Mary Coredemptrix in the Writings of Frederick William Faber



Frederick William Faber was born in Calverly in the English County of Yorkshire on the 28th of June 1814. He was born in the vicarage of his grandfather, who was the Anglican Vicar of Calverly, (1) and his early formation was strongly marked by the ethos of the Church of England. Another significant influence on his developing personality was the Lake District where his early education continued. (2) It awakened his strong poetic orientation and equipped him to appreciate the works of the Lake poets, especially William Wordsworth (1770-1850). (3) He continued his education at Harrow, subsequently matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford in 1832 and became a fellow of University College there in 1837. (4) His practice of Anglicanism had first a Calvinist and subsequently an Evangelical orientation. Preceding and after his ordination as priest of the Church of England in Oxford in 1839 he became successively more involved in the Tractarian Party which came to be known as the Oxford Movement. (5)


It was during these years that he came under the influence of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), one of the principals of the Oxford Movement, and eventually followed him into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. He was ordained a Catholic priest by Nicholas Wiseman in 1847 and together with the majority of a little community which he had founded called Brothers of the Will of God he joined the Birmingham Oratory, of which Newman was superior, in 1848. (6) In 1849 he founded the London Oratory and the following year it became independent of Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham. (7)


There were strong temperamental differences between Newman and Faber and early on it became apparent that Faber’s attraction to Newman was never totally reciprocated. (8) Newman was more reserved in the expression of his sentiments and as a Catholic sided with the “old Catholics” who had remained loyal to the Church during the persecutions and the penal days. They were not given to much external display or affective expression in the practice of their faith. (9) Faber, on the other hand, was much more an extrovert and very drawn to the practices of continental Catholicism, especially those of France and Italy. (10) He did much to promote Catholic popular devotional practices among the people of London and was greatly appreciated as a preacher and teacher of the spiritual life. Unfortunately, for a variety of complex reasons there was always a certain tension between Newman and Faber, the Birmingham and the London Oratories. (11)


Historians of nineteenth century English Catholicism have often written of Newman’s superior genius and of Faber’s sentimentalism, dismissing Faber as a minor figure whose works represent a dated form of Victorian triumphalism. The fact is that Faber had a truly remarkable, almost encyclopedic knowledge of classical Catholic theologians and spiritual writers. He was familiar with the works of Blessed John Duns Scotus, for example, and fully embraced the Scotist position on the motive of the Incarnation. (12) He likewise had imbibed deeply from the writings of the seventeenth century French School of spirituality (13) and proved himself remarkably adept at sharing the riches he had absorbed not only with the vast throngs of mid-19th century Londoners who came to hear him preach but with all those who have read him in English and in translation from his day to ours. (14) Indeed, it is claimed with reason that “Faber may be regarded as a champion of spirituality for the layman at a time when such champions were few and far between.” (15)


A. Faber’s Marian Devotion


Now a word must be said about Faber’s fervent devotion to Our Lady. Whence did it come? He surely didn’t take it in with his mother’s milk nor did he find it in his grandfather’s parsonage nor was it an element in his formative years. It would seem that he slowly came to recognize it as a constituent element of Catholicism as he traveled, while still an Anglican, in Catholic countries. One notes, for instance, the profound impression which he recorded in his journal for 1 July, 1841, regarding his visit to the great Austrian Marian Shrine of Mariazell. (16) His attachment to Our Lady developed as he grew in his conviction that he must enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. On 28 November, 1844, we find him writing to Newman, under whose direction he had put himself, asking him to “revoke your prohibition, laid on me last October year, of invoking our Blessed Lady, the Saints, and Angels.” (17)


As a new convert, Faber, who had already read the lives of many Catholic saints and was keenly aware of the role that Mary had played in their lives, consciously committed himself to growing in and diffusing the love of Mary. (18) He and his companion, William Antony Hutchison, later a priest of the London Oratory, visited the Shrine of the Holy House of Loreto on 30 March, 1846. (19) On Easter Tuesday he wrote to his friend J. B. Morris regarding that pilgrimage that I hardly dare say what happened to me there. It is enough to say that I asked a great thing of our dearest Lady in the Santa Casa, and she got it for me in ten minutes and I quite burn with love to her. (20)


