Take a close look at it. Never seen anything like it? You’re right. There’s never been anything like it. It’s a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, that’s nine feet tall and 700 pounds. But it’s not just the height and weight that make it special. It’s that round niche cut into most of the torso between the heart and the uterus. The niche is meant for displaying a 12-inch consecrated communion wafer. That technically makes the statue a monstrance, and it’s said to be the biggest in the world.
For a better appreciation of the sheer size of the piece, the picture below shows how it dwarfs Deacon Michael McCloskey of Holy Name Cathedral as he places a consecrated host in it on May 31st.
That was the day the curtains parted in the sanctuary of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Chicago to reveal the monstrance of Our Lady of the Sign, Ark of Mercy.
The archdiocesan newspaper and the Catholic News Service reported that Cardinal Francis George (an Oblate of Mary Immaculate) “was on hand to celebrate Mass and bless the new nine-foot, hand-carved and painted monstrance featuring Mary atop a gold-leaf decorated ark flanked by two kneeling angels, also in gold leaf, whose wings extend to shelter her.”
The desire to glorify Mary for her unique role in salvation history is biblically sound, especially her cooperation with God in bearing Jesus, bringing him into the world, keeping faith with him through his ministry and death, and being among the earliest to bear witness to his resurrection.
However, what is very dubious theologically is for the Catholic Church to procure and promote a physical image of Mary that in its monstrous size so towers over human beings that it could easily be confused for a pagan idol or an Asian Buddha. It leaves the church open to charges of Mariolatry, a term used in the past by Protestant critics who believed Catholics tended to denigrate worship of Jesus and his Father by idolizing Jesus’ mother.
And it muddies the theological waters all the more to turn this overwrought likeness of Mary into a monstrance, which misconstrues Mary’s relationship to the eucharist and promotes misunderstanding of the eucharist itself.
It was no accident that eucharistic devotions like exposition of the blessed sacrament (in a monstrance), 40 hours devotion before the exposed eucharist (in a monstrance), benediction with the exposed eucharist (in a monstrance) and Corpus Christi processions of the consecrated host (in a monstrance) became less frequent after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
The Council took seriously the concern of modern liturgists that with the emergence of large medieval cathedrals the original Lord’s Supper had become distorted from a shared meal to a mammoth exercise of visual adoration. A cult of sharing and eating the eucharistic bread and wine, “in memory of me” as Jesus asked, was replaced with a cult of looking at the consecrated bread and venerating it. As Catholic professors of sacramental theology told their students in the 1970s, in the decades before the Council the challenge wasn’t believing that the bread was really Jesus: the challenge was to believe it was bread!
The eucharistic devotions were never officially revoked. But they were officially downplayed in favor of reformed eucharistic liturgies that put greater emphasis on the altar as a table and the eucharist as a shared meal, Jesus’ transformation of the Passover seder into a celebration of his own deliverance, and ours.
Still, the conservative reaction against Vatican II included a renewed preference for the old eucharistic devotions. Pope John Paul II did not discourage them, and as recently as May 22, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI could be found kneeling before a monstrance driven through the streets of Rome on a canopied flatbed truck, on the way to a benediction service and eucharistic devotions.
But as with other issues discussed here, just because the pope thinks something and does something does not make it theologically correct or in this case sacramentally wise. And that is especially true of allowing one of his U.S. cardinals to help commission and encourage veneration of the largest monstrance in the world.
Two fans of the new monstrance described some of the devotions that accompanied its unveiling. They help explain the theological misgivings I raise:
“After Mass, many remained in Adoration. Some got out of their pews to walk close to the altar so they could get a better view of the monstrance, while others were prostrate on the ground, kneeling on the floor, or just standing in awe before the Eucharist. Many walked out of the church with tears in their eyes.
”Many families attended despite temperatures in the 90s. The ceremonies began at 6 p.m. eastern time. Long after Mass, people lingered. In fact, at 11 p.m., the church was still packed. People crowded near the front entrance to St. Stanislaus Church, talking about their personal experiences they had in the unveiling, Mass, and Adoration.
“‘It was almost as if you were away from the world,’ shared one pilgrim, ‘and Noble Drive [the location of the church in Chicago] had become a piece of heaven on earth.’”
If so, this particular heaven on earth is an ersatz one. These kind of devotions are not how Jesus asked his followers remember him. They detract from what he did request, that we share bread and wine in a ritual meal. By claiming to experience Jesus as more intensely present in these devotions than in the ritual meal, they misconstrue the meaning of the eucharist and trivialize Jesus’ presence in the eucharistic liturgy.
And by transforming Mary into a monstrance, they trivialize her actual role in salvation history and turn her into some kind of mystical ark of a mystical new covenant centered on veneration of consecrated hosts.
I know of nothing that will convince Cardinal George and Benedict XVI to stop pushing these devotions. But those who are truly devoted to the eucharist need to challenge them and affirm that nothing in Christianity should ever be given greater prominence than the eucharistic meal.