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Catholicism - Catholics, Jesus and Mary

This GCSE RE quiz about Catholicism takes a specific look at Jesus and Mary. Christian devotion to the person and precepts of Jesus is probably fairly obvious and universal, but the Catholic attitude to the Holy Family (and very particularly the Blessed Virgin Mary) is probably one of the denomination’s most identifiable, yet perhaps least understood characteristics. National Geographic Magazine ~ more an anthropological than a religious source, one might broadly think ~ as lately as December 2015 featured Mary as ‘The Most Powerful Woman in the World’ (in terms of her pervasive, direct and indirect influence); other commentators outside the Roman Church (perhaps misguidedly) can seem to feel worried that Catholics are ‘worshipping Mary’ in herself. Meanwhile, the magazine reports ‘2,000 sightings of the Virgin since AD 40’ which clearly amounts to virtually one for each single year of the Christian era, or since Mary herself would have died.

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So what are we to make of Mary ~ and what (most importantly here) does Rome teach and enjoin? The accepted facts are that in extraordinary circumstances she gave birth to Jesus ~ as God manifest in human form ~ without having gone through the usual (potentially ‘grubby’?) process of conception with a man; that she faithfully nurtured Him, devotedly followed Him, and that these actions and more mark her out as a supreme model of obedience to God.

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  1. Which of the following correctly describes Mary's demographic status at the time of the Annunciation?
    They were 'betrothed' (i.e. engaged) but not yet married. The 'handmaid' reference (Ans.3) is to Mary's response to the Annunciation, when she put herself fully at God's disposal by declaring herself to be His 'handmaid'
  2. With all due respect to Mary herself and the millions of Catholic believers, it might almost seem hard now to set a question asking 'where HADN'T a vision of the Blessed Virgin' somehow been claimed to have been seen by someone or other down 2,000-odd intervening years. However, the following list includes three very well-attested shrines and one knowing fake. Which is the duff one?
    The others are all plentifully researchable if you are interested ... along with Lisieux, Fatima, Knock and many sites as far afield as Africa and the Philippines
  3. Obviously, the circumstances of Jesus' birth (the Annunciation, the first-Christmas trek to the stable and 'all that') were pretty unusual: but Mary also, much later, had to endure one particular agony that not many mothers ever do. What was probably the worst aspect of this?
    The death itself was clearly designed to be punitive and painful, but the added twist of it being inflicted on a false / mistaken pretext would surely have made this even worse for His mother of all people. Compared with this, having temporarily lost track of Him on return from a pre-barmitzvah pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) seems a minor episode
  4. The Catholic Church allots itself a series of festal days each year to contemplate and honour aspects and incidents in Mary's life. One that is completely unique to her (rather than how a birthday, or martyrdom anniversary, would be with any lesser saint) is the Assumption ... of what, and when?
    Lady Day (Ans.2), at least in the Protestant system, is a 'quarter-day' (along with midsummer and St Michael, or Michaelmas, in late September) but this is based on the premise that Jesus was 9 months in the womb and born in December, which latter seems unlikely (not least since the sheep in the Nativity story would not have been out on the hills in midwinter). Good Friday of course has a bearing on Mary as we have already noted, but is not first and foremost a Marian feast-day; the Seven Sorrows are unique to Her, but of a secondary order compared with Christmas &/or the Assumption
  5. So far as English-speaking Catholics are concerned, Mary's whole adventure as mother of Jesus of Nazareth began with the Archangel Gabriel's announcement (Annunciation) to her: 'Hail Mary, full of grace ...' [ ... then what?]
    Although (apparently) there are 365 occasions on which God ~ or His angel / agent ~ appears to Bible characters and urges them not to be afraid, this event at the start of the Gospel is the first time any human had ever been addressed in quite so direct a way. The Vulgate (Latin) version 'Ave Maria' has become a prayer and song in several famous, and probably familiar, musical settings
  6. Mary was present at Jesus' first recorded public miracle: what was this miracle, and its context?
    This is the first of His 'miracles over nature', widely referred-to in the preamble to Christian marriage services as a model of power and generosity. Some commentators have even suggested the wedding could have been Jesus' own, but this is at best tentative. Be that as it may, she had had Him conceived within her through the miraculous intervention of God's Holy Spirit, and now she was witnessing what He could bring to the world. Indeed, it is Mary who (in faith) prompts the servants at the wedding to carry on about their business while He quietly took care of the wine shortage by whatever means He would
  7. As reported in the Gospels, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was six months ahead with her own pregnancy, and Elizabeth felt her child 'quicken' (move inside her) for the first time in presumed direct response to being in proximity to Mary and Jesus. Who was Elizabeth's baby to become?
    John baptised Jesus in the River Jordan many years later, but had already drawn various (not all, favourable) attention from his preaching about 'another man coming after [me], so much greater that I do not even deserve to tie/untie his sandals'. Later again, John would be beheaded for his faith and convictions, virtually on the apparent whim of a royal princess whose mother was upset by his message
  8. Catholic doctrine draws out three particular strands in the life and actions of Mary ( ~ the Church's beloved Three, perhaps not accidentally echoing the persons of the Trinity?). Which of the suggestions below is the least genuine?
    Vows of poverty are a powerful monastic tradition, and there are plenty of spiritual parallels, but this one isn't usually identified in these terms
  9. Catholics do not 'worship' Mary as such, but they revere her and send their prayers through her, since they believe she was and is a uniquely close and potent channel to the Godhead. Which of the aspects or attributes below would you identify as the least directly applicable, or transferable, to modern Catholic witness?
    Answer 4 is usually given (not always in quite these terms), and clearly is immensely important in terms of a theologically structured interpretation of the chain of Biblical events ~ but while crucial for this 'background', arguably it is less directly significant as a model for everyday Catholic witness in modern times. Non-Catholics, meanwhile, would probably notionally respect the gist, but jib at the implications
  10. Mary's response to the Annunciation message was, for all Christians, besides being historically crucial, a model of humility. As one might almost expect at such a surprising and emotional moment, her diction becomes poetic rather than everyday (slightly like how characters break into 'song mode' at key moments in operas and musicals, rather than just carrying on ordinary dialogue): she draws various contrasts between 'the meek and the mighty', as she prioritises God's purpose. Her song ~ adopted as a Canticle, rather like the Psalms she would already have known as a pious Jewess ~ is traditionally known by the Latin version of its first word ... as ... ?
    A modern English translation expresses this as 'Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord'. The Magnificat is certainly one of the set canticles for formal Anglican Evening Prayer, and as such has been set by almost innumerable composers for use in cathedrals and elsewhere. One particularly evocative setting is the one in G major by Charles Stanford, often referred to as the 'spinning-wheel Magnificat' (an anachronism, but well-meant in the sense of conjuring a picture of a young woman patiently doing a long slow task; listen to the organ accompaniment and the delightful solo line, and you may catch one interpretation of the occasion!)

Author: Ian Miles

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