Mary and the Liturgical Year

Updated: May 29, 2020

The following article is an excerpt from the recently published Marian anthology, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons, Seat of Wisdom Books, A Division of Queenship, 2008. Fifteen international Mariology experts contributed to the text. The book features a foreword by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke and has 17 chapters divided into four parts: 1. Mary in Scripture and the Early Church; 2. Marian Dogma; 3. Marian Doctrine; and 4. Marian Liturgy and Devotion.

-Asst. Ed.

Introduction: First Principles and Goals

Mary’s dignity as the Theotókos (“God-bearer” or “Mother of God” ) is the source of all her other privileges and titles. It is precisely her exalted role in the mystery of the Incarnation which accounts likewise for Mary’s unique, ongoing role in the history of salvation. Having cooperated with God’s grace from the very beginning of her life, and sharing intimately in Christ’s suffering and redemptive death, Mary now enjoys in heaven the fullness of all that the children of the Church can hope to enjoy in eternity. Indeed, in view of Mary’s relationship to the three divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity (1), she possesses a state of glory far exceeding the rest of the human race. Any Catholic treatment of Mary in reference to the liturgy of the Church must necessarily take into account Mary’s unique, complementary mediation in relation to her Son, Jesus Christ. Far from posing an obstacle to ecumenical dialogue, a clear articulation of Mary’s status in the Church and her role in the lives of individual Christians is indispensable for that movement towards unity in truth which Christ himself made the central petition of his priestly prayer (2).

This chapter explores the theological foundations of the Church’s liturgical cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her prominent place on the general Roman calendar. It first summarizes Mary’s role in the life of the Church, not only in her cooperation with the divine economy in the mystery of the Incarnation, but also in the ongoing history of salvation. It also considers Mary’s identity with the Church. The next section examines the relationship between liturgy and doctrine, clarifying the dependence of the Church’s public worship on her depositum fidei, or body of teaching. What the Church in her official prayer says about Mary and to Mary reflects her belief not only in Mary’s privileges and the nature of her mediation, but also in various other mysteries of the faith. Finally, the chapter presents feasts and observances of the Blessed Virgin Mary as they gradually appeared on the Roman calendar. The approach taken here is diachronic, beginning with the importation of Marian feasts from the East and continuing through to the third typical edition of the Roman Missal issued in 2002 by the authority of Pope John Paul II (3). As the liturgical and political influence of the Roman See spread throughout the West, a distinction eventually emerged between the local calendar of the Diocese of Rome and the general calendar of what became the Roman Rite. The chapter concludes with a consideration of Mary in the two dominant seasonal cycles of the Proper of Time, namely, Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, and Lent-Easter-Pentecost. The final Marian anthems customarily assigned to various liturgical periods set the tone of the particular season, and afford a lens through which to glimpse the Church’s understanding of Mary’s place in the rotation of liturgical seasons.

Mary in the Life of the Church

Mariologists mention three dimensions or “moments” of mediation: Mary’s own cooperation in the redemption of the human race, her distribution of the graces won by the redemption, and her complementary intercession on behalf of the Church (4). It is beyond the scope of this essay to rehearse in minute detail the threefold mode of Marian mediation which others have presented to full advantage elsewhere. This piece seeks rather to demonstrate how the Church’s authentic devotion to the Mother of God finds expression in the sacred liturgy. It therefore treats Mary’s place in the liturgical year, both in the temporal and sanctoral cycles. First, however, it briefly summarizes Mary’s collaboration in the redemption of the human race, in order the better to show how the Church regards Mary as model, intercessor, and image of the heavenly communion to which all Christians are called. Taking into account the development of the Church’s veneration of Mary over two millennia, this chapter examines Mary’s presence in the Mass and then on the calendar.

Mary and the Incarnation

In considering the figure and role of Mary in the sacred liturgy, it is necessary first to take into account the place which she occupies in the history of salvation. Various branches of theology which, since the Reformation, have come into more distinct relief, such as Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, all reflect, and in turn contribute to, a profound understanding of Mary’s figure and role in the Church’s liturgy.

To begin with, Mary played a pivotal role in the mystery of the Incarnation. As mentioned earlier, all the privileges granted to Mary by God, and the titles which the Church uses in reference to Mary, are hers in view of her role in the Incarnation. It was Mary, after all, who gave to the immortal Word of the Father his human nature. This fact alone gives rise to several important implications for the sacraments, all of which are rooted in the Incarnation, but especially for the Eucharist. Since, in the Eucharist, bread and wine are converted substantially into Christ’s body and blood, soul, and divinity, the faithful who approach Holy Communion receive Christ himself, whole and entire, under the sacred species (5). The Church’s faith in the reality of Christ’s presence is neatly summed up in two brief phrases: the eucharistic salutation Ave verum corpus natum ex Maria Virgine! and the axiom caro Christi, caro Mariae.

The Bread of Life, then, to borrow a phrase from Pope John Paul II, exudes “the taste and aroma of the Virgin Mother” (6). Communion with the eucharistic Christ, consequently, entails also communion with Mary, “the Woman of the Eucharist” (7). In the reception of the Eucharist, the faithful participate in both sacramental and ecclesial communion with Mary. Indeed, as theologian James T. O’Connor points out, “No Eucharist is ever celebrated except in union with the Blessed ever-Virgin Mary and all the saints” (8).

