The Rev. Mary Luti wasn't supposed to be named "Mary" at all. Her parents' initial plan was to call her "Janice," after her grandmother Janetta. But Luti's difficult, painful birth - "I have very broad shoulders," she explains - left Luti's mother bargaining with God. According to family lore, Luti's mother was heard screaming: "Okay, just get me out of this and I'll name her Mary!"
Raised and educated a staunch Roman Catholic, Luti went on the spend 19 years as a Roman Catholic sister in religious community. She loves the story about her birth, she says, because it underscores the central role that Mary, the mother of Jesus, plays in the daily lives of most Roman Catholics.
"She really is, truly, the mother of the holy family," says Luti. "We prayed the rosary everyday, we had May processions, we stood before Mary statues and offered our lives."
In 1990, when Luti - then on the faculty at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts - joined the UCC and was granted ministerial standing, she was curious by the silence that surrounds Mary, not just within the UCC but among Protestants in general.
"People don't even think about Mary, much less have misconceptions" says Luti, who became pastor of First Congregational UCC in Cambridge, Mass., in 2000. "In many ways, she's just invisible."
The Rev. Kate Huey, a former Roman Catholic, is an unabashed UCC cheerleader - to put it mildly - but, although she works with the UCC's stewardship ministry in Cleveland and serves as part-time interim pastor of New Vision UCC in Canton, Ohio, she still describes herself as a "cellular Catholic."
"For Protestants, Mary is just an idea, a concept," Huey finds. "To Catholics, she's much more of a real person. I can't begin to tell you how many different statues of Mary I had when I was growing up."
Huey says she spent her childhood singing "Mary songs" in ways not-so-dissimilar to Protestant kids who memorized "camp songs." And those kinds of formative religious practices, she believes, have a significant, lifelong impact on a person's spiritual DNA. It's something one can't just walk away from, just because you have changed church traditions.
"Mary is an emotional center for Catholics," says Huey, who has led a quarterly "bridging group" at Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland for Catholics entering the UCC. "Mary provides an emotional outlet. If God was viewed as distant or wrathful, then Mary was viewed as accessible."
"I was never taught that I could talk directly to God; I had to talk to a priest first," Huey recalls, indicating she's just old enough to have grown up before some significant reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) helped to alter Catholics' theological understandings and devotional practices. "But Mary was someone I could talk to. There was this unconditional love from Mary, the mother."
The Rev. Mark Suriano, pastor of Old South UCC in Kirtland, Ohio, and a former Roman Catholic priest, says there's a great deal of misunderstanding about Mary - among most Protestants and even among some Catholics.
Suriano - schooled at Cleveland's St. Mary Seminary, nonetheless - explains that Mary is not an object of "worship" in Roman Catholicism; she is an object of "devotion." A hero, one might say.
The degree and depth of Marian devotion varies throughout Catholicism, Suriano says, especially since Vatican II. Today, he says, Mary is a predominant "sub-culture" for those who grew up in the church prior to the 1960s. For many younger Catholics, she doesn't attract the same type of attention.
For members of the UCC, Suriano says, Mary raises questions about our devotional life - or, as sometimes is revealed, our lack of one.
Luti agrees. She believes the idea of "devotion" is a foreign concept for many born-and-raised Protestants - but shouldn't be.
"There seems to be this fear of elevating certain persons above, yet at the same time we are desperately yearning for examples of discipleship and heroic Christian life," Luti says. "We need a revived sense of edification. Why not look to certain bright lights?"
Often referred to as a "mediator," Mary is basically just an "influential" voice, Luti says. Just as others on earth or in heaven offer intercessory prayers to God, so does Mary.
Many Protestants, for example, wouldn't hesitate to ask a beloved pastor to pray for them - perhaps even with the belief that pastors somehow carry greater weight with God. So, too, do some request the same of Mary.
"For someone to ask for intercession from a saint, such as Mary, it's no different than asking a friend or family member to pray for you," Luti says. "In this way, the same argument could be applied. We don't need our friends to pray for us - because our prayers reach God directly just as their prayers do - but we find comfort in knowing that others are praying on our behalf."
The bigger issue, says Luti, is an "impoverished notion of the communion of saints, in general" which has affected the way we look at prayerful intercession.
