In an ex tempore homily on Friday, April 3, 2020, the Friday before Holy Week traditionally known as the “Friday of Sorrows” (in commemoration of Our Lady’s suffering with Jesus), Pope Francis called the Catholic faithful to contemplate the Seven Sorrows of Mary as a fruitful subject of Christian meditation in preparation for Holy Week. The Holy Father then went on to state that Mary “received the gift of being His Mother and the duty to accompany us as Mother, to be our Mother. She did not ask for herself to be a quasi-redemptrix or a co-redemptrix: no. The Redeemer is one and this title does not duplicate."
These seemingly adverse comments by the Holy Father against the traditional Co-redemptrix title for Our Lady (in addition to similar comments made during another ex tempore homily on December 12, 2019) have led to a spirited international discussion and strong papal critique as the pope appears to be speaking against a Marian title which has been in the Church’s Tradition since the 15th century, invoked positively by Pope St. John Paul II on seven occasions, and as well by a litany of contemporary saints like St. Padre Pio, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Jose Maria Escrivà, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and even by Our Lady herself in local Church approved apparitions.
What, then, is the faithful Catholic to do regarding the Marian title of Co-redemptrix?
As St. Thomas Aquinas would habitually say in such cases, it’s time to make distinctions.
First, when our Holy Father said that Mary “did not ask for herself to be a quasi-redemptrix or a co-redemptrix,” he is absolutely correct. Our Lady, in her perfect humility, did not request the title of Co-redemptrix, just as she did not request the title of “Mother of God.” But it is also true to say that God willed in his perfect providence that a human woman would both be granted the unparalleled dignity of giving flesh to the world’s Redeemer as Mother of God; and also that the same woman by giving birth to the Redeemer and by suffering with him in his saving mission, would become the unique human cooperator with her Divine Son in the historic redemption of the world. This is precisely the authentic doctrinal meaning of the title, “Co-redemptrix.”
In a beautiful testimony of God’s desire to involve humanity in his greatest act of mercy which we call Redemption, God chose a woman to participate, not in equality or competition, but in human cooperation and love, in the salvation of the human race. As the Fathers of the Church echo from the earliest centuries, Mary was the “cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race” (St. Irenaeus, 180A.D.) as the human “New Eve” with the divine “New Adam”(cf. Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 56). As summed in Mother Teresa’s succinct quip: “Of course, Mary is the Co-redemptrix. She gave Jesus his body, and his body is what saved us” (August 14, 1993).
As to the second comment of our Holy Father, that “The Redeemer is one and this title does not duplicate,” once again the Holy Father is correct in a univocal sense. Truly, there is only one divine Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and neither he nor his role, which is indicated by his title in a first and exclusive sense, cannot in any way be duplicated.
At the same time, Catholic Tradition, theology, and Magisterial teaching has embraced theological terms of analogy and the principle of “participation.” We as members of Christ’s Church and body, are called to profoundly share in the Redemptive work of Jesus Christ, of which he is divine source, foundation, and head.
For example, the Catholic Catechism clearly teach how all Christians must become “partakers in the divine nature” by truly participating in the life and love of Jesus, the world’s one and only Incarnate Redeemer:
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers in the divine nature”[ 2 Pet. 1:4]. “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God [St. Irenaeus, A. H. 3].” For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” [St. Athanasius, De inc, 54, 3]. “The only begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make us gods” [St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc. 57, 1].
To share in the nature and mission of Jesus as Christians, is never to duplicate his divine redemptive work by our humble human sharing in it. Rather, it is to obey the manifest will of God that we accept the dignity and role God wishes for every Christian: to participate in Jesus’ divine nature and Jesus’ divine mission. This, in a quintessential way, includes the work of Redemption.
Notice how both Scripture and the Fathers use numerous analogical terms (concepts in one way similar and in another way different) to accurately express human sharing in divine activity.
Terms like “divinization” or “deification” commonly used by the Church Fathers and by the Church’s Magisterium to describe our sharing in the life and grace of Jesus Christ are all doctrinally acceptable examples of analogous terms. The same is true about the analogous terms in regards the human sharing in Jesus’ mission of Redemption, such as “co-redeemer” or “co-redemptrix.”
St. Paul calls every Christian to participate in Jesus’ work of Redemption when he calls us to “make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24). We as Christians have the responsibility, not the option, to participate in the mysterious release of the graces of Redemption infinitely merited by our divine Redeemer for ourselves and others.
St. John Paul II called us to be “co-redeemers in Christ.” Pope Benedict XVI called us to be “redeemers in the Redeemer.” Our mothers called us, as children during times of suffering, to simply “offer it up.”
The Immaculate Virgin Mary, as the Church perennially teaches, participated in the divine Redeemer’s historic mission of Redemption beyond every other creature. She did so precisely by freely consenting to bring the divine Redeemer in to the world, and by suffering with him unto the Cross (cf. Second Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 57, 58, 61). It is for this reason that popes, saints, theologians, mystics and even locally approved Marian apparitions have analogously given Mary the title, Co-redemptrix—not to duplicate the divine work of Jesus, but to accentuate Mary’s intimately human and motherly participation in it.
Let us therefore, as members faithful to the Church’s Tradition and to Christ’s Vicar, make renewed theological and pastoral efforts of clarity and precision in the use of the Co-redemptrix title for Our Lady. Let us do all within our abilities, catechetically and ecumenically, to ensure that this traditional Marian title is never used to indicate or imply any equality, competition, nor duplication of Jesus Christ as the one and only divine Redeemer, whose role and place in our minds and hearts can never be replicated by anyone or anything, including by his own mother. Nothing would be more painful for Our Lady than to be placed as an idolatrous duplication of her divine Son, the world’s sole Redeemer.
May we likewise follow our Holy Father’s inspired directive to prayerfully ponder the mystery of Mary’s sorrows in the midst of our present personal and global suffering. As our Co-redemptrix, she is the immaculate model for suffering alongside our Crucified Redeemer, as we continue to endure the worldwide passion of Coronavirus. The Resurrection will come.