Divine providence often furnishes Catholic converts with ironic stories about the twists and turns on their journeys home to the Catholic Church. In my case, as a former Protestant minister, with deep anti-Catholic convictions, it was my Saul-like crusade against Mary that was wondrously transformed by God’s grace into a deep filial love for the Mother of God. As they say, the bigger they come, the harder they fall—in love.
But if, prior to my entry into the Church at Easter, 1986, I had encountered a movement like Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici, The "Voice of the People for Mary Mediatrix," I would have been quite appalled, my worst suspicions confirmed. Indeed, I can almost hear myself loading the cannon fodder, "What do you mean, Mary as ‘Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of all graces, and Advocate for the people of God?’ At last, proof positive that Catholics supplant Christ’s prerogatives with Mary!"
"Over My Dead Calvinist Body!"
For many years, I considered Marian doctrine and devotion to be symptomatic of a mortal infection within Catholics; indeed, it represented what was most wrong with Catholics. I initially opposed the definition of the dogma, for various reasons, but mostly because I feared that it would only add to the confusion already out there.
Yet as a teacher, I had to ask myself, what’s the best thing to do when you come across confusion? You dispel it. And the best way to do that is to get in line with the Church, proclaim what the Pope proclaims, and then explicate it—the job of a theologian.
Paradoxically, my former anti-Marian views have resulted in an appreciation for the common objections frequently raised against the Church’s teachings about Mary, as well as the prospect of a new Marian dogma being defined by the Pope. As an Evangelical, the one overarching reason why I opposed Catholic teaching about Mary was that I believed that it undermined the perfect work of Christ, and robbed Him of His glory. Today, the one overarching reason why I embrace the Church’s teaching is that I now see Mary as the perfect work of Christ, and greatest revelation of his glory. She no more steals the Son’s glory than the moon steals the sun’s.
In view of the potholes and detours I have encountered along the road to Rome, perhaps it would be useful to clarify how this Evangelical came to accept the Church’s teachings, and to explain why I would welcome a definition of a new Marian dogma, if that is what Pope John Paul II decides to do.
The Gospel of Jesus Embodied in Mary
Jesus announced the gospel, and then proceeded to fulfill it. But the gospel didn’t change the second Person of the Trinity. The eternal Son did not gain a single drop of glory for himself—after living, dying, and rising as a human—which he lacked beforehand. God did not create and redeem the world in order to get more glory, but rather to give it. There is no tug-of-war between the Creator and His creatures. The Father made and redeemed us through the Son and the Spirit, but they did it for us—starting with Mary, in whom it was accomplished not only first but best.
Do we thus detract from Christ’s finished work by affirming its perfect realization in Mary? On the contrary, we celebrate his work, precisely by focusing our attention on the human person who manifests it most perfectly.
Mary is not God, but she is the mother of God. She is only a creature; but she is God’s greatest creation. Just as artists long to paint one masterpiece among their many works, so Jesus made his mother to be his greatest masterpiece. To affirm the truth about Mary would not detract from Jesus, although not to affirm it could.
Of all creatures, Mary is directly related to God by a natural bond of covenant kinship, as the Mother of Jesus, to whom she gave her own flesh and blood. This bond is what enables us to share the New Covenant grace of Christ by adoption. Furthermore, Jesus was legally bound by his Father’s law, "Honor your father and mother," to share his honor, as her son, with Mary. Indeed, he fulfilled this law more perfectly than any son has ever done, by bestowing the gift of his divine glory upon her. And we are simply called to imitate him.
Salvation Is a Work-sharing Affair
Pope John Paul II has stated: "God in His deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since He has in Himself fatherhood, sonship, and the essence of the family, which is love." The work of salvation is the work of all three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Our redemption thus assumes Trinitarian and family proportions.
The first Person of the Trinity is now our Father (Jn 20:17), because of the saving work of the Son, who is "the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 8:29), and so the Holy Spirit is "the Spirit of sonship," who causes us to cry "Abba, Father" (Rom 8:15). This is what is unique and definitive about the Christian religion; it is the gospel of God sharing his family life and love with mankind. And it all began with the gift of Mary as mother; she obeyed the Father by bearing his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit—for us.
The Apostle Paul spoke of the mystery when he stated; "We are Gods co-workers" (1 Cor 3:9). How is this? Can’t God get the job done Himself? Of course he can. But since He is a Father, his job is raising up mature sons and daughters, by making us co-workers. And his work is our redemption, which he shared in an unparalleled way with Mary—to whom God entrusted such tasks as feeding his Son with her own milk, singing him to sleep, and accompanying him all the way to the cross where she gave her sorrowful yes to his self-offering. In short, the Father willed that his Son’s entire existence as a man would hinge, so to speak, upon the ongoing fiat of Mary. Can there be a more intimate "co-worker?"
