top of page

Mary’s Presence in the Mass

It is highly significant that in the Eucharistic Liturgy of every rite of the Catholic Church we find an explicit commemoration of the Mother of God, often quite close to the consecration. {footnote}Cf. Cuthbert Gumbinger, O.F.M. Cap., “Mary in the Eastern Liturgies,” in Juniper Carol, O.F.M. ed.), Mariology, Vol. 1 (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1955) 206-208, 211-212, 215-217, 224-226, 233, 240.{/footnote}

This is a usage established in antiquity and, no doubt, the oral tradition antedates the written, with roots deriving from the era of the Apostles. This ancient practice also testifies to the sound instinct of the faithful that Mary belongs close to her Son especially at the moment when his sacrifice is being renewed on the altar. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (#103) provides explicit corroboration of such an association by stating that Mary “is inseparably linked to her Son’s saving work” (indissolubili nexu cum Filii sui opere salutari coniungitur). {footnote}One already finds the description of the “bond” between Jesus and Mary in the work of our salvation as “intimate and indissoluble” (arctissimo et indissolubili vinculo) in the Venerable Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December 1954 (Pii IX Pontificis Maximi Acta (Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck-up. Verlagsanstelt, 1971) I:607; Our Lady: Papal Teachings, trans. Daughters of St. Paul (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1961; henceforth OL) #46). Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium uses the same language in #53 when it speaks of Mary’s being united to Jesus “by a close and indissoluble tie” (arcto et indissolubili vinculo unita). Likewise Paul VI’s speaks of the “close and indissoluble bond” which joined Mary “to the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption” (Arcto et indissolubili vinculo mysterio Incarnationis et Redemptionis) in his Professio Fidei or “Credo of the People of God” of 30 June 1968 (Acta Apostolicæ Sedis (henceforth AAS) 60 (1968) 438-439; The Pope Speaks 13:278).{/footnote}

This follows logically from a principle of capital importance enunciated by Blessed Pope Pius IX in his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December 1854, namely that “God, by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom.” {footnote}Pii IX Pontificis Maximi Acta I:599; OL #34. This principle was repeated by Pius XII in Munificentissimus Deus (AAS 42 (1950) 768; OL #520), Lumen Gentium#61, Paul VI in Marialis Cultus #25 (AAS 66 (1974) 136) and by John Paul II in Redemptoris Mater #8-9 (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1979- ; henceforth referred to as Inseg) X/1 (1987) 687).{/footnote}

There are many “reconstructionists,” “reductionists” and “revisionists” around today who want to remove Mary’s images from churches. There are “purists” who insist that Marian devotion should be strictly separated from the Mass. There are even liturgical “dictators” who prohibit the recitation of the rosary during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament as if this Christ-centered Marian devotion so dear to the faithful was an affront to the Son of Mary. All of these aberrations, I would suggest, result from a failure to grasp the “indissoluble link” between Mary and her Son’s saving work. By the same token the awareness of this immutable bond is never missing from the teaching and liturgical practice of our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. {footnote}For a brief overview on this theme in the Second Vatican Council and in the teaching of Pope John Paul II, cf. Arthur Burton Calkins, Totus Tuus: John Paul II’s Program of Marian Consecration and Entrustment (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 1994) 199-204.{/footnote}

In an Angelus address of extraordinary doctrinal richness which he gave early in his pontificate, on 5 June 1983, the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Pope drew out some of the implications of this bond between Mary and Jesus’ sacrifice:

