Mary, Mediatrix: History and Vatican II



The theology of mediation in Sacred Scripture has been built on New Testament passages. In the light of this theology, mediators are retrospectively identified in the Old Testament, in moments of special divine power or illumination, as with the prophets. Angels also intervene between God and man. A mediator is, in religion, one who unites God and man. Christ is the perfect Mediator as the Son of God and true man. “For there is one God and there is one mediator (mesites) between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5). What then of Mary as Mediatrix? (1) As will be abundantly clear from the historical evidence to be set forth later, the question arises from the life and practice of the Church.


The practice of addressing Mary as Mediatrix was not and need not be impeded by the Pauline text. The use of “one” (eis not monos) emphasizes Christ’s transcendence as a mediator, through the unique value of his redemptive death. The context is the salvation of the infidel, as the following verse makes clear: “God, our Savior, desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” This is a statement of the universality of salvation, not of Christ’s relationship towards those who have already come to him. On this relationship, Paul gave the fullest doctrine found in the New Testament (2). Existence “in Christ” is a transformation: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21); “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). “Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). The absolute character of Paul’s affirmation of the unique Mediator is paralleled by Peter’s words: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).


But these ideas must be seen in the full plan of salvation. Therein the initiative lies wholly with God, and this initiative is seen in the mission of the Son. Mediation is linked with mission, and depends on it (3). Thus St. Paul tells us how the Mediator appeared: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal 4:4). The two texts are closely linked by the idea of ransom, the verb exagerazo in Galatians and the noun antilutron in 1 Timothy. This time our role or status is described, “adoption as sons.” A still closer union with Christ is offered us: “And because you are sons, the Spirit of God has sent his Son into our hearts crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Gal 4:6).


To describe his own lifework, Paul frequently uses the word apostolos, radically the same as the word in Galatians 4:4 (exapostello); he has been given a mission. Though the synoptics often speak of Christ as one sent (Mt 15:24; Mk 12:6-11; Lk 4:18, 9:48, 10:16), it is in John that the mission is explicitly related to the program of our salvation. “For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (4:34; cp. 5:30, 6:38, 10:36; and 1 Jn 4:9-10). This mission Christ formally and explicitly shared with the apostles: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (20:21, the words used are apostello and pempo). Of the Baptist, John says: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John” (1:6).


It is not only Christ’s mission which is shared with men, but his very divine sonship (Jn 1:12), by which gift we are entitled to the name “sons of God” (1 Jn 3:l). The idea is in harmony with Galatians 4:4. It is the basis of all our kinship with the incarnate Son of God, with participation in his life and functions, with due attention to his infinite majesty. Participation in his eternal relationship with the Father surpasses immeasurably any share in his temporal function as Mediator. That this should be shared intimately by the one through whom his mission as Savior was effected, is a truth which was grasped early in Church history.


History of Marian Mediation


History will show that the truth is complex. The seeds were in the Eve-Mary analogy, though not all proponents of the view saw its implications. St. Irenaeus (qv) wrote: “Mary, espoused but yet a virgin, became by her obedience a cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race” (4). The same Irenaeus saw Christ’s mediation as a work of obedience: “He was made Mediator of God and men, atoning on our behalf to the Father, against whom we had sinned, and by his obedience effacing our disobedience” (5). Here was an interesting convergence of ideas. By the fourth century, the Eve-Mary doctrine was being expressed thus: “Death through Eve, life through Mary” (6). The use of this preposition in all languages hereafter will always have some reference to a mediating role. Pseudo-Theodotus of Ancyra (d.c. 446) was elaborate: “Through you, the sorrows of Eve have ceased; through you, evils have perished. Error has departed through you; through you, affliction has been abolished, condemnation destroyed” (7).


This formulation needed a wider context than the Eve-Mary idea. The Council of Ephesus provided this context, and the doctor of Ephesus, Cyril, in “the greatest Marian sermon of antiquity,” related Mary’s mediation to her office as Mother of God, to her relationship with the most Holy Trinity. Cyril’s authorship of the sermon has been fully vindicated by R. Caro, S.J. (8) “Hail Mary Theotókos, venerable treasure of the whole world, light unextinguished, crown of virginity, scepter of orthodoxy, indestructible temple, which contains the uncontainable… it is through you that the Holy Trinity is glorified and adored, through you, the precious cross is venerated and adored throughout the whole world, through you that heaven is in gladness, that angels and archangels rejoice, that demons are put to flight, through you that the tempter, the devil is cast down from heaven, through you that the fallen creature is raised up to heaven, through you that all creation, once imprisoned in idolatry, has reached knowledge of the truth, that the faithful obtain baptism and the oil of joy, churches have been founded in the whole world, that peoples are led to conversion.”