In fact on 5 August of that same year he wrote to the same correspondent:

As to the word Mariolatry, all I meant to say was, that we spent all our time in teaching people what we were not to do to Mary, instead of pushing forward the ardent worship of her, as we ought to do…. In good truth it is odd that I should go to Loreto to beg devotion to our dear Lady, and that afterwards in two solemn communions I should have vowed my life, health, strength, intellect and senses to be her slave and to spread her devotion, in great measure because I feared converts relapsing from want of that gran segno di predestinazione; and then that it should be thought that I was like one who never “warmed,” as a bishop expressed it to me, to Mary; and whose fall is considered to be owing to that. (21)


Clearly Faber’s consecration to Mary at Loreto would bear abundant fruit during his brief but intense life as a Catholic priest from 1847 to 1863. Indeed, he made no apologies and lost no time in spreading her devotion, even if his importing of continental devotional practices evoked no little suspicion on the part of the “old Catholics” and Protestants in the London of the 1850s. “There were, of course, many pictures of Our Lady in Catholic chapels but only one statue in a public place, that at St. Mary’s Chelsea” reports Ronald Chapman of those days. “To decorate a Lady altar with flowers or to burn lamps or votive candles before her picture was absolutely unheard of.” (22) Even more shocking to the clergy of those days was Faber’s habitual colloquial mode of reference to Mary as “Mama.” (23)


Already in the first of his major works, All for Jesus, published in 1853, Faber clearly expounds his rationale for devotion to Mary. He begins by meeting head on the objections of those who consider Marian devotion “a sort of pious exaggeration”: (24)

But they could hardly object, if it was said to them, You are to love Mary as much as Jesus loved her, and you are to have as great a devotion to her as Jesus wishes you to have, and you can have no scruple in praying to Jesus for this devotion according to His will. It is impossible to know Jesus, much more to love Him, if we have not a warm devotion to His ever-blessed Mother….


Love of Mary is but another form, and a divinely appointed one, of love of Jesus: and, therefore, if love of Him must grow, so also must love of her. If a person were to say, You must not mingle prayer to Mary with prayer to Jesus, he would show that he had no true idea of this devotion, and that he was already on the brink of a very dangerous error….


Love of Mary is an intrinsic part of love of Jesus, and to imagine that the interests of the two can be opposed, is to show that we do not understand Jesus, or the devotion due to Him. (25)


In effect Father Faber was living and preaching an intense life of Marian consecration and devotion on the basis of sound Catholic principles, but he only reached the point of appreciating how all of this was summed up in Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort’s masterpiece, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the end of his life. In a letter to his friend Watts Russell of 23 January, 1862, he explains his earlier diffidence regarding de Montfort:


With regard to Grignon (sic) de Montfort, my devotion to him began in 1846 and 47. I got his life from old Lord Shrewsbury, and I have it still. I have made two attempts with his “Vraie Dévotion.” One some years since, and the other a short time ago. Indeed, I made an attempt to model my whole life on his devotion to Mama. But I could not do so without great violence, and much interior suffering. It is a great delight to me that the Nihil obstat of the Congregation of Rites testifies that all is right. But with my present low attainments I am unable to embrace it. I am delighted with the book, with its sweet sensible unction, and its glorious fire, and I owe much to it in the way of increased devotion to Mama. But parts jar me beyond what I can tell you; and after twice studying the report of the proceedings in the “Analecta Juris Pontificii,” I cannot but feel that, while the answer of the Avvocato dei Santi proves that the objections establish nothing in him against faith or morals, it does no more. It fails to bring the teaching home to me as acceptable doctrine. (26)


It is noteworthy that in the final year of his life he saw reasons for changing this opinion; and feeling himself unequal to the task of original composition, dictated to Father Herbert Harrison the translation of the treatise on true devotion to the Blessed Virgin (27) which introduced this masterwork of the French School of spirituality to the English-speaking world.


