Pope Francis, the Humility of Mary and the role of “Co-Redemptrix”

Updated: May 29, 2020

The following article originally appeared on La Stampa on April 19, 2020.

As is well known, Pope Francis has a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. One of the qualities of Mary that he repeatedly emphasizes is her humility. In his homily on Friday, April 3, 2020, the Holy Father spoke about Our Lady of Sorrows, and he noted the importance of meditating on the seven sorrows of Mary. In a special way, he pointed to Our Lady’s humility: «The Madonna never asked anything for herself, never. Yes, for others: we think of Cana when she goes to speak to Jesus. She never said: “I am the Mother, look at me: I will be the Queen Mother.” She never said it. She doesn’t ask something of importance for herself in the apostolic college. She only accepts being Mother. She accompanied Jesus as a disciple because the Gospel shows that she followed Jesus: with friends, with pious women, she followed Jesus, she listened to Jesus». These words of Pope Francis harmonized providentially with the reflections of the Preacher of the Papal Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., who in his fourth and final Lenten Sermon— given also on April 3—applied the words of St. Paul in Phil 1:5–11 to the Virgin Mary:

Mary, though she was the Mother of God, did not count her privilege as something to hold on to, but emptied herself, calling herself a servant, and living in the likeness of all other women. She humbled herself and stayed hidden, obedient to God, till the death of her Son, and a death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted her and bestowed on her the name, which, after Jesus, is above every name, that at the name of Mary every head should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Mary is the Mother of the Lord to the glory of God the Father. Amen!

The humility of Mary is rooted in Scripture. In Mary’s great prayer, the Magnificat, she recognizes that everything she possesses is a gift from God: “the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name”. In Canto 33 of the Paradiso, Dante speaks of Mary as “humble and more exalted than any creature.” The humble status of the Blessed Virgin as a creature is testified to by St. Louis de Montfort (1673–1716) who confesses “that Mary, being a mere creature fashioned by the hands of God is, compared to his infinite majesty, less than an atom, or rather is simply nothing since He alone can say: ‘I am who am’” ( True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, 14). In his April 3 homily, Pope Francis also points out that that Mary never sought titles for herself. The most important title for the Blessed Virgin is “Mother,” which she received from Jesus himself:

To honor the Madonna is to say: “This is my Mother” because she is the Mother. And this is the title she received from Jesus, precisely there, in the moment of the Cross (cf. Jn 19:26–27). To your children you are Mother. He didn’t make her Prime Minister or give her titles of “functionality.” Only “Mother.” And then the Acts of the Apostles show us her in prayer with the Apostles as Mother.

For Pope Francis, Mary, above all else, is “Mother.” She is the Mother of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, and the spiritual Mother of all the faithful. The Holy Father goes on to say that Mary never wished to take any title from her Son, who is the one Redeemer:

The Madonna did not wish to take any title from Jesus; she 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 only one and this title does not duplicate itself. She is only disciple and Mother. And thus, as Mother we must think of her, we must seek her, we must pray to her. She is the Mother; in the Mother Church. In the maternity of the Madonna we see the maternity of the Church who receives all, the good and the bad: all.

Pope Francis is absolutely correct. The Blessed Mother never asked to be a quasi-redemptrix or a co-redemptrix. He’s also correct that in the strict, univocal sense the title Redeemer cannot be duplicated. Jesus is the divine Redeemer, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29). In an analogical sense, however, human beings can participate in the work of redemption by uniting their sufferings to that of Christ. This is why Pope Benedict XVI in speaking to the sick at Fatima on May 13, 2010 invited them to be “redeemers in the Redeemer.” Jesus is the one Redeemer and also the one Mediator between God and the human race (1 Tim 2:5). Vatican II, however, teaches that “the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation, which is but a sharing in this one source” (Lumen gentium, 62). The title co-redemptrix when applied to Mary must never take anything away from Jesus the one divine Redeemer of the human race. Jesus is the God-man, and Mary is a human creature. Mary’s role in the work of redemption must always be understood as secondary, subordinate, and totally dependent on her divine Son. As St. Louis de Montfort explains, God “never had and does not now have any absolute need of the Blessed Virgin for the accomplishment of his will and the manifestation of his glory” (True Devotion, 14). The saving work of Jesus was all-sufficient, but God willed Mary’s collaboration in the redemption in a unique and singular way. The title co-redemptrix, which has been used by theologians, saints, and mystics since the 15th century, must be understood as Mary’s unique collaboration with and under her divine Son, the Redeemer of the human race. The prefix, “co,” comes from the Latin cum (with) so the Blessed Virgin, as the co-redemptrix, collaborates in the work of redemption but only with Christ, the Redeemer, whose death on the Cross is the meritorious cause of our salvation (cf. Council of Trent, Denz.-H, 1529). Fr. Salvatore Maria Perrella, O.S.M., professor of dogmatics and Mariology at the Theological Faculty Marianum in Rome, points out that “the expression … co-redemptrix, is not wrong in itself but taken in isolation it could convey the idea of the necessity of Mary being the associate of the Redeemer” (Interview with Manuela Petrini, In Terris, August 15, 2019). Fr. Perrella is correct. As St. Louis de Montfort says, God has no absolute need of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary’s co-redemptive role, like her role as Mediatrix of grace, flows from the will of God, who willed to associate her in the work of redemption. The Blessed Virgin was “predestined from eternity to be the Mother of God by that decree of divine providence which determined the Incarnation of the Word” (Lumen gentium, 61). Pope John Paul II believed we can all be “co-redeemers of humanity” (Discourse of April 5, 1981). Mary’s co-redemptive role, however, is altogether unique. As the Mother of the Word Incarnate, she said yes on behalf of all human nature to be the Mother of the Redeemer (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 30, a. 1). She cared for the Savior as his Mother and accompanied Him all the way to Calvary, “where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of the Victim which she herself had brought forth” (Lumen gentium, 58). The great Mariologist, Fr. René Laurentin (1917–2017), notes that Mary “cooperated with the unique Redemption on a supreme level and with a unique intimacy” (Traité sur la Vierge Marie, edizione sixième Court traité sur la Vierge Marie, sixième edition - Paris: François-Xavier de Guibert, 2009). It was not until the 20th century that the Magisterium gave official approval to the title co-redemptrix. During the pontifi