Since the early church the theme of Mary's virginity has served as an important emblem of Christianity's ascetic ideal. The Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and some Protestant traditions teach the perpetual virginity of Mary, placing a nonliteral interpretation on New Testament references to Jesus' "brothers." The Roman Catholic Church additionally has proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (declared in the bull Ineffabilis Deus of Pius IX, 1854), according to which Mary was conceived without original sin. The Roman Catholic Church further teaches that Mary was freed from actual sin by a special grace of God.
From earliest times Mary's intercession was believed to be especially efficacious on behalf of humankind and the church; since the Middle Ages, recitation of the rosary has been among the most popular expressions of Marian devotion. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary is the mediatrix of all graces. The body of doctrine about Mary is called Mariology; Mariolatry is an opprobrious term used since the Reformation to mean the worship of Mary—a criticism leveled by many Protestants at the cult of Mary within the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics maintain that the veneration (hyperdulia) accorded Mary, while higher than that accorded any other creature, is infinitely lower than the worship (latria) reserved for Jesus. The principal feasts honoring Mary are those of the Assumption (Aug. 15), the Birthday of Our Lady (Sept. 8), the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8), the Purification (Feb. 2: see Candlemas), and the Annunciation or Lady Day (Mar. 25).
Apparitions of the Virgin have been reported since ancient times, and some have led to new cultuses and shrines, typically associated with cures. These apparitions include those at Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico, in 1531, associated with a miraculous painting (Our Lady of Guadalupe); at Paris (Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal) in 1830; at Lourdes, France, in 1858; and at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. The most well-known apparitions since then have been those at Medjugorje, Bosnia; since they began in the early 1980s they have attracted many pilgrims but have not been officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. Two great pilgrim shrines of medieval England were Our Lady of Glastonbury and Our Lady of Walsingham (Norfolk). Our Lady of Częstochowa has been a rallying point of Polish nationalism.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.