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Mary, Mother and Model of the Church

The following article is an excerpt from the 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. The book is available from Queenship Publications. To obtain a copy, visit Visit and search on “Mariology: A Guide” to view the book in its entirety, or simply click here.

Asst. Ed.

Two titles, two parts: Mary, mother and model, are two titles and two distinct concepts, although related to each other. One characteristic of a mother, even in the natural order, is to be a model and example for her children. Because these two concepts are formally distinct, I have divided this study into two parts:

I. Mary, Mother of the Church—Mary’s Spiritual Maternity.

II. Mary as Model of the Church—Her Exemplarity vis-a-vis the Church.

The relationship between these two titles or concepts is radically based in nature itself. The essential character of a mother makes her ever an example, and for her own children potentially the most perfect example. If she has given them their very being, it is only normal her example should exert a profound influence on everything which pertains to their perfection. If filii matrizant—as the old maxim goes (children resemble their mothers)—it is only logical that their mother be their example and model, obviously in the physical order, but especially in the moral order.

This observation is perfectly applicable to spiritual and supernatural realities. Mary as Mother of Grace, is also model and paradigm for all the children of God as they strive for the highest levels of perfection. Hence, it is quite reasonable to hold that in the supernatural order there exists a positive, dynamic influence of this Mother over her children, and in them an attraction towards their Mother. In a rightly ordered world, this is the natural, mutual relationship which should be found among those who participate in the same life, the same nature. All the more so should this be the case in the realm of grace and supernatural life.

Part One: Mary, Mother of the Church


Mary, Mother of the Church

Mary is essentially a Mother. She was predestined from all eternity, included in the very decree of the Incarnation, to be the Mother of the Son of God made man. In that predestination is included not only her physical or biological maternity in relation to her Son, but also her spiritual maternity in regard to all the redeemed children of God, the disciples of her Son. We shall return to this point further on.

All of God’s children, redeemed by Jesus’ blood, death and Resurrection, constitute the family of God which is the Church. Mary is thus, at the same time, Mother of the Church, of the people of God, of the pastors and the faithful.

This title, Mary, Mother of the Church, was solemnly proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, at the closing ceremony of the third session of Vatican II.

For the glory of the Blessed Virgin Mary and our own consolation, we declare most Holy Mary Mother of the Church, that is of the whole Christian people, both faithful and pastors, who call her a most loving Mother; and we decree that henceforth the whole Christian people should, by this most sweet name, give still greater honor to the Mother of God and address prayers to her (1).

With this proclamation Paul VI did not create out of nothing the fact of Mary’s maternity in relation to the Church. This title sums up and synthesizes a well-known doctrine, acknowledged by the Church since the Middle Ages, and for many centuries expressly taught by the living Magisterium (2).

Paul VI, by the authority of his ordinary, supreme Magisterium, solemnly proclaimed a truth universally known and accepted in the Church. Although this proclamation was carried out within a conciliar context, it was not the equivalent of a dogmatic definition as such. Nevertheless, it retains the full doctrinal value of a solemn action of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. Pope Paul implicitly recognized and accepted a teaching transmitted to us by the Tradition of the Church. Further, he interpreted and, as it were, complemented a document of Vatican II: the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, and by his papal authority reaffirmed a conciliar act binding on all, even though not a solemn dogmatic definition (3).

Spiritual Maternity

The title, Mary, Mother of the Church, is itself a solemn recognition of Mary’s spiritual maternity, as such and in its universality, viz., as Mother of all those redeemed through her Son’s love and obedience in fulfilling the will of his Father by his Passion and Resurrection. She is the Mother of God’s people, Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ, including all generations. The Council’s reticence regarding the use of this title does not as such in the least affect its doctrinal contents. That reticence rather was motivated by other factors, only incidentally related to this mystery.

Nor could it be otherwise, since the doctrine of Mary’s spiritual maternity is something very old in the Tradition of the Church and most intimate to her life.

“Nothing,” José Antonio de Aldama says, “is more ancient in Catholic doctrine than addressing the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of men” (4).

From the time of St. Irenaeus, and even before, precisely within the context of the doctrine about Mary as co-worker with her Son in the redemption, and thereafter in perfect harmony with the progressive elaboration of ecclesiology, Mary has been called Mother of the Church. Before the 1950s, this custom never created any difficulties of a doctrinal kind. After the mid-twentieth century, however, the relations between Mary and the Church were explained by way of a parallelism between the two, one involving both maternity and exemplarity on a par.

