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 Pentecost, of her glorious Assumption into heaven and of the maternal protection she exercises over the Church (20).

The life and Tradition of the Church are an inexhaustible treasury of documentation and testimony, recognizing and proclaiming the Blessed Virgin Mary “Mother of the Church.” During recent centuries this unbroken Tradition has been confirmed by the living Magisterium. The popes, from Blessed Pius IX (1854) to John Paul II, have entrusted the life and activities of the Church to the Virgin Mary as her Mother, pleading for and asking as well her protection and help in the most difficult and adverse circumstances of the Church’s history. Mary as a diligent and powerful Mother has always protected the Church and Christians, sometimes in extraordinary ways (21).

As facts of our time, we can recall actions of Pope Paul VI, who solemnly proclaimed the title Mary, Mother of the Church during the closing of the third session of Vatican II and who previously had entrusted this cause and other problems of the Church to the Blessed Virgin. After the solemn and touching proclamation of the title, the Pope stated:

This is the reason why we … ardently raise our eyes to her with the confidence and love of children. She who gave us Jesus, font of supernatural grace, will not fail to offer the Church her maternal love, especially at this time when the Bride of Christ is ceaselessly working to fulfill her saving mission (22).

More Important Moments of Mary, Mother of the Church


Some authors ask when and how the Blessed Virgin became our Mother in the order of grace; when and how she began and continues to exercise her spiritual maternity over her children to this very day. The greater number of authors treating the spiritual maternity in general had no intention of determining such details. But in explaining the more important aspects of Mary’s spiritual maternity, affirmations and insinuations are met in the majority of cases touching its origins and the various ways and aspects involved in communicating, or in collaborating with, the communication of supernatural grace to souls. With this in mind, the proposed theme can in part be illustrated.

In some important documents dealing with Mary’s spiritual maternity, recent popes occasionally make more or less direct reference to those matters. Neither circumstances of time, nor external modalities of this spiritual maternity, are anywhere near so important as the doctrinal explanations which these popes offer for its theological content, specifically in relation to moments and mysteries in the life of Jesus where the Virgin Mary collaborated as Mother of grace and associate of her Son in the salvation of the human race.

In general, most authors insist on Vatican II’s affirmation that the life of the Virgin Mary, the life Pope Paul VI describes as that “of the humble handmaid of the Lord, who from the moment she was greeted by the angel until her Assumption into heaven’s glory, body and soul, lived as a life of love and service” (23), was a life spent in the exercise of her spiritual maternity, in the exercise of maternal solicitude.

Pope John Paul—in a document to be quoted more than once—states firmly that:

“Mary’s spiritual maternity regarding the spirit (quoad spiritum) rightly began with her physical maternity regarding the body (quoad corpus).” And referring to the mystery of the Annunciation and the conversation between Mary and the angel, he concludes: “At the very moment her physical maternity (quoad corpus) began, so also did her spiritual maternity (quoad spiritum)” (24).

According to the living Magisterium of the Church, spiritual maternity began at the time of the Annunciation, as John Paul states, with the Virgin Mary’s consent (consensus) to the angel’s request. In virtue of this “consent,” the Word of God was made flesh in Mary’s virginal womb as universal Redeemer and Savior. Thus, her biological maternity was at the same time her spiritual maternity of salvation. The Mother of the Redeemer was at the same moment also Mother of all redeemed. For this reason, according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, she began her maternity “freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience” (25).

During the progress and unfolding of the history of salvation, Mary’s spiritual maternity enjoyed some singular, characteristic moments during which various details and aspects defining the nature and intensity of Mary’s collaboration in the work of redemption become clear.

Here attention will be focused only on the most important of these in the life of Mary. The principles and norms of interpretation followed here are equally applicable to other mysteries in her life. These moments are:

1. Mary’s spiritual maternity and the mystery of the Incarnation.

2. Mary’s maternal presence at Calvary (26).

3. Ecclesial maternity at the wedding feast of Cana.

Mary, Mother of the Church, in the Mystery of the Incarnation

The Blessed Virgin Mary is properly and formally Mother of the Church by her collaboration in or consent to the mystery of the Incarnation.

1. Explanation

Here spiritual maternity is understood in its most proper sense: as a spiritual action by which the Mother, the Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Son of God, at the same time collaborates efficaciously in the communication of grace and supernatural life to souls and to the world. The term mother is not a metaphor or a mere symbol; rather it connotes a reality of the supernatural order: the world’s restoration from sin by the coming of the Son of God, the Savior, and rebirth of souls by supernatural grace gushing forth from Christ, the fountain of salvation.