Some of UCC members' discontent with Marian devotion, Luti believes, is more deeply rooted in a general discomfort with devotional practices across the board. We're uneasy with intercessory prayer and displays of devotion or piety, because we don't understand "how it works."
"Just do it. Just pray," Luti tells her parishioners. We gain insight from doing something, she says, not just by talking about it.
Poor one-dimensional Mary
Among the UCC's 5,700 local churches, there are hundreds named for Jesus' more-prominent male disciples - such as Peter, Paul, James and John. But only two churches are named for Mary - St. Mary's UCC in Westminster, Md., and St. Mary's UCC in Abbeville, La.
That doesn't surprise Professor Mark Burrows, a UCC minister and scholar who teaches about Mary in his course on medieval theology at Andover Newton Theological School.
If anything, Burrows is shocked to learn there are any UCC churches named for St. Mary - given the traditional Protestant fear for things that appear "too Catholic."
Anti-Mary sentiment, he says, has kept many Protestants wary of embracing the very-Catholic-looking Mary. When they do and where they have, he says, Protestants have largely caricatured Mary as a one-dimensional Christmas figure - as the mother of the baby Jesus only.
There is little talk of Mary throughout the church year as the much-present mother of the adult Jesus and, especially, as the mother of the suffering Jesus.
"If you think about the death of Jesus, for Protestants, Mary is almost completely invisible," Burrows says. "But there is this dramatic story of her watching her son suffer and die. Is there anything more powerful? What more dramatic way is there to connect with the story of human loss and sorrow than through the sorrow of a parent who has lost a child?"
It's ironic given that Protestant theology has been shaped significantly by the importance ascribed to personal experience.
"Mary was there," Burrows says. In Mary's pain, we are exposed to the depth of Jesus' passion - from birth to death to resurrection. Mary is the one eyewitness who was there for all of it.
During the Middle Ages, Mary's role as "mediator" proved extremely popular, Burrows says. It was even understandable given the era's negative portrayal of God as angry and wrathful. Jesus, too, was perceived to be much more harsh than today.
Mary, therefore, was regarded as the approachable one. "Truly our sister" - that was her persona.
In addition, during medieval times, saints played a more-significant role in the everyday lives of Christians than they do today. Allegiance to saints was akin to superstition.
"There were patron saints for everything - from hangnails to crises of faith," Burrows says. "And Mary is portrayed beautifully as being at the center of this communion of saints."
"The Middle Ages also were a period when everything about church structure was patriarchal, but the church was very much matriarchal in its piety and devotion," Burrows says, noting how nearly every Gothic church was built to honor Notre Dame, "Our Lady."
"What a lot of students don't understand is Mary is not the 'mediator of salvation,' but she is the 'mediator of access,' in the medieval understanding of God," Burrows says. "There's something very practical about getting the "mom" involved. Mary becomes, in a way, the constant companion."
All the priests and bishops were male, and the church ruled with a heavy hand. But the gospel's imperatives to love, to care, to serve were "overwhelmingly shaped by the maternal images of Mary," he says.
But, with the rise of the Protestant Reformation, which triggered counter reformations in the Roman Catholic Church, the image of Jesus is transformed; his edges softened. Jesus becomes approachable again. He, not Mary, is the mediator, and the Christian's need for "access" becomes confusing, if not heretical.
"For the most part, she disappears from Protestantism," Burrows says. "It's her role as mediator that people now can't understand. They see it as blasphemy. They can find no biblical justification for this."
Mary, the feminist?
The public face of Mary has evolved over the years, and Catholics and Protestants alike have altered their views of her.
For some, Mary - like Jesus - has been portrayed as overly perfect, and therefore dismissed as irrelevant.
Huey says that, in her mid-30s, she began to realize how Mary was portrayed unfairly as the unattainable "anti-Eve."
"Eve was the bad girl, and Mary was the pure one," Huey explains. "But Catholic girls were always taught two competing values about Mary - virginity and motherhood - but it wasn't possible for us to do both, like Mary did. It was out of reach."
In early feminist writings, Luti says, Mary gets battered around quite a lot. She is rejected by many feminists for her lowly-servant reputation.
