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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 presuppositions of those who cooperated in the authorship of Mary in the New Testament, a collaborative assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars, which takes an agnostic position on the historicity of the infancy narratives, (41) finds the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel agreeing with the first two chapters of Luke’s in very few points, (42) does not believe that one New Testament author can be understood from another (43) and largely eschews the acknowledgement that any New Testament text could have been foreshadowed by the Old, even without the human author’s specific knowledge. (44)

Old Testament Context for the Spiritual Maternity

The biblical research of the last half-century has provided an abundant harvest from which to enter more deeply into the mystery of our Lady’s motherhood of the faithful. One of the themes that has emerged with ever greater clarity is that of the “Virgin Daughter Zion,” (45) a title used by the Second Vatican Council with reference to our Lady. (46) Here is a brief description of the provenance of this designation:

Among the Semites, a large city, particularly a capital city, was often portrayed as mother and the outlying villages under her protection as daughters. Eventually the word “daughter” came to be applied to the major city itself, which, in the case of Jerusalem, capital of the Davidic kingdom, also became metonymy for the entire people… Not only was it an image that crystallized the people’s consciousness of their unity; it lent itself beautifully to the covenant theology which was at the heart of Israel’s identity as a nation. And it merged with that other feminine image of covenant response, the spouse. (47)

While we cannot enter here into a detailed analysis of texts, we have but to reflect on the references to Daughter Zion in Zephaniah 3.14-15; Zechariah 9.9, Joel 2.21-23, Lamentations 4.22, Baruch 4.36-37, 5.5 and Isaiah 54.1, 60.4-5 and 66.6-10 to consider this personification of the people Israel as the “Spouse of Yahweh,” the “Virgin Israel” and the “Mother Zion” of whom it is said “One and all were born in her” (Ps. 87.5). Not a few modern Scripture scholars have found evidence of this theme forming a kind of leitmotif in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel and an important way of seeing Mary as summing up all the noblest characteristics of Israel. (48) By the same token she may be recognized as the new “Mother Jerusalem,” the mother of the new people of God. (49) On the basis of their presuppositions, of course, the joint authors of Mary in the New Testamentare reluctant to recognize any of these Old Testament allusions as possibly applicable to Mary. (50)

John 19:26-27

We turn now to consider the last words which Christ addressed to his mother and the beloved disciple, words recorded in John’s Gospel in chapter 19, verses 26-27. For hundreds of years, with the exception of Origen, this passage was seen as little more than the provision of a dying son for his mother. Even at the beginning of this century most Catholic exegetes accepted Mary’s spiritual maternity as a part of their heritage of faith, but did not think it could be found in the literal sense of the Scriptures. (51) But now after innumerable studies on the unique perspective and symbolism of John’s Gospel, there is a general recognition that every detail of this gospel is pregnant with levels of meaning. Owing to this recognition many specialized studies exploring the meaning of Mary’s motherhood of the beloved disciple have been produced by both Catholic and Protestant exegetes. (52) Here I can only hope to highlight some of the most important features of this very rich text.

First, we should take note of the fact that several exegetes see the giving of John to Mary and Mary to John as belonging to a literary genre or technical formula found at least four times in John’s Gospel and called a “schema of revelation.” (53) Let us consider Father de la Potterie’s explanation:

If we admit that the evangelist is applying a similar schematic formula to the scene at the foot of the cross (vv. 25-27), then we can say that the two words Jesus addresses to his mother and to the disciple form part of a pattern of revelation. Concretely, then, the dying Jesus reveals that his mother (as “Woman,” with all its biblical resonance), henceforth will also be the mother of the “disciple.” He, in turn, in representing all of Jesus’ “disciples,” hereafter shall be the son of Jesus’ own mother. In other words, Jesus reveals a new dimension to the maternity of Mary, a spiritual dimension, and a new role for the mother of Jesus in the economy of salvation; but at the same time, he reveals that the primary role of the disciple is to be “son of Mary.” (54)

Secondly, we must reckon with the titles given to the dramatis personae in this scene. Without denying that “Mary and the beloved disciple are individual persons, who have their own personal roles and significance for the mystery of salvation” (55) it is legitimate to ask why the Fourth Evangelist does not use proper names in this scene. Many argue that the intent is symbolic. Martin Dibelius describes the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in this way:

The beloved disciple is the person of faith, who has no need of proof (John 20.8). He is the witness to the mystery of the cross (19.35), and at the foot of the cross he becomes the son of Jesus’ mother, thus representing other disciples who, in their relationship with God, have become brothers of Jesus. (56)