Born of the Virgin to be a pure, holy and immaculate oblation, Christ offered on the Cross the one perfect Sacrifice which every Mass, in an unbloody manner, renews and makes present. In that one Sacrifice, Mary, the first redeemed, the Mother of the Church, had an active part. She stood near the Crucified, suffering deeply with her Firstborn; with a motherly heart she associated herself with his Sacrifice; with love she consented to his immolation (cf. Lumen Gentium, 58; Marialis Cultus, 20): she offered him and she offered herself to the Father. Every Eucharist is a memorial of that Sacrifice and that Passover that restored life to the world; every Mass puts us in intimate communion with her, the Mother, whose sacrifice “becomes present” just as the Sacrifice of her Son “becomes present” at the words of consecration of the bread and wine pronounced by the priest (cf. Discourse at the Celebration of the Word, 1 June 1983, n. 2, ORE 788:1). {footnote}Inseg VI/1 (1983) 1447; L’Osservatore Romano, English edition (henceforth referred to as ORE 788:2 (first number = cumulative edition number; second number = page).{/footnote}

While spiritual writers and theologians have occasionally touched on the topic of Mary’s presence in the worship of the Church, it is still a relatively undeveloped theme in the fields of liturgical theology and Mariology. {footnote}Cf. Jesus Castellano Cervera, O.C.D., “La Vergine nella liturgia: in che modo è presente?” Madre di Dio 64, No. 11 (Novembre 1996) 5.{/footnote}Pope John Paul II has arguably brought this theme into sharper focus on the magisterial level than any of his predecessors. I would like to devote this study to exploring the implications of this Angelus message in the light of other magisterial statements by Pope John Paul II and his predecessors.

I wish to begin by noting two specific affirmations which the Pope makes. He states that Mary “offered him (Jesus) and she offered herself to the Father.”

I. Mary’s Offering of Christ to the Father

First, it must be clear that Mary’s offering of Jesus to the Father is subordinate and complementary to the fact that “Christ offered on the Cross the one perfect Sacrifice” and that he is necessarily the primary offerer of that sacrifice. Indeed, Jesus’ offering of himself was all-sufficient for the redemption of the world. Nonetheless the Church has grown in her consciousness of the fact that Mary’s “yes” spoken at the Annunciation (Lk. 1:38) blossomed into her “yes” at Calvary and that that “yes” constituted a real and proper offering of Jesus to the Father. Here is how Pope John Paul II put it in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitæ of 25 March 1995:

“Standing by the cross of Jesus” (Jn. 19:25), Mary shares in the gift which the Son makes of himself: she offers Jesus, gives him over, and begets him to the end for our sake. The “yes” spoken on the day of the Annunciation reaches full maturity on the day of the Cross … {footnote}AAS 87 (1995) 520; ORE 1385:XIX (emphasis my own).{/footnote}

In asserting that Mary offered Jesus to the Father the Pope is continuing in the line of his predecessors. Pope Benedict XV, in his Letter Inter Sodalicia of 22 May 1918, speaking of Our Lady’s presence on Calvary (Jn. 19:25-27) which he says was “not without divine design” {footnote}The phrase non sine divino consilio is used both in Benedict XV’s Inter Sodalicia and in #58 of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium to describe Mary’s providential position beneath the cross of Jesus. While the borrowing of Benedict XV’s terminology would seem obvious, the conciliar document makes no reference to it.{/footnote} stated that

Mary suffered and, as it were, nearly died with her suffering Son; for the salvation of mankind she renounced her mother’s rights and, as far as it depended on her, offered her Son to placate divine justice; so we may well say that she with Christ redeemed mankind. {footnote}AAS 10 (1918) 181-182; OL #267.{/footnote}

Lest anyone think that Benedict is speaking here in hyperbolic idiom, let it be noted that his language is carefully measured. He says that Mary “offered her Son to placate divine justice to the extent that it pertained to her to do so”—quantum ad se pertinebat. Hence her offering, while it is not on the same level as that of her divine Son, is nonetheless united with that of Jesus.

