catholic poor on the one hand, and studying the works of the most eminent Doctors of the Church on the other, who seem to have inherited, as it were, the privilege first bestowed on St. John, of having Mary in their holy keeping. Indeed, our very adversaries bear testimony to this; for their objections against devotion to our Blessed Lady are usually directed not so much against the formal decrees or authorized prayers and hymns of the Church, as against what they are pleased to call the superstition of the vulgar or the extravagances of theological writers.
The poor and the great ones of the earth, both alike bend the knee in loving homage to Mary; the poor because She was poor, the Spouse of a carpenter, laboring for Her daily bread; the rich and mighty because She was highly exalted, of royal lineage, and the Mother of One Whose Kingdom was to have no end. She was the most humble, and therefore the most exalted of human creatures, and thus She became a perfect model for both.
The solitary nun, or hermit in his cell, given up to a life of meditation and union with God in prayer, draws strength from contemplating the example of Mary, who ever kept all the words of God and of His instruments and messengers, "pondering them in Her heart." But the Religious of the active orders, the zealous apostolic missionary, the soldier in battle or the sailor on the deep seas, or young men and women fighting against the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil—all these alike have recourse to the same "Help of Christians."
But above all—strangest phenomenon of this universal devotion, and strongest seal and sanction of its heavenly origin—it belongs equally to every condition of conscience. Souls aspiring after religious perfection, rise by imitation of Her, they tread closely in Her footsteps and look to Her for help; they know that though Her Divine Maternity be a privilege that is incommunicable, yet that they may still aspire to the most intimate union with Jesus in the spirit, which was Her higher blessedness. On the other hand, it is no less true that some little pious thought, or act, or habit in connection with the Blessed Virgin is often the last spark of Christian faith and hope and practice which lingers in the hardened sinner's heart. Mary is at once the Queen of Angels and Saints, and the Refuge of Sinners. She, the Virgin of Virgins, under the gentle and sanctifying influences of whose purity so many innocent souls are nurtured, so many choirs of Virgins spring up and multiply in the Church, "like the flowers of roses in the days of the spring, and as lilies that are on the brink of the water" (Ecclus. 50: 8), She commonly is the last link of Heaven which the sinner abandons, and the first which he lays hold of when he begins to return from his wanderings.
Surely, this wonderful adaptation of devotion to Mary, to every age and condition and circumstance of man's life, and especially of his supernatural life, ought to engage the attention of the indifferent and conciliate the prejudices of the most hostile. If the mechanism of the hand, so curiously and wonderfully wrought, and its adaptation to the needs and conveniences of human life, may be successfully urged as a proof for the wisdom and power of the Creator, so a similar argument for the Divine origin of this devotion to Mary would not be without foundation. To ourselves it is as a stamp set upon its Divinity. The work of all true religion is to unite a man to his Maker; devotion to Mary is a bond of union between God and all His creatures; it is equally suited to all classes, seeming to have some special adaptation to each; therefore it was instituted by God and is a part of the Christian Faith.
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