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 431.1
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 Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully echo this conciliar teaching. The first occurs in #616:
No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible hi redemptive sacrifice for all.
The second in #618:
Because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men. … In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering.
Here is a carefully balanced outline of the Church’s teaching on this matter that Blessed Pope John Paul II gave in his general audience address of 9 April 1997.
Down the centuries the Church has reflected on Mary’s cooperation in the work of salvation, deepening the analysis of her association with Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. St. Augustine already gave the Blessed Virgin the title “cooperator” in the Redemption (cf. De Sancta Virginitate, 6; PL 40, 399), a title which emphasizes Mary’s joint but subordinate action with Christ the Redeemer.
Reflection has developed along these lines, particularly since the 15th century. Some feared there might be a desire to put Mary on the same level as Christ. Actually the Church’s teaching makes a clear distinction between the Mother and the Son in the work of salvation, explaining the Blessed Virgin’s subordination, as cooperator, to the one Redeemer.
Moreover, when the Apostle Paul says: “For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9), he maintains the real possibility for man to cooperate with God. The collaboration of believers, which obviously excludes any equality with him, is expressed in the proclamation of the Gospel and in their personal contribution to its taking root in human hearts.
However, applied to Mary, the term “cooperator” acquires a specific meaning. The collaboration of Christians in salvation takes place after the Calvary event, whose fruits they endeavor to spread by prayer and sacrifice. Mary, instead, cooperated during the event itself and in the role of mother; thus her cooperation embraces the whole of Christ’s saving work. She alone was associated in this way with the redemptive sacrifice that merited the salvation of all mankind. In union with Christ and in submission to him, she collaborated in obtaining the grace of salvation for all humanity. 11
Here, once again the Pope highlights the uniqueness of Mary’s cooperation in the work of redemption. She “cooperated during the event itself and in the role of mother”, the mother specially prepared in advance for this unique role.
Blessed John Paul II again maintains a marvelous balance in presenting Mary’s unique function in the work of redemption in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris of 11 February 1984. He speaks first of the “unique and incomparable depth and intensity of suffering which only the man who is the only-begotten Son could experience” (Salvifici Doloris #18), a mental, emotional and physical suffering beyond our ability to comprehend.
Commenting on Colossians 1:24, in which St. Paul states “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church”, the Pope goes on to say:
The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s Redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it
. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as His Body, Christ has in a sense opened His own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. Insofar as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings – in any part of the world and at any time in history – to that extent he in his own way completes
the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world.
Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. In this dimension – the dimension of love – the Redemption which has already been completely accomplished is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limit; but at the same time He did not bring it to a close. In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened Himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so. Yes, it seems to be part of the very essence of Christ’s redemptive suffering that this suffering requires to be unceasingly completed (Salvifici Doloris #24).
While Jesus’ suffering was more than sufficient to redeem the world, the Pope insists that it remains “open to all love expressed in human suffering”. This is, indeed, a mystery, something that is at the same time beyond our comprehension, but also a truth of faith. All of our sufferings can be united with those of Jesus for the sake of his body, the Church. While we can share in applying the work of the redemption to ourselves and to others by the patient
endurance of our sufferings, Mary had the unique role of joining her sufferings with those of Jesus at the very same moment when he was suffering for our redemption. The Pope continues:
It is especially consoling to note – and also accurate in accordance with the Gospel and history – that at the side of Christ, in the first and most exalted place, there is always His Mother through the exemplary testimony that she bears by her whole life to this particular Gospel of suffering.
In her, the many and intense sufferings were amassed in such an interconnected way that they were not only a proof of her unshakable faith but also a contribution to the Redemption of all. … It was on Calvary that Mary’s suffering, beside the suffering of Jesus, reached an intensity which can hardly be imagined from a human point of view but which was mysteriously and supernaturally fruitful for the Redemption of the world. Her ascent of Calvary and her standing at the foot of the cross together with the beloved disciple were a special sort of sharing in the redeeming death of her Son. …
As a witness to her Son’s passion by her presence, and as a sharer in it by her compassion, Mary offered a unique contribution to the Gospel of suffering, by embodying in anticipation the expression of St. Paul which was quoted at the beginning. She truly has a special title to be able to claim that she “completes in her flesh” – as already in her heart – “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Salvifici Doloris #25).
These two citations from Salvifici Doloris already help us to hold in tension the dynamic truths that underlie Mary’s compassion or cooperation in the redemption. On the one hand “The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it.” On the other hand “Mary’s suffering [on Calvary], beside the suffering of Jesus, reached an intensity which can hardly be imagined from a human point of view but which was mysteriously and supernaturally fruitful for the Redemption of the world.” Thus the Pope strikes once again that careful balance which is always a hallmark of Catholic truth: he upholds the principle that the sufferings of Christ were all-sufficient for the salvation of the world, while maintaining that Mary’s co-suffering “was mysteriously and supernaturally fruitful for the Redemption of the world.” This is an axiom that may be discovered in the lives of the saints of every era of the Church’s history from the days of the apostles to our own.
Now we must deal with a matter of terminology: How do we best describe this secondary and subordinate, but nonetheless active and unique role willed by God for Mary in the work of our redemption? Blessed Pope John Paul II used a good number of descriptive titles such as collaborator and cooperator, associate and ally. He has called her “the perfect co-worker in Christ’s sacrifice” (perfetta cooperatrice del sacrificio di Cristo) 12 and “the perfect model for those who seek to be united with her Son in his saving work for all humanity”.13