Mary and the History of Salvation

Mary’s role in the history of salvation is by no means limited to the Incarnation. In the infancy narratives of Matthew (9) and Luke (10), Mary conceives and bears Christ without loss of her virginity. She likewise nurtures and cares for Jesus throughout his childhood, sharing his home until he embarks on his public ministry. Luke depicts Mary as a woman of prayer and contemplative reflection. After the visit of the shepherds to the newborn Christ in the crib, for example, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (11). Again, after the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple, “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (12). Pope Benedict XVI remarks on Our Lady’s prayerful penetration of these mysteries as they unfolded and as she later contemplated them:

Mary’s memory is first of all a retention of the events in remembrance, but it is more than that: It is an interior conversation with all that has happened. Thanks to this conversation, she penetrates into the interior dimension, she sees the events in their inter-connectedness, and she learns to understand them (13).

Mary’s prayerfulness emerges likewise in the Acts of the Apostles, where she is mentioned among the earliest members of the nascent Church, committed to prayer in the cenacle between the Ascension of the Lord and the descent of the Paraclete: “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (14).

Not only does Mary provide for the material needs of Christ in his infancy. She also presents him in the Temple to his heavenly Father in a ritual act of oblation. Luke records the prophetic words addressed to Mary on this occasion by the holy man Simeon:

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel

(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)

that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (15).

In the Temple, Mary is associated liturgically with Christ’s oblation to the Father. At Calvary, Christ will associate Mary with his offering on the Cross. The infancy narratives anticipate various dimensions of the Paschal Mystery. The three days which Christ spent in the Temple in Luke 3:41, for example, parallel the three days he would spend in the tomb after his Passion and death. Similarly, Mary’s offering of the Infant Jesus to God in the Temple, as recounted in Luke 2:22-38, foreshadows ritually the offering she later would make as she stood at the foot of the Cross in John 19:25-27.

In the Fourth Gospel, Mary interacts with Christ at key moments of his messianic mission. At the inauguration of his public life, on the occasion of the marriage feast at Cana in John 2:1-12, Mary, the New Eve, tells Christ, the New Adam, that the wine for the wedding has failed. She thereby prompts Jesus to give the first of his “signs” of the new messianic age. Inaugurating a new creation in grace, Christ changes the six jars of water, symbol of the days of creation (nature), into wine (grace). Far from playing a peripheral role, Mary at Cana stands as the image of the Church, the new People of God, the Bride of Christ who himself is both Lamb and High Priest of the New Covenant. Mary pleads with Christ for those gathered at the wedding, observing that “They have no wine” (16). The result is a new wine surpassing in excellence the former supply that had failed.

Mary’s presence at the inauguration of the New Covenant is far from passive. As St. Irenaeus of Lyons (+202) points out, “the Virgin Mary untied the knot of sin bound up by the virgin Eve” (17). Just as the first woman, Eve, tempted the first man, Adam, to disobey the Lord and grasp at equality with God (18), so the second Eve and new Woman, Mary, urges the second Adam, Christ the new Man, to provide the new wine of divine grace upon a situation in need of divine mercy. Without in any way detracting from Christ’s role as the Messiah and Mediator of the New Covenant, Mary is closely associated with his mission. Mary’s message to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (19), are the last words of Mary recorded in Scripture. They complement and advance his authoritative role as the Messiah.

Just as she was present and active at the inauguration of Christ’s mission as Messiah, so Mary participated in the climax of Christ’s redemptive suffering and death on the Cross. Mary accompanied Christ to Calvary, where she shared his sufferings. John records that, as Christ was hanging in crucifixion, Mary stood at the foot of the Cross. Mary’s position, which she shared with the wife of Clopas, the Magdalene, and the beloved disciple, again reflects her solidarity with Jesus and his redemptive mission. This solidarity stands in glaring contrast to the behavior of those followers who had denied or disowned Jesus, and who had abandoned him to his Passion and death. On Calvary, Mary shares in the sufferings of her Son. She stands in union with his self-offering to the Father.

From the Cross, Christ entrusts the beloved disciple to the maternal care of Mary:

“Woman, behold, your son!” and in turn entrusts his Mother to the beloved disciple: “Behold, your mother!” In the act of entrusting the beloved disciple to Mary, Christ gives her to every faithful and beloved disciple. Hence the Church’s recognition of Mary’s maternal relationship to Christ’s faithful followers.

As one of the Twelve, John represents not only the disciples of Christ in general, but also in particular those entrusted with the task of coordinating and celebrating the Paschal Mystery in the sacred liturgy. In the Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priests, The Congregation for the Clergy draws out for each priest the implications of his identity with John and his rapport with the Blessed Virgin:

Like John at the foot of the Cross, every priest has been entrusted, in a special way, with Mary as Mother (cf. Jn 19:26-27).

Priests, who are among the favored disciples of Jesus, crucified and risen, should welcome Mary as their own Mother in their own life, bestowing her with constant attention and prayer. The Blessed Virgin then becomes the Mother who leads them to Christ, who makes them sincerely love the Church, who intercedes for them and who guides them toward the Kingdom of heaven.

Every priest knows that Mary, as Mother, is the most distinguished modeler of his priesthood, since it is she who moulds the priestly soul, protects it from dangers, from routine and discouragement, and maternally safeguards it, so he may grow in wisdom, age and grace, before God and men (cf. Lk 2:40) (20).

In the celebration of the sacred liturgy, the work of our salvation continues to be accomplished (21). Mary therefore exercises her role as Mother of Christ’s beloved disciples even within the liturgy, as the Church invokes her aid and aspires to join Mary in the glory of heaven singing the everlasting praises of God.