Why, then, does Jesus address his Mother as “Woman”? Throughout the ages various answers have been given. (57) Some point to this as a reference to Genesis 3.15 which implicitly brings up the Eve-Mary antithesis. (58) Feuillet, de la Potterie and others argue, I think quite plausibly, that this is a reference to the “Daughter of Zion.” (59)

Thirdly, we should notice that it is not Mary who is first entrusted to John, but John who is first entrusted to Mary. The accent is placed on the solicitude with which Mary is to surround the disciple, a solicitude to which the disciple is to respond with the tenderness of a son. (60)

“And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19.27). Thus the rendition of the usually very dependable Revised Standard Version. “But,” says Canon McHugh,

If we take careful notice of John’s vocabulary, a more meaningful rendering emerges. In the Fourth Gospel, the verb lambánō has two senses. When applied to material things, it means simply “to take hold of,” “to pick up,” “to grasp,” etc. (e.g. 6.11; 12.13; 13.12; 19.23, 40); when applied to immaterial things, it means “to accept,” or “to welcome,” usually as a gift from God (e.g. his witness, 3.11; his word, 17.8; his Spirit, 14.17; 1 John 2.27). Secondly, the words eis ta idia, which certainly can mean “to one’s own home” (in a purely physical sense), can also mean “among one’s own spiritual possessions” (compare John 8.44 and 15.19, in the Greek). The phrase is found in the prologue with this double meaning of “physical home” and “spiritual possession,” and in close conjunction with the verb “to accept or welcome.” “He came to what was his own... and to all who accepted him, he gave the power to become children of God” (John 1.12-13). John 19.27 seems to demand a translation which includes both the purely physical and the deeper, spiritual sense. “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home, and accepted her as his own mother, as part of the spiritual legacy bequeathed to him by his Lord.” (61)

A growing number of exegetes now accepts this interpretation that the meaning of this brief verse is the welcome of Mary by the disciple who is to receive her among his spiritual goods. (62)

Given all that we have already considered, even granting that there may be many who disagree with the interpretation of John 19.26-27 which I have presented, I find the conclusion arrived at by the scholars of the ecumenical task force of the American Lutheran-Catholic dialogue rather amazing. They concede by way of footnote that Roman Catholics would make a distinction between Church teaching on Mary’s spiritual motherhood and the teaching of Scripture. “They may accept the spiritual motherhood of Mary without claiming that it is taught by the Scriptures.” (63)

Catholic scholars willingly grant that the earliest exegesis of John 19.26-27 did not explicitly find therein the doctrine of Mary’s spiritual maternity which, as we have seen, was based in the patristic era much more on the implications of the Incarnation. Many, however, do hold that this is an instance of the development of doctrine and a subsequent discovery of the implications contained in this passage from the beginning. They see it neither as a superimposition of an element alien to the original datum nor a denial of the nucleus of that original datum, but an organic development, a deeper awareness of ramifications in the text itself which were gradually brought to light over a period of time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and authoritatively accepted by the Church. (64)

This position is further solidified by much recent exegesis on the passage about the “Woman” in Revelation chapter 12. (65) Without denying that the fundamental orientation of this passage may be ecclesiological, may we not also see in this figure the Mother of Jesus? A number of scholars argue that we may. (66) Indeed, Father de la Potterie makes this interesting distinction:

In the Fourth Gospel, especially at Cana, but also near to the cross, the accent is placed on the individual person of Mary, the Mother of Jesus (it is thus that John names her) but with the ecclesiological resonances which we have tried to echo.

In Revelation 12 the relationship of who Mary personifies is inverse… In Revelation 12 the accent falls on the Church, but with Mariological resonances. These are two approaches which are complementary, in a constant dialectic between two aspects (individual and collective) of the same mystery, that of the covenant of the daughter of Zion with God. (67)

Briefly, the principal points of interest from our perspective are these: 1. the designation of the term “Woman”; 2. the reference to the fact that she has other children besides Jesus and 3. the linkage of the spiritual maternity to the mystery of Calvary. (68)

This is magnificently synthesized in the preface of the second Mass of “Mary at the Foot of the Cross” published in the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

In your divine wisdom you planned the redemption of the human race and decreed that the new Eve should stand by the cross of the new Adam: as she became his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, so, by a new gift of your love, she was to be a partner in his passion, and she who had given him birth without the pains of childbirth was to endure the greatest of pains in bringing forth to new life the family of your Church. (69)

Applications by Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II made the preaching of Mary’s spiritual maternity with constant and specific reference to the text of John 19.26-27 a hallmark of his papacy. (70) Perhaps his two most extensive treatments are general audience addresses which he gave on 11 May 1983 (71) and on 23 November 1988. (72) Let us consider parts of the catechesis on this point given on that first occasion.