This rebirth by divine disposition is realized in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, Redeemer and universal Savior. In this rebirth the Virgin Mary collaborated spiritually and formally in two ways: 1) by her loving, faithful and obedient consent (27) to the will of the Father: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word (Lk 1:38); and 2) through the work of the Holy Spirit providing of her own nature the matter to be assumed by the Word of God, the God made man so as to become the Redeemer of the human race by means of the mysteries of his flesh (28).

As Vatican II states, echoing the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, it is certain that Mary was not “merely passively engaged by God”: “Rightly therefore, the Fathers see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience” (29).

Mariologists and commentators on the mystery of the Annunciation underscore the importance and significance of Mary’s consensus. No doubt it has a definitive importance. Mary’s yes to the will of the Father was an act of love, faith and obedience; an act that manifested her collaboration in the redemption of the human race. It was an act of her spiritual maternity (30) because as a mother, she consecrated herself to the person and work of her Son, with him and under him serving the mystery of redemption.

2. Ecclesial Testimony

All of the above is explicitly taught, in a kind of Marian synthesis by Vatican II in such wise as to affirm the real meaning and significance of this question. It has also been taught by the Church’s Magisterium, whose authority here is decisive, precisely because a truth pertaining to the deposit of faith is under consideration.

Vatican II expresses itself as follows:

The Virgin of Nazareth is hailed by the heralding angel, by divine command, as “full of grace” (cf. Lk 1:28); and to the heavenly messenger she replies: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word (Lk 1:38). Thus, the daughter of Adam, Mary, consenting to the word of God, became the Mother of Jesus. Committing herself wholeheartedly and impeded by no sin to God’s salvific will, she devoted herself totally, as a handmaid of the Lord, to the person and work of her Son, under and with him, serving diligently the mystery of redemption (31).

Pope Paul VI, in his interpretation of the doctrine of the Council, adds other aspects in the gloss which he made in his Apostolic Exhortation Signum Magnum:

Mary, as soon as she was reassured by the voice of the Angel Gabriel that God had chosen her as the unblemished Mother of his only-begotten Son, unhesitatingly gave her consent to a work which would have engaged all the energies of her fragile nature and declared: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38). From that moment, she consecrated all of herself to the service not only of the heavenly Father and of the Word incarnate, who had become her Son, but also to all mankind, having clearly understood that Jesus, in addition to saving his people from the slavery of sin, would become the King of a messianic Kingdom, universal and eternal (cf. Mt. 1:21; Lk. 1:33) (32).

Paul VI’s thought regarding Mary’s spiritual maternity in the Incarnation of the Son of God could not be clearer. Becoming Mother of the Word of God, she devoted herself totally to his service as a mother to the service of her Son, and also to the service of the whole human race. Why? Because she was to become spiritual Mother of all redeemed.

On this point Pope John Paul II’s teaching is equally important. In his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater(Mother of the Redeemer), he refers several times to the relation between Mary’s divine motherhood and her spiritual maternity. Aside from other testimonies, special note should be taken of the text of his allocution, January 10, 1979, where he directly reflects on this theme. The strength of his thought culminates in this affirmation in the form of a conclusion to his reasoning, and which I have previously quoted: “At the very moment her physical maternity (quoad corpus) began, so also did her spiritual maternity in regard to the spirit (quoad spiritum).”

Note should be taken that this teaching of the present Magisterium of the Church regarding Mary’s spiritual maternity and its mutual relationship with the mystery of the Incarnation has remained uniform throughout the centuries. The text of St. Leo the Great expressing the convictions of the Church in his day remains a classic:

“Christ’s generation is the origin of the Christian people; and Christ’s birth as Head is also the birth of his (Mystical) Body” (33).

St. Leo the Great’s belief is clearly evident in this text. If Christ’s birth is our own, then this great Doctor is implicitly affirming that Christ’s Mother is also ours in the economy of salvation. Therefore, in the mystery of the Incarnation Mary is Mother of Christ the Savior and Redeemer, Head of the Church, and Mother of its redeemed members. This is the concept which the living Magisterium has always upheld.

