Mary and War

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary. Originating in the town of Cuenca, Spain in 1513, its celebration gradually widened until it was universalized by Pope Innocent XI in 1683 in thanksgiving for the victory of King John III Sobieski of Poland over Turkish forces during the Battle of Vienna. Not only was Sobieski able to turn back an Ottoman army numbering around 150,000 with only half as many men at his disposal, but the victory marked the end of successful Turkish aggression into Central-Eastern Europe. How was this victory achieved? Just as with the legendary Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the victory at Vienna was attributed to the favorable intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While marching to Vienna, Sobieski's army paused at Częstochowa to implore the intercession of Our Lady, and, sure enough, victory was obtained by her as one ought to expect in such dire circumstances.


Have you, dear reader, ever stopped to consider the significance of such feast days? Does it not seem strange that the Catholic Church would establish a liturgical feast to commemorate a war victory? Are we not a Church of peace, with Mary and Jesus as our exemplars in meekness and humility? Does the conflating of Holy Mary with the horrors of war not seem contradictory, even somewhat perverse? Perhaps we ought to relocate the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary to another day in order to break this connection.


This semester I and other brothers are studying Catholic social teaching, presently exemplified in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. A major topic of Catholic social teaching is the issue of war: When is it licit to fight? In his book Living Justice, Thomas Massaro, SJ contends that there are only "two dominant Christian approaches to peace" (104), namely pacifism and just war theory. Pacifism has not been popular within Catholic thought, and has only recently (since the mid-20th Century) gained ground as a seriously advocated position. Although there are variations on pacifism, the common theme of all is the strict choice of non-violence when confronted with evil.


What about just war theory, the traditional position of the Church? Massaro notes Pope Benedict XVI's endorsement of a variation on just war theory known as "the responsibility to protect" which "not only allows but also actively encourages great powers to use force to resolve humanitarian crises, prevent atrocities against human rights, and avert genocide" (108). Given that Sobieski's intervention in Vienna was intended as relief of the city in the midst of an Ottoman invasion, it should come as no surprise that the Church would understand the Battle of Vienna as a moral engagement in combat: a protection of the defenseless.


But should feasts commemorating war victories belong to the Church's liturgical calendar? It is easier to accept when we understand that such victories are the defeat of unjust attack, of oppression, of the aggressor. But do we believe, then, that Blessed Mary "takes sides" in the midst of violent combat? I leave it to you, dear reader, to ponder this question and any consequences that follow from its answers. And perhaps it is not so esoteric of a question. Look, for instance, at what is happening in Iraq and SyriaPalestine and Israel, the Ukraine and Russia. What are we to make of these situations? For what ought we to pray? Would we ever ask Mary to pray for one side or another? Should we be praying only for "peace"? What if Central and Eastern Europe had simply prayed for "peace" and not total victory against the Ottoman empire?


These are provocative questions, but not without answers. In the 16th and 17th Centuries there really existed an identifiably Christian civilization under threat from an identifiably non-Christian foe, and in those circumstances it was not inappropriate for Christians to beg the intercession of Our Lady for victory over the Ottoman empire. But today, the global situation is much more complicated, and the cultural and political lines are often indiscernible. Today the Church looks at war as a "failure of peace" and calls for all Christians to pray for peace in solidarity with the afflicted throughout the world. Yet, the Church still holds just war theory as legitimate: there are times when powers must intervene to protect the defenseless.


This day let us dedicate ourselves to prayers for peace through the intercession of the Queen of Peace named Mary, and that this peace be brought about justly.