“What do all the doctrines that God has revealed about the Blessed Virgin have to do with me personally? How do these revealed truths about the Mother of Jesus affect my own spiritual life”?
It is in answer to these questions and to others that we now explore Mary’s God-given role as Spiritual Mother of humanity, under its three aspects of Co-redemptrix, Mediatrix and Advocate. For it is understanding Mary as Spiritual Mother in its fullness that allows for the foundation of an authentic Catholic response to the Mother of Jesus.
By an authentic Catholic response we mean here a response both “from the head” and “from the heart”; both theologically and spiritually; in a phrase, our personal and ecclesial response to Mary. So Mary’s role as Spiritual Mother and Mediatrix can rightly be called the bridge between authentic Marian doctrine and devotion.
First, we will look at the basic understanding of the spiritual motherhood of Mary and then continue to its fullest and most profound understanding in the role of the Mother of Jesus as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of all graces and Advocate.
Along with Mary’s yes to being the Mother of the Savior at the Annunciation (Lk l:26f), the principal scriptural basis for the doctrine of Mary as Spiritual Mother of all humanity is found in John 19:26-27. Here Mary is on Calvary at the foot of the Cross with her crucified Son and John, the beloved disciple. As the Gospel of John reads: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother'” (Jn 19:26-27).
John, the “beloved disciple,” is a symbol of all humanity and, in a special way, of every person who likewise seeks to be a “beloved disciple” of Jesus. That John is symbolic of all humanity and, in a special way, of all the faithful, has been confirmed by several popes, not to mention an endless list of theologians and spiritual writers. For example, Pope Leo XIII writes: “Now in John, according to the constant mind of the Church, Christ designated the whole human race, particularly those who were joined with him in faith” (Adiutricem populi).
Pope John Paul II discussed Mary’s motherhood as a personal gift which Christ gives to John, and beyond John to every individual:
The Mother of Christ, who stands at the very center of this mystery—a mystery which embraces each individual and all humanity—is given as mother to every single individual and all humanity. The man at the foot of the Cross is John, “the disciple whom he (Jesus) loved.” But it is not he alone. Following tradition, the Council (Vatican II) does not hesitate to call Mary “the Mother of Christ and mother of mankind….” “Indeed she is ‘clearly the mother of the members of Christ…since she cooperated out of love so that there might be born in the Church the faithful.'” …Mary’s motherhood, which became man’s inheritance, is a gift: a gift which Christ himself makes personally to every individual (Redemptoris Mater, No. 23, 45).
Note that the words of Christ, rather than proposing a suggestion, state a theological fact. Our Lord says: “Behold, your mother.” He does not passively invite us to accept Mary as Mother; rather, he states the theological fact that Mary is the newly God-given Mother of each beloved disciple. Our remaining question then should not so much be, “Is Mary our Mother?” but more appropriately, “How do we properly implement the words of Christ to ‘behold our mother’?”
Spiritual Motherhood in Tradition
The Fathers of the Church recognized Mary’s role as Spiritual Mother as it was essentially contained in her example and role as the “New Eve.” Mary was the new “Mother of the living” who participated with Jesus, the New Adam, in regaining the life of grace for the human family. Since the name “Eve” means “mother of the living,” then Mary, as the New Eve, is the “new Mother of the living” in the order of grace. Again, as St. Jerome summed it up, “Death through Eve, life through Mary.”
Further, the prayers of petition offered in the early Church to the Mother of God for spiritual and physical protection manifest an understanding of Mary’s ability to intercede for her spiritual children. We see this son or daughter-like petition for the special aid of our Spiritual Mother in the Sub Tuum: “We fly to your patronage, O holy Mother of God. Despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all dangers, O ever glorious and blessed Virgin.”
St. Augustine saw Mary’s spiritual maternity based on the mystical union between Christ and the faithful. As physical Mother of Christ, the Head, Mary in a spiritual manner is Mother also of the faithful that make up the Body of Christ. (1)
The voice of the Magisterium has been clear and consistent regarding the doctrine of Mary’s spiritual motherhood. The first Pope to refer to Mary as Spiritual Mother, particularly as “Mother of Grace,” was Pope Sixtus IV in 1477 (Apostolic Constitution Cum praecelsa). Since Pope Sixtus IV, no less than twenty-seven subsequent popes have declared Mary as Spiritual Mother with an always increasing specificity and clarity. (2)
Vatican II granted the confirmation of an ecumenical council to the doctrine of Mary’s spiritual motherhood when it declared: “Thus, in a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace” (Lumen Gentium, No. 61).
Theology of Mary as Spiritual Mother
But how do we explain theologically Mary’s role as Spiritual Mother? Her spiritual motherhood is intimately related to the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. In the rich doctrine of the Mystical Body according to St. Paul (cf. Col 1:18, Eph 4:15), Christ is the Head of the Body, and the Church is the Body of Christ. Mary, then, in conceiving Jesus, the Head of the Mystical Body, also conceived all the faithful since we all are members of that same Body. In giving birth to Jesus the Head, Mary also gives birth to the Body, the Church. So, Mary, in giving physical birth to Jesus, made it possible for his members to receive spiritual life through Jesus. It is for this reason that Mary is called our true “Spiritual Mother.”
She is not our physical Mother, nor is the title a mere figure of speech. Mary, in giving birth to Jesus, truly communicated to us the supernatural life of grace that allows us to become children of God. This is why Mary, during medieval times, was referred to as the “Neck of the Mystical Body.” It is she who connects the Head with the members of the Body in the order of grace. And since the Head should never be separated from the Body, it is Mary that is Mother to both: Mother to Jesus the Head, physically; and Mother to the members of the Mystical Body, spiritually. As explained by Pope St. Pius X in his famous Marian encyclical:
Is not Mary the Mother of Christ? She is therefore our Mother also…. He (Jesus) acquired a body composed like that of other men, but as Savior of our race, He had a kind of spiritual and mystical body, which is the society of those who believe in Christ…. Consequently, Mary, bearing in her own womb the Savior, may be said to have borne also those whose life was contained in the life of the Savior. All of us, therefore…have come forth from the womb of Mary as a body united to its head. Hence, in a spiritual and mystical sense, we are called children of Mary, and she is the Mother of us all (Ad diem illum).