Eventually it was realized that spiritual maternity did not fully fit this approach, or did not fully correspond to the canons of a strict parallelism between Mary and the Church. Mary’s spiritual maternity far surpasses, and in Mary evidently indicates, a certain superiority which in some way or under some aspect is beyond question. Thus, as ecumenism gathered momentum, especially during the time of Vatican II (1962-1965), some participants in that Council, in favor of an ecclesio-typical approach in Mariology, objected to introducing the title Mary, Mother of the Church, into the documents of the Council. They claimed that title would constitute an obstacle or be a source of difficulties for the Council in achieving one of its primary goals, the promotion of ecumenism. Monsignor Philips, Professor at Louvain University, with a bit of graphic overkill, describes the advent of ecclesio-typology in the Mariological world as “being hit by a comet’s tail” (5).

Leaving aside considerations bearing on many other aspects and questions touching the relationship of Mary and the Church, we now turn our attention to the theological-Mariological analysis of Mary’s spiritual maternity as expressed in the title Mother of the Church.

Methodology and Execution

Spiritual maternity is not to be conceived as a substantive reality like sanctifying grace. It is rather a quality, a role, a responsibility, in Latin munus, that Mary, Mother of God, fulfilled according to the designs of God—and still fulfills—in the history of salvation in relation to men. It is in itself a general function enveloping and including other activities with a more specialized and restricted significance. Yet, because Mary’s presence in the Church is primarily a maternal presence, as Pope John Paul II declared (6), all of these subordinate roles possess a basic maternal tint or character.

Just as the divine motherhood is an essential factor determining what moves the Virgin Mary to act always and in all matters as Mother of God, so her spiritual maternity also moves her to act always and in all matters as Mother of the redeemed because she is Mother of the Church. Her presence in the mystery of Christ and of the Church is at every moment a maternal presence.

Now, this spiritual maternity, when exercised and in its concrete realization, takes on diverse modalities. Considered as maternal collaboration with her Son in the redemption of the human race, it appears as coredemptive maternity. Considered as “salvific influence over men” in the Church, as did Pope John Paul II, it appears as mediatory maternity or maternal mediation (7). Finally, considered in reference to the graces granted, the exercise of her maternity is equivalent to intercession for and distribution of graces.

Mariologists and authors of Mariological manuals employ various methodologies in the treatment of this theme. Some authors study it in a relative form. If they consider this relation as a union with, or connection to other mysteries, they treat the question in terms of these fundamental themes: coredemption, mediation, distribution of graces, etc. This is how, after a preliminary explanation, José Antonio de Aldama approaches the theme (8).

Spiritual maternity can also be considered directly as such, by treating it as a particular question with theological meaning and content in its own right, one embracing and including the aforementioned aspects as relative to itself. It is to spiritual maternity as a theological question in its own right that Vatican II refers when it states:

This motherhood of Mary in the economy of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent in faith, which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the Cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect (9).

To what kind of spiritual maternity was the Council referring in this passage? Was it not to spiritual maternity as a specific, singular quality unfolding from the Annunciation unto Calvary, one still continuing in the Church until the end of time? Certainly, spiritual maternity here is that maternity as such, even if from a didactic and conceptual point of view we may consider it in relation to different stages in the history of salvation with which the various aspects of that maternity correspond. As I understand this text, these aspects correspond to specific, concrete exercises of spiritual maternity, which at this stage of the history of salvation Vatican II equates with the multiple intercession of Mary whereby we obtain the gifts of eternal salvation (10).

Fr. Domenico Bertetto, S.D.B., in his book Mary, Handmaid of the Lord, takes a more personal approach. He frames the broad and complex mystery of spiritual maternity within the general theme of Mary in the mystery of the Church. He explains Mary’s spiritual maternity in terms of a relationship to four points of reference: 1) efficacy; 2) relevance; 3) exemplarity; 4) finality (11). Each of these terms corresponds to one of the fundamental aspects of Mary’s spiritual maternity (12).

But before any further consideration is undertaken, it seems to me that a preliminary, general question concerning methodology in the study of Mary’s spiritual maternity as a theological question in its own right must be raised. Prior to any of the foregoing remarks, we must take as central to this methodology the analogy between spiritual and divine maternity, and the role which spiritual maternity plays in the general outline of Mariology. Just as the divine maternity is the starting point for considering Mary in relation to Christ, so spiritual maternity in itself is the starting point for considering Mary in relation to Christ and to the Church.

My Approach

From a theological and methodological viewpoint the spiritual maternity should be considered as a quality, prerogative or permanent condition of the Virgin Mary as a person, as a supernatural gift, a grace bestowed by the Father of mercies so that Mary might become Mother of all the redeemed. Thus, Mary as spiritual Mother of all her Son’s disciples, frames every other aspect of this grace: its origin, important moments, forms and aspects. This maternity is a permanent, well-determined modality of her existence, and confers on her a singular dignity and special role within the life of the Church: to be Mother of the Church.

