Mary openly shows her freedom and lucidity in her answer to the angel, asking for an explanation about the conditions of the motherhood proposed to her: “How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?” (Luke 1:34). A number of annotators have described these words as a lack of faith. Sometimes these words have been translated as: “How can this be possible?” But the precise text reads: “How will this be?” Mary had no doubt that this would happen, she also asked “How?” There was no lack of faith, but the simple wish to understand how an obvious problem would be overcome.
Mary herself explained this problem in saying: “since I have no knowledge of man.” In this manner she stated that she lived as a virgin. She did not add that she wished to preserve her virginity, but allowed this to be understood, acknowledging that this virginal condition was an obstacle to motherhood. According to the divine plan Mary was not against motherhood. The Angel revealed God’s superior solution for this problem: “The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the Most High will overshadow thee.” So Mary was asked for virginal cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Hence it became even clearer that the Holy Spirit had guided Mary on the path of Virginity, a path almost unheard of in the Jewish religion and that would not find a favorable environment.
A particular spiritual force was necessary to direct Mary toward this ideal of life. The Spirit lit this desire in the soul of the virgin of Nazareth and allowed this desire to persevere along this path without revealing the final objective of this inspiration. Mary’s strong personality is seen in this stating of her virginal life. Only a strong personality could serenely face an environment that considered women’s role in society as one simply linked to marriage and to the development of feminine qualities within the framework of motherhood. Mary discovered a different ideal, that of virginity, bringing her closer to the mystery of God as the Bridegroom of his people.
A Commitment to the Redeeming Work
When the Council emphasized the need for Mary’s consent to the Incarnation as women’s contribution to the creation of life, it intentionally extended the value of this consent to the entire redeeming work: “Thus Mary, a daughter of Adam, consenting to the divine Word, became the mother of Jesus, the one and only Mediator. Embracing God’s salvific will with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, under Him and with Him, by the grace of almighty God, serving the mystery of redemption” (Lumen Gentium 56).
The first consequence of Mary’s consent was her motherhood: she became the mother of Jesus, and more precisely, according to the invocation inaugurated in the third century, mother of God, mother of a Son who was God. But with this motherhood she dedicated herself not only to Jesus Himself but also to His work; she committed herself to the service of salvation submitted to and cooperating with Him. Without using the word “Co-salvation,” the Council expressed the real meaning of her work, placing the accent both on subordination to and real cooperation with Christ. Hence the Council accepted the fruits of a long tradition that had meditated in regard to Mary’s presence in the work of salvation.
“Rightly therefore the holy Fathers see her as used by God not merely in a passive way, but as freely cooperating in the work of human salvation through faith and obedience. For, as St. Irenaeus says, she “being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.” (LG 56).
Cooperation Within Sacrifice
Mary’s cooperation in the work of salvation was already apparent in her consent to the Incarnation, but would only achieve its fullness when the doctrine of the redeeming sacrifice was clarified. For a long time Mary’s actual intervention in this sacrifice was not taken into consideration: Mary could be called Redeemer, in the sense that as the mother of the Redeemer she had given the world a Savior.
During the middle Ages a doctrinal mediation concerning the sacrifice and meaning of Mary’s participation in the Calvary drama also developed. So as to explain this participation that emphasized the suffering experienced by a mother in unity with the Son, Mary was no longer described as a Redeemer, but as the Co-Redemptrix [original Italian, Corredentrice], because in suffering with the Savior she had become associated with His redeeming work. Co-redemption means cooperating in redemption. It does not represent a likeness between Mary and Christ, because Christ is not the co-Savior but the one and only Savior. Mary is not the Redeemer but a Co-redemptrix [Corredentrice], because she joined Christ in the offering of His Passion. In this manner the principle of the uniqueness of the Mediator is safeguarded: “There is only one mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, who is a man like them, and gave Himself as a ransom for them all”(1 Tim 2:5).
The Council denies that this uniqueness is endangered by Mary’s mediating presence. Attributing to the Blessed Virgin the titles of Protectress, Helper, Rescuer, Mediatress, affirms that “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” (LG 62). The title of Co-redemptrix [Corredentrice] cannot therefore appear as a threat to Christ’s sovereign power, because it is from this power that it emanates and finds its energy.