But Mary’s spiritual motherhood to us in grace does not stop only at the birth of the Mystical Body. A true mother both “natures” and “nurtures” her children. A true mother gives birth to her children, and she also nourishes and forms her children. Spiritually, then, Mary not only gave birth to the Body of Christ, but also continually intercedes in obtaining graces for her spiritual children, leading them to her Son and to eternal salvation. Mary does so, not only in virtue of conceiving the Mystical Body of Jesus at the Annunciation (Lk 1:26), but also by sharing in the sufferings of her crucified Son on Calvary (Jn 19:26) where she is definitively given as Spiritual Mother to all beloved disciples and to humanity in general.
Hence, Mary became our Spiritual Mother initially at the Annunciation, but her motherhood was perfected on Calvary, participating in the spiritual regeneration or rebirth of the human family. The exercise of her motherhood continues in her constant intercession from Heaven in leading her earthly children to their heavenly home.
As the Second Vatican Council profoundly summarizes:
This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home (Lumen Gentium, No. 62).
This is the sound theological basis that led Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council to proclaim Mary as “Mother of the Church.” For Mary is the Christ-designated Spiritual Mother of the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus, which is the Church.
Queenship of Mary
Another dimension of Mary’s spiritual motherhood is the Queenship of Mary. Queenship can be understood in one of two ways. A queen can be a “female king” or independent ruler of a kingdom, or she can be the mother or spouse of the king. It is only in the second relative sense that Mary is rightly understood as Queen, as true Mother of Christ the “King,” whose kingdom is the Mystical Body.
Mary is thereby Queen in the Kingdom of God. As Mother of Christ the King, she intercedes for the members of the Kingdom of God. This “Queen Mother” guides and rules the members of her Son’s kingdom in complete subordination and submission to Christ the King in the law and order of sanctifying grace.
Mary’s Queenship is referred to in Revelation 12:1, where the Mother of God is portrayed with the moon under her feet and wearing a crown of twelve stars, and as Mother of her Son, the King who will rule all nations, she is taken up to his throne (Rev 12:5).
A mediator, in general, is a person who intervenes between two other persons for the goal of uniting the two parties. The task of the mediator is not to distance further but to reconcile, to bring together the two parties in question.
In the Christian faith, we know that there is only one unique mediator between God and man: the person of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul says: “For there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). But the perfect mediation of Jesus Christ does not prevent (and in fact provides for) other mediators who are subordinate and secondary to Jesus. Jesus’ perfect mediation allows for others to participate in the one and unique mediation of Our Lord. In fact, in the four lines before the passage from 1 Timothy just quoted, St. Paul specifically asks that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions…” and states that doing so is “good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:1-4). Supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings made for others are clearly forms of mediation.
We have several examples of secondary mediators in the Old Testament, mediators that were appointed by Almighty God Himself. We have the Old Testament prophets who are inspired by God to mediate between Yahweh and the oftentimes disobedient people of Israel (for the purpose of reconciling Yahweh and Israel). Certainly the patriarchs, like Abraham and Moses, were secondary mediators of the covenant between God and the chosen people of the Old Testament.
In both Old and New Testaments, the glorious mediation of the angels fills the pages of Sacred Scripture as God’s special messengers and intercessors; for example, from the Book of Tobit, to the mediation of the Angel Gabriel on behalf of God at the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1:26). St. Thomas Aquinas called the angels “God’s secondary causes” since God does so much through the mediation of the angels.
That the one mediation of Jesus Christ is unique, but at the same time allows for the subordinate and secondary mediation of others, is here summarized by St. Thomas Aquinas: “Christ alone is the perfect mediator between God and man…but there is nothing to prevent others in a certain way from being called mediators between God and man in so far as they, by preparing or serving, cooperate in uniting men to God.” (3)
Vatican II voices the same truth in these words:
No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source (Lumen Gentium, No. 62).
Hence, even we, in offering a prayer, or fasting, for a family member or friend, are acting as secondary mediators between God and humanity in the order of spiritual intercession which, rather than detracting from the one mediation of Jesus, in fact, manifests and exercises the power of our one Divine Mediator to the Father.
Theologically, in regards to Mary, the term “mediatrix” refers to a secondary and subordinate female mediator who acts with the same intention as the primary and independent mediator; that is, the reconciliation of individuals. Mary participates in the one mediation of Jesus Christ like no other creature, and hence, she exclusively has the role of “Mediatrix” with Jesus in reconciling humanity with God.
Several scriptural events point to Mary’s role as Mediatrix in the order of intercession. It was Mary’s intercession at the wedding of Cana (Jn 2:1-11) that led to the first miracle of Our Lord and the beginning of his public ministry. At the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, Mary’s physical intercession in bringing the unborn Christ to his unborn cousin, John the Baptist, led to John’s sanctification in the womb of Elizabeth (cf. Lk 1:41).
This role of Mary as “Mediatrix,” or secondary and subordinate mediator with Jesus, has a strong foundation in the apostolic tradition as manifested in this fourth century profession by St. Ephraem (d. 373): “After the Mediator, you (Mary) are the Mediatrix of the whole world.” (4)
More recently, Vatican II ends its beautiful treatment of Mary as “Mother in the order of grace” by confirming Mary’s role and title as “Mediatrix”:
Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix. This, however, is so understood that it neither takes away anything from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator (Lumen Gentium, No. 62).