Later there proceeds Pope St. Pius X’s exposition of this same doctrine in his important Encyclical Ad diem illum (Feb. 2, 1904). There he says:

For is not Mary the Mother of Christ? Then she is our Mother also. And we must in truth hold that Christ, the Word made Flesh, is also the Savior of mankind. … Now the Blessed Virgin did not conceive the eternal Son of God merely in order that he might be made man taking his human nature from her, but also in order that by means of the nature assumed from her he might be the Redeemer of men. … Hence Mary, carrying the Savior within her, may be said to have also carried all those whose life was contained in the life of the Savior. Therefore all we who are united to Christ, and as the apostle says are members of his Body. … Hence, though in a spiritual and mystical fashion, we are all children of Mary, and she is Mother of us all (34).

Other texts of the Magisterium of the Church similar to those already quoted could be cited, but this is hardly necessary. The high point of the Magisterium on this theme came at Vatican II and in the teachings of two recent popes: Paul VI, authorized interpreter of the Council, and John Paul II.

And the link with popes of former times is Pope Pius XII, who in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis (June 29, 1943) concludes his reflection on Mary thus:

Within her virginal womb Christ our Lord already bore the exalted title of Head of the Church; in a marvelous birth (Mary) brought him forth as the source of all supernatural life. … Thus she who, according to the flesh, was the Mother of our Head … became … the Mother of all his members (35).

3. Theological Tradition

The ancient Tradition of the Fathers of the Church and of the theologians down through the Middle Ages was not oblivious of the doctrine of Mary’s spiritual maternity, although direct expositions of its meaning and explanations of its content and key moments in the history of salvation may be wanting. This notwithstanding, some Fathers and ecclesiastical writers do affirm the factual truth of this mystery, either directly or as a deduction from other theological premises, from an antithetical comparison Eve-Mary, an argumentation already current in the days of St. Irenaeus, or from considerations bearing on Mary’s mission in the history of salvation.

In particular, Mary’s spiritual maternity in the New Testament also possesses a bridal meaning. In the account of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38), in the mystery at Calvary (Jn 19:25-27) and in Mary’s presence at wedding feast of Cana (Jn 2:1-11), exegetes, not restricting themselves to the merely proper, historical and literal sense of the text, also discover in the New Covenant phenomena and events of salvation history which reveal the Son of God to have been betrothed with human nature in Mary’s virginal womb.

By careful analysis of reciprocal concepts and through the study of events endowed with a wide-ranging symbolism, Mary is shown to be acting as spiritual Mother and Bride. Thus, in the mystery of the Annunciation Mary pronounces her fiat (Lk 1:38) as mystical bride of the Word, giving birth to the Church as distinct from Christ. Of this Church Christ becomes Head, after assuming in personal union the human nature he intended to redeem (36). It is helpful to keep this blending of types in mind, so as to recognize the various interrelated titles under which the Tradition of the Church has proclaimed Mary’s spiritual maternity.

We can outline the teaching of Tradition, as some writers have done, via a series of general formulations, as it were capita maiora (major headings), each of which is equivalently an affirmation of the spiritual maternity of Mary, Mother of the redeemed, viz., of the disciples of Jesus.

a) The spiritual maternity of Mary is affirmed in propounding and explaining the antithetical parallelism Eve-Mary as grounded in Sacred Scripture. So true is this that Vatican II summarized this argument, saying that “not a few of the early Fathers, comparing Mary with Eve, call her Mother of the living” (37); and frequently claim: “death through Eve, life through Mary” (38).

b) The doctrine of the Mystical Body is another reason for claiming that Mary’s spiritual maternity was recognized during the patristic era. St. Augustine, in building on this insight, stated that if Mary is Mother of Christ, Head of the Church, then she is also Mother of its members.

A similar application is possible by taking Christ’s conception and birth as universal Redeemer and Savior point of reference. Reflections along such lines are developed especially by St. Leo the Great (39).

c) Another similar argument can be formulated, this one converging on Mary’s presence on Calvary and on Jesus’ proclamation of her maternity by extending it to include John, the beloved disciple, when he said to his Mother: “‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” (Jn 19:26-27).

The proof for this argument supposes that John, Jesus’ disciple, represented either the Church or mankind. According to the Church’s Tradition, and in view of the content and significance of the scene on Calvary, St. John acted here not as a merely private person, but in accord with the divine counsels as representative of the human race. But in what sense?

Some commentators think that this can be affirmed only in an improper sense, or by way of a biblical accommodation. But in view of the nature and significance of the mystery taking place on Calvary, understanding John here as representative of all mankind has unquestionable validity, as both the historical and symbolic sense of this passage. So, indeed, has the Tradition of the Church understood and proclaimed the meaning of this passage from earliest times.