Being a disciple, a co-worker, with Jesus takes effort. At times, it takes suffering. One passage that seemed to have escaped my attention as a Protestant was St. Paul’s rather curious line, "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church" (1 Cor 1:24). Cradle Catholics may remember with some fondness being told (in the event of an unsuccessful team try-out, a skinned knee, or a broken heart) to "offer it up." This simple phrase holds the key that unlocks the mystery of our coredemption. By consciously uniting our sufferings to our Lord’s redemptive sufferings, we become co-workers. By uniting her heart to his, especially at Calvary, the Blessed Mother became the co-worker par excellence.
This understanding is echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The 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." However, Mary’s divine maternity did not end with her Son’s resurrection and Ascension, nor even after her Assumption; as the Catechism states: "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… Therefore the Blessed Virgin Mary is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix" (CCC, 969, citing Lumen Gentium, 62). It is significant that the Catechism describes Mary’s divine motherhood as a "saving office," which it then uses to explain her rather remarkable titles. But what is meant by the phrase "saving office?"
Mary’s "Saving Office": Maternal Mediation
Pope John Paul II has used these titles repeatedly, along with "co-redemptrix," throughout his pontificate. He has also found just the right formula to make it possible for the Catholic world not only to believe them, which it already does, but to grasp them with both head and heart—and to celebrate them. As a well-trained theologian in his own right, the Pope has introduced the compact phrase "maternal mediation" into the common currency of the Church’s theological vocabulary. And it seems to capture the very heart of Marian doctrine and devotion.
As an Evangelical, I rushed to the one verse that seemed to snuff out this seemingly heretical spark: St. Paul’s categorical assertion that Christ is the only "mediator between God and man" (1 Tim 2:5). How dare we refer to Mary’s maternal mediation, or call her "Mediatrix?"
Just as there is one mediator, there is also one divine sonship, which we all share—by way of participation—with Christ (filii in Filio, sons in the Son). Christ’s mediation does not exclude Mary’s, but rather establishes it, by way of her participation.
Furthermore, the Epistle to the Hebrews explains Christ’s high priesthood in terms of his being the firstborn Son of God (Heb 1:6-2:17), which serves as the basis for our divine sonship (Heb 2:10-17), as well as our priestly sanctity and service (Heb 13:10-16; 1 Pet 2:5). Once again, there is no tug-of-war between us.
As firstborn Son in God’s family, Jesus mediates as the High Priest between the Father and his children; whereas Mary mediates as queen-mother (see 1 Kg 2:19 and Rev 12:1-17). This is what her maternal mediation is all about. For the Father, Mary mothers the Son. For us sinners, she mothers our Savior. And for her Son, she mothers his siblings. When it comes to Mary’s role in God’s saving plan, "mother" is not only a noun but a verb, and hence an office.
As the Mother of God and his children, Mary shows us how to glorify the Father, not by groveling, but by receiving the gift of his Son in the fullness of the Spirit. That is how God’s sovereign grace enables us to share in his glory, and so become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). So if you want to judge how well a person grasps the gospel in its essence, find out how much they make of having God as their Father—and Mary as their Mother.
Judging by this standard, I would say that Pope John Paul II appreciates the gospel as much as any other man of our time. And his magisterial insight into maternal mediation may well prove decisive.
Christ Merited Mary’s Capacity to Merit
If merit is understood as a purely economic term, it’s untrue and offensive; but if it is used in a familial sense, it is as natural as an inheritance, or an allowance. In other words, as children in God’s family, we merit grace like a child earns dessert—by eating everything on his plate. What father begrudges his kids the gifts he gives them? Or resents those whom he rewards? As St. Augustine wrote: "When God rewards us for our labors he is only crowning his work in us" (CCC, 2006).
According to the Catechism, it is "God’s fatherly action" that enables us to merit: "Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love making us ‘co-heirs’ with Christ" (CCC, 2008-2009).
Christ has merited our capacity to merit—which he confers on us with the grace of his divine Sonship and the life of his Spirit. Indeed, Jesus did not merit a single thing for himself, since there was nothing needed. Thus, he only merits according to our need.
Where does God the Father show the world just how much his Son really merited? In each one of us, to be sure, but most of all in Mary. Unlike the rest of us—in whom there is often a yawning gap between what we want and what God wants—with Mary, there is no gap. By the gift of an infinite grace, Mary attained the goal of the covenant: a perfect interpersonal union of divine and human wills. With Mary, the ideal and the real are one and the same.
Mater et Magistra
What role does the magisterium play in all this? I think many Catholics tend to view the magisterium like an overweight umpire who stands behind the plate, calling strikes and fouls and outs. But the magisterium is actually the team itself, made up of the episcopal players who trace their spot on the roster back to the original team of Apostles. And as team captain, the Pope leads his fellow bishops, along with the rest of us, who share the "sense of the faithful."
