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Did Mary Truly Cooperate in Our Redemption?

Updated: May 30, 2020

The following catechesis was given by Dr. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in Vienna, May 27th, 2001 -Asst. Ed.

“Mary, help!” On the Meaning of Marian Devotion


On May 13th 1981 at 5.19 PM shots were fired at Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. The 9mm bullet fired by an expert marksman, Ali Agca, hit the Holy Father in the abdomen and would have caused internal bleeding and death within a short time. Ali Agca was pardoned by the Italian President last year at June 15th, to the great joy of the Pope, who had been requesting this for some time. The surgeons at the Gemelli Hospital operated for hours to save the Pope, whose life was hanging by a thread. They found that the bullet had just missed the artery by a few millimeters and had thus not hit any of the vital nerve centers. Later the Pope described this event thus: “One hand fired the shot, another guided the bullet.”

It was May 13th, the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima. The Pope himself said that at that time he was not yet so conscious of the significance of Fatima, but as soon as possible he had all the documents about the events of Fatima brought to the Gemelli Hospital. Among them was the text of the so-called third secret, which he read and then returned to the Archives, where it was kept until May 13th 2000, when, surprisingly the contents were published in its essentials by the Pope or rather by his Secretary of State, in Fatima. Soon after, this secret of Fatima was published, with an explanatory commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger.

Since May 13 th 1981, the Pope’s devotion and love for Our Lady of Fatima have been evident to all. I should like to recall just three dates: (1.) Exactly one year after the attempt on his life he made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Fatima. (2.) In 1984, in a spontaneous gesture, he presented to the Bishop of Fatima a little case containing the bullet that had hit him. This bullet was set into the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. (3.) Finally, another gesture: In the Holy Year, on May 13th, when the Pope visited Fatima again, he presented to Our Lady of Fatima the episcopal ring, given to him by Cardinal Wyszinski when he became pope on which the words “Totus tuus”, his motto, are engraved.

Why am I telling you all this? These are experiences of Mary’s help – which are very concrete, which are clearly not isolated cases and which we can see expressed in the most diverse ways throughout the long history of Christianity: experiences showing that Mary does help us. It is not by chance that we have a Mariahilferstraße, a “Mary, help street” in Vienna, so called after the Church “Mary, help”. For centuries people have found that Mary shows herself to be a Mother, a helper, in all our needs.

To return to the date of May 13 th, 1981. The private Secretary of the Holy Father speaking on May 13 th of this year in Lublin, Poland, gave a full testimony of his recollections of the event that took place 20 years ago, on May th, 1981. On that day the Holy Father signed the document setting up an Institute that has been especially close to his heart to this day: The John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family. Family, the great theme of his pontificate, the word, that he has repeated so often: The future of mankind depends on the family. That same May 13th 1981, the Pope signed another foundation document. He founded the “Academy for Life”, an Academy whose express task it is to study scientific, medical, biological, legal and theological questions relating to life. He appointed the renowned French researcher Jérome Lejeune as ist first President. It was Lejeune who discovered the cause of trisomia, more precisely, the genetic defect commonly known as Down syndrome (mongolism). Jérome Lejeune, this great defender of life, especially of handicapped life, was the Pope’s guest at lunch that May 13th . The Holy Father had maintained close friendship with him right up to his death from cancer. That same day, May 13th 1981, there was to have taken place a big demonstration for the free legalization of abortion, organized by the Communist Party. When the news of the attempt on the Pope’s life became known, the organizers called off the demonstration. Isn’t it strange to see the civilization of life and the culture of death intermingling and battling with one another the same day?

Let us return to Mary and examples of Mary’s help. Let us go into them a little more deeply. What exactly is Marian devotion? What is the reason for venerating Mary? Certainly, these experiences apparently exist in all generations. But what is the justification for devotion to Mary and what are ist limits? How can one distinguish between erroneous forms of Marian devotion, and correct one, we might call them healthy ones?

Returning to May 13th 1981: When the Pope, struck by the bullet, collapsed, he is said to have murmured in Polish, his mother – tongue, the words: “Mary, my Mother, my Mother!” “Totus tuus”, this motto of the Pope bears witness to the fact that it was not the event of May 13th 1981 that brought about his very special relationship with Mary. From then on, the theme of gratitude has still become ever stronger, resounding all the time: gratitude for help experienced. But, evidently, Marian devotion already played an important role much earlier in the Pope’s life. He lost his mother at the age of nine, and his only brother when he was twelve. His father died when Karol Woytila was twenty. He himself says that Mary became a Mother to him early on. Undoubtedly the Marian devotion of the Polish people played an important part. We see it taking on a special, very personal note in his life, marked by the great pilgrimages to Jasna Gora, to Czestachowa. As he himself says there: How often have I said the Totus Tuus here: “All yours!” The life of the Holy Father provides evidence of this deep gratitude and strong confidence in Mary, free of all sentimentality.

