In the course of two millennia and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Catholic Church has come to an ever more focused understanding of the person and role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The first Marian dogma stating that Mary is in fact the Theotókos, the God-bearer or Mother of God was solemnly declared by the Fathers of the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Subsequently at the Lateran Council of 649 convoked by Pope St. Martin I the Church reached the certitude that Mary is ever Virgin: that she was a virgin before, during and after giving birth to Jesus.2 After centuries of debate the Catholic Church arrived at the assurance that Mary was immaculate from the first moment of her conception. 3 Finally in 1950, after ascertaining the Church’s long held belief, the Venerable Pius XII formally defined that the Virgin Mary was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.4 Each of these truths are mysteries of faith which means that they are so deep our human minds can never fully exhaust their richness.
All four of these dogmas refer to the person of Mary in relation to her Son, the God-man, Jesus Christ. But, in fact, Catholics believe even more about Mary than these profound mysteries regarding her person. They also believe that she played and continues to play an entirely unique role in the work of our salvation. In the course of the second millennium saints and theologians have been meditating, preaching and writing about Mary’s collaboration in the work of redemption and in the distribution of grace while for over one hundred fifty years the Popes have teaching about her maternal role.
I. The Mystery of Marian Coredemption
It is precisely this role or function that I would like to present today and I believe that there is no better place to begin than with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which devoted more space to the Mother of God than any other Ecumenical Council of the Church. Thus the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium speaks of Mary as “under and with him [Christ], serving the mystery of redemption, by the grace of Almighty God” [sub Ipso et cum Ipso, omnipotentis Dei gratia, mysterio remdeptionis inserviens], as “freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation” [humanæ saluti cooperantem] (#56), of the “union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation” [ cum Filio in opere salutari coniunctio] (#57) and of how she faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan [non sine divino consilio], 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 [ vehementer cum Unigenito suo condoluit et sacrificio Eius se materno animo sociavit, victimæ de se genitæ immolationi amanter consentiens] (#58).
Likewise the Council Fathers state that Mary shared her Son’s sufferings as he died on the cross. 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 [Filioque suo in cruce morienti compatiens, operi Salvatoris singulari prorsus modo cooperata est, oboedientia, fide, spe et flagrante caritate, ad vitam animarum supernaturalem restaurandam] (#61).
The twentieth century Popes had already clearly taught the doctrine upon which the Council Fathers could base themselves. In his great Marian Encyclical Ad Diem Illum of 2 February 1904, Saint Pius X stated:
It was not only the glory of the Mother of God to have presented to God the Only-Begotten who was to be born of human members the material by which he was prepared as a Victim for the salvation of mankind, but hers also the office of tending and nourishing that Victim, and at the appointed time of offering Him at the altar.
Hence the ever united life and labors of the Son and the Mother which permit the application to both of the words of the Psalmist: “My life is wasted with grief and my years in sighs”. When the supreme hour of the Son came, beside the cross of Jesus there stood Mary, His Mother, not merely occupied in contemplating the cruel spectacle, but rejoicing that her only Son was offered for the salvation of mankind; and so entirely participating in His Passion that, if it had been possible “she would have gladly borne all the torments that her Son underwent” [St. Bonaventure, I Sent, d. 48, ad Litt. dub. 4].5
In his Letter Inter Sodalicia of 22 May 1918 Pope Benedict XV wrote: According to the common teaching of the Doctors it was God’s design [non sine divino consilio], that the Blessed Virgin Mary, apparently absent from the public life of Jesus, should assist Him when He was dying nailed to the Cross. Mary suffered and, as it were, nearly died with her suffering Son; for the salvation of mankind she renounced her mother’s rights and, as far as it depended on her, offered her Son to placate divine justice; so we may well say that she with Christ redeemed mankind [ut dici merito queat, Ipsam cum Christo humanum genus redemisse.]. 6
Several years ago I discovered that the same Latin phrase – non sine divino consilio – which occurs in Benedict XV’s document is also used in Lumen Gentium #58, which I have cited above, but without acknowledging the authorship of Benedict XV. The point being made in both places is that Our Lady’s active collaboration in the work of redemption was explicitly willed by God and we can affirm, along with Blessed Pope Pius IX in his Bull Ineffabiliis Deus declaring the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that this is clearly supported by the Catholic understanding of the role of
the “Woman” of Genesis 3:15 and her “Seed” who together are in an eternal state of enmity with the serpent. 7
The Venerable Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Letter Ad Cæli Reginam of 11 October 1954 insists just as firmly that it is God’s will that Mary is joined with Jesus in the work of our redemption.