The reason is that, through Mary, the only Son of God shone as a light on those who are in darkness and the shadow of death, “… the prophets have foretold, the Apostles announce salvation to the nations, the dead are raised.… (9)


Proclus of Constantinople spoke of Mary as “the only bridge between God and men.” With Basil of Seleucia (qv), the word “Mediatrix” itself appears, and significantly in the context of the Annunciation: “Hail full of grace (highly favored): set up as Mediatrix (mesiteuousa) of God and men, so that the walls of enmity should be torn down, heavenly and earthly things come together as one” (10). It is in the Annunciation context too that Antipater of Bostra (qv) addressed Mary by the same title: “Hail you who acceptably intercedes as a Mediatrix for mankind” (11). These words occur in a section of Antipater’s homily considered authentic by R. Caro. The exact word used by St. Paul, in the feminine, was applied to Mary in the sixth century by Romanos the Singer. Mary is pictured speaking to Adam and Eve: “Restrain your tears. Take me as your Mediatrix (mesitin) with the one who is born of me” (12). In the same century, a homily attributed to St. Anastasius of Antioch described Mary as “the ladder stretched towards heaven, the gate of paradise, the entry into incorruption, the union and harmony of men with God” (13)—a rhetorical expression of mediation.


The much disputed homily of Modestus of Jerusalem, which certainly is seventh century, contains a passage wherein the author attributes—in the manner of St. Cyril—universal benefits to the Dormition: “O most blessed Dormition of the most glorious Theotókos, (this formula is repeated in each sentence) through whom we have been mystically recreated and made the temple of the Holy Spirit… through which we have received forgiveness of all our sins and have been ransomed from the tyranny of the devil… through which the whole universe is renewed, earthly things have come together with heavenly, and in unison with them cry out in praise, ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to men of good will’… through which the same one is God on earth and made man, is in heaven unchangeably and without division by reason of mercy and the economy (of salvation)… through whom we have ‘put on Christ‘ and been made worthy to be ‘the sons of God.’ (Gal 3:27; Jn 1:12) ” (14). Note the Pauline doctrine of life in Christ, to which allusion has been made.


Not later than mid-seventh century, Theoteknos of Livias (qv) styled Mary, “ambassadress (presbis) of mankind with the immaculate king.” The Akathistos Hymn (qv) adopted, for liturgical use, the idea now current of Mary as one “through whom” certain spiritual effects were achieved. “Hail, through whom creation is renewed…. Hail, through whom and in whom the Creator is adored…. Hail, heavenly ladder, through whom God has descended. … Hail, bridge leading those on earth to heaven.”

The eighth-century eastern Fathers taught the doctrine of Mary’s mediation in an explicit plenary manner. St. Andrew of Crete (qv) called her “Mediatrix (mesitis) of the law and grace,” saying also: “She is mediation (mesiteusasa) between the sublimity of God and the abjection of the flesh, and becomes the Mother of her maker” (15). St. John of Damascus (qv) addressed Our Lady thus: “You also by fulfilling the office of Mediatrix (mesiteusasa), and being made the ladder of God descending to us, that he should assume our weak nature, and join and unite it to him (16)… You brought together what had been separated.”


St. Germanus of Constantinople (qv) is the doctor of Mary’s universal mediation. If the Oratio V in Annuntiationem SS. Deiparae, in which he called her “truly a good Mediatrix (mesiteia) of all sinners,” is of somewhat doubtful authenticity, there is no doubt about the second homily on the Dormition. “Man was made spiritual when you, O Theotókos, became the dwelling of the Holy Spirit. No one is filled with the knowledge of God save through you, O most holy one. No one is saved except through you, O Theotókos; no one is ransomed save through you, Mother of God (Theometros), no one secured a gift of mercy save through you, who hold God; … you cannot fail to be heard, since God, as to everything, through everything, and in everything, behaves towards you as his true and unsullied Mother… in you all peoples of the earth have obtained a blessing, for there is no place where your name is not held in honor” (17).