Despite the feminist significance of Mary's "bring-the-mighty-down-from-their-thrones" Magnificat in Luke, Mary was often criticized for being defined only by her relationship roles to men: wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus, or vessel of a male God.
"For Catholic feminists, Mary's image cuts both ways; there's the feminine image and there's the feminist image," Luti says. "There's Mary as the subservient, humble handmaiden and then she's the Queen of Heaven, the 'power behind the throne.'"
"In later feminist theology, there's a fairly positive portrayal of Mary," Luti says. "Vatican II was really a breakthrough in Marian theology in that way, when she became identified as the mother of the church and first among the disciples."
For some feminists, Mary is lifted up as somewhat of a Goddess figure. But, at the least, she has helped to temper the male dominance of Christian imagery.
"She embodies feminine characteristics of Christianity," Luti says, "and may have helped us to open up the talk about the Holy Spirit as feminine."
Susan A. Blain, who spent 11 years as a Roman Catholic nun, is the UCC's minister for worship, liturgy and spiritual formation in Cleveland. Her office and home are filled with Mary statues, and she acknowledges bringing a fair amount of Marian devotion with her into the UCC.
"Our family prayer was pretty much the Rosary. It was our mantra of protection," says Blain, who likes the tactile feel of the Rosary beads in her hand, the prayer's call-response design, the calming effect of repetition.
In 1983, Blain - at the urging of her Catholic religious community - began attending Union Theological Seminary in New York, where she studied liturgy and preaching. After graduating in 1986, she stayed on at Union, helping to coordinate the school's worship services and became active at the UCC's Riverside Church.
"For many years, as a Catholic, I was coordinating this Protestant seminary's daily worship," she says, noting the irony.
While at Union, however, she began to look critically at the strengths and weaknesses of both traditions. And while she appreciates Protestantism's pro-female position on clergy leadership, she is struck by how "male" its worship can be.
"The shock to me is how truly male it all was [in Protestantism]," Blain says. "In the Catholic tradition, it's important to realize that, although Mary can be co-opted by the patriarchy, she also helps to mitigate the patriarchy."
Although Mary's image and reputation have evolved, she remains one of the Gospel's central characters. She not only gives birth to Jesus, but she's present throughout the story, even mentioned among the disciples in Acts.
"I haven't really raised the Mary issue [in my church], says Luti, who acknowledges a "lingering affection" for her. "But I do allude to her from time to time."
Luti says she would be interested in "a gentle exploration" of Mary's role for UCC Christians. "If not to be emulated, then at least to be pondered," she says.
She attributes Protestants' lingering anti-Mary sentiment with unresolved anti-Catholic residue. In addition, she says, some of us aren't quite yet comfortable talking about Jesus, much less Mary.
"A lot of this is just unfamiliarity," Luti says. "It's through experience that a lot of people soften up."
Burrows sees a makeover in Mary's future, especially as denominational divisions blur between Protestant and Roman Catholic households.
"In modern times, there's been a marvelous resurrection of interest in Mary," he says, expecting interest to only increase in the UCC, especially in New England. He estimates that, in Massachusetts, about 80 percent of new UCC members are former Roman Catholics and he notes a significant increase among UCC seminarians who are former Catholics as well.
But while Burrows doesn't see the UCC's worship life being significantly altered by an influx of Catholics, it is important to remember that many carry with them a "cellular memory" of Mary that differs from that of cradle Protestants.
Huey agrees, saying that the UCC's usual references to the denomination's "four streams" - Evangelical, Reformed, Congregational and Christian - should give way to added conversations about the theological contributions in more recent years by former Roman Catholics in the North and former Southern Baptists in the South.
Luti believes talk of Mary and other saints is an opportunity to strengthen our prayer life and devotional practices.
"There is a real need to deplastify [the saints]," she says. "There is the opportunity to open ourselves to the riches of those traditions that the Reformation put aside. It's time to move beyond our super-hyped fears of all things supernatural, to return to what's more sensual, more sacramental about Christian life."
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund writes about the history of UCC-Roman Catholic relations in her column - Past as Prologue - published this month in the "opinion matters" section at news.ucc.org.
Sources: Religion News Service, Christianity Today, Catholic Answers, Catholic Bridge and Wikipedia