Mary and the Church

Among the earliest Christian insights into the figure of Mary is her identity with the People of God. More recently, Jesuit theologian and Scripture scholar Ignace de la Potterie has demonstrated in remarkably clear detail how Mary stands both as a figure of Israel or Sion, and as the archetype of the Church (22). Mary bridges the Old and the New Covenants (23). Her canticle of praise, known in the West by its Latin incipit Magnificat and chanted every evening at Vespers, resonates the exaltation of Israel/the Church by divine grace. Likewise, the Woman of Revelation 12, although understood originally as a personification of Ecclesia or the Church, came to be identified with Mary. Consequently, the figure of this Woman would be incorporated into readings and antiphons for various Marian feasts and occasions.

As a sign of the Church, persecuted yet innocent, driven into exile yet protected and raised on high by God, Mary enjoys a singular position among the daughters of Eve. Her earthly life, marked not only by the joy springing from her intimacy with Christ, but also by her share in the sorrow and pain of his Passion and death, now has given way to the glory of heavenly queenship. This queenship does not suggest, even remotely, any parity with God, but depends utterly on the divine pleasure and indeed proclaims in eternity the supreme majesty of the Godhead. Both as model and Mother of the Church, Mary offers her Son and herself to the eternal Father. Inasmuch as Mary personifies the Church at prayer, she necessarily participates in the heavenly liturgy of which the earthly parallel constitutes but a pale reflection (24).

This identification of the Church with Mary, like Mary’s role in salvation history, sets before the priest an image to inspire him in the faithful celebration of the sacred mysteries, so that all who participate may grow in holiness and enjoy even on earth some foretaste of heavenly glory:

Masterpiece of the priestly Sacrifice of Christ, the Blessed Virgin represents the Church in the purest way, “with neither stain nor blemish,” completely “holy and immaculate” (Eph 5:27). This contemplation of the Blessed Virgin places before the priest the ideal to which the ministry in his community should lead, so that this be a “wholly glorious Church” (ibid.) through the priestly gift of his very life (25).

The Relationship between Liturgy and Doctrine

At this point, let us consider briefly the nature of liturgy, so that we may more fully grasp Mary’s place within this “source and summit” (26) of the Church’s life and mission. In the prayers, readings, and chants of sacred liturgy, the Church expresses her belief in Mary’s privileges and prerogatives, as well as her response to the gifts of grace. Mary’s divine maternity, her freedom from all stain of sin, her perpetual virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ, her complete union with God’s will, her participation in the sufferings of her Son, and her mediation on behalf of the human race all find expression in the Church’s official prayer. The liturgy not only reflects and affirms faith in these mysteries; it integrates them into the annual, weekly, and even daily rounds of the Church’s worship.

The Nature of the Sacred Liturgy: the Prayer of Christ and of the Church

The sacred liturgy is the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ the High Priest and sole Mediator of the New Covenant (27). This priestly office is carried out by the whole Christ, that is, by the entire Mystical Body of Christ, Head and members together:

The priestly life begun with the supplication and sacrifice of his mortal Body should continue without intermission down the ages in his Mystical Body which is the Church. … In obedience, therefore, to her Founder’s behest, the Church prolongs the priestly mission of Jesus Christ, mainly by means of the sacred liturgy (28).

This definition of the sacred liturgy resonates in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium in fact echoes the very words of Pius XII:

The liturgy, then, is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. It involves the presentation of man’s sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs. In it full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members (29).

Jesus Christ wills that his Church participate intimately in the exercise of his high-priestly office. According to Sacrosanctum Concilium, “Christ, indeed, always associates the Church with himself in this great work in which God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is his beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through him offers worship to the eternal Father” (30). When the Church prays, therefore, it is Christ praying in unison with his Body and Bride the Church. “From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (31).

It is Christ who associates with himself all the members of his Mystical Body, his

pilgrim people, his Church in this privileged public prayer, which constitutes “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows” (32). Foremost among the members of Christ’s Mystical Body ranks the Blessed Virgin Mary. At each stage of his saving mission, Christ associated Mary with himself and with the work of redemption. Without in any way diminishing Christ’s role as Redeemer, Mary played, and continues to play, a unique role in the economy of salvation. Hence her place is of high honor in the Church’s liturgical prayer.

The Role of Liturgy in the Development of Doctrine

At this point it is useful to recall the connection between the Church’s deposit of faith and her liturgical worship. In the first papal encyclical on the sacred liturgy, Mediator Dei, Pius XII clarified this relationship by correcting a popular misreading of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-post 455). Prosper’s dictum Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (let the rule for prayer determine the rule of belief) (33) had been exposed to potential misinterpretation by the more pithy axiom lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer, the rule of belief), which in some circles had been taken to suggest that the prayer of the Church determines the Church’s faith. Pius XII confronts this fallacy in unambiguous terms:

We refer to the error and fallacious reasoning of those who have claimed that the sacred liturgy is a kind of proving-ground for the truths to be held of faith, meaning by this that the Church is obliged to declare such a doctrine sound when it is found to have produced fruits of piety and sanctity through the sacred rites of liturgy, and to reject it otherwise. Hence the epigram: “Lex orandi, lex credendi“—the law for prayer is the law for faith.

But this is not what the Church teaches and enjoins. … The entire liturgy … has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears witness to the faith of the Church. …

Hence the well-known and venerable maxim: “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi“—let the rule for prayer determine the rule of belief. The sacred liturgy, consequently, does not decide or determine independently and of itself what is of Catholic faith. More properly, since the liturgy is also a profession of eternal truths, and subject, as such, to the Supreme Teaching Authority of the Church, it can supply proofs and testimony, quite clearly of no little value, towards the determination of a particular point of Christian doctrine. But if one desires to differentiate and describe the relationship between faith and the sacred liturgy in absolute terms, it is perfectly correct to say: “Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi”—let the rule of belief determine the rule of prayer (34).

Liturgical celebration, then, must cohere with, and bear authentic witness to, the Church’s faith.