Pope John Paul II explained Mary’s unique and exalted sharing in the one mediation of Jesus in his 1987 encyclical, “Mother of the Redeemer”:
Mary entered, in a way all her own, into the one mediation “between God and men” which is the mediation of the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5). (W)e must say that through this fullness of grace and supernatural life she was especially predisposed to cooperation with Christ, the one Mediator of human salvation. And such cooperation is precisely this mediation subordinated to the mediation of Christ. In Mary’s case we have a special and exceptional mediation…(Redemptoris Mater, No. 39).
Mary’s role as Mediatrix with Jesus, the one Mediator, has two fundamental expressions in the order of grace. First, Mary uniquely participated with Jesus Christ in reconciling God and man through the Redemption. For this role she has been called “Co-redemptrix” (meaning a secondary and subordinate participator in Jesus’ Redemption of the world).
Secondly, Mary gave birth to Jesus, source of all grace, and she distributes all the graces merited by Jesus on Calvary to the human family. This role of Mary as the person responsible for the distribution of graces is referred to as “Dispenser of all graces” or oftentimes by the more general title, “Mediatrix of all graces.” Because of the importance of both of these two elements of Mary’s role as Mediatrix, let us examine them individually.
When the Church calls Mary the “Co-redemptrix,” she means that Mary uniquely participated in the Redemption of humanity with her Son Jesus Christ, although in a completely subordinate and dependent manner to that of her Son. The Blessed Virgin participated in Jesus’ reconciliation of the human family with God like no other created person. Mary’s unique participation in the Redemption was scripturally foreshadowed in the prophecy of Simeon at the Temple where he said to Mary: “a sword will pierce your own heart, too” (Lk 2:35).
How did the Mother of Jesus do this? First of all, Mary participated in Redemption by accepting the invitation of the angel to become the Mother of God and by giving flesh to the Savior. Early Church Fathers saw the Incarnation and Redemption as one, unified, saving act (since the Angel Gabriel outlined Jesus’ redemptive act in his heavenly message), and Mary brought the world its Redeemer at the Incarnation.
The parallel between Eve and Mary is significant here. As Eve gave the fruit to Adam as the instrument for the fall of humanity, Mary gave a body to Jesus as the instrument for the Redemption of humanity. As Hebrews 10:10 tells us, the body of Jesus Christ was the instrument for the Redemption of the human family. Since the very instrument for the Redemption, the body of Jesus, was given to him by Mary, the Mother of Jesus clearly played an intimate part in the redeeming of the human race with her Son, far beyond that of any other creature.
Secondly, Mary uniquely participated in the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary for the Redemption of humanity, theologically referred to as “objective redemption.” Mary offered the maternal rights of her Son on the cross to the Father in perfect obedience to God’s will, and in atonement for the sins of the world. Mary’s offering of her own Son on Calvary, along with her own motherly compassion, rights, and suffering, offered in union with her Son for the salvation of the human family, merited more graces than any other created person. (5) As Pope Pius XII confirmed in his encyclical On the Mystical Body, Mary “offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father, together with the holocaust of her maternal rights and her motherly love, like a New Eve for all children of Adam” (Mystici Corporis).
Mary, in an act of obedience to the will of God, offered Jesus, and with Jesus, her own suffering by sharing in the experience of the passion and death of Our Lord in atonement for our sins. It is in this sense that we say Mary offered her maternal rights on Calvary and rightly refer to Mary as the Co-redemptrix with the Redeemer.
Again it must be stated that Mary’s participation in the Redemption of the human family was completely and in every way secondary and dependent to the sacrifice of Jesus the Savior. Hence, the title Co-redemptrix should never be interpreted as Mary having an equal role in the salvation of the world with Jesus. At the same time, her truly meritorious act of giving flesh to the Redeemer and of participating uniquely in Jesus’ painful sacrifice rightly won for her the title of Co-redemptrix.
The Church’s Magisterium has unquestionably confirmed the completely subordinate but authentic co-redeeming role of the Mother of Jesus. Let us cite a few papal examples:
- Pope Benedict XV in his 1918 apostolic letter stated: “To such extent did she (Mary) suffer and almost die with her suffering and dying Son, and to such extent did she surrender her maternal rights over her Son for man’s salvation…that we may rightly say that she together with Christ redeemed the human race” (Inter Sodalicia).
- Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) referred to Mary as the Co-redemptrix three times in various papal documents. In one papal statement Pope Pius addressed Mary in these words, “O Mother of piety and mercy who, when thy most beloved Son was accomplishing the Redemption of the human race on the altar of the cross, did stand there both suffering with Him, and as a Co-redemptrix; preserve in us the precious fruit of this Redemption and of thy compassion.” (6)
- Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) used the title “Loving Associate of the Redeemer” to describe Mary’s unique participation in Redemption (7) and gave the following explanation:
By the willing of God, the most Blessed Virgin Mary was inseparably joined with Christ in accomplishing the work of man’s Redemption, so that our salvation flows from the love of Jesus Christ and his sufferings intimately united with the love and sorrows of his mother (Haurietis Aquas, No. 2).
- The Second Vatican Council beautifully synthesized Mary’s unique participation in the Redemption with the following words:
Thus the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, enduring with her only begotten Son the intensity of his suffering, associated herself with his sacrifice in her mother’s heart, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this victim which was born of her (Lumen Gentium, No. 58).
- John Paul II in his 1987 Marian encyclical continued the papal affirmation of Mary’s unique participation in Redemption, calling it “perhaps the deepest ‘kenosis’ of faith in human history”:
How great, how heroic then is the obedience of faith shown by Mary in the face of God’s “unsearchable judgments”! How completely she “abandons herself to God” without reserve, “offering the full consent of the intellect and will” to him whose “ways are inscrutable” (cf. Rom 11:33)! (T)hrough this faith Mary is perfectly united with Christ in his self-emptying.…At the foot of the Cross Mary shares through faith in the shocking mystery of this self-emptying. This is perhaps the deepest “kenosis” of faith in human history. Through faith the Mother shares in the death of her Son, in his redeeming death… (Redemptoris Mater, No. 18).
