A thing that greatly surprises and shocks English and American visitors in Venice, is to find in so many of its churches, statues and images, as well as pictures, of the Madonna and child. The images, which cause the deepest feeling of revulsion and even disgust, consist of the form of a woman dressed up in old faded bits of silk, ribbons and laces, and having an abundance of tinsel ornaments about her, and a glittering crown with seven stars on her head, and a mock sceptre in her hand; whilst on her knee sits her babe similarly gotten up, but generally without the crown and sceptre. These 'idols' are perfectly hideous, and yet they are set up on thrones in prominent parts of the churches, and oftentimes on side altars, and sometimes even on the chief altar itself. Generally beside them is a box into which you are invited to put money to save your soul, and the souls of your friends, by having prayers said to the "Mother of God." The whole thing is repulsive, not only to one's sense of religion, but to one's common intelligence.
These images are only a sign of the wide extent to which Mariolatry has spread in the Church of Rome, and of the desire of those in authority to maintain it, and to extend it still further. I have noticed that in churches it is often only the chapel of Mary that has any worshippers, and it is only her image that is kissed and adored, and it is at her altar that masses are most frequently said. To a large extent modern popery in continental countries is Mariolatry. This is the idolatry that has supplanted the worship of God and of Jesus. And there is a tendency to spread Mariolatry wherever Romanism exists, and many ritualists in Protestant churches second their efforts. Dr. Vaughan went through the farce the other day of dedicating England to her, and many Romanizing clergymen have set up her image and superscription in their churches. In view of these things it may be worth while to ask and answer these two questions. (1) How did Mariolatry begin? and (2) Who is mainly responsible for its present increase?
These questions I purpose answering briefly in this paper.
1. Mariolatry began, strange to say, in something that was done in the fifth century in honor not of Mary, but of Christ. Early in that century pictures of the Madonna and child, such as everyone is familiar with in the present day, began to be made. This was intended to show that Jesus Christ was divine in his nature, and that therefore even as a babe he was worthy of receiving worship. The device was thought of in order to protest against, and controvert, the heretical opinion that Christ only differed from other men in having received the Divine Spirit in more abundant measure. The intention was good, and the pictures may, for a time, have served the purpose of their inventors, but by and by, not only did they fail in this, but they served the very opposite purpose. Worship began to be transferred from the babe to the mother, from Jesus to Mary. In the eleventh century we find the Church of Rome appointing a canonical service in honor of Mary; in the fourteenth, Popes and Councils making bulls and decrees for the regulation of her worship; in the sixteenth, the Jesuits came upon the scene, who devoted themselves to the extension of Mariolatry.
Thus it began and has flourished down the centuries to our own day, when it has monopolized worship in the Roman Church almost completely. During the last fifty years the spread and growth of this idolatry, has been more marked than during any previous period in its history.
2. Pope Leo XIII is mainly responsible for this. The Pope not very long ago issued an Encyclical Letter on Mariolatry, which if one had been told only of its existence, and had not seen it, would have seemed incredible. The letter is entitled "De Rosario Mariali,'' "concerning the Rosary of Mary," and it is addressed to the Primates, Archbishops, shops and others in connection with the Apostolic See. I give only a part of it, and follow the translation that was given in the Anglican Church Magazine. The letter begins:
As often as the occasion permits me to rekindle and augment the love and devotion of Christian people towards the great Mother of God I am penetrated with a wondrous pleasure and joy! dealing with a subject which is not only most excellent in itself, and blessed to me in many ways, but is also in tenderest accord with my inmost feelings. For indeed, the holy affection towards Mary, which I imbibed almost with my mother's milk, has vigorously increased with growing years, and become more deeply rooted in my mind. The many and remarkable proofs of her kindness and good will towards me, which I recall with deepest thankfulness, and not without tears, kindle and inflame more and more strongly my responsive affection. For in the many varied and terrible trials that have befallen me, I have always looked up to her with eager and imploring eyes: all my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows, have been deposited in her bosom, and it has been my constant care to entreat her to show to me a mother's kindness, to be always at my side, and to grant especially that I, on my part, may be enabled to manifest toward her the proofs of the most devoted love of a son. When, then, it was brought about that I should be raised to this Chair of the Blessed Peter, to rule his Church, I strove in prayer with more ardent desire for divine assistance, trusting in the maternal love of the blessed virgin. And this my hope (my heart delights to tell it) throughout all my life, has never failed to help and console me. Hence under her auspices and with her mediation I am encouraged to hope for still greater blessings. It is, therefore, right and opportune to urge all my children to set apart carefully the month of October to the celebration of our lady and august queen of the Rosary, with the more lively exercises of piety.
For when we betake ourselves in prayer to Mary, we betake ourselves to the mother of mercy, well disposed toward us, that whatever trials we may be afflicted with, she may lavish on us the treasure of that grace, which from the beginning was given to her in full plenty from God. Therefore, let us not approach Mary timidly or carelessly, but pleading those maternal ties wherewith she is most closely united with us through Jesus, let us piously invoke her ready help, in that method of prayer which she herself has taught us, and accepts.
I desire to conclude this present exhortation, as I began it, by again and with greater insistence, testifying the feelings which I cherish toward the great parent of God, mindful of her kindness, and full of the most joyful hope. Our hope in Mary, our mighty and kind Mother, grows wide, day by day, and ever beams upon us more brightly.
Such is the gist of this encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII. He claims to be the Vicar of Christ, but here he avows himself to be a worshipper of Mary, and talks irrationally and blasphemously about her. And yet considered neither a bad man, as Popes, go, nor a man lacking in intelligence. But there is such a thing as a man and a Church so rejecting truth and propagating falsehood, so professing to be spiritual and living carnal, so trading and trafficking in a lie, that God gives them over to strong delusion, so that they believe a lie.
What a pity it is that so many Protestants talk with vated breath of His holiness. The Church of Rome needs the gospel as any Pagan institution does. In Italy also this is recognized, and Italians are accepting the Bible as they did not and could not do formerly, and having put off a system which was external to them, consisting of rites and ceremonies, of meats and drinks, are puttting on that which enters into their hearts and lives, and consists of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.
~REV. ALEXANDER ROBERTSON, VENICE. The Church at Home and Abroad, Volumes 15-16