B. Faber’s Works


Father Faber’s most creative period as a spiritual writer only began in January of 1853 and came to an end in 1860 with his eighth and final book, Bethlehem: (28)

This was certainly a very remarkable literary accomplishment considering the brief period of its execution, the number and variety of the author’s priestly duties and a considerable dose of ill-health. During that period the foundation and government of the Oratory and the mastership of novices for five years were his responsibilities. Within that space of time, too, he took his turn at preaching and hearing confessions and answered calls for spiritual advice. And finally these years he was often prostrated by very painful maladies. (29)


While criticism of Faber’s work was not wanting among those who considered him not sufficiently sober and English in his style, the opposition was effectively silenced when the Blessed Pius IX named Faber a Doctor of Divinity in July of 1854. (30) His works have gone into numerous editions in English and the other major European languages.


The Sulpician Father Pierre Pourrat, who is on the whole very fair in his treatment of Faber, describes him as an author in this way:


Faber does not write like a French man of letters. He has been compared, as a writer, with his contemporary, Charles Dickens. He has indeed something of the novelist’s humor; but he has also his defects of composition. His books are full of doctrine, but they are full of words as well. The reader is kept marking-time, when he wants to get on. And then the digressions … Faber was never convinced that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. He liked to wander down side-alleys and reach his destination by backroads…. Faber used to write sixteen hours a day, without any crossings-out, and in six years he wrote eight long books: their composition certainly suffered accordingly. The preacher is never separated from the writer in Faber. When he writes he talks, and he talks pleasantly, without ever seeming pressed for time. (31)


Unfortunately, all of the commentators on Faber—even the most sympathetic—are obliged to admit that, while there are wonderful passages in Faber’s works, one must go digging for them. Here is how Ronald Chapman puts it:


He (Faber) is a difficult author for the modern reader. He can be repetitive and sentimental to an extraordinary extent. He has a penchant for private revelations and is at times simply silly. He wrote his spiritual works when he was ill, almost as a means of relaxation, without any literary conscience. He openly delighted in purple patches. There are great slabs of passages, sometimes chapters at a time, which glow with ethereal light but have little content. Hypnotized by his own fluency Faber flows on and on, melodious and tedious…. There are awful lapses of taste. In fact Faber has almost every fault. It is a formidable undertaking to sift the gold from the rubbish. But gold there is, pure gold. (32)


The majority of those who have written about Father Faber in the 20th century have made similar comments and employed virtually the same imagery. June Verbillion speaks of “those willing to do the pick-and-shovel work necessary to uncover the vein of gold in his writings” (33) and Bede Edwards describes Faber as an “author in whom one finds many authentic pearls of spirituality which must, nonetheless, be quarried from a mass of mediocre material.” (34)


Even if all of the above is true, however, I do not believe that it does full justice to the genius and holiness of Father Faber. In my research I have found extraordinary treasures in his works, only a small part of which I will be able to highlight here. In this regard I believe that the evaluation of Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875), founder and Abbot of Solesmes, which was published in Le Monde of 25 January ,1864, is still relevant:


It will be agreed that Father Faber united in himself many of those qualifications which make up the true spiritual writer—holiness of life, knowledge of divine things, and experience of the operations of grace both in himself and in others. A sound theology enabled him to speak worthily of its mysteries, a faith scrupulously orthodox guided his mind in safety through the rocks with which his path was strewn, a profound and well-reasoned study of ascetical and mystical books of every school directed his course rightly in a world which is far above the world of nature, an intimate acquaintance with the Lives of the Saints revealed to him the secrets of grace, and a complete humility accompanied him during his whole career as a spiritual writer. There is not a page of Father Faber, whether it be severe or sparkling, in which we do not discover the saint, the man who never wrote a single line to put forward or recommend himself. (35)


C. Faber’s Scotism


Perhaps the most important factor to be kept in mind in considering the Mariological doctrine of Father Faber is that he had deeply imbibed the teaching of Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and his followers on the motive for the Incarnation and on the predestination and primacy of Jesus and Mary. In the course of the history of theology not a little ink has been spilt over a presentation of the Scotist argument in a hypothetical form which can never be proven because it is contrary to fact, i.e. that the Son of God would have become incarnate even if Adam had not sinned.