- And in a 1985 papal statement, John Paul specifically used the title Co-redemptrix in developing the understanding of Mary’s spiritual crucifixion at the foot of the cross:
Crucified spiritually with her crucified Son (cf. Gal 2:20), she contemplated with heroic love the death of her God, she “lovingly consented to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth” (Lumen Gentium, No. 58)…as she was in a special way close to the Cross of her Son, she also had to have a privileged experience of his Resurrection. In fact, Mary’s role as co-redemptrix did not cease with the glorification of her Son. (8)
The Witness of the Saints
The mind of a saint is supernaturally disposed to the truth. The more sanctified the human heart, the more docile is the human mind to revealed mysteries of faith. The saints have sacrificed all worldly desires for the sake of the heavenly paradise, and therefore have much less propensity for their intellects being skewed or confused due to attachments of the world—human agenda, ecclesiastical or otherwise, which can obscure divine truths and impede their assent. It is therefore particularly valuable to see what they have said of Mary Co-redemptrix.
St. Bridget of Sweden (d.1373) was told in a vision by the Mother of Sorrows herself: “My son and I redeemed the world as with one heart.” (9) Jesus confirmed the same truth to St. Bridget in his own words: “My Mother and I saved man as with one Heart only, I by suffering in My Heart and My Flesh, she by the sorrow and love of her Heart.” (10)
St. Catherine of Sienna (d.1380), called the Blessed Mother the “Redemptrix of the human race”: “O Mary… bearer of the light… Mary, Germinatrix of the fruit, Mary, Redemptrix of the human race because, by providing your flesh in the Word, you redeemed the world. Christ redeemed with His passion and you with your sorrow of body and mind.” (11)
Venerable Mary of Agreda (d.1665), the renowned Spanish mystic of the seventeenth century also calls Our Lady the “Redemptrix”:
Just as she cooperated with the passion and gave her Son to take part in the human lineage, so the same Lord made her participant of the dignity of Redemptrix, having given her the merits and the fruits of Redemption so that she can distribute them and with one hand communicate all this to those redeemed. (12)
St. John Eudes (d.1680), that passionate preacher of devotion to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary, called the Mother of God the “Co-redemptrix with Christ”: “All the Fathers of the Church say clearly that she is Co-redemptrix with Christ in the work of our salvation.” (13)
The famous English convert, Ven. Cardinal John Henry Newman (d.1890), one of the most quoted theological sources at the Second Vatican Council, defended the title of Mary Co-redemptrix in his dialogue with the Anglican clergyman Pusey:
When they found you with the Fathers calling her Mother of God, Second Eve, and Mother of all Living, the Mother of Life, the Morning Star, the Mystical New Heaven, the Sceptre of Orthodoxy, the All-undefiled Mother of Holiness, and the like, they would have deemed it a poor compensation for such language, that you protested against her being called a Co-redemptrix.… (14)
St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe (d.1941) the Polish martyr-saint who offered his life in exchange for another prisoner at Auschwitz, offers exceptional tribute to the Co-redemptrix as the one predestined with Christ to restore grace to mankind: “From that moment (of the Fall) God promised a Redeemer and a Co-redemptrix saying: ‘I will place enmities between thee and the Woman, and thy seed and her Seed; She shall crush thy head.'” (15)
The acclaimed philosopher, convert and cloistered Carmelite nun, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (d.1942), born Edith Stein, in her theological treatise, Scientia Crucis, said: “Mary leaves the natural order and is placed as Co-redemptrix alongside the Redeemer.” (16)
St. Padre Pio (d.1968) writes in one of his letters: “Now I seem to be penetrating what was the martyrdom of our most beloved Mother…. Oh, if all people would but penetrate this martyrdom! Who could succeed in suffering with this, yes, our dear Coredemptrix? Who would refuse her the good title of Queen of Martyrs?” (17)
Opus Dei Founder, St. Jose Maria Escrivá (d.1975) vigorously defends Our Lady as the Co-redemptrix in this passage where he applauds the papal usage of the Co-redemptrix title and its doctrine: “The Supreme Pontiffs have rightly called Mary ‘Co-redemptrix’…. one can rightly say that she redeemed the human race together with Christ.” (18)
We close with the witness of Bl. Mother Teresa (d.1997), who succinctly put it: “Of course, Mary is the Co-redemptrix. She gave Jesus his body, and the body of Jesus is what saved us.” (19)
Mediatrix of All Graces
Mary’s role as dispenser or mediatrix of the graces of the Redemption follows appropriately from her role as Co-redemptrix. It is important to see that Our Lady dispenses the graces of Jesus because of her special participation in meriting the graces of Redemption.
Mary uniquely participated in the Redemption of humanity by Jesus Christ and, therefore, the Mother of Jesus, above all creatures, fittingly participates in the distribution of these graces to the members of the Mystical Body, theologically called “subjective redemption.” By distributing sanctifying grace, Mary is able to fulfill her role as Spiritual Mother, since she spiritually nourishes the faithful of Christ’s body in the order of grace. Mary’s God-given ability to distribute the graces of Redemption by her intercession is an essential element and full flowering of her role as Spiritual Mother. For true motherhood goes beyond the birthing of children to include their nourishing, growth, and proper formation.
In sum, the Mother of Jesus mediates all the graces of Jesus to the human family in two regards. First, Mary mediated all graces to humanity by giving birth to Jesus and by bringing the source and author of all graces to the world (cf. Lk 2:6-7), theologically called “remote mediation.” Secondly, Mary mediates all graces by distributing the graces merited on Calvary to the human family by her willed intercession (cf. Jn 19:26), theologically called “proximate” or “immediate” mediation.