I was privileged to take part on October 8th last year, at the Pope’s invitation in the Jubilee of the Bishops. We were some 1.500 bishops from around the world. At the culmination of this pilgrimage of bishops for the Holy Year the pope spoke the long prayer before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima which he called: “Affidamento” – entrusting of the third millenium to Mary. May be you remember, on December 8th 2000, we made this prayer our own in many places in our diocese.

We could certainly give many more examples of Mary’s help, ourselves, experiences that we have had ourselves or have heard about, instances reported to us from past and present. I want to come back to the question: Why? Why do we have this special devotion to Mary? I’d like to start out with the question that is the most difficult and at the same time the most important on, when we hear objections to Marian devotion, but also when it comes to discerning what are wrong forms, and what is right, i.e. in line, with the Gospel.

I start with the Question: “Is devotion to Mary not in opposition to devotion to Christ, devotion to God? Is it not the case that often Marian devotion comes like a windscreen in front of devotion to Got, to devotion to Christ, to which we are committed to by our faith. The Catechism quotes soberly in (CCC, No. 487) “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ..” But in addition to this the CCC states: “It illuminates in turn its faith in Christ.” What we believe about Mary is based on our faith in Christ, it yet makes it clearer. Mary’s role derives totally from that of Christ. It makes the role of Christ clearer to us. Everything depends on how we see Christ. If Jesus is a special person, a prophet, then Mary, his mother, is the mother of a special person.

There have been many mothers of many special persons in the history of mankind. This would not justify giving her special significance. But if he is the Son of Got, the Messiah of Israel, then she is truly the “Mother of God” in the sense in which it is understood by the Church; she is the mother of God’s Son made man. But then Marian devotion cannot be separated from devotion for Got. And this is exactly the point where criticism comes in, and sometimes a feeling of unease with regard to Catholic, Eastern and Orthodox Marian devotion. Is it not the case that she is being secretly exalted, on a throne, on the altar, like a goddess, somehow given an equal position with Christ, with God? If people hear or read the words “Mother of God” in an Islamic country, they are horrified, because for Moslems these are the most blasphemous words imaginable. How can anyone say that a human person is Mother of Got? Has not Mary been deified here?

You know the accusations one often reads, or the explanations offered again and again, when someone tries to show that Marian devotion basically follows on from devotion to the great mother – goddesses of ancient religions and somehow “baptizes” it. Isis and Osiris from the religion of Egypt are quoted again and again, the goddess with the child, are the models for Mary and the child, some would have us believe. The great Artemis of Ephesus was the goddess of fertility. St. Paul got into conflicts with the silver-smiths of Ephesus, for he endangered their business by criticizing their idols. So the dramatic revolt of the Ephesian silver-smiths came about (Acts 19, 28). When we later on see that it is precisely at Ephesus that some 400 years later in 431, that Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be the Mother of God, can one not suspect that the title “Mother of God” is simply a “baptism” of pagan mother- goddesses? Were not some of our old Marian sanctuaries originally pagan places of worship, which were christianized in this way? This point of view is very attractive at first sight and is often put forward with emphasis and conviction. Was it not once a clever policy of Christianity to simply “christianize” gods and goddesses, turning them, as it were, into saints? By all appearances this would seem possible. But, if one start to question more closely: “Why was it possible to do this? Why was it possible to erect Marian or other sanctuaries in heathen places of worship? The question has to be put on a deeper level: There must have been experiences of healing, experiences of Mary’s help. I think of the beautifully renovated Marian sanctuary of Kleinmariazell (Little Mariazell). Probably it has been a pagan place of worship. But wasn’t it the experience of healing through Mary’s intervention, that reconciliation has been experienced there from two brothers in deadly enmity with one another, who gave one another the hand of peace at this source- sanctuary, leading to the fact that exactly there Mary is experienced as the one who helps and in consequence is venerated there? We have to at least consider this perspective, when one addresses the so-called “christianizing” of heathen forerunners and foreshadowing.