It will be seen that Father Faber also consistently presented the argument in this form while recognizing that the contrary Thomist opinion was also tenable. Here is how he expounded his position in his book, The Blessed Sacrament, written in 1854:


The third view of the Incarnation, and the one assumed throughout this treatise to be true, is the view taken by the Scotists, and by Suarez, and many other theologians both ancient and modern. It teaches, that our Lord came principally to save fallen man, that for this end He came in passible flesh; but that even if Adam had not fallen He would have come, and by Mary, in impassible flesh, that He was predestinated the first-born of creatures before the decree which permitted sin, that the Incarnation was from the first an intentional part of the immense mercy of creation, and did not merely take occasion from sin, which only caused Him to come in a particular way in which He came, and was not the cause of His coming altogether. …


Those who hold it (this view) dwell very much on the doctrine that Jesus was decreed before all creatures, and therefore before the permission of sin. Thus we read in Scripture, I came out of the mouth of the Most High, the first-born before all creatures. And St. Paul, speaking of our Lord, says to the Colossians, that He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature. For in Him were all things created in heaven, and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers. All things were created by Him and in Him, and He is before all, and by Him all things consist. And He is the Head of the Body, the Church, who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in all things He may hold the primacy…


From these and a host of similar authorities, the Scotists, with Suarez and others, particularly Franciscans and Jesuits, consider that it follows that all men came because of Christ, not Christ because of them, that all creation was for Him, and was not only decreed subsequently to His predestination, but for His sole sake. …


Both the Thomist and Scotist views of the Incarnation are free opinions in the schools; and I have only dwelt more at length on the last because it is the one I have all along assumed to be true, and because I think Suarez does not succeed in making a harmony of the two: and as I have mainly followed St. Thomas in the other questions which have been touched upon in this book, it seemed necessary to confess to this somewhat notable exception. (36)


The late Father Juniper Carol, O.F.M., who spent a great deal of his scholarly life studying the Scotist thesis and investigating its importance for theology, (37) regretted that the argument was so often framed as hypothetical:


In our considered opinion, identifying the Scotistic thesis of Christ’s absolute predestination and primacy with the insoluble pseudo-question “If Adam hadn’t sinned, etc.” has only hurt the Franciscan cause by unnecessarily turning not a few people against a most reasonable and beautiful theory. (38)


Carol preferred this formulation of the question:


Whether in the present world-order (the only one willed by God) the Word’s Incarnation depended or not on the sin of our first parent. Or, rephrased somewhat differently: Whether or not Christ and His Blessed Mother were efficaciously predestined to existence with a logical priority to all others. (39)


It should be noted that, while Faber did not hesitate to employ the hypothetical mode of defending the Scotist position, his aim always went beyond such a limited formulation. What he underscored was that “Jesus was decreed before all creatures, and therefore before the permission of sin.”


Faber clearly saw the implications of the Scotist thesis in establishing the predestination and primacy of Christ. Here is how he put the matter in his last work and masterpiece, Bethlehem:


What then was the first aspect of creation in the divine mind, if we may use the word “first,” of that which was eternal? There may at least be a priority of order, even though there be no priority of time. There is precedence in decrees, even where there is not succession. The first aspect of creation, as it lay in the mind of God, was a created nature assumed to his own uncreated nature in a Divine Person. In other words, the first sight in creation was the Babe of Bethlehem. The first step outside of God, the first standing-point in creation, is the created nature assumed to a Divine Person. Through this, as it were, lay the passage from the Creator to creatures. This was the point of union, the junction between the finite and the Infinite, the creature blending unconfusedly with the Creator. This first-born creature, this Sacred Humanity, was not only the primal creature, but it was also the cause of all other creatures whatsoever. … Its predestination is the fountain of all other predestinations.

