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Mary’s Spiritual Maternity

While the Church’s inchoate belief in Mary’s motherhood of all believers reaches back beyond its conscious articulation, the chronicling of this belief provides an interesting instance of the development of doctrine which is thus described in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum:

The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Luke 2.19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her. (1)

Exposition of the Doctrine from the Magisterium

Put very simply, the magisterium of the Church teaches the doctrine that as Mother of the Christ, who is “the head of the body, the Church” (Col.1.18), Mary is also the Mother of the members of that body. Theologically, a distinction is frequently made with regard to the beginning of Mary’s spiritual maternity at the time of the Annunciation and its “promulgation” (2) on Calvary. Father Otto Semmelroth SJ puts it this way:

When Mary conceived the God-man, she became ontologically the Mother of the Mystical Christ. This element had to receive the addition of moral completion at Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. (3)

Father Wenceslaus Sebastian OFM differentiates these two “moments” analogously with the Redemption wrought by Christ:

The Incarnation may be considered as the Redemption in potency or in actu primo, and the sacrifice on Calvary, as the Redemption in act, or in actu secundo. Mary’s co-operation in the production of the supernatural life follows a similar pattern. At the Incarnation, in virtue of her Divine Maternity, she conceives us to the supernatural life, whereas on Calvary she begets us. (4)

Eschewing the distinction between Mary’s spiritual maternity in actu primo and in actu secundo as an unnecessary “hardening of formulas,” Pere Jean-Marie Salgado OMI prefers, following the lead of Pius XII, to speak of Mary’s “double title to motherhood in the supernatural order”: her divine maternity and her association with the sacrifice of Calvary. (5)

The Ontological Basis of the Spiritual Maternity

Let us pursue for a moment what might be called the ontological basis of Mary’s spiritual maternity, i.e. the fact that, by virtue of becoming the Mother of Christ, Mary also became the Mother of his members. One of the clearest statements of this foundation, based on the Pauline theology of the Body of Christ, was made by Pope Saint Pius X in his encyclical Ad Diem Illum of 2 February 1904:

For is not Mary the Mother of Christ? She is, therefore, our Mother also. Indeed everyone must believe that Jesus, the Word made Flesh, is also the Savior of the human race. Now, as the God-Man He acquired a body composed like that of other men, but as the Savior of our race He had a kind of spiritual and mystical Body, which is the society of those who believe in Christ. “We, the many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12.5). But the Virgin conceived the Eternal Son not only that He might be made man by taking His human nature from her, but also that by means of the nature assumed from her He might be the Savior of men. For this reason the angel said to the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, Who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2.11). So in one and the same bosom of His most chaste Mother, Christ took to Himself human flesh and at the same time united to Himself the spiritual body built up of those “who are to believe in Him” (John 17.20). Consequently Mary, bearing in her womb the Savior, may be said to have borne also all those whose life was contained in the life of the Savior. All of us, therefore, who are united with Christ and are, as the Apostle says, “Members of His body, made from His flesh and from His bones” (Ephesians 5.30), have come forth from the womb of Mary as a body united to its head. Hence, in a spiritual and mystical sense, we are called children of Mary, and she is the Mother of us all. (6)

Pope John Paul II likewise acknowledges that this “service” of Mary to the Church began from the first moment of the conception of Christ. Here is how he put it in Ephesus on 30 November 1979, basing himself on two Fathers and a Doctor of the Church:

Uttering her “fiat” Mary does not just become Mother of the historical Christ; her gesture sets her as Mother of the total Christ, as “Mother of the Church.” “From the moment of the fiat“—St Anselm remarks—”Mary began to bear us all in her womb.” That is why “the birth of the Head is also the birth of the Body.” St Leo the Great proclaims. On his part, St Ephrem has a very beautiful expression on this subject: Mary, he says, is “the ground in which the Church was sown.”

In fact, from the moment when the Virgin becomes Mother of the Incarnate Word, the Church is constituted secretly, but perfectly in its germ, in its essence as the Mystical Body: there are present, in fact, the Redeemer and the first of the redeemed.