Venerable Pius XII also gave this teaching classic expression in his Encyclical Letter Mystici Corporis of 29 June 1943:

She (Mary) it was who, immune from all sin, personal or inherited, and ever most closely united with her Son, offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father together with the holocaust of her maternal rights and motherly love, like a new Eve, for all the children of Adam contaminated through this unhappy fall … {footnote}AAS 35 (1943) 247-248; OL #383 (emphasis my own). Pius XII quoted this text again in his Encyclical Letter Ad Cæli Reginam of 11 October 1954, AAS 46 (1954) 635; OL #705.{/footnote}

I would like to summarize what I have just presented with the marvelously concise comments which Pope John Paul II made on Saint Joseph’s Day in 1995 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Castelpetroso:

Dear brothers and sisters, may you also offer the Lord your daily joys and labors in communion with Christ and through the intercession of his Mother venerated here as she offers to the Father the Son who sacrificed himself for our salvation. {footnote}L’Osservatore Romano (daily Italian edition, henceforth referred to as OR) 20-21 marzo 1995, p. 6; ORE 1384:3 (emphasis my own).{/footnote}

Note here the Pope’s theological precision: he speaks of Mary offering the Son to the Father, but further qualifies the Son as he “who sacrificed himself for our salvation.” Mary’s offering of Christ always implies first his own offering of himself.

II. Mary’s Offering of Herself to the Father

Now let us consider the second part of the assertion which John Paul II made in his Angelus address of 5 June 1983, namely that “Mary offered herself to the Father.” We might say that this, too, is contained implicitly in Mary’s fiat spoken on the momentous day of the Annunciation. The “yes” which came from her heart on Golgotha in offering her Son to the Father to satisfy for the sins of the world cannot really be separated from her total abandonment to the Father’s will which is the offering of herself. Indeed, it is necessary to distinguish between Mary’s offering of her Son and her offering of herself to the Father—and this distinction is certainly made by the magisterium because it involves the offering of two distinct persons, one divine and one human. Nonetheless, these two offerings, while not on the same level, were simultaneous and united.

We have already weighed the famous text of Benedict XV’s Inter Sodalicia from the viewpoint of Mary’s offering of Christ, now let us examine that text from the perspective of Mary’s self-offering and of her “paying the price of mankind’s redemption” along with Christ:

Mary suffered and, as it were, nearly died with her suffering Son; for the salvation of mankind she renounced her mother’s rights and, as far as it depended on her, offered her Son to placate divine justice; so we may well say that she with Christ redeemed mankind. {footnote}AAS 10 (1918) 182; OL #267 (emphasis my own).{/footnote}

It should be noted that this statement takes nothing away from the fact that Jesus’ merits were all-sufficient or that Mary, as a human creature, could never make an offering that would equal that of her divine Son. Rather what Benedict XV does is to underscore Mary’s active participation by her own suffering in the redemption wrought on Calvary. As if by way of commentary, two years later, in his homily at the canonization of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, he said that “the sufferings of Jesus cannot be separated from the sorrows of Mary.” {footnote}AAS 12 (1920) 224; Bro. Richard Zehnle, S.M. (trans.), “Marian Doctrine of Benedict XV,” Marian Reprint 70:9.{/footnote}True, they can be logically distinguished, yet they are indissolubly united.

The union of Jesus’ and Mary’s sufferings for our salvation is brought out beautifully by Venerable Pius XII in his great Sacred Heart encyclical of 15 May 1956, Haurietis Aquas:

By the will of God, the most Blessed Virgin Mary was inseparably joined with Christ in accomplishing the work of man’s redemption, so that our salvation flows from the love of Jesus Christ and His sufferings intimately united with the love and sorrows of His Mother. {footnote}AAS 48 (1956) 352; OL #778 (emphasis my own).{/footnote}

In this classic passage every word is carefully weighed and measured in order to make a declaration on the redemption and Mary’s role in it which remains a classic for its clarity and precision. Pius professes that “our salvation flows from the love of Jesus Christ and His sufferings” (ex Iesu Christi caritate eiusque cruciatibus) which is “intimately united with the love and sorrows of His Mother” (cum amore doloribusque ipsius Matris intime consociatis). The Latin preposition ex indicates Jesus as the source of our redemption while three other Latin words, cum and intime consociatis indicate Mary’s inseparability from the source. Finally, let us note Pius’ insistence on the fact that this union of Jesus with Mary for our salvation has been ordained “by the will of God” (ex Dei voluntate).

