Throughout the centuries, the Blessed Virgin Mary has been given a number of titles. Some of these are probably familiar to us, as they depict names of churches in our diocese. “Queen of Peace,” “Our Lady of the Snows” and “Immaculate Conception” are just a few. Each of these descriptions provides some understanding about who Mary is and the role she plays in salvation history.
In his encyclical on Mary in the life of the church, Pope John Paul II describes Mary in another way. He calls her the “first disciple” (Redemptoris Mater 20). It may seem a bit odd to think that a mother could become a disciple of her child, even before his birth. Yet this tells us something about the meaning of Christian discipleship.
Handing on the Faith
Mary’s discipleship began with her “yes,” accepting God’s invitation to receive Jesus into her life. For Mary, this meant uniting her life, in all of its aspects, with that of our Savior. Mary was willing to conform her life completely to the will of God, accepting her role within his plan of salvation. “May it be done to me according to your word” becomes the prototypical response to the invitation to Christian discipleship.
From her acceptance of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to her presence at the foot of the cross to her Assumption into heaven, Mary was united with her Son and his mission in a profound way. She shared in the joy of his incarnation and joined in his suffering at his crucifixion. She experienced the glory of his resurrection and received the fruits of his redemption.
Mary’s receptivity to God’s will, her life of communion with her Son and her desire to share this with others provides for us a model of Christian discipleship.
A disciple is one who follows and learns from another. Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew began with, “Come after me” (Mark 1:17). The response to this invitation, which Jesus extends to every person, implies a change in life, or conversion. Simon, Andrew, James and John dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Matthew abandoned his post as a tax collector — along with his sinful life — to experience a new way of life with Jesus.
However, Christian discipleship is more than a “physical” following, like ducklings swimming behind their mother. Discipleship brings about an interior communion with Christ, which grows deeper and deeper through the grace of the sacraments, a life of prayer and service to others. St. Paul describes it this way: “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a disciple as one “who [has] accepted Jesus’ message to follow him.” In doing so, the disciple becomes united to Christ in such a way that he shares in “his mission, his joy, and his sufferings” (CCC Glossary).
Communion with Christ begins at baptism, when we die with Christ and rise to new life with him. From this, our communion with him is meant to grow. “Changed by the working of grace into a new creature, the Christian thus sets himself to follow Christ and learns more and more within the Church to think like Him, to judge like Him, to act in conformity with His commandments, and to hope as He invites us to” (Catechesi Tradendae 20).
As we strive to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, it is helpful to look to others who provide examples of Christian discipleship. This is why the church holds up for us persons like the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.
Just as we are inspired by “heroes” in many other facets of life, looking to athletes, artists and achievers for direction, inspiration and guidance, we can observe the lives of holy persons to better understand the meaning of Christian discipleship.
My husband and I recently visited two places, located near each other in Wisconsin, which brought this analogy to light. Upon our visits to Lambeau Field in Green Bay and the shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, we noticed they had some similarities. Both places contained statues and pictures, a museum and gift shop, and someone who told the story of the people who made the place important.
Even for a lifelong Vikings fan, it was inspiring to hear how certain coaches, players and business leaders gave of themselves to build a great football franchise in the city of Green Bay. These people are honored and remembered through the stories told of their lives and by the statues and other memorabilia that adorn the place. People are eager to learn about the lives of heroic people and, consequently, desire to be a part of the story.
Similarly, but even more importantly, at a shrine a few miles from the stadium, a story is told of Mary’s care for God’s people and of the loving response of a Belgian immigrant and a community of Franciscan sisters who helped the people of that area know and love our Lord. The beautiful statues, chapels and prayer walks provide inspiration to follow the examples of Mary and other holy people and to seek greater communion with Jesus Christ as we continue our journey of Christian discipleship.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.