Let us take a step further. What basis is there in the faith for this experience of closeness to Mary that one can experience? One thing apparently causing opposition is the description of Mary as Mediatrix, as helper as a mediator of salvation. But is not this the prerogative of Christ alone? Died not St. Paul say: “He is the onlyMediator between Got and man!” (1 Tim. 2,5)? Has not something strange slipped in, that dies not really have any place in our Christian faith? To put the question more broadly: Did Mary truly cooperate in our redemption? Have the Saints played a part in our salvation? Can we collaborate at the salvation of others? Or does God His work all alone, so to say, and if there are any instrument, then they are completely passive ones, which cannot collaborate themselves, but are to a certain extent jus channels? Was Mary a passive instrument, or is there such a thing as active collaboration by Mary in our salvation, so that we are justified in saying: that we experience her help?

Backing up of the self – evident and constantly held conviction in the faith of the Church, that Mary is helper and Mediatrix, there are two convictions: First, that we, as God’s creatures, can truly collaborate in God’s work, and secondly, that Mary has done this in a unique and incomparably outstanding way. I have to present you now, with a rather difficult passage form Vatican II: On the Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium) the eighth chapter of which deals with Mary: Mary in God’s plan of salvation, and Mary and her place in the Church.

We read No.60: In the words of the apostle there is but one mediator: “for there is but one God and one mediator of Got and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a as redemption for all” (1 Tim 2:5-6).” The Council then adds: “But Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power.” Mary is not a kind of screen, hiding Christ, but rather she is revealing his power. “The Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men originates not in any inner necessity but in the disposition of God. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ.” – Let’s not be put off by the somewhat high – flown theological language. – Mary’s ministry” rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it.” The Council goes on (about love for Mary {?}) : “It does not hinder in any way the immediate union of the faithful with Christ but on the contrary fosters it.”

In his coat of arms, the Pope has an M, the sign of Mary, under the cross and below that “Totus Tuus”. Yet again the question: Can one say Totus Tuus with regard to Mary? Isn’t this an obstacle to our relationship with Christ? The Pope repeatedly shows that this is certainly not the case.

But let us take another step further: We are dealing with a central question regarding our faith. In No. 62 of Lumen Gentium, the constitution of the Church, drawn up by Vat II. we read that” the blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.” Not a few people think that it is timely for the Church to declare as a dogma that Mary is Mediatrix of all graces. The Pope is repeatedly being asked to this. Here I will overpass this question entirely. Yet the Council does actually say that she is called Mediatrix. How is this to be understood? “This, however is so understood”, the Council says, ” that it neither takes away anything from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator” – it does not take away nor does it add anything…

Now comes to my mind a very important explanation to my mind: “No creature”, the Council says, “could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer”, not even Mary, not even she stand on the level as Christ. She cannot simply be equated with Him. The Council gives two examples in this regard: 1. “But just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful”, so it is with Mary in relation to Christ. (Lumen Gentium 62). I will try to explain this briefly: “We believe that there is actually one high- priest in the New Covenant: Jesus Christ (Hebr 8:1). Why, then, some do call themselves priests, even bishops and cardinals? Why are all baptized called priests according to the common priesthood of all baptized? The Council refers to a sharing in the one priesthood of Christ (Lumen Gentium 10). We confess (acknowledge) that there is only one mediator between God and man, but that we are allowed to cooperate, because Jesus has called us to do so. The Council gives another example: 2. “…th one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures” (Lumen Gentium 62). We recall that, when the rich young man came to Jesus and said: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, Jesus replies to him, somewhat brusquely, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone!” (Mk. 10: 17-18) WE recognize that only God can truly be called good. In spite of this, says the Council, there exists a participation in the goodness of God on the part of his creatures. A good beer drunk on a hot summer day is truly something good. It participates in the goodness of the Creator. Goodness really exists, it is, as the Council puts it so well, poured our (radiated) on (among) all creatures. When we do a good deed, this does not mean we are competing with God, but we can have a share in Him, who alone is good.

This may at first sight sound very theoretical, but is concerns a crucial point of our faith. We believe that man is the image of God, mad in the image of the living God. God is unique, incomparable, and yet there are likenesses of God. Genesis says (Gen. 1: 26) that we are made in the image and likeness of God. But this also means that we participate in the work of God, that we can share in His work. The history maintains and shows that there are, time and again, outstanding cooperators, people of whom we can say: he is truly an image of God. Naturally this is true of every person. Even the most miserable of persons is still to be respected in his incomparable dignity as an image of God. Therefore we are convinced that every person, even the worst criminal, is to be spared and that his life is holy, and therefore, I believe capital punishment to be basically and finally in opposition to the fact that man is the image of God. But there are persons, of whom we can say in a special way that they make the image of God to a certain extent visible. W call them saints. When we say, man is made in the image of God, then we also say that this involves a responsibility. The biblical word “image of God” can also be translated by “God’s delegate”, “God’s vizier”, or “God’s steward”. We truly have a responsibility to cooperate in God’s work.