As we have already noted, Pope John Paul II consistently maintains that Mary’s assent to the bloody sacrifice of the cross was the drawing out of all of the implications of her “yes” at the Annunciation. The joyful fiat spoken to the Angel Gabriel becomes on Calvary the reason why the Pope could say in Guayaquil on 31 January 1985:

Crucified spiritually with her crucified son (cf. Gal. 2:20), she contemplated with heroic love the death of her God, she “lovingly consented to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth” (Lumen Gentium, 58). {footnote}Inseg VIII/1 (1985) 318-319; ORE 876:7 (emphasis my own).{/footnote}

While it may seem audacious to some that the Pope should speak of Mary as “crucified spiritually with her crucified son,” we note that in his text the Pope supplies us with his point of reference. It is Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians 2:20 where he asserts “I have been crucified with Christ.” If Paul could claim this of himself, there is all the more reason to assert this of Mary on Calvary.

While it would be possible to quote numerous other texts from the papal magisterium in support of Mary’s sacrifice of herself in union with Jesus for our salvation, I wish to cite just one more, which comes from Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris of 11 February 1984 and which can also serve as a marvelous recapitulation of his magisterium and that of his predecessors on this point:

It is especially consoling to note—and also accurate in accordance with the Gospel and history—that at the side of Christ, in the first and most exalted place, there is always His Mother through the exemplary testimony that she bears by her whole life to this particular Gospel of suffering. In her, the many and intense sufferings were amassed in such an interconnected way that they were not only a proof of her unshakable faith but also a contribution to the Redemption of all. … It was on Calvary that Mary’s suffering, beside the suffering of Jesus, reached an intensity which can hardly be imagined from a human point of view but which was mysteriously and supernaturally fruitful for the Redemption of the world. Her ascent of Calvary and her standing at the foot of the cross together with the beloved disciple were a special sort of sharing in the redeeming death of her Son. {footnote}Inseg VII/1 (1984) 308-309; St. Paul Editions 40-41 (except for “by her whole life,” emphasis my own).{/footnote}

Another citation from Salvifici Doloris may help to provide further context for the truths which underlie this mystery of Mary’s coredemptive suffering: “The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s Redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it.” {footnote}Inseg VII/1 (1984) 307; St. Paul Editions 37-38.{/footnote} But at the same time “Mary’s suffering (on Calvary), beside the suffering of Jesus … was mysteriously and supernaturally fruitful for the Redemption of the world.” Thus the Pope strikes that careful balance which is always a hallmark of Catholic truth: he upholds the principle that the sufferings of Christ were all-sufficient for the salvation of the world, while maintaining that Mary’s sacrifice was nonetheless “a contribution to the Redemption of all.”

III. The Mass—The Memorial of His Sacrifice and Hers

Now that we have fleshed out to some extent the Pope’s remarks on Mary’s active role in the redemption in his notable Corpus Christi Angelus address of 5 June 1983, let us return again to the conclusion which he draws in that text.

Every Eucharist is a memorial of that Sacrifice and that Passover that restored life to the world; every Mass puts us in intimate communion with her, the Mother, whose sacrifice “becomes present” just as the Sacrifice of her Son “becomes present” at the words of consecration of the bread and wine pronounced by the priest (cf. Discourse at the Celebration of the Word, 1 June 1983, n. 2, ORE 788:1). {footnote}InsegVI/1 (1983) 1447; ORE 788:2.{/footnote}

Mary’s sacrifice becomes present in the Mass just as her Son’s sacrifice becomes present. This is true above all precisely because Jesus is Mary’s sacrifice; she offered him in sacrifice on Calvary to the Father for us. Secondly, this is also true because Mary’s sacrifice of herself is indissolubly united to the sacrifice of Jesus. Certainly Mary’s sacrifice is always ancillary and consequent to his, but at the same time it is also inextricably united to his sacrifice of himself. Hence the Pope used his Message of 15 August 1996 to the 19th International Marian Congress {footnote}This Congress was subsequently held in Czestochowa, Poland from 24 to 26 August 1996.{/footnote} in order to underscore Mary’s presence in the sacrifice of Calvary and her presence in the sacrifice of the Mass:

