Any consideration of the co-redemptive role of Our Lady in God’s plan for salvation brings us inevitably to the foot of the Cross. It is there that we see the greatest flowering of Mary’s motherhood—her Son enters His greatest moment of priestly mediation and she becomes not only Mater Redemptoris (1) but also Mater Ecclesiae. (2) In order to understand something of this essential co-redemptive mission of the Mother of God, we have to enter deeply into the priesthood of Christ and appreciate its fundamental significance. The late Dominican theologian, Cardinal Pierre Paul Philippe, (3) expresses it thus:
We will never be able to comprehend, far less understand the role which Our Lady has played next to Christ the High Priest if we do not approach it from the perspective of God. Thus, we need to contemplate how God sees Mary from all eternity or, in other words, we should consider her from the standpoint of her predestination. (4)
The Church has constantly taught that all the privileges enjoyed by the Virgin Mary spring from her divine mission as the Mother of the Savior, all that she is and all that she does serves to associate her as perfectly as possible with the two defining mysteries of her Son—His Incarnation through which He inaugurates his priestly life and the Redemption by which He brings to fruition the supreme act of this priesthood; the sacrifice of Himself for the salvation of the world. It is most essential to grasp this fundamental fact at the outset, for it is the supreme basis of Mary’s co-redemptive role.
Mary’s intimate association with her Son in His saving mysteries is part of the divine will from the outset—a fact which is so overlooked in many Marian reflections. Pope John Paul II, probably the greatest Marian theologian the papacy has ever produced, makes reference to this fundamental fact of Mary’s predestination in his Apostolic Letter “Redemptoris Mater”:
In the mystery of Christ, Mary is already present, even “before the creation of the world,” as the one whom the Father “has chosen” to be the Mother of His Son in the Incarnation. The Son, together with the Father, has chosen her, entrusting her from all time to the Spirit of holiness… (5)
By the humble obedience of her fiat, she is immersed in these saving mysteries, not merely by physical participation, but by material cooperation: Mary does not cooperate in the mystery of redemption purely by her physical presence at the foot of the Cross, but rather by being intimately united in the suffering and offering of her Son. In this she is the Mother of the High Priest, called to cooperate in His priestly activity of Savior. This is already explicit at the moment of the Annunciation which we should not look upon as the beginning of Mary’s cooperation, but rather as the highest point in the process of the uniting of her will with that of the Blessed Trinity. John Paul II describes this process stating that:
The Annunciation is not only the culminating moment of Mary’s faith in her awaiting of Christ, but it is also the point of departure from which her whole journey of faith begins. While on this road, in an eminent and truly heroic manner… she will fulfill the obedience she professes to the Word of Divine Revelation… Within the redemptive economy of grace, brought about through the action of the Holy Spirit, there exists a unique correspondence between the moment of the Incarnation and the moment of the birth of the Church. The person who links together these two moments is Mary: Mary at Nazareth and Mary at the Cenacle in Jerusalem. In both cases her discreet, yet essential presence indicates the path of the “birth from the Holy Spirit.” (6)
This prompts the question: How did Christ become a priest? St. Thomas explains that it was through Mary that Christ was made Priest, because it was through her that He united His divine and human natures, becoming the mediator between God and man. This is effected, not by a special act of consecration, but rather by the very act of the Incarnation—by becoming the Son of Mary, the Son of God became a priest. (7)
Whilst this seems somewhat straightforward logic, it occasions much debate not only among theologians who do not share our Catholic faith, but even among some who do. The same reluctance is found in relation to the doctrine of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception: whilst all such theologians would accept that Mary is the sole human agent in the mystery of the Incarnation and thus the only source of Christ s humanity, the same theologians find difficulty in accepting the logical implication in this truth for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In the same way, the essential participation of Mary in the process whereby Christ becomes the sole mediator (or priest) of the New Covenant does not in anyway compromise the uniqueness of His mediation. We are helped in our understanding of this truth by considering the “ecclesial” aspect of Mary’s participation whereby she becomes not only the Mother of the Redeemer but also the Mother of the Redeemed. The Fathers of Vatican II state that:
The maternal duty of Mary towards humanity in no way obscures or diminishes the unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its efficacy. (8)
This brings us continually back to the foot of the Cross. There we see that in His dying moments, the Savior bequeaths to His Church the intimate relationships which most characterize His earthly life and ministry: the relationship with His mother and the relationship with His closest friend and collaborator, St. John. In this last act of inestimable significance, Christ bequeaths His mother to the disciple He loved—the two relationships which most characterized His earthly life and redemptive mission are forever bound to each other.