Thus, it is misleading to reduce the role of the magisterium to an adversarial courtroom, where theologians are on trial before bishops, who must hand down the verdicts—unless the Pope is needed to render a final decision, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. While the magisterium certainly has a judicial role in the Church, its nature and purpose is more properly evangelistic and prophetic. Indeed, Jesus Christ formed and empowered the magisterium to serve as his apostolic body for preaching and teaching the Good News to a world that has grown tragically accustomed to bad news.
The magisterium is the most consistent prophetic voice of the Church in the world. It speaks with the authoritative voice of our Lord, who faithfully keeps his pledge to Peter and his key-holding successors (Mt 16:17-19). Jesus also guides the papal magisterium to penetrate further into the vast depths and riches of the sacred deposit of faith, so that the plenitude of truth will always be proclaimed with purity and power. Jesus guarantees this charism of infallibility with his own omnipotent love. It is not human oppression, but divine light.
This understanding of the magisterium is reflected in the way the two previous Marian dogmas were proclaimed, since around the time of the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility itself. Neither the Immaculate Conception in 1854 nor the Bodily Assumption in 1950 were defined to counter heresy or resolve a long-standing doctrinal debate. Rather they were defined for the evangelistic purpose of proclaiming the gospel, as it is perfectly embodied in Gods mother and ours. In a world torn apart by unbelief and sin, Mary thus stands as a living sign of how God restores his family.
Shortly after the Assumption was defined, Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote that this dogma actually pointed to yet another: "There is one more truth left to be defined, and that is that she is the Mediatrix, under her Son, of all graces. As St. Paul speaks of the Ascension of Our Lord as the prelude to His intercession for us, so we, fittingly, should speak of the Assumption of Our Lady as a prelude to her intercession for us. First, the place, heaven: then, the function, intercession." The previous Marian dogmas, then, set up a trajectory which seems to lead (not by logical necessity, of course, but by fittingness) from the personal identity of the Blessed Virgin to Mary’s maternal role in the Church, the family of God.
Providence arranged that Vatican II was not to be primarily a dogmatic, but a pastoral, council. The Council Fathers decided not to define a new Marian dogma. Instead their treatment of Mary was set in an ecclesial context, as the crowning chapter of Lumen Gentium, the "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church." While Mary’s co-redemptive role as Mediatrix and Advocate was reaffirmed, it was not defined as such (LG, 62). Perhaps the definitive truth of Mary was not to be laid hold of until the elevation of Pope John Paul II, a shepherd for whom the proposed dogma is anything but alien.
Bad for Ecumenism?
Theology itself is a true science: its subject matter consists of divinely revealed mysteries. Down through the centuries, many of the doctrinal seeds that were planted by Christ and the apostles have blossomed into dogmas, as defined by the magisterium. In this manner, theology has developed over time, as other sciences do, but each its own distinctive way.
Scientists formulate and test various theories, some of which are proven with enough certitude to be renamed laws (Newton and gravity); others are discarded as unworkable hypotheses. Thus, laws become the markers of scientific progress.
Similarly, the definition of dogma serves as the mark of theological progress.
Dogma is the perfection of doctrine, and doctrine is nothing other than the Church’s teaching and preaching the gospel truth, as Jesus commissioned and empowered her to do. If the Pope chooses to define this Marian dogma, he will be doing much more than teaching the world a valuable lesson in theology—he would be using his God-given charism to fulfill his apostolic mission to preach the gospel to all nations (Mt 28:18-20).
Throughout the history of the Church, the definition of dogmas have stimulated the apostolic and theological energies of some of her best minds, especially when a definition became the occasion of controversy. More recently, many Protestants, including the late Max Thurian of Taize, France, objected strenuously after hearing rumors that Pope Pius XII was about to define the dogma of Mary’s Assumption. Where is that in the Bible? (Incidentally, Max Thurian died a Catholic priest on the feast of the Assumption, 1996).
Authentic ecumenical progress is not simply the result of our own human energies. Even more, it is not caused by compromise, on either side. "Here it is not a question of altering the deposit of faith," writes Pope John Paul II, "changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age…The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety" (Ut Unum Sint, 18).
Ecumenical unity thus requires a special grace and the word of God, who acts for the sake of his family. Accordingly, we should not expect him to work apart from but through the Mother he gave us to serve as the symbol and source of family unity.
It may be significant, in this connection, that experts often trace the rise of Catholic ecumenism back to the early 1950s. This immediately followed the definition of the Assumption and celebration of a Marian Year in 1954 as the centenary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception. If ever there was a time when Catholic ecumenism could have been expected to go into a deep freeze, it would have been that decade. But instead of a chill, Catholics and Protestants experienced the start of a great thaw.
As we approach the third millennium, I believe that God wants to use Mary to bring a deep grace of conversion to all Christendom, not only Protestant and Orthodox, but Catholic as well. This fits with the Holy Father’s call for authentic ecumenism to be based on a "dialogue of conversion." More than committees, this requires saints; instead of mere compromises, the courage of our convictions.
Perhaps our best model is Mother Teresa, wh