Even with these words, we have not reached the summit of Byzantine Marian theology. In the tenth century, John the Geometer (qv) proclaimed Mary, “second mediatrix after the first Mediator.” But it was in the fourteenth century that the climax came. Nicephorus Callistus described Mary as an abyss of mercies, and mistress and mediatrix of the world. For the Palamites, Mary’s mediation is part of their total vision of the cosmic Christ, center and purpose of creation. Thus Gregory Palamas (qv) saw her “standing alone between God and the whole human race,” making God the son of man, and men the sons of God; no divine gift can reach men or angels save through her. Nicholas Cabasilas (qv) also saw Mary as the intermediary (meses) between God and man, a moving cause and end of the Incarnation, cause of graces, and mediatrix by her intercession.


With Theophanes of Nicaea, we reach the peak; he is unequalled in all literature as an exponent of Mary’s universal mediation. “It cannot happen that anyone, of angels or of men, can come otherwise, in any way whatsoever, to participation in the divine gifts flowing from what has been divinely assumed, from the Son of God, save through his Mother.” Theophanes used the metaphor of the neck, found in western medieval writing, to express Mary’s place in the Mystical Body, “the only way leading to the Head of all.” Mary, for him, is the “dispenser and distributor of all the wondrous uncreated gifts of the divine Spirit” (18).


The Latin Tradition


The first mention of the word “Mediatrix” in the West occurred in the sixth-century Pseudo-Origen: Vitae Mediatrix (19). It is next found in Paul the Deacon’s (qv) translation of the Theophilus Legend. There is a solitary text in the tenth century from Geoffrey of Soissons (c. 950): “You, who are first before God, be a Mediatrix for your own, bearing hope of forgiveness, lest they sink in the guilt of vices” (20). In the next century, Gottschalk of Limburg (qv) wrote in his sequence Fecunda Verbo: “Mediatrix, Mother of the Mediator, in whom man is joined to God, God to man” (21). In a liturgical hymn for the Assumption of the same time, we read: “Our Mediatrix, who art, after God, our only hope, present us to your Son, that, in the heavenly court, we may joyfully sing the Alleluia” (22).


A framework of thought was created which would contain the idea of Mary’s mediation. Thus St. Peter Damian (qv) stated the principle: “As the Son of God has deigned to descend to us through you, so we also must come to him through you” (23). St. Anselm used the word “reconciler of the world,” but he was clear that it was “through” Mary that “the elements are renewed, the lower world healed, the demons trodden under foot, men saved and angels restored.” This is a comprehensive statement of Mary’s mediation. Anselm’s disciple, Hermann of Tournai (qv), first used the metaphor of the neck to describe Mary’s role between the Head and the Mystical Body.


R. Laurentin has counted 50 texts in the twelfth century in which Mary is called Mediatrix. Abelard (qv) is among the authors. So is St. Bernard, who struck an immortal summary of the doctrine: “God wills us to have everything through Mary.”

St. Bonaventure (qv) used the title Mediatrix—”between us and Christ, as Christ is between us and God,” “Mediatrix of all with God.” St. Thomas Aquinas (qv) called Mary “Mediatrix” in commenting on the Cana episode. His whole conception of her place in the scheme of things implies a mediatorial function. She took the place of all mankind in the moment of the Incarnation.


The word “socia” appeared in the literature from about this time. It did not displace “Mediatrix,” which came almost spontaneously to Pseudo-Albert (qv), Richard of St. Laurent, James of Voragine (qv), and Engelbert of Admont (qv), and appealed too to the author of The Ancrene Riwle (24). Thinking on the subject, most ardent with St. Bernardine of Siena, was not neglected by his namesake, Bernardine of Busti, John Gerson, and Denis the Carthusian (qv). From the thirteenth century, the word occurs occasionally in hymns (25).


From the fifth through the fifteenth century, Fathers, Doctors, preachers, and hymn writers explained or assumed Mary’s mediation without contradiction. It was the Easterns, using Paul’s own language, who borrowed his word, mesitis, without stirring the slightest fear that the dignity of the one Mesites would be compromised. The word was not used in a strictly homogeneous sense. The contexts varied from age to age and culture to culture, though certain essential aspects are distinguishable: Mary’s essential role in the work of salvation; and her ceaseless, heavenly activity on our behalf. There is, in each, much scope for reflection.