Asking Mary to treat the beloved disciple as her son, Jesus invites her to accept the sacrifice of his death and, as the price of this acceptance, he invites her to take on a new motherhood. As the Savior of all mankind, he wants to give Mary’s motherhood the greatest range. He therefore chooses John as the symbol of all the disciples whom he loves, and he makes it understood that the gift of his mother is the sign of a special intention of love, with which he embraces all who want to follow him as disciples, that is, all Christians and all men. Besides giving this motherhood an individual form, Jesus manifests the intention to make Mary not merely the mother of his disciples taken as a whole, but of each one of them in particular, as though each were her only son who is taking the place of her Only Son…

Devotion to Our Lady therefore is not opposed to devotion to her Son. Rather it can be said that by asking the beloved disciple to treat Mary as his mother Jesus founded Marian devotion. (73) John was quick to carry out the will of his Master: from that hour onward the disciple took her into his care, showing her filial affection that corresponded to her motherly affection, thus beginning a relationship of spiritual intimacy that contributed to deepening his relationship with his Master, whose unmistakable traces he found on his mother’s face… (74)

Among hundreds of other variations on this theme—short or lengthy, in homilies, prayers, letters, encyclicals and addresses, always similar, but never the same—he has also devoted sections 20-24 and 44-45 of Redemptoris Mater to the topic of Our Lady’s spiritual maternity. (75) In that encyclical he developed the concept that the Gospel brings a radically “new dimension” to every relationship, hence also to motherhood, and, therefore to the motherhood of Mary. (76) One of the personalist arguments developed there which I think is most compelling is the following:

Of the essence of motherhood is the fact that it concerns the person. Motherhood always establishes a unique and unrepeatable relationship between two people: between mother and child and between child and mother. Even when the same woman is the mother of many children, her personal relationship with each one of them is of the very essence of motherhood. For each child is generated in a unique and unrepeatable way, and this is true both for the mother and for the child. Each child is surrounded in the same way by that maternal love on which are based the child’s development and coming to maturity as a human being.

It can be said that motherhood “in the order of grace” preserves the analogy with what “in the order of nature” characterizes the union between mother and child. In the light of this fact it becomes easier to understand why in Christ’s testament on Golgotha his Mother’s new motherhood is expressed in the singular, in reference to one man: “Behold your son.” (77)

Finally, let us consider the Pope’s understanding of eis ta idia, taking Mary into the home of one’s life. In his homily at Fatima on 13 May 1982, which is a theological as well as pastoral masterpiece, he begins by citing John 19.27, developing first its literal meaning with special reference to Marian sanctuaries like Fatima and then drawing out its “spiritual sense”:

In all these places that unique testament of the crucified Lord is wonderfully actualized: in them man feels that he is entrusted and confided to Mary; he goes there in order to be with her, as with his Mother; he opens his heart to her and speaks to her about everything: he “takes her to his own home,” that is to say, he brings her into all his problems, which at times are difficult. His own problems and those of others. The problems of the family, of societies, of nations, and of the whole of humanity. (78)

Just two weeks earlier he developed this same theme with a large group of priests who work with the Focolari Movement (also known as the Opera di Maria). This time he drew out the meaning of John 19.27 with particular reference to priests, but I would suggest that it could be applied to all.

The Gospel text just cited offers us the model for our devotion to Mary. “And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19.27). Can the same be said of us? Do we also welcome Mary into our homes? Indeed, we should grant her full rights in the home of our lives, of our faith, of our affections, of our commitments, and acknowledge the maternal role that is hers, that is to say, her function as guide, as adviser, as encourager, or even merely as a silent presence which at times may of itself be enough to infuse us with strength and courage. (79)

By way of conclusion I can think of no better words than those spoken by John Paul II on his first return to Poland as Pope on 4 June 1979. He spoke them at the Shrine of the Mother of God at Jasna Gora where, he said, “One must listen… in order to hear the beating of the heart of the nation in the heart of the Mother.” (80)

How meaningful for me always have been the words that your Son, born from you, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of man, spoke from the height of the cross, pointing out John the Evangelist: “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19.26). In these words I always found the place for every human being and the place for myself. (81)

Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins was an official of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” in Rome, a contributing member of the Pontifical International Marian Academy and the author of Totus Tuus. He is internationally known for his numerous articles on Our Lady and for his scholarly work in the fields of dogmatic and spiritual theology. This article is from a talk given at the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary Congress at Norwich, England in July 1994.