The whole meaning of creation, equally with the destinies of each individual creature, is bound up with this created Nature assumed to a Divine Person. (40)


Consistent expositor of the Scotistic thesis that Faber was, he recognized that it provides a marvellous key for entering into the mystery that “all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). “This means,” as Juniper Carol put it, “that in the divine mind from all eternity the creation of the universe and everything in it was based on Christ, had Christ as its foundation, fulcrum and support.” (41) Faber also rightly dwelt on the biblical datum that the Father “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He predestined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4-5). Thus the predestination of the elect is conditioned on Christ, and not the other way around. It presupposes the existence of Christ present to the mind of God in His eternal plans. (42)


In no human creature is predestination in Christ illustrated to greater perfection than in Mary. In willing the Incarnation, God willed Mary. Here is how Faber put it in Bethlehem:


Mary thus lies high up in the very fountain-head of creation. She was the choice of God himself, and he chose her to be his Mother. She was the gate by which the Creator entered into his own creation. She ministered to him in a way and for an end unlike those of any other creature whatsoever. … When we have said that Mary was the Word’s eternal choice, we have said that which already involves all the doctrine of the Church about her, and all the homage of Christians to her.… What more can be said? She fulfilled his idea, or rather she did not so much suit his idea, but she was herself the idea, and his idea of her was the cause of her creation. The whole theology of Mary lies in this eternal and efficacious choice of her in the Bosom of the Father. (43)


It is precisely on this basis that Faber speaks constantly in all of his books about “the predestination of Jesus and Mary” and “the mysteries of Jesus and Mary.” Even though Jesus is God and Mary is only a human creature, in willing the Incarnation, God also willed and predestined Mary.


It was, in fact, only in Faber’s lifetime that the supreme authority of the Church solemnly ratified this foundational datum of what has come to be called the “Franciscan thesis” on the joint predestination of Jesus and Mary. The roots of this thesis, as Father Peter Damian Fehlner tells us, antedate both Scotus and Francis himself. It is Franciscan, not by reason of origin (in this it is rather Catholic), but by reason of its promotion, of its being rendered more explicit and then more effectively incorporated into the life of the Church, as St. Maximilian Kolbe would say. (44)


The specific intervention on the part of the magisterium was the statement to be found in Ineffabilis Deus, Pius IX’s Bull defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: “God, by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom.” (45) On the basis of this principle, subsequently re-confirmed by the papal magisterium, (46) Mary’s intimate association with Jesus in the work of the redemption is also axiomatic and, thus, Pius IX declared in the same Apostolic Constitution:


Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it triumphantly to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with Him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond (uno eodemque decreto), was, with Him and through Him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot. (47)


Faber’s Teaching on Marian Coredemption


“In reading Father Faber,” says the Capuchin Father Dominic Unger,

one can but observe that he looked upon the Scotist doctrine of Christ’s and Mary’s Absolute Predestination and Universal Primacy as a light of noonday brightness that shines into every nook and corner of theology. (48)


My own reading of Faber can only confirm this insight. Explicit and implicit references to the Scotist or Franciscan thesis form a leitmotiv in Faber’s writings. Further, I believe that it is precisely on this basis that Faber’s teaching on Mary as Coredemptrix (or Co-redemptress as he rendered the Latin form into English) is so firmly grounded.


One could say that Faber’s masterpiece, The Foot of the Cross, which he subtitled The Sorrows of Mary, constitutes his greatest testimony to the doctrine of Mary as Coredemptrix. This is undoubtedly true and is confirmed by the fact that he deals ex professo with the title and its justification at the end of that volume. (49) But, even if I am not able to establish it at length in this article, I believe that it is demonstrable that his consistent Mariological teaching in his other volumes came to fruition in that book as well as in his last great work, Bethlehem. Indeed in his preface to the former work he tells us that “This treatise was sketched for the first time at St. Wilfrid’s in the summer of 1847, more than ten years ago” (50) while already in his first book he says that he hopes to treat of Mary’s dolors in another work. (51) Despite the peculiarities already noted above,The Foot of the Cross was already commented upon in January, 1867, in the prestigious organ of the Society of Jesus, Civiltà Cattolica, as “one of the best works on the sorrows of Mary which has thus far come to light.” (52) I believe that that is still an accurate statement.