Instead of reflection, the sixteenth century brought rejection in wide areas. But the Counter-Reformation Doctors—Peter Canisius (qv), Robert Bellarmine (qv), Lawrence of Brindisi (qv), and Francis de Sales (qv)—continued the tradition, and clung to the title, with the exception of St. Francis, who preferred “treasurer of graces,” “advocate,” and “collaborator (coopératrice) in our salvation.” Suarez penned a sober passage: “Thus, therefore, the Church and the Fathers speak to the Virgin whom also as we have already seen, they at times call reparatrix and mediatrix, because she brought forth our Redeemer and with him has the greatest influence. … Which view is the sense of the Church and known to all” (26).


In the vast output on the subject from the seventeenth century to 1921, some items claim attention. The two most popular books on Our Lady through those centuries—St. Louis Marie de Montfort’s work on True Devotion, and The Glories of Mary by St. Alphonsus Liguori—were composed on the theme of Mary’s universal mediation. That would indicate the sentiment of the faithful, an important factor in the development of doctrine. Perhaps M.J. Scheeben may provide the complementary theological judgment: “Not only Mary’s whole position as Mediatrix, but also her preceding mediatorial functions are entirely designed for a universal mediation of grace, and condition the communication of all grace without exception” (27).


Teaching Authority


Our Lady’s mediation has been a fundamental theme in the teaching of the modern Papacy from Pius IX’s Ineffabilis Deus (qv) on. St Bernard’s dictum, that God wills us to have everything through Mary, is found in the writings of Pius IX, Leo XIII (qv), St. Pius X, Pius XII, and John XXIII (qqv) (28). The word “Mediatrix” is applied to Mary by each of the six Popes from Pius IX to Pius XII— more than once by each of the last five of these, eight times by Pius XII (29). Paul VI solemnly promulgated it, as it is included in Lumen Gentium. In Signum Magnum, he changed the Council wording to make it stronger. “She makes herself their Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Aid-giver, and Mediatrix.” The Popes deal with different aspects of Mary’s mediation, and some of the pronouncements do not present an analysis in depth.


A new phase was opened in 1921 by the initiative of Cardinal Mercier (qv). He sought and obtained Roman approval for a Mass and Office of Mary, Mediatrix of all Graces, and urged his fellow bishops throughout the world to request them for their dioceses; 450 sent favorable replies. Thereon, Pius XI set up three commissions—Belgian, Spanish, and Roman—to study the possibility of a dogma on Mary’s universal mediation. Members of the Belgian commission were: J. Bittremieux, author of a treatise on the subject; J. Lebon, a patrologist and writer on Marian theology; and C. Van Crombrugghe. The Spaniards were: J.M. Bover, S.J.; Canon D.I. (later Cardinal) Goma y Tomás: and A. Ruibal—all writers on the subject. The membership of the Roman commission was not published. A committee, appointed by Pius XI to advise on a possible recall of Vatican I, included Mary’s mediation, as well as her Assumption, on a suitable program (30). In 1950, the first International Mariological Congress, held in Rome, approved this votum, which was submitted to Pius XII: “Since the principal, personal attributes of the Blessed Virgin Mary have been already defined, it is the wish of the faithful that it should also be dogmatically defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary was intimately associated with Christ the Savior in effecting human salvation, and, accordingly, she is a true collaborator in the work of redemption, spiritual Mother of all men, intercessor and dispenser of graces, in a word universal Mediatrix of God and men” (31).


Vatican II


Between 1950 and the announcement of Vatican II by Pope John in 1959, theological interest was centered first on Mary’s part in the Redemption, and then on her relationship with the Church. The two themes met in competition at the Lourdes Congress. Yet in the pre-Council consultation of the world’s episcopate, 382 bishops asked that Mary’s mediation be defined. The first Marian schema referred in one section to Mary as “the minister and dispenser of heavenly graces,” because she was the noble associate of the suffering Christ in acquiring them. In another section, added after the meeting of the Theological Commission in March, 1962, the wording was firmer and fuller. “Since, therefore, the humble ‘Handmaid of the Lord,’ for whom ‘He that is mighty has done great things’ (cf. Lk 1:49), is called Mediatrix of all Graces, because she was associated with Christ in acquiring them, and since she is invoked by the Church as our Advocate and as the Mother of mercy, for she always remains the associate of Christ glorious in heaven, she intercedes for all through Christ, in such wise that the maternal charity of the Blessed Virgin is present in the bestowal (conferendis) of all graces to men.”