Above all, the Church’s Magisterium itself seems to interpret Tradition in this sense. The mind of Tradition here is not that of a mere accommodation, but of a genuine, inspired sense. This understanding Pope Benedict XIV states “the Church received under the promptings and teaching of the Holy Spirit” (40). Likewise, Pope Leo XIII affirms that the Church “has always understood that in the person of John, Jesus Christ designated the entire human race” (41).

Mary, Mother of the Church, on Calvary


The most important moment of Mary’s spiritual maternity is her presence on Calvary during her Son’s crucifixion and death. Because of the importance of biblical texts, of their content and of the significance of this redemptive mystery, and because of the attention the Church has given to this supernatural event, we are face to face with the mystery that most awakens a sensitive interest in scholars to explore and elucidate all its hidden truths.

Hence, this is the most studied event of Christ’s life and it is the one that has produced the most stimulating and extensive literature. Its content and significance has been plumbed by exegesis and theology, spirituality and anthropology, and it has been profusely depicted, in a variety of styles, by the arts, iconography and literature alike. Sculptured calvaries have sought to lend its presence a certain nearness, so as to make its contemplation by the faithful easier. The renaissance opened a golden era for the mystery of Calvary. Books of theology and devotion, like the anonymous Passio duorum (The Passion of two…) in Spanish at the turn of fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, create just this kind of style in contemplating and living the mystery (42).

The mystery on Calvary is naturally incomprehensible, not only because of its nature and supernatural significance, but even from a merely human standpoint, because that mystery unfolds and without explanation reaches, humanly speaking, a tragic finale. It is useless to rationalize it by adducing ancient custom or past events lost in the mists of history. Nor is it enough, in order to find a satisfactory explanation, to cite legal norms or spin hypotheses revolving about the hate for Jesus and intrigues against him indulged in by members of Jerusalem’s high-ranking elite. Some other reason, beyond reason itself, has to be discovered. The mystery is contained in the heart of the Father: God will reign from a tree (Regnabit a ligno Deus). The triumph of the Cross explains the life of the Church to be established on the law of love.

That is why the mystery of Calvary will always awaken interest and a desire to penetrate its shadowy light; a yearning to discover the reasons for suffering so as to be healed; for dying in order to live.

From the Cross, setting his hope on God and on his merciful power alone, Jesus, a few moments before dying, uttered most tender and consoling words to his Mother and disciple. Son and Mother; the world and the Church were here represented. The Mother, a widow for some years, and a beloved disciple, virgin of love. When Jesus saw his Mother, he said to her: “‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’”

Proclamation of Mary’s Spiritual Maternity

“But standing by the Cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (Jn 19:25-27).

A) In regard to Mary’s spiritual maternity, the scene at Calvary possesses a double content. Jesus’ life on earth, in relation to the redemption of mankind, is to be considered the constitutional period of that redemption. From the first moment of the Incarnation until his death on the Cross, Jesus carried out and consummated his mission as Savior and Redeemer of the human race, accumulating an infinity of merit with the works accomplished in the mysteries of his flesh. Viewed from this angle, the redemption finds its culmination on the Cross, there sealed by his glorious death and victorious Resurrection.

By way of analogy, we can say the same of Mary’s coredemptive collaboration with her Son and of her spiritual maternity. From the mystery of the Incarnation until her Son’s death, she was continually exercising her spiritual maternity in a series of acts which, via the mysteries of her life, manifest precisely her coredemptive collaboration. Vatican II, once again, partially describes this series of events in the exercise of coredemptive collaboration:

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 … 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 (43).

According to the Council, on Calvary Mary carried out and exercised her role of Co-redemptrix by way of her spiritual composure during those confusing moments of sorrow. By her compassion for her Son, by her union with him by virtue of the most intimate possible bond of maternal love; through her faith in and obedience to the Father’s saving will; by her unshakeable hope and ardent charity, she cooperated, as the Council itself recalls, in a wholly singular, objective, immediate and supernatural way in the redemption of the human race.

This thesis is basic to assessing spiritually and supernaturally the Virgin Mother’s life as Mother of the Son of God and associate in the work of redemption. Throughout her life, as the Council states, she lived spiritually and supernaturally in union with “the Son in the work of salvation … from the time of Christ’s virginal conception up to his death” (44). Her entire life was an exercise in spiritual maternity, an efficacious cooperation in the work of redemption.