AAS: Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1909 – ).

ASS: Acta Sanctae Sedis (1865-1908).

BSFEM: Etudes Mariales: Bulletin de la Société Francaise d’Etudes Mariales, Paris.

CSCO: Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Louvain 1903 -.

CSEL: Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Vienna 1866 -.

DV: Dei Verbum (Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation).

Flannery: Austin Flannery OP, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Gracewing Fowler Wright, Leominster, 1981).

Inseg: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, I (1978- ) (Citta del Vaticano, Libreria

Editrice Vaticana, 1979- ).

LG: Lumen Gentium (Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).

Maria: Hubert du Manoir SJ (ed.), Maria: Etudes sur la Sainte Vierge 8 vols. (Paris, Beauchesne et Ses Fils, 1949-1971).

Mat Spir: La Maternite Spirituelle de la Tres Sainte Vierge Marie (Citta del Vaticano, Libreria Editrice Vaticana “Studi Tomistici” 36, 1990).

MMC: Ignace de la Potterie SJ, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant trans. Bertrand Buby SM (New York, Alba House, 1992).

MNT: Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and John Reumann (eds.), Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia, Fortress Press; New York, Paulist Press, 1978).

MSS: Maria in Sacra Scriptura: Acta Congressus Mariologici-Mariani Anno 1965 in Republica Dominicana Celebrati 5: De Beata Virgine Maria in Evangelio S. Ioannis et in Apocalypsi (Roma, Pontificia Academia Mariana Internationalis, 1967).

OL: Our Lady: Papal Teachings, trans. Daughters of St Paul (Boston, St Paul Editions, 1961).

ORE: L’Osservatore Romano, weekly edition in English. First number = cumulative edition number; second number = page.

PG: J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca.

PL: J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Latina.

Poland: Pilgrim to Poland (Boston, St Paul Editions, 1979).

RM: Redemptoris Mater Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II of 25 March 1987 on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church.

Sebastian: Wenceslaus Sebastian OFM, “Mary’s Spiritual Maternity,” Juniper B. Carol OFM (ed.), Mariology 2 (Milwaukee, Bruce Publishing Co., 1957) 325-376.

Theotokos: Michael O’Carroll CSSp, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary(Wilmington: Michael Glazier Inc. Dublin, Dominican Publications, 1982).

TPS: The Pope Speaks, 1 – (1954 – ).

UR: Unitatis Redintegratio (Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism) .


(1) DV 8 (Flannery 754).

(2) Cf. Clément Dillenschneider CSSR, La Mariologie de S. Alphonse de Liguori: Sources et Synthèse Doctrinale (Fribourg: Studia Friburgensia, 1934) 159.

(3) Otto Semmelroth SJ, Mary, Archetype of the Church trans. Maria von Eroes and John Devlin (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963) 132.

(4) Sebastian 331.

(5) Cf. Jean-Marie Salgado OMI, “La Visitation de la Sainte Vierge Marie: Exercice de sa Maternité Spirituelle” Divinitas 16 (1972) 448-49; Mat Spir 192-95.

(6) Quoted in Sebastian 350 (also in OL 229-30).

(7) Inseg II 2 (1979) 1289 (Turkey: Ecumenical Pilgrimage (Boston: St Paul Editions, 1980) 76-77).

(8) Inseg XIV 1 (1991) 1217-1218 (ORE 1191.5).

(9) RM 20 (St Paul Editions, 29).

(10) Cf. his bull Gloriosae Dominae of 27 September 1748, Bullarium Romanum II (Prati, 1846) 428b (OL 2).

(11) Cf. Mat Spir 154-59; Bonaventura Duda OFM, “‘Ecce Mater Tua’ (Jo. 19:26-27) in Documentis Romanorum Pontificum,” MSS 235-289.

(12) ASS 28 (1895-1896) 130 (OL 168).

(13) AAS 46 (1954) 494; (OL 648).

(14) Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP, The Mother of the Saviour and Our Interior Life trans. Bernard J. Kelly CSSp (St Louis, B. Herder Book Company, 1957) p. 167.