This prerogative finds its basis in several events of salvation history, historia salutis. First, by her participation in the mystery of the Incarnation as Mother of the Redeemer and the redeemed; and second, by her effective collaboration with her Son in the redemption of the human race from his birth until his death on the Cross. Nor should we overlook what Vatican II teaches in this regard:

The Blessed Virgin … in the designs of divine providence was the gracious Mother of the divine Redeemer here on earth, and above all others and in a singular way generous associate and humble handmaid of the Lord. She conceived, brought forth, and nourished Christ, she presented him to the Father in the Temple, shared her Son’s sufferings as he died on the Cross. Thus, in a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a Mother to us in the order of grace (13).

This prerogative or permanent quality of Mary, her spiritual maternity, serves as a point of reference for all other questions which might be raised. It is a general reality, whether understood functionally or as a mission to accomplish. It is the point of departure and a general presupposition for all specific aspects and questions to be proposed. This spiritual maternity is the maternity Jesus proclaimed from the Cross: “Woman, behold, your son” (cf. Jn 19:25-27). It is a maternity, on which converge, and from which are to be contemplated, all other aspects and particular questions: forms and modalities of spiritual maternity, mother of the Church, mother and mediator, mother who intercedes, spiritual maternity as a “maternal presence” in the Church, in the terminology of John Paul II (14).

Elsewhere (15) I have expounded in considerable detail these general aspects just summarized, which for the rest have been the subject of countless studies over the past half-century (16).

The specific objective of this study is an analysis of three very important and singular moments in the exercise and unfolding of Mary’s spiritual maternity. These are: 1) the mystery of the Incarnation; 2) Calvary, 3) the wedding feast of Cana.

These three moments constitute the principal foundation for the title, Mary, Mother of the Church, when the Mother is not only acting as the potior pars (preeminent part) of the Church—after Christ, Head of the Mystical Body—but is the most perfect and eminent personalization and representation of the Church. She is the New Eve who represents with her Son, the New Adam, the entire human family reborn, the Church of God.

Mary, Mother of the Church: Theological-Spiritual Development

General Consideration

The title, Mary, Mother of the Church, so gladly accepted by the people of God, does not appear as a positive recognition of the spiritual maternity of the Mother of God, of the Mother of Jesus the Redeemer, in the documents of Vatican II: this notwithstanding Pope Paul’s manifest concern that the Council expressly accept and solemnly approve that title to the glory of the Blessed Mother and for the good of the Church. Still more, on December 4, 1963, the Pope made public his desire and hope, pleading as it were, that in its next session, the Council would expressly acknowledge the unique place occupied by the Mother of the Redeemer in the history of salvation and in the life of the Church: “The highest after that of Christ, and at the same time the closest to us, so that we might honor her with the title of ‘Mother of the Church.’ This would honor her and contribute to our consolation” (17).

The hope of Paul VI was frustrated by the negative attitude of a large number of Council Fathers. Paul VI at this time did not receive his hoped-for consolation. But surely from heaven the Virgin Mother would not deny him this, considering how strenuously he had labored to make known her dignity, her greatness, her sanctity, her spiritual beauty, and her divine and spiritual maternity.

On this occasion, the Council’s negative attitude did not reflect doctrinal considerations. Quite the contrary. The Council itself, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter 8, and in other related documents, very clearly teaches Mary’s spiritual maternity in harmony with the content and meaning of the title, Mother of God (18).

Despite the reticence of so many Council Fathers and the fact that the title, Mary, Mother of the Church, was not officially recognized in documents of the Council, its solemn proclamation by Pope Paul VI in St. Mary Major on November 21, 1964, at the conclusion of the third session of Vatican II, was roundly applauded:

For the glory of the Blessed Virgin Mary and our own consolation, we declare most Holy Mary Mother of the Church, that is of the whole Christian people, both faithful and pastors, who call her a most loving Mother; and we decree that henceforth the whole Christian people should, by this most sweet name, give still greater honor to the Mother of God and address prayers to her (19).

In its formulation the title is in part new, but in regard to its content and significance it is neither new nor unknown. Paul VI himself stated this. The title expresses an old doctrine of the Church based on Divine Revelation: in texts, allusions and references of the New and Old Testaments, especially when the New Testament refers to the exercise of a spiritual maternity by the Mother of the Redeemer, as we shall see below, and in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation.

The mysteries of the life of the Virgin Mary, after Jesus proclaimed her spiritual maternity on Calvary, and after the death and Resurrection of her Son, are an unveiling of her presence and maternal role at the dawn of the Church, and of the protection and care which she bestows on her children. This is the spirit of her presence at Pente