Henceforth incorporation into Christ will involve a filial relationship not only with the heavenly Father, but also with Mary, the earthly Mother of the Son of God. (7)

In Fatima on 12 May 1991 he expressed himself in this way:

Since she (Mary) gave birth to Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body, she also had to have given birth to all the members of that one Body. Therefore, “Mary embraces each and every one in the Church, and embraces each and every one through the Church” (Redemptoris Mater 47). (8)

Finally, he wrote thus in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater 20:

If through faith Mary became the bearer of the Son given to her by the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit, while preserving her virginity intact, in that same faith she discovered and accepted the other dimension of motherhood revealed by Jesus during his messianic mission. One can say that this dimension of motherhood belonged to Mary from the beginning, that is to say from the moment of the conception and birth of her Son. From that time she was “the one who believed.” But as the messianic mission of her Son grew clearer to her eyes and spirit, she herself as a mother became ever more open to that new dimension of motherhood which was to constitute her “part” beside her Son. (9)

The Promulgation of Mary’s Spiritual Maternity on Calvary

If the magisterium maintains that Mary’s motherhood of the members of Christ’s Body is implicit in the divine plan from the time of the Incarnation, it has also consistently taught, at least from the time of the pontificate of Benedict XIV (1740-1758), (10) that what John Paul II calls the “new dimension of Mary’s motherhood” was proclaimed by the dying Christ from the cross. (11) Here, for instance, is a statement of the Church’s conviction in this regard made by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Adiutricem Populi of 5 September 1895:

The mystery of Christ’s immense love for us is revealed with dazzling brilliance in the fact that the dying Savior bequeathed His Mother to His disciple John in the memorable testament: “Behold thy son.” Now in John as the Church has constantly taught, Christ designated the whole human race, and in the first rank are they who are joined with Him by faith. It is in this sense that St Anselm of Canterbury states: “What dignity, O Virgin, could be more highly prized than to be the Mother of those to whom Christ deigned to be Father and Brother.” (12)

Let us listen to another formulation of this belief by Pius XII in an allocution which he gave to the Children of Mary on 17 July 1954:

Jesus Himself from His Cross on high ratified by means of a symbolic and efficacious gift the spiritual motherhood of Mary toward men when He pronounced the memorable words: “Woman, behold thy son.” He thus entrusted all Christians, in the person of the beloved disciple, to the most Blessed Virgin. The “Fiat” of the Incarnation, her collaboration in the work of her Son, the intensity of the sufferings endured during the Passion, and this death of the soul which she experienced on Calvary, had opened the heart of Mary to the universal love of humanity, and the decision of her Divine Son impressed the seal of omnipotence on her motherhood of grace. (13)

We may note that the quotation from Leo XIII seems more ample than that of Pius XII, since the former speaks of Mary’s motherhood of the whole human race, but the latter speaks of her motherhood of Christians, though even there Pius speaks of Mary’s heart being opened “to the universal love of humanity.” This problem is not difficult to resolve. Mary’s motherhood is intended for all; she is even the mother of non-believers in the sense “that she is destined to engender them to grace.” (14)


It is not surprising then that the Marian chapter of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium presents Mary as the “mother of Christ and mother of men” (matrem Christi et matrem hominum) (15) and cites St Epiphanius’s comparison of Mary with Eve, calling the former “Mother of the living” (mater viventium) (16) Its clearest formulation, it seems to me, is the following:

This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home. (17)

This teaching was further reconfirmed and given added weight by Paul VI’s declaration of Mary as Mother of the Church on 21 November 1964 (18) and his solemn Profession of Faith (also known as the Credo of the People of God) made on 30 June 1968. (19) Hence the succinct, but very carefully weighed, treatment of Mary’s spiritual maternity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 963-975 solidifies a longstanding magisterial tradition.

The Exposition from Tradition

A logical question to ask at this stage is: “How did the Catholic Church’s magisterium reach this certitude about Mary’s motherhood of the faithful?” The answer, I believe, is to be found in the Church’s millenary Tradition. This is not to say that the teaching on the spiritual maternity has sprung full-blown from the sub-apostolic era, but it is to say that we do find major elements of this doctrine appearing at a very early stage and that these continued to develop coherently over the course of the centuries. This is but a verification of the teaching on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council:

The sayings of the Holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer. By means of the same Tradition the full canon of the sacred books is known to the Church and the holy Scriptures themselves are more thoroughly understood and constantly actualized in the Church. Thus God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church—and through her in the world—leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness (cf. Col. 3.16). (20)

Here we can only indicate a few salient, but very important texts in support of this doctrine while referring the interested researcher to some of the major historical studies. (21)

The Spiritual Maternity Inaugurated at the Incarnation

References to the fact that Mary’s spiritual maternity began simultaneously with the Incarnation of the Word may be found scattered throughout the entire patristic period and it is supported by a much firmer tradition than that based on the understanding of John 19:26-27 (22) with one very notable exception which we will soon consider. We have already noted that the statement of St Epiphanius (c. 315-403) that, in contrast to Eve, Mary is the true “mother of the living,” (23) is cited in Lumen Gentium 56, and likewise we have heard Pope John Paul II cite the statements of St Leo the Great that “the birth of the Head is also the birth of the Body” (24) and of St Ephrem that Mary is “the ground in which the Church was sown.” (25)