(15) LG 54 (Flannery p. 414).

(16) LG 57 (Flannery p. 416).

(17) LG 62 (Flannery pp. 418-419).

(18) AAS 56 (1964) 1014-1018 (TPS 10 (1964-1965) 137-141).

(19) AAS 60 (1968) 438-439 (Candido Pozo SJ, The Credo of the People of God: A Theological Commentarytrans. Mark A. Pilon (Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1980) p. 87).

(20) DV 8 (Flannery pp. 754-755).

(21) Mat Spir pp. 57-151; Théodore Koehler SM, “Maternité Spirituelle de Marie,” Maria 1.576-589; ibid. “Maternité Spirituelle, Maternité Mystique,” Maria 6.569-597; Sebastian pp. 361-375.

(22) Cf. Sebastian p. 362.

(23) Cf. Theotokos p. 134.

(24) Sermo 26 in nativitate, PL 54, 213.

(25) Explanatio Evangelii concordantis, 4, 15, CSCO, 145, 41.

(26) De Sancta Virginitate c. 6, 6, CSEL 41, 239-240 (Theotokos p. 254).

(27) Flannery p. 414.

(28) Flannery p. 418.

(29) Greek text in Cipriano Vagaggini OSB, Maria nelle Opere di Origene (Roma, Pont. Institutum Orientalium Studiorum “Orientalia Christiana Analecta” 31, 1962) 177 (Latin text in PG 14, 31 A-B): this translation partially adapted from versions given in Theotokos pp. 254, 275.

(30) Cf. Sebastian, p. 373; Bertetto, “Beata Virgo Maria et testamentum Domini in cruce,” MSS 186; Théodore Koehler SM, “Maternité Spirituelle, Maternité Mystique,” Maria 6.582; cf. also Pastor Gutierrez Osorio SI, “‘Ecce Mater tua’ (John 19.25-27): Maternitas spiritualis Mariae in luce exegeseos SS. Patrum et scriptorum posteriorum,” MSS 156; Theotokos p. 254.

(31) P.M. Braun OP, Mother of God’s People trans. John Clarke OCD (New York, Alba House, 1967) pp. 99-100.

(32) Jean-Marie Salgado OMI, “La maternité Spirituelle de la Sainte Vierge chez les Pères durant les quatre premiers siècles,” Divinitas 30 (1986) pp. 58-61; Mat Spir pp. 63-65.

(33) Cf. PG 1476-1478; Mat Spir pp. 128-129; Sebastian p. 373; Theotokos pp. 154-155.

(34) De conceptione Beatae Mariae Virginis PL 159, 315; cf. Sebastian pp. 373-374.

(35) MMC p. 212.

(36) Cf. Deyanira Flores, La Virgen Maria al Pie de la Cruz (Jn. 19, 25-27) en Ruperto de Deutz (Roma, Centro de Cultura Mariana, 1993); Sebastian p. 374; Theotokos pp. 315-316.

(37) Cf. Théodore Koehler, “Les principales interprétations traditionelles de Jn. 19, 25-27 pendant les douze premiers siècles,” BSFEM 16 (1959) pp. 119-55; Sebastian p. 372; Theotokos p. 255.

(38) DV 10 (Flannery p. 756).

(39) Ibid.

(40) Ibid.

(41) MNT 12-14.

(42) MNT 13-14.

(43) MNT 22-25.

(44) MNT 29-30.

(45) Cf. N. Lemmo, “Maria, ‘Figlia di Sion’, a partire da Lc 1:26-38. Bilancio esegetico dal 1939 al 1982,” Marianum 45 (1983) 175-258; Theotokos 116-117; MMC xxiv-xi and passim; Henri Gazelles PSS, “Fille de Sion et théologie mariale dans la Bible,” BSFEM 21 (1964) 51-71; John McHugh, The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament (Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Co. Inc, 1975) 29-52, 438-444.

(46) In LG 55 Mary is referred to as praecelsa Filia Sion.

(47) George T. Montague SM, Our Father, Our Mother: Mary and the Faces of God (Steubenville, OH, Franciscan University Press, 1990) 103.

(48) Cf. McHugh 29-52; René Laurentin, Structure et Théologie de Luc I-II (Paris, J. Gabalda et Cie, 1964, 4th ed.) 148-163; ibid. The Truth of Christmas Beyond the Myths: The Gospels of the Infancy of Christ trans. Michael J. Wrenn and associates (Petersham, MA, St Bede’s Publications, 1986) 9,52-53, 59-60; Max Thurian, Mary, Mother of All Christians trans. Neville B. Cryer (New York, Herder & Herder, 1964) 13-19; Lucien Deiss CSSp, Mary, Daughter of Sion trans. Barbara T. Blair (Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1972) 51-85.