Every Holy Mass makes present in an unbloody manner that unique and perfect sacrifice, offered by Christ on the tree of the Cross, in which Mary participated, joined in spirit with her suffering Son, lovingly consenting to his sacrifice and offering her own sorrow to the Father (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 58). Therefore when we celebrate the Eucharist, the memorial of Christ’s passover, the memory of his Mother’s suffering is also made alive and present, this Mother who, as an unsurpassable model, teaches the faithful to unite themselves more intimately to the sacrifice of her Son, the one Redeemer. {footnote}OR 6 settembre 1996, p. 4; ORE 1462:2.{/footnote}

Developing the theme of Mary as offerer of Jesus in his book, The Hidden Manna, Monsignor James T. O’Connor describes her as the “chief offerer of the Eucharist after the High Priest himself”:

“Suffering with her Son as he died on the Cross, she cooperated in a totally singular way by her obedience, faith, hope, and ardent charity in restoring supernatural life to souls.” {footnote}Lumen Gentium#61.{/footnote} And because the bond between Son and Mother is “intimate and indissoluble,” as the Council teaches, she remains with him—and because of him and after him—the chief offerer of that sacrifice that is made present in our earthly Eucharist. As it is the Lord who offers and is offered in every Eucharist, and who, in and with himself, offers the sacrifice of praise of his entire Body, so, in him and with him, Mary offers and is offered in each Eucharistic celebration in that utterly unique way that reflects her role in the redemption her Son achieved for her and for all of us. {footnote}James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) 347.{/footnote}

IV. Mary’s Offering of the Sacrifice and Ours

Our reflection thus far helps us to understand that Mary’s role in the sacrifice by which our redemption was brought about is unique and unrepeatable. She alone is the New Eve. {footnote}Cf. Michael O’Carroll, C.S.Sp., Theotokos: A Theological Dictionary of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc.; Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1982) 139-141.{/footnote} But at the same time she is the unique exemplar for us in offering the sacrifice of our redemption. As Pope John Paul II put it, Mary “as an unsurpassable model, teaches the faithful to unite themselves more intimately to the sacrifice of her Son, the one Redeemer.” {footnote}OR 6 settembre 1996, p. 4; ORE 1462:2.{/footnote} In this teaching he is also following a well-established tradition. On the occasion of the Consecration of Italy to the Immaculate Heart of Mary of 13 September 1959, the Servant of God Pope John XXIII in his Radio Message to the Bishops of Italy in Catania for the 16th National Eucharistic Congress stated:

We trust that, as a result of the homage they have just paid to the Virgin Mary, all Italians will be strengthened in their fervor and veneration of the Blessed Virgin as Mother of the Mystical Body, of which the Eucharist is the symbol and vital center. We trust that they will imitate in her the most perfect model of union with Jesus, our Head; We trust that they will join Mary in her offering of the Divine Victim, and that they will ask for her motherly mediation to obtain for the Church the gifts of unity, of peace, and especially of a new luxuriant blossoming of priestly vocations. {footnote}AAS 51 (1959) 713; The Pope Speaks 6:94 (alt; emphasis my own).{/footnote}

In his first visit to the Shrine of Loreto as Pope, John Paul II quoted this very text and stated that he wished to make it his own. {footnote}Cf. Inseg II/2 (1979) 257-258; ORE 599:7, 12.{/footnote}

The late Father Colman E. O’Neill, O.P. commented on Mary’s exemplary role for the faithful’s participation in the Mass from a specifically Thomistic perspective:

Mary at Calvary is the perfect model of the Church of the faithful assisting at Mass. There is the same complete dependence on the one priest both for grace and for visible sacrifice. What the offering of the Victim meant for Mary in terms of a complete surrender of herself to the divine will, it should mean likewise for the faithful. Her involvement in the sacrifice led to her compassion, the suffering of mind and emotions provoked by the sight of her Son’s passion and death and by her knowledge that it was sin that had made them necessary. The offering of the Mass with Christ must draw the Church into Mary’s compassion; this is the Pattern, repeating itself, as it will repeat itself under infinite variations until the fullness of Christ’s body is achieved.