A. The Status Quaestionis


Towards the end of The Foot of the Cross Faber sets out the case for the use of the title Coredemptrix in a way that may remind us of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ presentation of a question in the Summa Theologica:


Saints and doctors have united in calling our Blessed Lady co-redemptress of the world. There is no question of the lawfulness of using such language, because there is such overwhelming authority for it. The question is as to its meaning. Is it merely the hyperbole of panegyric, the affectionate exaggeration of devotion, the inevitable language of a true understanding of Mary, which finds common language inadequate to convey the whole truth? Or is it literally true, with an acknowledged and recognized theological accuracy attached to it? This is a question which has presented itself to most minds in connection with devotion to our Blessed Mother, and there are few questions to which more vague and unsatisfactory answers have been made, than to this. On the one hand, it seems rash to assert of language used both by saints and doctors, that it is only exaggeration and hyperbole, flowery phraseology intended to startle, but without any real meaning hidden beneath it. On the other hand, who can doubt that our most Blessed Lord is the sole Redeemer of the world, His Precious Blood the sole ransom from sin, and that Mary herself, though in a different way, needed redemption as much as we do, and received it in a more copious manner and after a more magnificent kind in the mystery of the Immaculate Conception? Thus, so far as the literal meaning of the word is concerned, it would appear that the term co-redemptress is not theologically true, or, at least, does not express the truth it certainly contains with theological accuracy. (53)


If there should be any doubt about Faber’s theological perspicacity, a passage such as this should set the matter straight. Indeed had the framers of the declaration published in L’Osservatore Romano on 4 June, 1997, employed such an analysis, they would have demonstrated an admirable objectivity.


Faber, after the above exposition, proceeds to the sed contra (but, on the other hand):

We certainly shrink from asserting that the language of the saints has no meaning, or is inadvisable; and, at the same time, we have no doubt that our Blessed Lady is not the co-redemptress of the world in the strict sense of being redemptress, in the unshared sense in which our Lord is Redeemer of the world, but she is co-redemptress in the accurate sense of that compound word. (54)


Here Faber puts his finger on the question of terminology and makes an immediate and necessary clarification. In fact, the term Coredemptrix usually requires some initial explanation in modern English because so often the prefix “co” in our day tends to conjure up in our minds visions of complete equality. For instance a co-signer of a check or a co-owner of a house is considered a co-equal with the other signer or owner. Thus the first fear of many in our day, as in the Victorian era, is that describing Our Lady as Coredemptrix puts her on the same level as her Divine Son and implies that she is “Redeemer” in the same sense that he is.


1. Christ the Sole Redeemer


Faber has already stated that Mary “is not the co-redemptress of the world in the strict sense of being redemptress, in the unshared sense in which our Lord is Redeemer of the world.” But to this apprehension he offers yet a further assuring clarification:


Our Blessed Lord is the sole Redeemer of the world in the true and proper sense of the word, and in this sense no creature whatsoever shares the honor with Him, neither can it be said of Him without impiety that He is co-redeemer with Mary. (55)


2. Co-operation of All the Elect


Next Faber asserts a Catholic principle which has been denied by Protestants since the time of the Reformation: “In a secondary dependent sense, and by participation, all the elect co-operate with our Lord in the redemption of the world.” (56) He goes on to elaborate:


The elect co-operate with Him in this work as His members. They have become His members by redeeming grace, that is, by the application to their souls of His sole redemption. By His merits they have acquired the ability of meriting. Their works can satisfy for sin, the sins of others as well as their own, by their union with His. Thus, to use St. Paul’s language, by their sanctified sufferings or by their voluntary penances they “fill up in their bodies that which is lacking of the sufferings of Christ, for His Body’s sake, which is the Church.” Thus by the communion of the saints in their Head, Jesus Christ, the work of redemption is perpetually going on by the accomplishment and application of the redemption effected on the Cross by our Blessed Lord. It is not a figurative and symbolical, but a real and substantial, co-operation of the elect with our Blessed Redeemer. There is a true secondary sense in which the elect merit the salvation of the souls of others, and in which they expiate sin and avert its judgments. But it is by permission, by divine adoption, by participation, and in subordination to the one sole and complete redemption of Jesus Christ. (57)


3. Altogether Unique Co-operation of Mary