Hail, Mary

She was there at the Cross. Yet Protestants seldom talk about Jesus' mother at Easter — or at most other times. But they are starting to now

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MOHLER'S JUDGMENTS MAY SOUND BLUNT, but his questions are legitimate Protestant ones. The point at which Marian respect turns into Marian veneration is more easily parsed by theoreticians than by believers trying to work out its practice. For instance, pro-Mary Protestants who claim not to use her as an intercessor but readily admit they recite the "pray for us sinners" line of the Hail Mary may be living a contradiction. Similarly, can seminarians whose walls boast Mary's icon but whose crosses (like most Protestants') omit the figure of her son truly be said to be keeping his primacy in mind? And when her Mother of God role is emphasized, is there an easy way to prevent her from transcending humble humanity and becoming semidivine in her own right?

In the end, Mary's role may be less influenced by people like Mohler and Gaventa than by a group only now beginning to make its considerable Protestant presence felt. A man stands at the lectern at the El Amor de Dios church on Chicago's South Side reading in Spanish, tears streaming down his cheeks. His text is a treatment of the Virgin Mary from one of the Bible's apocryphal books. Another congregant follows, reciting his own verses to the Virgin from a dog-eared notebook filled with tiny, precise printing. Flanking the altar are two Mary statues with fresh roses at their feet, and hanging from the hands of the baby Jesus is a Rosary. The altar cover presents the church's most stunning image: Mary again, this time totally surrounded by a multicolored halo, in the traditional iconography of the Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The church is Methodist.

"Right now Marianism is not a front-burner issue for people revising liturgy in major denominations," says Marian agitator Braaten. "But I think it will come in because of the great influx of Hispanics into Protestantism." Indeed, there are some 8 million Protestant Hispanics in the U.S., with the count climbing. Many hail from Mexico, where the Guadalupan Lady is as much a national icon as a religious one, and are from historically Catholic families. El Amor de Dios' pastor, the Rev. Jose Landaverde, says his Marian additions are "mainly cultural." But "in the context of this neighborhood and embracing these people, this is what they need." Our Lady, he says, "creates hope." Church rolls have risen, Lazarus-like, from a dozen people to several hundred since he added the Mary elements.

Some of Landaverde's fellow Methodists dismiss this new wrinkle. The Rev. Enrique Gonzales, pastor of El Mesias United Methodist in nearby Elgin, wrote a piece accompanying Christian Century's Mary story asserting that Latin Protestants are especially wary of such enthusiasm because "the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not actually introduced to Roman Catholic people in Latin America because only Marian doctrines are taught to them." Yet Ted Campbell, president of a local Methodist seminary in Evanston, Ill., says, "This is a phenomenon that's growing in a lot of Protestant churches." When he first heard what was going on at El Amor de Dios, he confesses, he thought, "Cool."

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