Our Lady is, then, the model of the faithful’s participation in Mass and as well, since she is Co-redemptrix, its source under Christ and God. This implies that Mary is involved in every Mass that is offered at least in external fashion; she is, in technical terms, the exemplar of the faithful’s offering and the meritorious cause both of the spiritual submission to God and of the very existence of the Mass as a sacramental reality belonging to the Church. {footnote}Colman, E. O’Neill, O.P., Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (Staten Island, N. Y.: Alba House, 1991; rev. ed. Romanus Cessario, O.P.) 224.{/footnote}

My intent here is not to enter into the subtle discussion of Mary as an instrumental cause of grace, which Father O’Neill was also pursuing in his treatment of “Our Lady and the Mass” {footnote}Cf. O’Neill 221-231.{/footnote} and which has been more recently studied by Father John A. Schug, {footnote}Cf. John A. Schug, O.F.M. Cap., Mary, Mother (Springfield, MA: St. Francis Chapel Press, 1992), available from the author at St. Francis Chapel, 254 Bridge Street, Springfield, MA 01103-1410.{/footnote} but simply to highlight the testimony of a distinguished theologian to Mary’s exemplar role as co-offerer of the sacrifice for all of us, both priests and faithful, who are called to participate in the Mass as co-offerers with Christ.

Deepening our understanding of Mary’s unique role in our redemption and cultivating our relationship with her, then, should inevitably draw us more deeply into the celebration of the Mass. Who could possibly teach us how to participate in the Mass better than she? Indeed, I am convinced that the primary meaning of “the full, active participation (plenaria et actuosa participatione) of all God’s holy people in the same liturgical celebrations, especially in the same Eucharist” encouraged by the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium #41 does not have to do in the first instance with all of the external liturgical changes which were introduced into our worship after the Council. Rather it is a matter of our interior dispositions. Hence in #48 of the same constitution the Fathers specifically insist that the faithful should give thanks to God. Offering the immaculate victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to offer themselves.

In this matter Mary is the unparalleled teacher. This is a capital point in the Pope’s Message of 15 August 1996 to the 19th International Marian Congress held in Czestochowa, a part of which I cited above.

This Mother … as an unsurpassable model, teaches the faithful to unite themselves more intimately to the sacrifice of her Son, the one Redeemer. Through spiritual communion with the sorrowful Mother of God, believers share in a special way in the paschal mystery and are opened to this extraordinary action of the Holy Spirit which produces a supernatural joy because of communion with the glorious Christ. {footnote}OR 6 settembre 1996, p. 4; ORE 1462:2 (emphasis my own).{/footnote}

Pope John Paul’s emphasis on the “spiritual communion” with Mary of the believer underscores that her activity in the redemption is not limited to the past, but is meant to continue in the present as an explicit exercise of her maternal mediation and will continue “until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect.”{footnote}Cf. Lumen Gentium#62.{/footnote}

As a way of summing up what I have presented here I should like to conclude with these concise words of Monsignor O’Connor:

Her (Mary’s) relationship with our Eucharistic celebrations is never sufficiently explained by her role in giving Flesh to Christ, nor to the exemplary aspect of her faith and devotion, nor even to her role as offered and offering in and with her Son. She must be seen, as well, as exercising a continuing role—or causality, if we would introduce the technical word—in all that concerns the ongoing marriage of the Word and humanity. {footnote}O’Connor 349.{/footnote}

Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins was an official of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” in Rome, a contributing member of the Pontifical International Marian Academy, is the author of Totus Tuus and of numerous scholarly studies and popular articles on Our Lady and dogmatic and spiritual theology. –Assistant Ed.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page