Notice the divine consistency in Mary’s role in the order of grace as designated by God’s perfect will. First of all, Mary is conceived in sanctifying grace from the first instant of her existence by a unique act of God’s perfect will. Then Mary gives birth to the source of all graces in Jesus Christ. With this birth of the Head of Grace, she also gives spiritual birth to the Body mystically united with the Head in grace. Furthermore, she participates with her Son in meriting grace that redeems the world on Calvary. Finally, from Heaven, Mary distributes the graces of the Redemption to grant to each open heart of the human family the saving supernatural life of Our Lord. As Vatican II ascribes to her, Mary is truly our Mother in the order of grace.
When the Church says that the Mother of Jesus is Mediatrix of all graces, she means that all favors and graces granted by God to humanity reach us through the intercession of Mary. To receive all graces through Mary is simply to continue the perfect plan of God which began with his gift of the source of all graces, Jesus Christ, who came to us through Mary. The Mother of Jesus, subordinate and perfectly conformed to the will of her Son, distributes the graces of Redemption to the human family by her willed intercession, theologically referred to as “secondary moral cause.”
Does this mean that the graces of Jesus will not be distributed unless we pray directly to the Blessed Virgin? No. But it does express the truth that whether we call directly upon the name of Mary or not, we, nonetheless, receive all graces through her actual and personally willed intercession.
This is analogous to the authentic Catholic understanding of Baptism of desire. A person who is not Christian can attain eternal life under specific conditions of charity and contrition through Jesus, the one Redeemer and Mediator to the Father, without knowing during his earthly life that it is through the mediation of Jesus. In a similar way, all who receive the graces of Jesus Christ do so through Mary, even if they lack knowledge of the Blessed Virgin’s intercession. Theologically, this is the difference between knowledge and causality.
At the same time, we must remember how pleasing it is to God when the human family does affirm his manifest will by directly invoking his appointed distributor of graces by name. It is our human way of saying yes to God’s order of things, which includes Mary as the distributor of graces.
Papal Teaching on Mediatrix of All Graces
The unanimous voices of the popes of the last two centuries on this pivotal Marian doctrine of Mediatrix of all graces manifest nothing short of incontestable consistency and certainty regarding the revealed truth of this doctrine. Let us look at some of the more important papal pronouncements and explanations on this doctrine. Several of these papal statements provide profound, theological explanations as to why Mary is fitting distributor of all graces.
- Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) referred to Mary as the “Dispensatrix of all graces.” (20)
- Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), the Marian pope who defined Mary’s Immaculate Conception, wrote: “…God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that everyone may know that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation” (Ubi primum).
- Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) frequently referred to Mary’s role as “Dispenser of all heavenly graces” and boldly professed these words about Mary’s role as Mediatrix of all graces:
With equal truth can it be affirmed that, by the will of God, nothing of the immense treasure of every grace which the Lord has accumulated, comes to us except through Mary…. How great are the wisdom and mercy revealed in this design of God…. Mary is our glorious intermediary; she is the powerful Mother of the omnipotent God…. This design of such dear mercy realized by God in Mary and confirmed by the testament of Christ (Jn 19:26-27) was understood from the beginning and accepted with the utmost joy by the holy Apostles and earliest believers. It was also the belief and teachings of the venerable Fathers of the Church. All the Christian peoples of every age accepted it unanimously…. There is no other reason for this than divine faith (Octobri mense).
This papal proclamation of Leo XIII not only proposed the truth that all graces of God come to us through Mary, but also that this belief has been the universal belief of the Church from the apostolic days to our present day. This reality, he said, can only be explained through God’s revelation in “divine faith.”
- Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914) continued the remarkable papal consistency by calling Mary “the dispenser of all gifts,” and he discusses theologically how Jesus is the source of all graces, and Mary is the channel of all graces:
By this union of will and suffering between Christ and Mary, “she merited to become in a most worthy manner the Reparatrix of the lost world” and consequently, the Dispensatrix of all gifts which Jesus acquired for us through His death and blood. Indeed, we do not deny that the distribution of these gifts belongs by strict and proper right to Christ…. Yet…it was granted to the august Virgin to be together with her only-begotten Son the most powerful Mediatrix and conciliatrix of the whole world. So Christ is the source…. Mary, however, as St. Bernard justly remarks, is the channel, or she is the neck by which the Body is united to the Head and the Head sends power and strength through the Body. For she is the neck of our Head, through which all spiritual gifts are communicated to His Body (Ad diem illum).
- Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) strongly encouraged the spread of the doctrine of Mediatrix of all graces by granting the special liturgical feast of “Mediatrix of all graces” to any bishop who desired to celebrate it in his diocese. Benedict XV also continued the unbroken papal consensus in various papal statements. In one statement, after affirming that Mary redeemed the world together with Christ, he immediately added: “It is for this reason that all the graces contained in the treasury of the Redemption are given to us through the hands of the same sorrowful Virgin” (Inter Sodalicia).
During part of the canonization process of St. Joan of Arc in 1926 (referring to a miracle through the intercession of Joan of Arc that took place at Lourdes), Benedict XV explained that the favors received through the intercession of the saints also come through the mediation of Mary:
If in every miracle we must recognize the mediation of Mary, through whom, according to God’s will, every grace and blessing comes to us, it must be admitted that in the case of one of these miracles (referring to Joan of Arc) the mediation of the Blessed Virgin manifested itself in a very special way. We believe that God so disposed the matter in order to remind the faithful that the remembrance of Mary must never be excluded, even when it may seem that a miracle is to be attributed to the intercession or the mediation of one of the blessed or one of the saints. (21)
- Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) several times continued the papal uniformity by making such statements about Mary as: “We have nothing more at heart than to promote more and more the piety of the Christian people toward the Virgin treasurer of all graces at the side of God” (Cognitum sane). And also: “Confiding in her intercession with Jesus, the one Mediator of God and man (1 Tim 2:5), who wished to associate his own Mother with himself as the advocate of sinners, as the dispenser and mediatrix of graces…” (Miserentissimus Redemptor).
- Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), the outstanding Marian pope who defined Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, continued in perfect harmony the papal unanimity on Mediatrix of all graces: “And since, as St. Bernard declares, ‘it is the will of God that we obtain all favors through Mary,’ let everyone hasten to have recourse to Mary…” (Superiore anno). And also: “She teaches us all virtues; she gives us her Son and with him all the help we need, for ‘God wished us to have everything through Mary'” (Mediator Dei).
- The Second Vatican Council (under the pontificates of Blessed John XXIII and Paul VI) referred to the Mother of God’s authentic title as “Mediatrix” and her role as intercessor of the graces for eternal salvation: “Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation….Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the title…Mediatrix” (Lumen Gentium, No. 62).
John Paul II dedicated considerable effort in spreading knowledge and understanding of Mary’s role of mediation. In his 1987 Marian encyclical Mother of the Redeemer, he devoted an entire chapter to Mary’s “maternal mediation,” and explains in this passage how Mary’s role as secondary mediator takes on a universal dimension:
After her Son’s departure, her motherhood remains in the Church as maternal mediation: interceding for all her children, the Mother cooperates in the saving work of her Son, the Redeemer of the world. In fact the Council (Vatican II) teaches that the “motherhood of Mary in the order of grace…will last without interruption until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect.” With the redeeming death of her Son, the maternal mediation of the handmaid of the Lord took on a universal dimension, for the work of Redemption embraces the whole of humanity…. Mary’s cooperation shares, in its subordinate character, in the universality of the mediation of the Redeemer, the one Mediator (Redemptoris Mater, No. 40).
Shortly after in the same encyclical, Pope John Paul II granted the Blessed Virgin a new title as “Mediatrix of Mercy” at the second coming of her Son:
(S)he also has that specifically maternal role of mediatrix of mercy at his final coming, when all those who belong to Christ “shall be made alive,” when “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26) (Redemptoris Mater, No. 41).
In his commentary on the wedding of Cana (Jn 2), John Paul explained Mary’s actions as Mediatrix in uniting humanity with her Son:
Thus there is a mediation: Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs, and sufferings. She puts herself “in the middle,” that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her Son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she “has the right” to do so….The Mother of Christ presents herself as the spokeswoman of her Son’s will, pointing out those things which must be done so that the salvific power of the Messiah may be manifested (Redemptoris Mater, No. 21).
In a 1989 papal address, John Paul II referred to Mary as the Mediatrix of graces reflecting the light of Christ to her earthly children: “Enlightened by the fullness of Christ’s light, Mary, Mediatrix of graces, reflects him in order to give him to all her children….” (22)
What is the importance of this survey of two centuries of papal statements on the doctrine of Mediatrix of all graces? It is precisely the conformity and the unanimity of the popes of the last two hundred years that bring new certainty and clarity to this pivotal Marian doctrine of Mediatrix of all graces. The popes of the last two centuries, both in the official Church documents and in papal addresses, have assertively taught this Marian truth with a consistency and specificity that, as Pope Leo XIII said referring to its universal acceptance since apostolic times, seems to be explainable by “no other reason…than divine faith.”
Theological Conclusions on Mediatrix
Although this Marian doctrine of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces is not yet formally defined, its unquestionable presence in the papal teachings of the ordinary Magisterium bear several significant theological conclusions as formulated by some of the twentieth century’s most respected mariologists. (23)
First, the doctrine of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces must receive from the faithful “loyal submission of the will and intellect,” which “must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra” (Lumen Gentium, No. 25). By its consistent place in the teachings of the ordinary Magisterium, this Marian doctrine of Mediatrix of all graces calls believers to a religious assent of mind and heart to the manifest mind of the Pope.
Secondly, in light of the fact that the doctrine of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces has been universally taught throughout the Church by popes of the last two hundred years and by the bishops in union with them (the ordinary Magisterium), and in virtue of this universal teaching of the Church, the doctrine of Mediatrix of all graces already possesses the nature of a defined doctrine of faith (theologically, this can be referred to as de fide divina ex ordine magisterio) (24) In other words, Mary as Mediatrix of all graces represents essential Catholic teaching through the order of the ordinary Magisterium.
This charism of the universal teaching authority of all bishops who, when in union with the Pope, can exercise the ecclesial element of infallibility, is discussed in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, No. 25).
Models of Mary as Mediatrix
There are also several different, though complementary, models and concepts of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces. St. Maximilian Kolbe saw Mary’s profoundly intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit, her Divine Spouse, as central to her role as Mediatrix. When the Holy Spirit, the “uncreated Immaculate Conception of God,” as Kolbe refers to him, works to sanctify the world, he does so in profound union with and through Mary, the human, created Immaculate Conception. God’s grace, therefore, flows from the Father, through the Son in the Holy Spirit and through the intercession of Mary. (25) Hence, as John Paul II confirmed in his Marian encyclical, Mary’s mediative role is empowered and intimately related to the Holy Spirit, who is the divine Sanctifier.
In terms of a more ecclesial (or church) model, St. Ambrose and Vatican II stressed the Blessed Virgin’s image as “Model of the Church.” Since all the graces of Redemption are obtained and distributed through the Church, and Mary is the perfect model of the Church, then Mary likewise would appropriately be Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix of graces par excellence in conformity with the Church. (26)
Some of the most prominent mariologists of our times (27) have also proposed the position of Mary being called a secondary “instrumental” (or physical) cause in the distribution of graces, that after Jesus Mary not only willed the distribution of grace by her intercession but also had a direct instrumental cause on the distribution of grace, based on a true jurisdiction over graces granted her by God.