The previous passage had explained Mary’s mediation very fully, showing that Christ’s unique mediation was not in any way compromised, for, despite the uniquely close bond between Mary and him, and the uniqueness of her share in the Redemption, “in her predestination, holiness, and every gift, she depends on Christ and is wholly beneath him.” To the passage quoted above, there is also an addition to state that Christ’s mediation is neither obscured nor lessened, but extolled and honored by Mary’s role, which is assigned by divine good pleasure and bounty. It does not spring from any necessity (32). The notes to the schema reveal the problems which Mary’s universal mediation raise: Old Testament graces; direct and indirect intervention by her; and Sacramental grace. The phrase, “the maternal charity,” was chosen to allow freedom of discussion.


After the schema had lapsed in 1963, sharper, more exacting attention was inevitably given to the title and idea of mediatrix, for the indirect influence of the non-Catholic Observers was now at its peak. The analysis of opinions, forwarded on the first schema to Rome by some 235 Fathers, showed that, already at that stage, the subject was one to stir lively comment. Those drafting the new schema would take note of this material and of the different draft-texts submitted. The Spanish hierarchy used the words “Mediatrix of all graces” for which they claimed the support of the Popes, the Liturgy, and the sentiment of the faithful (qv). Fr. E. Dhanis, S.J., spoke of Mary as a “universal (generalem) Mediatrix in dispensing the graces of the Savior.” The Chilean bishops, Mgr. Philips, Dom (future Bishop) Butler, O.S.B., and R. Laurentin did not use the title, though the first three applied the abstract word “mediation” to Mary’s lifework. The Chileans spoke of “maternal mediation,” and Mgr. Philips of “noble (generosa) mediation in the order of grace.” At a meeting of experts held in Rome on 25 November, 1963, the problem of mediation, as understood by the Easterns, was raised with diverging views. The two experts, responsible for a new text, Fr. K. Balic, O.F.M. (qv) and Mgr. Philips, aided by friends, worked through five successive drafts, submitting the fifth to the higher commission on 14 March, 1964, and in revised form on 4 June.


This agreed text referred to Mary’s “cooperation and mediation in the order of grace,” which, it said, “continues ceaselessly.” The phrasing was not considered adequate by the commission, and an important passage was added. The statement, on Mary’s part in the Redemption, was amplified in scope. These words were added: “Wherefore the Blessed Virgin Mary has been customarily adorned (condecorari consuevit) in the Church with the title of Mediatrix as well as with others.” A sentence then followed which gave more significance to this apparently factual, almost superficial, assertion: “The Church does not hesitate to profess such an office of Mary, she constantly experiences it, and commends it to the hearts of the faithful that, relying on this maternal help, they may adhere more closely to the Mediator and Savior.” Though the Pauline text from 1 Timothy was already quoted, and its idea repeated, though Mary’s maternal office was related to it, still another restrictive clause was deemed necessary to safeguard the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator. This repetitiveness of an idea, universally accepted, was to remain, to disfigure textual draftsmanship to the end. Even the notes, supplied with the draft text, restated the idea, while listing some quotations with the word “Mediatrix,” or its equivalent, from the eastern Fathers of the Church.


Archbishop (future Cardinal) Roy presented the document to the Council on 16 September. Mary’s cooperation in universal salvation, he said, was treated in the section on the Blessed Virgin and the Church. “In that context along with other titles, the designation Mediatrix is quoted, something not acceptable to several (pluribus) members of the commission; it is explained in such wise that the excellence of the unique Mediator is in no way impaired thereby” (33).


Of the 33 Fathers who spoke in the aula, a number dealt with mediation; (34) a proportionately high number of the 57 written submissions did so (35). In the aula, three Fathers—Cardinals Bea, Leger, and Alfrink—urged the elimination of the title “Mediatrix” from the schema. The Dutch Cardinal spoke on the last day on behalf of 129 Fathers. Cardinal Leger based his argument on the Pauline text; Cardinal Alfrink wished to emphasize the seriousness of committing the Church to a doctrine, especially a title of Mary