That coredemptive collaboration, the equivalent of her spiritual maternity, found its high point on Calvary. There, the spiritual strength and living expression of her love for God and for her Son attained their summum (summit), because there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for others. At this point, Mary accepted her Son’s death in dying with him spiritually and affectively. Mariologists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries strove to clarify this union of Christ and Mary on Calvary in relation to their pain, suffering and sacrificial oblation, all that is meant and expressed by the term compassio.

Mary’s coredemptive collaboration with her Son was consummated on Calvary. Her spiritual maternity had attained its highest efficacy and expression. What remained to be done? The subsequent, final moment of this spiritual maternity on Calvary, its proclamation from the Cross, represents the culmination of what it means.

B) The concepts: The terms and concepts of the text just cited are sufficiently known; so also the meaning of the noun woman, and why Jesus used it at this moment instead of the proper name, Mary, or the familiar term, mother.

A comparison of the scene on Calvary with the Annunciation readily makes plain some notable differences in the circumstances of each event. But certain, more basic resemblances also come to light. These have their root in the presence of an identical goal in the unfolding and realization of salvation history. Although Calvary and the Annunciation are two distinct events, they are in fact one by virtue of an identical cause. Both events entail a basic nucleus in view of the fulfillment of a single objective. The content of two terms, consensus = consent, and compassio = compassion, explains the link which makes both events radically one before they are considered separately.

What Mary’s consensus (her fiat) was to the mystery of Incarnation, her compassio was by analogy to the mystery of redemption on Calvary. This parallel is the central point of reference on which any explanation of these two salvific events turns.

The consensus was, as it were, the door giving the Word of God access to the world of redemptive salvation: Janua coeli (Gate of heaven). In virtue of her divine motherhood Mary was the door through which the Word of the Father made himself present in the world to renew and restore it by means of the mysteries of his flesh and by means of the sacrifice of himself offered in an infinite act of love.

The compassion was the Mother’s contribution to the sacrifice of her beloved Son, a collaboration representing also that of redeemed mankind so as to recover the beauty and loveliness of spirit disfigured by original sin and by all the sins of the world. The scene on Calvary replicates the scene in the first paradise where the woman Eve appears as active collaborator of the sin of Adam. As the New Adam, Jesus during the final episode of his life on earth, so laden with symbolism, associates the New Eve, his immaculate Mother, with his work, with his supreme act of love and obedience to the Father, and with his redemptive sacrifice, thus purifying the Church by his blood and by surrendering himself to corporal death for her (45).

The compassio includes and synthesizes Mary’s total collaboration in the mystery of Calvary as spiritual Mother of the new mankind; a collaboration with many facets, but above all as spiritual association and participation in her Son’s pains and sufferings, in his death and in his act of acceptance: His fiat (cf. Mt 26:39; Lk 22:42; Heb 10:7). In this Mary conforms herself to his will perfectly united to the Father’s; spiritually she becomes herself a sacrificial victim acceptable to God, in spirit nailed to the Cross with her Son (46).

Compassio-compatiens is the terminology commonly used since the Middle Ages to describe Mary’s interior composure on Calvary, her participation in her Son’s sacrifice and the exercise of her spiritual maternity. It may well be also the best terminology for our times. Significantly, it was used by the Second Vatican Council (47). This terminology holds great importance for the interpretation of Mariological teaching between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries on the coredemptive participation of the Virgin Mary in the work of her Son’s redemption (48).

Doctrine of the Church’s Magisterium

The witness of the Church’s Magisterium to Mary’s spiritual maternity reflected in her presence and actions on Calvary is very abundant, and is distinguished by a broad and profound theological-spiritual content. By means of this doctrine we come to know the various aspects and the value of Mary’s cooperation in the work of salvation, ever dependant in its every phase on the efficacious mediation and redemptive action of the Son of God.

It is not necessary to cite here all the testimonies or to make particular comments on each. The texts of themselves make clear their distinctive features and the doctrinal-spiritual value of their content.

On March 16, 1748, Pope Benedict XIV published his “Bulla aurea” entitled Gloriosae Dominae—quoted already above—in which he assesses Church’s devotion to the Virgin of Calvary:

The Catholic Church, prompted by the teaching of the Holy Spirit, has sought the utmost to honor her (the Virgin Mary) with countless gifts as the Mother of its Lord and Redeemer and as the Queen of heaven and earth. With great care and attention the Church strives to love her with filial piety. From the lips of her divine Bridegroom, as he was dying, the Church received her (Mary) as her very own most beloved Mother” (49).