It is true, nonetheless, that the sacred liturgy has exercised considerable influence on the clarification of points of doctrine. This is particularly evident in the case of the Church’s teachings about Mary. The feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption, for example, were celebrated in the liturgy long before they were solemnly defined and decreed, respectively, in 1854 and 1950. Both Pius IX, in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus (December 8, 1854), and Pius XII, in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus(November 1, 1950), appealed to the liturgical tradition in framing their declarations (35). Because the sacred liturgy in this way stands as a privileged witness to the depositum fidei, it serves as a reliable touchstone of orthodoxy.

Pope Pius XI, in establishing the feast of Christ the King by means of the Encyclical Quas primas(December 11, 1925), stressed the power of the liturgy to impress upon the awareness of the faithful the truths of faith and to elicit from Christians signs of intense devotion to the divine mysteries:

The Church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God’s teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life (36).

The Pope then makes specific reference to the role played by the feasts of the saints and especially of the Mother of God in the building up of the Church:

History in fact tells us that in the course of ages these festivals have been instituted one after another according as the needs or the advantage of the people of Christ seemed to demand: as when they needed strength to face a common danger, when they were attacked by insidious heresies, when they needed to be urged to the pious consideration of some mystery of faith or of some divine blessing. Thus in the earliest days of the Christian era, when the people of Christ were suffering cruel persecution, the cult of the martyrs was begun in order, says St. Augustine, “that the feasts of the martyrs might incite men to martyrdom.” The liturgical honors paid to confessors, virgins and widows produced wonderful results in an increased zest for virtue, necessary even in times of peace. But more fruitful still were the feasts instituted in honor of the Blessed Virgin. As a result of these men grew not only in their devotion to the Mother of God as an ever-present advocate, but also in their love of her as a mother bequeathed to them by their Redeemer. Not least among the blessings which have resulted from the public and legitimate honor paid to the Blessed Virgin and the saints is the perfect and perpetual immunity of the Church from error and heresy. We may well admire in this the admirable wisdom of the Providence of God, who, ever bringing good out of evil, has from time to time suffered the faith and piety of men to grow weak, and allowed Catholic truth to be attacked by false doctrines, but always with the result that truth has afterwards shone out with greater splendor, and that men’s faith, aroused from its lethargy, has shown itself more vigorous than before (37).

The Marian solemnities, feasts, and memorials examined below demonstrate the profound relationship between the rule of faith and the Church’s liturgical prayer. They reflect the Church’s recognition of both Scripture and Tradition as the twofold channels of Divine Revelation (38). Since we have examined earlier the figure of Mary in the New Testament, we now turn to that figure as it emerged in the Church’s Tradition.

a. Mary in Tradition

Details of the conception and birth of Mary, of her girlhood and espousal to St. Joseph, and of her final years all appear in non-canonical sources that seek to satisfy the curiosity of believers and to heighten regard for the Blessed Virgin. Foremost among these sources, the Protoevangelium of James, compiled in the middle of the second century of the Christian era, has left its mark on the portrayal of Mary in art and iconography, as well as the celebration of certain feasts, such as the Presentation of Mary in the Temple (November 21), Sts. Joachim and Anne, parents of Our Lady (July 26), and the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph (formerly January 23) (39). Over the course of the centuries, ongoing theological consideration of Mary’s privileges and prerogatives has led to the observance of these honors in the sacred liturgy. This tradition of liturgical observance in turn has played a role in formalizing the Church’s teaching about Mary’s Immaculate Conception in the womb of her mother, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the virginal birth of Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Assumption of Mary, her queenship in heaven, and her continuing mediation with Christ on behalf of the Church (40).

Never has the Church claimed Mary’s motherhood of the Church or her mediation to be exercised independently of her Son. On the contrary, the Second Vatican Council, in fidelity to the Church’s constant tradition, insisted that Mary’s maternal mediation rests entirely upon the disposition of the divine economy, or plan of salvation:

In the words of the apostle there is but one mediator: “for there is but one God and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as redemption for all” (1 Tim 2:5-6). But Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But 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, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it, It does not hinder in any way the immediate union of the faithful with Christ but on the contrary fosters it (41).

Over the past two millennia, interest in and devotion to the Mother of God have waxed and waned. A brief mention of the high points of Marian devotion is worthwhile. By confirming the orthodoxy of the title Theotókos, a title, it should be noted, that was used in prayer formulae at least since the early third century, the Council of Ephesus (431) gave rise to an increased awareness of the importance of Mary in the Church’s life and liturgy. In Rome, Pope Sixtus III (reigned 432-440) reconstructed the older Liberian basilica on the Esquiline Hill, and dedicated it to Mary under the title Mother of God. After the iconoclast controversy (730-843) and the vindication of the veneration of sacred images, the Mother of God again rose to prominence in Christian art and devotion. Under the influence of such zealous pastors and teachers as St. Anselm (+1109) and St. Bernard of Clairvaux (+1153), no less than through the charismatic efforts of St. Dominic (+1221) and St. Francis of Assisi (+1226), Marian piety flourished throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, resulting in what has been called the “age of Mary.” At that time, numerous churches throughout Western Christendom were dedicated under the title of Our Lady. Religious orders, often placed under the principal patronage of Mary, vied with one another in promoting their various devotions to the Mother of God (the Rosary, scapular, Stations of the Cross, little office of the Blessed Virgin Mary).

The exuberance of the Catholic reform inspired by the Council of Trent brought Marian devotion to the ends of the known world, planting it firmly in mission lands. The preservation of the Christian religion despite divisions between Catholicism and Protestantism on the one hand and the constant threat of invasion by Turkish forces on the other, exercised a dominant claim of the attention of the popes in the emerging modern era. Various Marian feasts appeared on the calendar in thanksgiving for deliverance from imminent disaster.