The expression “moral cause,” refers to an influence of an agent over the free will of another, for example, Mary’s intercessory prayer moves Jesus to grant the gift of grace. This is more of a condition than a direct cause in the strict sense, because it is Mary’s willed intercession that indirectly leads to Jesus conferring grace, but Mary does not directly cause the release of grace. An instrumental (or physical) cause is one which has a real direct and immediate (proximate) influence on the effect. The word “physical” is not used in the sense of a material or corporeal effect, but rather as a direct and efficient cause on the effect in question. This leads us to the question, does Jesus grant every grace of the Redemption for the sake of Mary, in light of her intercessory prayers and her merits (moral cause); or is Mary a direct proximate cause of the distribution of the graces of Redemption, based on a certain jurisdiction of graces granted her by her divine Son?
Although it is clear in papal teachings that Mary at least exercises a moral cause in the distribution of all the graces of Redemption in virtue of her intercession, it is also probable that Mary does influence a direct, immediate effect on the distribution of graces (although wholly dependent on Jesus Christ as the principal cause of grace), as confirmed by papal expressions which state that Mary exercises a certain jurisdiction over all graces. (28) The great St. Louis Marie de Montfort clearly teaches Mary’s instrumental causality in the distribution of graces when he teaches, “God the Father communicated to Mary his fullness.. .to produce his son and all the members of his Mystical Body.… (29) (Christ) has made her the treasurer of all that his Father gave him for his inheritance. It is by her that he applies his merits to his members and that he communicates his virtues and distributes his graces. She is his mysterious canal; she is his aqueduct through which he makes his mercies flow gently and abundantly.” (30)
As one author explains: “Once it is granted that the angels and the saints are frequently physical secondary causes of miracles, it seems quite natural to postulate the same power for the Mother of God and in a higher degree.” (31) A recent theological explanation of Mary’s physical instrumentality in regards to the sacraments is as follows: “Grace begins in the Divine Nature of (Christ), passes through the sacred humanity of Christ (a physical instrument), passes through Mary (also a physical instrument), and finally passes through the sacrament (also a physical instrument).” (32)
There are also several images of Mary as Mediatrix from the realm of authentic Marian private revelation. The Miraculous Medal apparitions (1830), Lourdes (1854), and Fatima (1917), and several other contemporary Marian apparitions, all portray Mary as distributing the graces of God from the opened palms of her immaculate hands. Although not in the realm of public revelation, authentic Marian private revelation seems to confirm the possibility of Mary’s physical distribution of graces.
A more domestic model of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces is the image of Mary as “Nursing Mother.” As she physically did with her first Child, Mary spiritually takes all humanity to her breast to nourish them with the spiritual milk of supernatural grace.
Regardless of the diversity of these images and concepts regarding Mary’s role as Mediatrix of all graces, all authentic images of Mary in this regard will convey the truth that Mary distributes the graces of Jesus in obedience to the Father, in the service of the Son, and in union with the Holy Spirit.
Let us conclude this section with the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who has been rightly called the “Doctor of Mary’s Mediation”:
This is the will of Him who wanted us to have everything through Mary…. God has placed in Mary the plenitude of every good, in order to have us understand that if there is any trace of hope in us, any trace of grace, any trace of salvation, it flows from her…. God could have dispensed His graces according to His good pleasure without making use of this channel (Mary), but it was His wish to provide this means whereby grace would reach you. (33)
As our spiritual mother, mother of Christ and Queen of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin is a powerful Advocate before God on our behalf.
In the Old Testament kingdoms in the line of David, or Davidic kingdoms, the mother of the king held the position of the Queen Mother, or “Gebirah,” Hebrew for “the Great Lady,” whereby she maintained an important role for the kingdom. Her role was to be the principal advocate and intercessor on behalf of the people of Israel to the king (cf. 1 Kings 2:19).
In the New Testament coming of Jesus Christ as the new and eternal King of the Kingdom, we also receive a new Queen Mother—Mary, mother of Christ the King (Lk. 1:32-38). Therefore Mary becomes the new Queen and Advocate for the Kingdom of God. Her Queenship and Advocacy is as extensive as the Kingdom of God, at the service of Jesus her King and the newly baptized people of the Kingdom. Mary, crowned as Queen in the Kingdom of God (Rev. 12:1) is Advocate for the people of God before the throne of her Son, Christ the King (cf. Jn. 2:1-11).
This article was excerpted from Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion, Queenship, 2006.
(1) Cf. St. Augustine, De S. Virginitate 6, 6.
(2) Cf. Juniper Carol, O.F.M., Fundamentals of Mariology, New York, Benzinger Bros., 1957, p. 49.
(3) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, Q. 26 art. 1.
(4) St. Ephraem, Oratio IV, Ad Deiparam.
(5) Cf. Carol, “Our Lady’s Co-Redemption” in Mariology, Vol. II, Milwaukee, Bruce, 1957, p. 337; Carol, De Corredemptione B. V. Mariae disquisitio positiva, Cività Vaticana, 1950.
(6) Pope Pius XI, Solemn close of 1935 Jubilee Year of Redemption, L’Osservatore Romano, April 29, 1935.
(7) Cf. Munificentissimus Deus, 1950; Mystici Corporis, 1943; Ad coeli Reginam,1954.
(8) John Paul II, Allocution at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Alborada in Guayaquil, given on Jan. 31, 1985, reported in L’Osservatore Romano Supplement of Feb. 2, 1985 and in English L’Osservatore Romano, March 11, 1985, p.7. John Paul II used the title Co-redemptrix at least another five times during his pontificate: September 8, 1982, Feast of the Birth of Mary, during a papal address to the sick: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1978-, V/3, 1982, 404; November 4, 1984, Feast of St. Charles Borromeo, during a General Audience: L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, November 12, 1984, p. 1; Palm Sunday, March 31, 1985 during World Youth Day: L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, April 9, 1985, p. 12; To volunteers for the sick at Lourdes, March 24, 1990: Inseg., XIII/1, 1990, 743:1; October 6, 1991, commemorating the sixth centenary of the canonization of St. Bridget of Sweden: L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, October 14, 1991, p. 4.
