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Surprises from the archive: Marian devotion and the atomic bomb
10 February 2014 by Karen O’Donnell

This is the first in a series of blogs celebrating The Tablet’s new online archive, where for a limited time you can view for free every page of every issue since 1840. PhD student Karen O’Donnell discovers how two leading figures of the twentieth-century Church related to Mary

When I began my undergraduate degree 13 years ago, the concept of using the internet to facilitate research was in its infancy. There was uncertainty about how to reference material found online, most of my lecturers were late adopters of the new technology so the internet was very much unknown to them, and most of all, there was little information online.

If you wanted an article, you went to the relevant section of the library and, if you were lucky, found the journal you wanted or, alternatively, cajoled someone else in your class into parting with the volume you needed and hurriedly made your notes. Times have changed!

Embarking on research for a PhD in Catholic theology more than a decade later I found myself in a whole new, digital, world. Given my particular interest in Mary and Marian dogmas, I was fortunate to begin my research just as The Tablet was opening up its archives online – more than a hundred years of insight into the Catholic Church around the world. I have spent many happy hours browsing them. Some particular pieces from the 1950s and 1960s, a period of such great upheaval in the Catholic Church, have caught my eye.

For example, an article from October 1958, just a week after the death of Pope Pius XII surprised me. Not because of the mention of his devotion to Mary – after all it was he who had declared the dogma of her Assumption in the 1950 Apostolic Constitution Munificentissumus Deus. But rather because, surprisingly to me, this article placed his Marian devotion in the context of the atom bomb and the value of human life. The author notes “[H]e was acutely sensible of the dangers of the atomic and hydrogen bomb… [Y]et his hope in and for mankind never wavered, and he declared repeatedly that this hope rested in the Mother of God…”

Continuing my search through the archives I came across a slightly later report entitled "Our Lady and the Church", of a US lecture tour undertaken by Vienna Cardinal Franz König. It included his comments on the reasons for including Mary in Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church produced by the Second Vatican Council, rather than treating her individually. The response given was largely pastoral and certainly ecumenical: “[T]he inclusion of Marian doctrine in the mystery of the Church would make it easier for non-Catholic Christians to understand the basis of venerating Our Lady in Scripture and early tradition.” Whilst the council was keen to avoid providing grounds for establishing a new dogma of Mary as Mediatrix or Co-Redemptrix, the dominating concern was to show that Mary is nonetheless essential to the Church.

The official history of the Catholic Church’s relationship to Mary is well documented, but access to these archives helps put the dry list of facts and dates into context. It shows the immediate concerns of the people – each week an honest reaction of the church to the events of the world. As a Catholic academic researching contemporary theology, I find it invaluable.

Karen O’Donnell is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter 



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