The period between 1850 and 1954 witnessed another “age of Mary.” The papal definition and promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 reinforced the identity of the glorious Virgin with the Church, even under siege from the hostile forces of the “Enlightenment.” Marian devotion became a vivid hallmark of Catholic piety and culture in the nineteenth century and throughout the first half of the twentieth.

Just under a century after the declaration of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius XII confirmed the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, leaving unresolved, however, the debate whether Mary actually died or was spared this consequence of sin by virtue of the redemption won by Christ and in view of Mary’s providential role in the history of salvation (42). Marian apparitions reported in Paris (1830), Lourdes (1858), and Fatima (1917) won ecclesiastical recognition, and each in due course was accorded a commemoration on the liturgical calendar.

After the definition and declaration of Our Lady’s Assumption in 1950, some expectation was raised that the Holy See would solemnize the Marian titles of Mediatrix of all Graces, Advocate, and Helper. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), however, did not dedicate a separate document to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Instead, the Council Fathers chose to treat Mary within its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, dedicating the eighth chapter entirely to her. Lumen Gentium specifically acknowledges Mary’s mediation:

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. 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 of Christ and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator. …

The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary, which it constantly experiences and recommends to the heartfelt attention of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help they may the more closely adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer (43).

The Council reoriented Marian scholarship and piety, encouraging new research into and contemplation of the Blessed Virgin as she figures in Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and early medieval theology. Nevertheless, the years immediately following Vatican II witnessed a decline in Mariological studies and Marian piety. Pope Paul VI (reigned 1963-1978) sought to revive devotion to Mary, particularly by the encyclical on the month of May, Mense Maio (April 30, 1965) (44), and by the apostolic exhortation for the right ordering and development of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Marialis cultus (February 2, 1974) (45), but with limited success (46).

During a well-known interview given in as the newly appointed prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger acknowledged the decline in interest in Mary:

By inserting the mystery of Mary into the mystery of the Church, Vatican II made an important decision which should have given a new impetus to theological research. Instead, in the early post-conciliar period, there has been a sudden decline in this respect—almost a collapse, even though there are now signs of a new vitality (47).

The pontificate of John Paul II (1978-2005), on the other hand, did much to reawaken popular devotion to Mary and to restore the figure of Mary in theological studies and higher scholarship. By fostering interest in the treasury of patristic and medieval texts, by presenting fresh theological insights, and by vigorously promoting of devotions like the Rosary and the scapular, John Paul II imbued Marian theology and piety with a new élan (48).

Historian Eamon Duffy attributes the recovery of Mary’s identity with the Church as one of the finest instincts of Vatican II:

Where post-medieval Mariology often emphasized Mary’s difference from every other Christian, her purity contrasting with our filth, her powerful intercession contrasting with our helplessness, the Council, following the mainstream of patristic and early medieval exegisis, emphasized her role as type and model for the Church, and each of its members. Thus her excellences and privileges, like her Assumption into heaven, were not alienating measures of her distance from us, but pledges of the dignity which awaits us all, and which, in grace, is already taking shape within us (49).

Duffy contrasts the way in which the Fourth Gospel casts Mary in such sharp relief that she emerges, at Cana and at Calvary, in utter distinction from all others around her, with Luke’s treatment of Our Lady as one with whom the ordinary Christian can more readily identify:

The Mary of Luke is less easy to misunderstand, and Catholic exegesis had constantly seen her ‘fiat’at the Annunciation, for all its momentous uniqueness, as the model of every believer’s response to the call of God. In this perspective Mary is still a light to guide, but her light is a measure not of our darkness, but of the glory promised to all the saints (50).

b. Mary and the Church at Prayer

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium echoes the ancient Christian insight that the Blessed Virgin Mary is identified in a unique and mysterious way with the Church:

By reason of the gift and role of her divine motherhood, by which she is united with her Son, the Redeemer, and with her unique graces and functions, the Blessed Virgin is also intimately united to the Church. As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ (Expositio in Lucam, 2.7, PL 15, 1555). For in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called Mother and Virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of Virgin and Mother. Through her faith and obedience she gave birth on earth to the very Son of the Father, not through the knowledge of man but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, in the manner of a New Eve who placed her faith, not in the serpent of old but in God’s messenger without wavering in doubt. The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 8:29), that is, the faithful, in whose generation and formation she cooperates with a mother’s love (51).

Citing the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine of Hippo (+430), the eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium explicitly recognizes Mary’s motherhood of the Church:

… being of the race of Adam, she is at the same time also united to all those who are to be saved; indeed, “she is clearly the mother of the members of Christ … since she has by her charity joined in bringing about the birth of believers in the Church, who are members of its head” [St. Augustine, De s. virginitate, 6, PL 40:399]. Wherefore she is hailed as preeminent and as a wholly unique member of the Church, and as its type and outstanding model in faith and charity. … The Catholic Church taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and devotion as a most beloved Mother (52).

The sacred liturgy itself reflects Mary’s motherhood of the Mystical Body. A collect suggested for the votive Mass of the Most Holy Name of Mary, for example, refers directly to Christ’s will that his Mother exercise the same role for his Church:

Deus, cuius Filius in ara crucis exspirans beatissimam Virginem Mariam Matrem voluit esse nostram, quam suam elegerat, concede propitius, ut, qui sub eius praesidium secure confugimus, materno invocato nomine confortemur. Per Dominum (53)

O God, whose Son, as he was dying on the altar of the Cross, willed that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, whom he had chosen as his own Mother, be also our Mother, graciously grant that we who take refuge with confidence under her protection may be comforted by having invoked her by the name of Mother.