(49) Cf. MMC xxxi-xxxiv, 220-224; Montague 118-127; Koehler, “Mary’s Spiritual Maternity after Vatican II,” 47-51.

(50) MNT 128-132, 134, 156, 217-218, 285, 289.

(51) Cf. Mat Spir 13-17; Théodore Koehler SM, “Mary’s Spiritual Maternity after the Second Vatican Council,”Marian Studies 23 (1972) 44.

(52) Cf. MMC 212.

(53) Cf. M. de Goedt, “Un schème de révélation dans le quatrième Evangile,” New Testament Studies 8 (1961-62) 142-150; MMC 217-218; Ignace de la Potterie SJ, The Hour of Jesus—The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus According to John: Text and Spirit trans. Dom Gregory Murray OSB (Middlegreen, Slough, St Paul Publications, 1989) (= Hour) 139-146; McHugh 401.

(54) MMC 218.

(55) MMC 222.

(56) Quoted in MMC 219.

(57) Cf. Theotokos 373-375.

(58) Cf. Braun 92.

(59) Cf. MMC 220-222; Hour 140-142; André Feuillet PSS, Jesus and His Mother trans. Leonard Maluf (Still River, MA, St Bede’s Publications, 1984) 125-127; Stefano M. Manelli FFI, Mariologia Biblica (Frigento, AV, Casa Mariana Editrice, 1989) 360-365.

(60) Deiss p. 194.

(61) McHugh p. 378 (in the eighth line of this quotation I have given the reference to John 17.8 rather than to 17.18 which seems to be a typographical error in the book); cf. also Braun pp. 119-24; Aristide Serra OSM, Contributi dell’antica letteratura giudaica per l’esegesi di Giovanni 2,1-12 e 19, 25-27 (Roma, Herder, 1977) pp. 217, 226; Maria a Cana e presso la croce: saggio di Mariologia Giovannea (Roma, Centro di Cultura Mariana “Mater Ecclesiae,” 1985) pp. 106-115; Maria secondo il Vangelo (Brescia, Editrice Queriniana, 1988) pp. 165-66.

(62) MMC pp. 226-228; Hour pp. 146-151; Manelli pp. 368-371. cf. my book Totus Tuus: John Paul II’s Program of Marian Consecration and Entrustment (Libertyville, IL, Academy of the Immaculate “Studies and Texts,” No. 1, 1992) pp. 152-153, 240-248.

(63) MNT p. 215.

(64) Cf. DV 8.

(65) Cf. Theotokos pp. 375-377.

(66) Cf. MMC p. 257; Braun pp. 153-155.

(67) MMC p. 263.

(68) Andre Feuillet PSS, Johannine Studies trans. Thomas E. Crane (New York, Alba House, 1965) p. 286; MMC p. 259.

(69) Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Vol. I: Sacramentary (New York,

Catholic Book Publishing Co, 1992) p. 117; original Latin text in Collectio Missarum de Beata Maria Virgine I (Città del Vaticano, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1987) p. 49.

(70) Cf. the index to biblical references and the index to subjects in my book Totus


(71) Inseg VI 1 (1983) 1200-02 (ORE 784.1).

(72) Inseg XI 4 (1988) 1635-1638 (ORE 1066.1, 16).

(73) Père Salgado maintains that this simple but striking affirmation had never been made by the magisterium before John Paul II; cf. Mat Spir p. 169.

(74) Inseg VI 1 (1983) 1200-1201 (ORE 784.1).

(75) Cf. Théodore Koehler SM, “‘Redemptoris Mater‘ dans la Réflexion Doctrinale sur la Maternité Spirituelle de Marie,” BSFEM 50 (1993) pp. 59-84.

(76) Cf. 20, Inseg X 1 (1987) 701 (St Paul edition p. 28).

(77) 45, Inseg X 1 (1987) 734-735 (St Paul edition pp. 63-64).

(78) Inseg V 2 (1982) 1568, 1578 (Portugal p. 73).

(79) Inseg V 1 (1982) 1370-71 (ORE 736.12).

(80) Inseg II 1 (1979) 1413 (Poland p. 103-104).

(81) Inseg II 1 (1979) 1416-1417 (Poland pp. 110-111).

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