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The Hail Mary and Corpus Christi

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Cross-posted from The Conciliar Anglican.

Derek writes:

1.) I have been studying the articles, and have a question about the invocation of the Saints. Now, even as someone who identifies as “Anglo-Catholic,” who is closer to a “Prayer book Catholick,” I have never, ever thought that St. Joseph will sell my house, St. Clare would cleanse my TV, or St. Jude would find my missing keys. I have also never thought that “flying to the patronage” of the Blessed Mother would “save me.” But, what is doctrinally wrong with the Hail Mary in regards to asking for prayer? How is it different than me asking you for the same?

2.) Why is Eucharistic Adoration frowned upon? Is it true (as Fr. Benedict Groeschel states) that the first Eucharistic procession and adoration was in Canterbury Cathedral?

Although they are not quite the same, I am going to answer these two questions together. Both deal with a popular medieval practice that was attacked and then marginalized within Anglicanism during the sixteenth century. Furthermore, each practice was revived in the nineteenth century, and it is not uncommon to find Anglicans today who are familiar with, or even incorporate, such devotional practices into their own lives. In what follows I want to first look at the historical roots of these changes before answering the questions themselves. Sometimes it is difficult to find grace in someone else’s devotional practice(s), but we must strive to overcome judgmentalism, which sustains and is sustained by the scandal of Christian division.

Reforming Popular Devotion

Why was popular medieval devotion attacked in the sixteenth century? One could argue — and not unfairly — that the reformers were sometimes quite harsh in their approach to less intellectual expressions of the Christian faith. One could also argue — and again, not unfairly — that the reformers spent far too little time explaining why they deemed some long-standing devotional practices unacceptable. Condemnation is not the same as catechesis. These points are fair and sound. But we must also inquire into the historical origins and roots of the reformers’ critiques. However flawed in their application, their pastoral concern was real.

Erasmus of Rotterdam
by Hans Holbein the Younger

I know of no finer (or funnier) pre-Reformation attack on popular religion than Erasmus of Rotterdam’s The Praise of Folly. For Anglicans, Erasmus is especially important. His Paraphrases — short commentaries and summaries on each book of the Bible — were among the official texts of the Edwardian and Elizabethan reformations. Every priest was expected to own and study the Paraphrases and every parish was expected to have them on hand as well. Like the Paraphrases, The Praise of Folly was translated and reprinted in sixteenth-century England. Although never an official text, it shaped the opinion of many people. It therefore offers us much insight.

From start to finish, Erasmus writes in the voice of Folly, a female jester, who opines on the state of religion. She concludes that there is one fundamental problem with pilgrimages, prayers to saints, and excessive liturgical pomp (not to mention overcurious scholastic speculation): each is a distraction which marginalizes the fundamentals of Christian faith and life. Consider the following statement on devotion to the Blessed Virgin:

What a crowd of them can be seen lighting candles to the Virgin Mary, and in broad daylight, when there is no need for them! Yet how few of the same crowd try to imitate her in the chastity and modesty of her life, in her love for celestial things?[1]

Erasmus advocated the philosophia Christi (“the philosophy of Christ”). From this point of view, external devotions are far less important than the intentional pursuit and practice of piety. Importantly for the first question, Erasmus also opposed assigning particular tasks to particular saints. Such things are the folly of a worldly life, but Christians should pursue the folly of God: the wisdom of Christ.

One might argue that in his criticism, Erasmus was unkind; only a fine line can occupy the ground between satire and cynicism. Yet at the same time, I suspect that we agree with his primary concern. Devotion should always be intentional; it should deepen self-knowledge and strengthen virtue. If devotion becomes a means of distraction or escape, it can become a form of self-deception, indulgent delusion, or an idol. (The same is no less true of theological study, I might add.) First things must come first.

The Hail Mary and Corpus Christi Today

To answer your first set of questions: “What is doctrinally wrong with the Hail Mary in regards to asking for prayer?” Answer: nothing. “How is it different than me asking you for the same?” Answer: it is no different. First, the Hail Mary is based on Scripture. It begins by repeating the archangel Gabriel’s greeting to the Blessed Virgin. By consciously making Gabriel’s words our own, we may better enter into the central mystery of the Christian faith: the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. How could such an affirmation be wrong?