In terms of the kind of cult which the Church accords Mary, Vatican II reaffirmed the immemorial distinction between the adoration offered to God alone (latria) and the veneration owed to the saints (dulia). As a creature, Mary is not entitled to latria; yet in view of her divine maternity and that unstained holiness, which alone of all humans is hers, Mary is paid a kind of super-veneration (hyperdulia) (54). Cautioning against false exaggerations in the presentation of Our Lady, the Council nevertheless encouraged the age-old tradition of venerating Mary above the angels and saints:

The sacred synod … admonishes all the sons of the Church that the cult, especially the liturgical cult, of the Blessed Virgin, be generously fostered, and that the practices and exercises of devotion towards her, recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries be highly esteemed, and that those decrees, which were given in the early days regarding the cult images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints, be religiously observed. … Let the faithful remember moreover that true devotion consists neither in sterile nor transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to recognize the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love towards our Mother and to the imitation of her virtues (55).

Finally, alluding to the rich liturgical and devotional cult of Mary in East, Lumen Gentium summarizes the whole Church’s attitude of filial reverence for the Mother of God:

The entire body of the faithful pours forth urgent supplications to the Mother of God and of men that she, who aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers, may now, exalted as she is above all the angels and saints, intercede before her Son in the fellowship of all the saints, until all families of people, whether they still do not know the Savior, may be happily gathered together in peace and harmony into one People of God, for the glory of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity (56).

Upon the approval and promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, Paul VI officially accorded Mary the title Mother of the Church (Mater Ecclesiae) (57).

Mary and the Liturgy

This section explores how Mary figures in the liturgy of the Roman Rite. The calendar, developed organically over the centuries under a wide variety of influences, indicates the many ways in which the Blessed Virgin accompanies the faithful through the liturgical year. The ordinary of the Mass mentions Mary in key places: at the beginning of Mass when the Confiteor asks Mary and the saints to pray for those who have confessed their unworthiness and who prepare to enter the Liturgy of the Word; during the Creed, which serves as the response of the faithful to the Word of God just proclaimed in the readings and elaborated in the homily; and, most dramatically, in the Eucharistic Prayer, where the celebrant calls upon the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary as he offers the most august sacrifice of the Lord’s body and blood.

Of all the eucharistic prayers currently available in the Roman Rite, none approaches the Roman Canon in its reverential treatment of Mary. Here Mary appears in counterpoint with St. John the Baptist. Each heads a list of saints: Mary before the Narrative of Institution, John after the conversion of the elements into the Lord’s body and blood. As in the well-known icons of the Deesis (Christ in Majesty), the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist flank the eucharistic Lord. Reading through the Roman Canon, the celebrant gives utterance to a verbal icon, as it were. In the Communicantes, Mary leads a throng of twenty-four saints, plus St. Joseph (58). The list comprises mainly saints who exercised some hierarchical rank in the Church: twelve apostles (including Paul), six bishops (five of whom were bishops of Rome), a deacon, and five laymen associated with generous donations to the Church. In the Nobis quoque, the Baptist, for his part, leads a throng of fourteen saints predominantly associated with the Holy Spirit (Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas) and prophetic witness (especially the virgin martyrs). The Roman Canon, though, sets the Blessed Virgin apart from all the other saints by introducing her name with the phrase in primis. This indicates priority not simply in sequential order, but in actual rank, for “the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Lord Jesus Christ” (59) enjoys a status unrivalled by the angels and saints. This clear example of hyperdulia made its way into the Roman Canon sometime in the fifth century, likely in response to the controversy resolved at Ephesus in 431 (60).

The proper, common, and votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary all focus on distinct privileges, specific virtues, or dimensions of Our Lady’s intercession reflected in the many titles conferred on her by the Church (61). This is particularly true of the generous selection of Marian Mass formularies provided by the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary and its accompanying lectionary issued in 1987 by the Congregation for Divine Worship at the behest of John Paul II (62). The final blessings before the dismissal include one to be used on Marian occasions (63). Even the prayers before and after Mass include separate prayers addressed to Our Lady (64).

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal directs the performance of gestures and signs to reflect the hyperdulia offered to Mary by the People of God (65). The readings of the lectionary reveal to the faithful the image of Mary in the types or foreshadowings of the old covenant and Mary’s fulfillment of them as their antitype in the new. The Church joins Mary in proclaiming the greatness of the Lord in psalms and canticles, and in the Gospel follows with close attention Mary’s participation in the life and mission of her Son, Jesus Christ. The faithful invoke Mary’s intercession during the celebration of the sacraments and such ritual Masses as religious profession and Christian funerals. Finally, in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church daily echoes Mary’s own canticle of praise, the Magnificat, and salutes her in a final anthem before retiring from the day’s activities.

Mary and the Liturgical Year

Over the course of the liturgical year, from the first Sunday of Advent to the solemnity of Christ the King, the Church celebrates the mysteries of Jesus Christ. The liturgical year follows the rotation of two cycles: the proper of time, or the temporal cycle, and the proper of the saints, known as the sanctoral cycle. Mary figures conspicuously in both cycles. In the temporal cycle, the liturgy presents the life and mission of Christ: his coming in the Incarnation, his Passion, death, and Resurrection, his Ascension into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and, finally, the anticipation of his second coming as Judge and King of all nations. The liturgy invites the Church to consider Mary’s involvement in each of these mysteries celebrated during the temporal cycle. In the sanctoral cycle, the liturgy presents the Paschal Mystery of Christ as lived out in the lives and deaths of the saints.

