Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Power of Mary

This story appeared in the Monday, May 14, 2007 edition of USA Today.

By Diane Cameron

I grew up in a Protestant family. My brothers and I went to Sunday school, got confirmed and later married in the same Methodist Church on Pittsburgh's North side. It was a good experience. But I always envied Catholic girls, especially in the month of May. Why May? As I would learn, it was an entire month set aside to honor a woman — Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. Quite a revolutionary concept, especially in the early 1960s.

Our working class neighborhood was a mixture of Protestant and Roman Catholic families. Kids were divided by schools: Spring Hill public or Saint Ambrose Catholic. But it was a close neighborhood, and we all played together after school. We were in and out of each other's houses, and one mother could stand in for another when it came to discipline or first aid. The differences were few, but to me, the Catholic girls seemed to have something special.

In second grade, my feelings of envy emerged. My Catholic friends were having their First Holy Communion. My friends got to wear poofy white dresses and headbands with flowers and little veils. They were given medals with pictures of saints, rosaries and most intriguing, scapulars.
A scapular is two small patches of cloth with holy pictures on them, connected by a loop of string. My girlfriends told me that it protected them from all manner of bad things. The idea of a passionate commitment to something, even a string with holy pictures, was very appealing.
'Comforts' to live by

Catholicism offered my friends other comforts. As a kid, I would have liked a patron saint or a guardian angel, but the Methodist Church didn't offer those. Instead we were counseled, in an ecumenically respectful way, that all that stuff was Catholic...The best thing, though, that Catholic girls got was Mary. She was presented as motherhood and sweetness, but Catholic girls got a clear message that a woman in heaven understood the female side of things.

For Protestant girls, Mary shows up once a year — at Christmas — to give birth. She might get dragged out again on Good Friday, but only in the background. No role model, no intercessor, no friend.

My Catholic pals had statues of Mary. Some had the plastic glow-in-the-dark kind, and the older girls had painted plaster Marys, dressed in blue robes with big doe eyes like my Barbie's. And Mary was always standing on a snake. I didn't understand the symbolism, but I knew at 10 that this 12-inch woman had some power you could not buy for Barbie.

Best of all, my friends had May altars. A May altar was a table with an old lace tablecloth thrown over it. They put their Mary statues on it with flowers and candles that they were allowed to light when they said their prayers. It still strikes me how feminine those altars were. The Catholic girls had total permission to identify with the feminine in spiritual matters. But no one gave little Protestant girls such romantic, mysterious things.

A life with Mary

This carried over into all of a Catholic girl's life. Mary got prayers, devotions, pilgrimages and even architectural consideration: There is a Marian statue in every Catholic Church. Mary's presence meant that the Catholic Church included at least one woman at a high level. In her assumption into heaven, Mary had broken Christianity's glass ceiling.

We pretty much get the shape of our beliefs early on, and what Catholic girls got was a She and a Her, someone like them, to pray to. And they got all those accessories: medals, scapulars, rosaries, ruffled altar skirts and little white prayer books. Protestant girls got black leatherette New Testaments, Jesus stories, but nothing that said, "We're glad you're a girl."

...What I did see my childhood Catholic girlfriends get was faith in their girlhood and an image of feminine power. It's not a bad way to start out, even if the Church has a long way to go.

Diane Cameron is a writer, teacher and director of Community Caregivers in Albany, N.Y.

1 comment:

  1. I could do without that last sentence, but what a wonderful testimony to the impact Mary has on girls.

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