Mary in the work of redemption was by God’s will joined with Jesus Christ, the cause of salvation, in much the same way as Eve was joined with Adam, the cause of death. Hence it can be said that the work of our salvation was brought about by a “restoration” (St. Irenaeus) in which the human race, just as it was doomed to death by a virgin, was saved by a virgin.
Moreover, she was chosen to be the Mother of Christ “in order to have part with Him in the redemption of the human race” [Pius XI, Auspicatus profecto].
“She it was, who, free from all stain of personal or original sin, always most closely united with her Son, offered Him up to the Eternal Father on Calvary, along with the sacrifice of her own claims as His mother and of her own mother love, thus acting as a new Eve on behalf of Adam’s children, ruined by his unhappy fall” [Mystici Corporis].8
Pius XII would go on to continue to underscore Mary’s unique role in his great Sacred Heart Encyclical Haurietis Aquas of 15 May 1956:
By the will 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 [Cum enim ex Dei voluntate in humanæ Redemptionis peragendo opere Beatissima Virgo Maria cum Christo fuerit indivulse coniuncta, adeo ut ex Iesu Christi caritate eiusque cruciatibus cum amore doloribusque ipsius Matris intime consociatis sit nostra salus profecta].9
No pope has taught more clearly and more consistently about Our Lady’s role in the work of redemption than Blessed John Paul II. Here is an important text from his general audience address of 4 May 1983:
Dearest brothers and sisters, in the month of May we raise our eyes to Mary, the woman who was associated in a unique way in the work of mankind’s reconciliation with God. According to the Father’s plan, Christ was to accomplish this work through his sacrifice. However, a woman would be associated with him, the Immaculate Virgin who is thus placed before our eyes as the highest model of cooperation in the work of salvation. …
The “Yes” of the Annunciation constituted not only the acceptance of the offered motherhood, but signified above all Mary’s commitment to service of the mystery of the Redemption. Redemption was the work of her Son; Mary was associated with it on a subordinate level. Nevertheless, her participation was real and demanding. Giving her consent to the angel’s message, Mary agreed to collaborate in the whole work of mankind’s reconciliation with God, just as her Son would accomplish it. …
The orientation toward the redemptive sacrifice dominated Mary’s entire life as a mother. Unlike other mothers who cannot know in advance the sorrows that will come to them from their children, Mary already knew from those first days that her motherhood was on the way to a supreme trial.
For her, participation in the redemptive drama was the end of a long road. After seeing how the prediction about the opposition Jesus would undergo was fulfilled in the events of his public life, she understood more keenly, at the foot of the cross, the meaning of those words, “And you yourself shall be pierced with a sword”. Her presence on Calvary, which allowed her to unite herself with the sufferings of her Son with all her heart, was part of the divine plan: the Father wanted her, called to the most total cooperation in the mystery of redemption, to be integrally associated with the sacrifice and share all the pains of the Crucified, uniting her will to his in the desire to save the world. 10
Let us note two very important points here. The first is that, like his predecessors, John Paul stressed the fact that Mary’s collaboration is “according to the Father’s plan”, that is willed by God from all eternity. The second is that Mary’s cooperation is always “on a subordinate level”, but nonetheless “real and demanding”. It is the highest participation in the redemption possible for a creature, but always secondary, subordinate to and entirely dependent on the redemption wrought by Christ, her Son. This is the way the Council Fathers put it in Lumen Gentium #60:
For all the salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ.
Two statements in the C