The Council’s words are clear: “The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows His power. 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”(LG 60).
The Unity of the Mother and the Son
As the Gospels tell us, the whole of Mary’s life was dedicated to cooperating in the Redeeming work. The Vatican Council re-examines the evangelical data so as to emphasize her constant leaning towards this work: “This union of the Mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception up to His death” (LG 57). After episodes during their hidden lives, Mary’s personal intervention at the marriage feast of Cana is more specially remembered when “moved with pity, she brought about by her intercession the beginning of miracles of Jesus the Messiah.” This beginning shows Mary’s influence on the Messiah’s redeeming work.
The Council especially emphasizes Mary’s participation in the sacrifice of the crucifixion: “After this manner 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, (see John 19:25) grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth….”
In this tragedy Mary recognized a divine plan: that of Redemption. The Vatican Council observed that the origins of Mary’s destiny as the mother of God were predestined ever since eternity and that as the alma mater of the divine Savior she was “a totally exceptional generous companion” and “humble handmaid of the Lord” Her entire life was “Co-redemption”: “She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ. She presented Him to the Father in the temple, and was united with Him by compassion as He died on the Cross. In this singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in giving back supernatural life to souls.” (LG 61). It is to this cooperation that Mary’s supernatural gifts were all committed, qualities that were to be communicated to mankind.
Our Mother in the Order of Grace
After stating Mary’s total commitment to cooperating in the restoration of supernatural life in souls, the Council also added in its conclusions: “Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace.” The words spoken by Jesus express this conclusion, confirming the importance of co-redemption: after her participation in the offering of the salvific sacrifice, Mary received a new motherhood, motherhood in the order of grace, and hence also a new mission destined to last throughout the future development of the Church.
“Woman this is thy son!” (John 19:26) At times these words have been interpreted as a filial concern for Mary’s future. But Jesus’ first intention was not to entrust Mary to His favourite disciple; it was rather a case of entrusting the disciple to Mary, providing him with a new mother. Jesus, who gave everything in His sacrifice, finally also gave His mother as the supreme gift.
After these words the evangelist says: “Jesus, knew well that all was achieved” and spoke of death. He calls His mother “Woman,” as previously during the wedding at Cana, which posed the problem of women’s role in the work of salvation. In this work, Jesus referred to Himself as “the Son of Man”; using the word “Woman” to speak to Mary, seeming to observe in her a woman committed to the same task. On Calvary also the word “woman” assumed a more precise meaning. It emphasized the separation between mother and Son. It meant that so as to receive a new son, Mary was obliged to accept the death of her own Son, thereby consuming her maternal sacrifice. The gift of His own mother was the highest gift Jesus could bestow upon mankind. During His earthly life He had appreciated His mother’s presence, love and services, and wished to make available to everyone the excellence of such a maternal heart. He bestowed this gift upon a disciple, indicating the universal symbolic value of that gesture. The gesture was an individual one, to show that Mary would have provided maternal love for each disciple; the gesture was also provided with universal value, because it involved Mary’s universal motherhood, open to all. This woman, who in the co-redemption had contributed to the redemption of all mankind, was entrusted with the task of guiding each human destiny with her maternal concern.
Welcoming Mary as Our Mother
After entrusting a new motherhood to Mary, Jesus specifically asked His favourite disciple to welcome her: “This is your mother!” He wished to ensure the answer to Mary’s gift, an answer that came immediately from the disciple John: “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own keeping.” These simple words permit us to understand that the disciple did everything possible to welcome Mary. By saying “This is thy mother,” Jesus established a new bond between Mary and each disciple. Let us remember that during the Last Supper He had said: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34, 15, 12) A similar invitation was expressed on the Calvary: “Love Mary as I have loved her, she is now your mother.” Christ not only affirmed His mother’s spirituality, but also provided the definitive foundations for the Marian cult by saying: “This is thy mother.” The various aspects of this spiritual motherhood deserve to be better studied and developed.
The preceding defense of the title of Co-redemptrix, and its basis in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, was offered during the Congregation for the Clergy’s International Teleconference of May 28, 2003, chaired by its Prefect Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, by theologian and L’Osservatore Romano contributor, Fr. Jean Galot, S.J., a Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome internationally known for his biblical and theological scholarship.