(9) St. Bridget, Revelationes, L. I, c. 35.
(10) St. Bridget, Revelationes, IX, c. 3.
(11) St. Catherine of Siena, Oratio XI, delivered in Rome on the day of the Annunciation, 1379 in Opere, ed. Gigli, t. IV, p. 352.
(12) Ven. Mary of Agreda, Mystical City of God, ed. Amberes, H. and C. Verdussen, 1696, P. I, L. I, c. 18, n. 274, p. 86b.
(13) St. John Eudes, The Priest, His Dignity and Obligations, P. J, Kenedy & Sons, 1947, pp. 134-135. This quoted passage was originally published in a work entitled, The Good Confessor in 1666.
(14) Ven. John Cardinal Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching vol. 2, In a Letter Addressed to the Rev. E. B. Pusey, D.D., On Occasion of His Eirenicon of 1864, Longman’s, Green and Co., 1891, vol. 2, p. 78.
(15) St. Maximilian Kolbe, Scritti, Rome, 1997, n. 1069. Also cf. L. Iammorrone, “Il mistero di Maria Corredentrice in san Massimiliano Kolbe,” Maria Corredentrice, vol. 2, pp. 219-256; H. M. Manteau-Bonamy, O.P., Immaculate Conception and Holy Spirit: The Marian Teachings of Fr. Kolbe, Wisconsin: Prow-Franciscan Marytown Press, 1977, pp. 99-102.
(16) Ibid. Cf. also Sr. M. F. Perella, “Edith Stein. Ebrea, carmelitana, martire,” Palestra del Clero, 1999, vol. 78, p. 695.
(17) St. Padre Pio, Epistolario, San Giovanni Rotondo, 1992, vol. 3, p. 384; cf. also these works on Padre Pio: Castello, Manelli, La “dolce Signora” di Padre Pio, Cinisello Balsamo, Italy, 1999; Manelli, “Maria SS.ma Corredentrice nella vita e negli scritti di Padre Pio da Pietrelcina,” Maria Corredentrice, Frigento, vol. 2, 1999, pp. 277-294; M. Da Pobladura, Alla scuola spirituale di Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, San Giovanni Rotondo, 1978; F. Da Riese, P. Pio da Pietrelcina crocifisso senza croce, Foggia, 1991.
(18) St. Jose Maria Escrivà, Amici di Dio. Omelie, Milan, 1978, p. 318; also cf. Miotto, “La voce dei Santi e la ‘Corredentrice,’” p. 215; F. Delelaux, “Nel dolore invocare e imitare Maria Corredentrice,” Eco del Santuario dell’Addolorata, Castelpetroso, 1995, n. 3, pp. 6-8, n. 4, pp. 3-5.
(19) Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Personal Interview, Calcutta, August 14, 1993.
(20) Carol, Vol. II, Pope Pius VII, Ampliatio privilegiorum ecclesiae B. V. Virginis ab angelo salutatae, in Fratrum Ordinis Servorum B. V.M. Florentiae, 1806.
(21) Actes de Benoit XV, Vol. 2, 1926, E. Druwé.
(22) L’Osservatore Romano, October 2, 1989.
(23) Cf. J. Bittremieux, De mediatione universali B.M. Virginis quoad gratias, 1926; Armand J. Robichaud, S.M., “Mary, Dispensatrix of all Graces,” in Carol, ed., Mariology, Vol. 2, 1957; Garrigou-LaGrange, O.P., Mother of Our Savior and the Interior Life, Ch. III, p. 235; Roschini, O.S.V., Mariologia, 2nd ed., Rome, F. Ferrari, 1947-1948, Mariologia, Vol. II; Cardinal Lépicier, O.S.M., Tractatus de B.V.M., Romae, 1926; E. Hugon, O.P., La causalité instrumentale, Paris, 1929; William Most, Mary in Our Life, New York: Kenedy and Sons, 1956, p. 38.
(24) Cf. J. Bittremieux, De mediatione universali B.M. Virginis quoad gratias, 1926; Armand J. Robichaud, S.M., “Mary, Dispensatrix of all Graces,” in Carol, ed., Mariology, Vol. 2, 1957.
(25) Cf. Manteau-Bonamy, O.P., ed., Immaculate Conception and Holy Spirit, Ch. II, III, IV.
(26) Cf. St. Ambrose, Expos. ev. sec. Luc. II, 7; Lumen Gentium, No. 62-65.
(27) Cf. Garrigou-LaGrange, O.P., Mother of Our Savior and the Interior Life, tr. Bernard Kelly, C.S.Sp., Golden Eagle Book, Dublin, Ireland, 1948, Ch. III, p. 235; Robichaud, S.M., “Mary, Dispensatrix of all Graces,” Carol, ed., Mariology, Vol. II; Roschini, Mariologia, Vol. II, Cardinal Lépicier, O.S.M., Tractatus de B.V.M., Romae, 1926; E. Hugon, O.P., La causalité instrumentale, Paris, 1929; William Most, Mary in Our Life, 1956, p. 38.
(28) Cf. Leo XIII, Iucunda Semper, 1894.
(29) True Devotion to Mary, n. 17.
(30) True Devotion, n. 24.
(31) Hugin, O.P. La causalité instrumentale en theologie, 1907, p. 195.
(32) William Most, Mary in Our Life, p. 38.
(33) St. Bernard, Hom. in nativit. B. V.M., n. 7, n. 6, n. 3-4.