Perhaps one of the most important and influential witnesses of the patristic tradition in this regard is St Augustine who said:

According to the body, Mary is Mother only of Christ. But in so far as she does the will of God, she is spiritually sister and mother. And thus this unique woman is mother and virgin, not only in spirit but bodily—mother in spirit, not of the Savior, our Head, of whom rather she is born spiritually, for all who believe in him—and she is one of them—are rightly called sons of the Spouse, but she is really Mother of the members who we are, because she cooperated by charity so that there might be born in the Church believers, of whom he is the Head. (26)

This text is cited in Lumen Gentium 53 (27) and I think one would not be mistaken in finding an echo of it in LG 61 which speaks of the “wholly singular way” in which Mary “cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in restoring supernatural life to souls.” (28)

The Spiritual Maternity Confirmed by Christ on Calvary

The exception to which I referred above comes from the great Alexandrian exegete Origen (c. 185-254). Unlike the other patristic texts which we have considered thus far, his bears an obvious reference to John 19:26-27.

The Gospels are the first fruits of all Scripture and the Gospel of John is the first of the Gospels. No one can understand the meaning of this Gospel if he has not reclined on the breast of Jesus, if he has not received from Jesus, Mary to be his Mother also… In fact, every man who has become perfect no longer lives, but Christ lives in him and, because Christ lives in him, it is said of him to Mary: Behold your son Christ. (29)

There are commentators who deny that it is possible to deduce Mary’s spiritual maternity as a solid conclusion from this very evocative text.

The underlying logic of Origen, they argue, runs like this: in order to understand the fourth gospel well each one ought to aspire to such perfection that he becomes in effect “another Christ” about whom Christ himself could say to Mary “Behold your son,” namely, behold Jesus whom you bore, behold another Christ. (30) On the other hand, Father P.M. Braun OP holds that:

It appears clear that Origen was at least admitting a certain maternity in Mary towards John and those like him… As inexact as the passage remains, it contains a first indication of the spiritual maternity of Mary. (31)

Father Jean-Marie Salgado OMI, whose magisterial work, La Maternité Spirituelle de la Très Sainte Vierge Marie, takes account of all the major treatments on Mary’s spiritual maternity until 1990, also maintains that, far from excluding Origen’s principal idea of identification with Christ, the doctrine of Mary’s universal spiritual maternity is implicitly required by such identification. He further holds that an unprejudiced reading of this text is sufficient to establish the conclusion that perfect and total identification with Christ, according to Origen, requires the acceptance of Mary’s spiritual motherhood. (32)

Origen’s text seems to have been one of those seeds destined to lie buried in the earth for hundreds of years before beginning to bear fruit. Insofar as we now know it is only with George, Metropolitan of Nicomedia (fl. 880) and contemporary of the Patriarch Photius, that the text of John 19.26-27 is taken up again and recognized as establishing Mary’s maternity of the disciples during her lifetime. (33) The theme is movingly developed by Eadmer of Canterbury (1060/64-1141), (34) and with Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075-1130), described by Father Ignace de la Potterie SJ as “the best mediaeval commentator on St. John” (35) we reach the point of a recognition that Mary’s painless parturition of the Son of God in Bethlehem is countered by the great pain with which she was in labor on Calvary in engendering her spiritual children. (36) From the twelfth century onwards the interpretation of John 19.26-27 referring to Mary’s spiritual maternity is clearly in possession. (37)

The Exposition from Scripture

From a strictly chronological point of view it would have seemed more sensible for me to begin my treatment with the Scriptures. I have begun instead by sketching the magisterial treatment in order to provide an overview of the Catholic teaching on Mary’s spiritual maternity and have then proceeded to explore some of the highlights of the Tradition. I have deliberately done this because of my conviction, shared with the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, that Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium “are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others.” (38) Indeed, for Catholics it is the Tradition which provides the context for the reading of Scripture and the magisterium which guarantees our understanding of it. (39) This is further illustrated by a statement of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 1985 that:

The exegesis of the original meaning of Sacred Scripture, most highly recommended by the Council (cf. DV12), cannot be separated from the living tradition of the Church (cf. DV 9) nor from the authentic interpretation of the Magisterium of the Church (cf. DV 10). (40)

I wish to add further that, as a Catholic, I believe that the Holy Spirit is the guide who guarantees the unity of Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium. I do not in any way share the presuppo