As mentioned earlier, Mary surpasses in holiness all the saints, hence she is rightly invoked as Queen of All Saints. The solemnities, feasts, and commemorations of Mary on the calendar constantly remind us of Mary’s faithful imitation of her Son and her union with him now in heaven, where she prays to him for the Church and for all humanity. For the sake of convenience, this section employs the generic term “feast” to refer to any public observance of a Mass or office dedicated in honor of Our Lady.

This avoids the technical distinctions used in specifying the rank or grade of a given observance in the hierarchy of feasts. Only occasionally shall reference be made to a particular grade of feast, and this occurs only in treating the elevation or demotion of a given feast.


The earliest commemoration of Mary in the liturgy occurred in connection with celebration of such mysteries of the Lord mentioned in Scripture as Christmas (late fourth century), Epiphany, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Mary’s intimate participation in these mysteries assured her a prominent place in their liturgical commemorations. No separate feast dedicated exclusively to Our Lady emerged until the fifth century, after the Council of Ephesus (431). Nevertheless, devotion to the Mother of God had found expression as early as the second and third centuries. At least a century before the establishment of the feast of Christmas in the 380s, there circulated in Alexandria a Greek prayer now familiar to Westerners in its Latin version:

Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, sancta Dei Genetrix; nostras deprecationes ne despicias in necessitatibus; sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.

We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all dangers, O ever-Virgin glorious and blessed (66).

Three important features of this brief invocation bear comment. The prayer addresses Mary by the title Mother of God (Theotókos) more than a century before this title will have been confirmed by the Council of Ephesus (67). It likewise acknowledges Mary’s perpetual virginity. Finally, it invokes Mary to deliver us from all dangers. The verb reflects great confidence in Our Lady’s power, since Christians use the same imperative, “deliver,” in addressing God the Father in the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer continues to be used in the Greek Orthodox office or Book of Hours and, since the revision of the Roman-Rite Liturgy of the Hours in the 1970s, may serve as one of the Marian antiphons concluding the daily office of either Vespers or Compline.

Feasts and Seasons (68)

Marian Feasts: Eastern Roots

The liturgical cult of Mary began in Jerusalem, where August 15 marked the particular feast day of the Theotókos. According to a legend in circulation as early as the mid-second century, the Blessed Virgin en route to Bethlehem, where she would be delivered of the infant Christ, had paused for a rest. In the early fifth century, a woman named Ikelia built an oratory to identify this resting place. This chapel saw the first liturgical celebration of the Mother of God. The name of the feast, Kathisma, means the sitting- or resting-place. Around 450, the venue of the celebration shifted to Jerusalem, specifically Gethsemane, a spot then supposed to be Mary’s final resting place on earth. Here, in a basilica which enshrined her reputed tomb, the feast became known as the Anapausis (“falling asleep”) or Dormition of the Mother of God. At the end of the sixth century, Emperor Maurice (reigned 582-602) extended this feast throughout the empire (69). By the seventh century, it had reached Rome, where it was known first as the Dormition or Pausatio. In the eighth century, the Sacramentary of Pope Hadrian referred to it as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Adsumptio sanctae Mariae) (70). The earliest Jerusalem feast of Our Lady, then, comprised elements of Mary’s motherhood and her dormition, with a resting-place as the common denominator.

At the beginning of the sixth century, a church north of the ruined Temple of Jerusalem became associated with Mary’s nativity. This is likely the source of the feast of her birth observed on September 8.

A third church dedicated to Mary arose in the middle of the sixth century. Built on what had once been the Temple square, the Nea or New St. Mary’s afforded the faithful the opportunity to commemorate the presentation of the child Mary in the Temple mentioned in the fourth chapter of the Protoevangelium of James. The anniversary of its dedication on November 21, 543, gave rise to the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin in the Temple.

The Marian feasts established in Jerusalem spread throughout the East. In connection with Christmas, a separate commemoration of Mary’s divine motherhood served to pay due reverence to the Mother shortly after the birth of the Son. In East Syria, such a feast, called the Congratulation of the Mother of God, fell on the day after Christmas (December 26). Again in direct, even literal, reference to the birth of Christ, two further feasts emerged. The Annunciation, on March 25 (nine months before Christmas), commemorated the message of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and Our Lady’s consent to become the Mother of the Word incarnate. On February 2, forty days after the Lord’s nativity, the liturgy marked his presentation in the Temple. The feast originally was called Hypapante or the “Meeting” between Christ and Simeon (71).

Mary and the Roman Calendar

a. Natale s. Mariae: January 1

The first Marian feast of the Roman liturgy, observed on January 1, first came in the seventh century (72). Originally called Natale S. Mariae (73), it served as the Roman counterpart of the Eastern feasts extending congratulations to the Blessed Virgin on the occasion of Christ’s birth. Owing, however, to the feast’s occurrence on the octave day of Christmas, the Marian character of that day eventually gave way to a focus rather on the circumcision of the Lord. As the feasts of the Annunciation (March 25) and the Hypapante(February 2) gradually made their way onto the Roman calendar by the seventh century, they retained a distinctly and indeed increasingly Marian character, even in nomenclature, until the liturgical reform of Paul VI in 1970 (74). Exclusively Marian feasts, like the Nativity of Mary (September 8) and the Assumption (August 15), grew in prominence and overshadowed the original Roman feast of Mary on January 1. By the mid-seventh century, however, a pre-Christmas commemoration found its way onto the Roman calendar, as it had done likewise on other Western calendars, thereby compensating for the diminution of the Marian character of January 1 (75). Moreover, two readings on the Ember days following the third Sunday of Advent refer to Mary’s participation in the events leading to the Lord’s birth. The Lucan account of the Annunciation was read on that Wednesday, and the account of Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth occurred on that Friday (76).

b. Mary and Christmas

Mary’s role in the celebration of Christmas in Rome was given sharper focus upon the erection near or in St. Mary Major of an oratory dedicated specifically to the Nativity of the Lord sometime between the pontificate of St. Leo I (440-461) and that of St. Gregory I (590-604). Of the three Masses celebrated by the pope at Christmas, this oratory became the venue for the first, that at midnight. By the twelfth century, the daytime Mass, too, had been transferred to St. Mary Major, again underscoring in topographical terms Our Lady’s part in the birth of Christ.