Pope Pius VIII (1829-1830), during his short pontificate, wished to strengthen among the faithful trust in the Virgin Mary’s protection: “because she is our Mother, Mother of piety and grace, Mother of mercy, to whom Christ, as he was dying on the Cross, entrusted us, so that she might intercede for us before her Son” (50).

Pope Leo XIII makes this crystal-clear affirmation in his Encyclical Quamquam pluries (1889): “From the same fact that the most holy Virgin is the Mother of Jesus Christ is she the Mother of all Christians whom she bore on Mount Calvary amid the supreme throes of the redemption” (51). The Pope explains this same doctrine in many other testimonies, one which is particularly expressive I quote here:

Moreover, it was before the eyes of Mary that was to be finished the divine sacrifice for which she had borne and brought up the Victim. As we contemplate him in the last and most piteous of those mysteries, there stood by the Cross of Jesus his Mother, who, in a miracle of charity, so that she might receive us as her sons, offered generously to divine justice her own Son, and died in her heart with him, stabbed with the sword of sorrow (52).

From the many testimonies bequeathed us by Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), I quote only two very important ones. During the first years of his pontificate he customarily instructed the Church about the Virgin Mary thus:

The sorrowful Virgin took part with Jesus Christ in the work of the redemption. She was constituted Mother of men, who were confided to her as a testimony of divine love. She took them to herself as sons and she lovingly protects them (53).

In a letter to the Order of Servants of Mary (Servites) on the celebration of the seventh centenary of their foundation, the Pope included a clear statement about Mary’s spiritual maternity:

Shortly, the seventh centenary of the Order’s foundation will be observed, while we are celebrating the Jubilee Year of the redemption of mankind and the constitution of Virgin Mary at the foot of her Son’s Cross as Mother of all men (54).

The countless, profound testimonies regarding Mary, our spiritual Mother on Calvary, to be found in the living Magisterium of the Church, inspired later popes to publish numerous documents in which they recognize and explain that very mystery. D. Bertetto has thoroughly analyzed the important contribution of Pope Pius XII. His luminous documentation above all witnesses to the fact of Mary’s spiritual motherhood, relating it especially to persons and to families (55), and linking this title with that of Mary, Mediatrix and Distributrix of graces (56).

Pius XII explains the general doctrine of spiritual maternity and its relation to other aspects of the mystery of Mary. Realistically, it finds its source in the divine maternity (57), but when proclaiming it from the Cross Jesus linked the spiritual maternity to a new title, Mary’s collaboration in the work of redemption. These are the essential constitutive elements of spiritual maternity.

To be added to this is the permanent, actual exercise of the spiritual maternity by the Virgin Mary from her heavenly throne, an activity commonly related to the universal distribution of graces. In his great encyclicals Mystici Corporis and Mediator Dei, Pius XII explains the reasons for Mary’s spiritual maternity, and sketches other suggestive considerations which manifest both the love of Jesus Christ for mankind and the solicitude and grandeur of the Mother who collaborated in the work of redemption (58).

Pius XII repeatedly refers to the scene on Calvary in order to highlight the figure of the Virgin Mother; her love for her crucified Son and for her adopted children whom she loves far more than all earthly mothers; her strength of soul in bearing the atrocities and torments of the Passion; her exemplarity both for all her devotees and for the Church. His is a rich and highly documented Magisterium, which efficaciously contributed to the increase of Marian devotion, and in a very remarkable way to the development and progress of Mariology (59).

The Marian Magisterium of Pius XII found its culmination during Vatican II, as can be verified from those particular texts where the Council affirms and describes Mary’s spiritual motherhood, and while doing so cites precisely texts from this pontiff’s teaching (60). On this point, Vatican II represents both a point of arrival and a point of departure. For the Council assumed, reaffirmed and propounded in its Marian text (Lumen Gentium, ch. 8) the fundamental theses, up to the time of the Council sponsored by a Christo-typologically orientated Mariology, regarding the immediate, objective and singular collaboration of Mary in the work of redemption, viz., Marian coredemption (even if the term was not incorporated into the text), and those regarding Mary’s mediation, spiritual maternity, intercession and distribution of graces. At the Council, Marian coredemption, as far as its content and theological significance are concerned (leaving the question of terminology aside for the time being), were both supported and guaranteed because the common teaching on coredemption passed to the level of Chu