Some people might be upset by the second part of the Hail Mary, which asks the mother of our Lord to intercede for us both now and at the time of our death. This request directs our attention to the communion of saints, the wider body of Christian believers both past and present. To use biblical terminology, the communion of saints is more than just the living; it also incorporates those who are “asleep in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:18). We live on even after death, and our life-after-death is in Christ.

The Bible tells us little about what lies between our “death” (or, to use a more traditional word, “dormition”) and our resurrection. We do, however, have a small number of interesting tidbits. For example, the apostle Paul says that “to be absent from the body is to be home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Furthermore, in the Apocalypse/Revelation, John writes that when he beheld heavenly worship, he saw “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8; cf. 8:4). By the word “saint,” the New Testament simply denotes any faithful Christian. Insofar as Christians live on in some way after death, and insofar as that death involves prayer, then Mary is among those who intercedes before the divine throne. Requesting prayers of her is no different than requesting the prayers of the Christian next door, for the communion of saints includes Mary no less than your Christian neighbor. If one disagrees with this, I fail to see how one can make sense of Scripture. (Incidentally, this does not necessitate a high Mariology. Mary’s intercessions are nothing if not part of the wider collection of intercessions offered by the whole communion of saints.)

To answer your second set of questions: “Why is Eucharistic Adoration frowned upon?” Eucharistic Adoration was rejected in the sixteenth century because it was seen as something that undermined the original purpose of the Eucharist: communion with Christ. I do not know how Eucharistic Adoration is practiced today, but in the medieval era it did not culminate with the celebration of communion. Rather, people prayed before the Eucharist but did not receive it. The liturgy was no different, for laity could only receive the Eucharistic bread once per year. (They were forbidden from receiving the Eucharistic wine.)

This raises an interesting question. Which expresses greater reverence for the Eucharist — paying much attention to elaborate theology while receiving the consecrated bread only once per year, or receiving the consecrated elements more often while paying less attention to elaborate theology? For Anglican reformers, the latter was preferable to the former. The Church of England maintained a broadly medieval theology of the sacraments as “effectual signs of grace.” This language was maintained in Article XXV in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. However, the Church of England rejected transubstantiation, a technical definition enshrined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Anglicanism has never defined the mode of Christ’s presence. Consequently, over the course of Anglican history various definitions have sometimes jostled with one another. (We should note that this variety is little different than the variety of the medieval era; transubstantiation may have been the official view, but it was neither the only view nor the most traditional view.)

Cranmer and other reformers were inspired by a far higher vision of the Eucharist than was prevalent at the time. Because of this, they rejected Eucharistic adoration, which made the Eucharistic something seen but not received. (And just for the record, the first Eucharistic Adoration actually took place in Liège, although it was certainly popular in England.)

Grace in Devotion

But what of today? Despite ecumenism, one of the great, unresolved issues in the Church concerns popular devotion. At a basic level, popular devotion always implies a theology, even if its practitioners are not theologically articulate. In condemning Eucharistic adoration, for example, Cranmer did far more than just condemn one expression of popular devotion: he condemned both a liturgical practice and the divorce of elaborate sacramental theology from frequent sacramental participation.

The pastoral methods of the reformers did much but they also left much undone. I practice neither Eucharistic adoration nor any form of Marian devotion, but I have friends that do. Can I find the grace made manifest in their lives through such practices? Yes. The same is true of evangelicals and their Bible devotions: I can see grace made manifest. We must be able to look at devotion — so often the most intimate and sensitive expressions of faith — and respond with words of grace, rather than judgment. This can be immensely difficult, particularly if we have left one form of Christianity for another. Yet maturity entails proactively preventing my experience from determining how I view the experience(s) of others. When we look at the devotional practices of other Christians, we should be like the Blessed Virgin and “ponder these things” (Luke 2:19). How else can we keep first things first?

Some Further Reading

The Praise of Folly is available in a wide variety of editions. Gregory D. Dodds, Exploiting Erasmus: The Erasmian Legacy and Religious Change in Early Modern England (University of Toronto Press, 2009), is an excellent survey of Erasmus’ influence in England through the end of the seventeenth century. Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1992), is the standard history of the rise, development, and partial demise of Corpus Christi celebrations.


[1] Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, in Robert M. Adams, ed. and trans., The Praise of Folly and Other Writings (W. W. Norton & Co., 1989), p. 48.

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