The earliest extant Roman euchological texts of Christmas present Mary in close association with the Savior’s birth (77). Collects found in both the “Old” Gelasian (78) and Gregorian (79) sacramentaries attest to Mary’s presence in the liturgy of Christmas:

Deus, qui per beatae Mariae sacrae uirginis partum, sine humana concupiscentia procreatum, in filii tui membra uenientis paternis fecisti praeiudiciis non teneri: praesta, quaesumus, ut huius creaturae nouitate suscepta uetustatis antiquae contagiis exuamur: per eundem Dominum (80).

O God, who through the offspring of the holy Virgin St. Mary, begotten without human concupiscence, didst cause the members of thy coming Son not to be bound by the condemnation of their fathers, grant, we implore, that we who have been taken up by the newness of this creation, may put off the harmful influences of our former state. Through the same Lord.

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui hunc diem per incarnationem uerbi tui et partum beatae Mariae uirginis consecrasti, da populis tuis in hac caelebritate consortium, ut qui tua gratia sunt redempti, tua sint adoptione securi. Per (81).

Almighty, everlasting God, who didst consecrate this day through the Incarnation of thy Word and the childbirth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grant to thy peoples a share in this festival, that those redeemed by thy grace may be saved by thine adoption. Through.

c. The “Four Feasts” of Mary

In the late seventh century, Pope Sergius I (reigned 687-701), a native of Syria, decreed that a procession from the church of St. Hadrian (formerly the senate) in the Roman forum to St. Mary Major should mark each of what came to be known for centuries as the four Marian feasts of the Roman calendar: the Annunciation (March 25), the Dormition or, as it was later known, the Assumption (August 15), the Nativity of Mary (September 8), and Hypapante (February 2) (82). Litanies accompanied these processions to Rome’s most impressive Marian basilica. Divided roughly among the four seasons of the year, they served, until the fourteenth century, as the Roman feasts in honor of the Virgin Mary. By then, the papacy, often in response to the devotion of religious orders or as a votive commemoration of either petition or thanksgiving, began to embellish the Roman calendar with new Marian observances.

d. Medieval Marian Feasts


The next Marian feasts introduced to Rome came, like the first great four, from the East. In 1389, Pope Urban VI (reigned 1378-1389) placed the feast of the Visitation on the general Roman calendar. It is essentially a votive feast recalling the protection of the Mother of God. Originally observed in Constantinople on July 2 as the Deposition at the Blachernae of the Holy Mantle (or Veil) of the Theotókos, the feast commemorated the miraculous intervention of the Mother of God at her principal church (named the Blachernae) in the Byzantine capital. The Gospel of the day, drawn from St. Luke’s account of the visit of Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth (83), reflects the loving concern of Mary for those close to her. It likewise suggests the joy that derives from peace and harmony.

In 1263, the Franciscans, who served as preachers and missionaries in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the East, adopted it under the title of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. More than a century later, Urban VI extended it to the rest of the Church with a view toward achieving, through Our Lady’s intercession, ecclesial unity in the wake of the Western Schism. Over the course of the fifteenth century, local churches and religious orders eventually adopted it. In 1441, the Council of Basel, convoked to put an end to the Western Schism, commissioned a Mass formulary for the feast and encouraged its adoption. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Sixtus IV (reigned 1471-1484) arranged for the feast to be given a new formulary. The votive character of the feast came into renewed focus in the nineteenth century. In thanksgiving for the victory of the papal troops over the forces of the Italian Risorgimento on July 2, 1849, Pius IX raised the feast to a higher dignity (double-of-the-second-class in the reckoning of the period).

Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin began as the Byzantine feast of the Conception of St. Anne, observed on December 9. By the mid-eleventh century, the feast came to England where it was celebrated on December 8. By the early twelfth century, it received a new title: the Conception of Mary. From England it spread to Normandy and, over the course of the twelfth century, to other parts of Europe. Upon its advent at the University of Paris, through the agency of students from Normandy, the feast met opposition from some theological circles. St. Bernard, for example, opposed it as a novelty of dubious doctrinal quality and urged the canons of Lyons against its adoption (84).

Promoted first by English Benedictines, particularly under the influence of Eadmer of Canterbury (+1124) (85), precentor, historian, and biographer of St. Anselm, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady gained much ground with the later support of the Franciscans. Adopting the feast in 1263, the Friars Minor championed its cause. In reply to objections raised against the doctrine, Franciscan theologian Bl. John Duns Scotus (+1308), for example, taught that the merits of Christ’s Paschal Mystery had been applied in anticipation to the Blessed Virgin from the first moment of her conception. The feast came with the Minors to the papal court in Avignon. Finally in 1477, Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan, placed it on the Roman calendar by the constitution Cum praeexcelsa. In honor of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, Sixtus likewise built within the Vatican complex the famous chapel that bears his name. The decoration of the ceiling, commissioned by Sixtus’ nephew Julius II and executed by Michelangelo, illustrates the preparation of the world for the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In 1708, Clement XI made the feast of Our Lady’s Conception obligatory for the Roman Rite.

Zealously advocated by the Franciscans,