In this bequest, the Church has always understood that Mary became the mother of the priestly Church of Her Son represented by the Beloved Disciple. At that moment, she became his mother just as, up to that moment she had been the Mother of Christ. The relationship which united her to Christ, the eternal priest, will now continue in her relationship with St. John and the priestly Church that is coming to birth. For the Church, a mother, for the mother, an alter Christus, a priestly son, representative of the many who will be called into the intimacy of this relationship.
This essentially Marian character of the Church is evident not only at the Cross, where Fr. Faber says that the faith of the entire Church is present in the heart of Mary, (9) but in a particularly significant way on the day of Pentecost. Here we see that the Church is Marian at the very moment of its beginning. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the three characteristics of the Church in the Upper Room at Pentecost:
1. All these, with one mind (concordes),
2. gave themselves to prayer (perseverantibus in oratione),
3. together with Mary (cum Maria) the Mother of Jesus… (10)
It is natural to expect that in the period between the Ascension and Pentecost, Our Lady would have provided an important focus for the Apostles as they prepared for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of their most important work. She would have continued her silent prayer as at the foot of the Cross, inspiring them, by her presence, to enter deeply into the mystery of the Church in which she was already immersed. At the Cross, she stands beside the Eternal Priest as he accomplishes His perfect sacrifice; at Pentecost she stands with His priestly Church as it is coming to birth. The same Holy Spirit which overshadowed Mary at the moment of the Incarnation, is now active in bringing to birth a priestly Church which will continue His mission in the world.
It is vitally important to stress the priestly character of the Church at Pentecost—a fact too often overlooked. Tradition tells us that the gathering took place at the Cenacle, the place of the Last Supper. In that place, the Apostles had received the special consecration of ordination to the fullness of Christ’s priesthood at the Last Supper.
From Pentecost onwards, they will share this precious gift of God for His Church, bringing others into this most powerful identification with the crucified and risen Christ in the act of sanctifying the Church. Whilst we would wish to see the whole Church present at the foot of the Cross and in the Cenacle at Pentecost experiencing this particular maternity of Mary, we would also wish to recognize that in both moments Our Lady becomes a mother to those who share her Son’s priesthood in a most explicit way—those who have received His priesthood through the special consecration of ordination, His ministerial priests.
At the Wedding of Cana, the prayer of Mary resulted in the inauguration of the public ministry of her Son. At Pentecost, Mary’s prayer brings about a transformation of the Apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit, making them “other Christs,” and enabling the Church to begin its priestly mission the world. (11) In both cases, the maternal intercession of Mary in favor of others is decisive. At the foot of the Cross, she received St. John as an “other Christ,” the first of many, that she takes into her heart, loving each as she loves her Son. The Holy Father has spoken about this capacity of Mary to love priests, looking after them as if they were the only person in the world. (12) This maternal intercession in favor of priests bears the same characteristics that were present in her decisive presence and prayer at Cana, at the Cross and at Pentecost, bringing forth in priests their ministry, their sacrifice and their sanctification. Cardinal Pierre Paul Philippe, O.P., explains that:
The Blessed Virgin Mary, from the heights of heaven, clearly sees in our soul the indelible character of Christ and knows with a divine knowledge the mission which every one of us must carry out as priests of Christ. She knows that Our Lord had decreed that He will be represented on earth by men who carry His Priesthood in their spiritual being. (13)
The Church’s sacramental theology explains how men are rendered participants in the one priesthood of Christ by virtue of sacramental ordination. According to God’s providential plan, however, this supernatural transformation cannot be implemented without the maternal participation of Mary. St. Louis Grignon de Montfort speaks of a necessary process of filiation by which Mary gives “sons” to the Church:
God the Father wants sons from Mary… As in the case of a natural generation where there is a father and a mother, so, in the same way, on the supernatural level there is a father who is God and a mother, who is Mary… He who does not have Mary for a mother, cannot have God for a father. (14)
It would seem that Our Lady shows to priests the maternal love which she had for St. John, a love which extends far beyond protection to a very real desire for the sanctification of her sons. As model of the Church, Mary not only symbolizes the holiness which every member of the Church should embody, she is actively at work to bring about that holiness in those who turn to her. This is a direct consequence of her participation in the mystery of Christ’s redemptive work by which the man who stands with her at the foot of the Cross represents all those who will come after him. “Therefore, she who is present in the mystery of Christ as Mother becomes present in the mystery of the Church.” (15)
Mary’s intimate participation in the mysteries of salvation unites her profoundly to Christ’s saving action and every means by which the divine will makes that saving action present in the world. Here is the anomaly: she is essentially linked to the priestly offering of her Son and of those who share His one priesthood, but she is not a priest herself. At times in the past this has caused a certain amount of confusion, both in the theological discussion of the nature of the priesthood and in Marian iconography. (16) St. Albert the Great explains that:
The Blessed Virgin Mary was not chosen by the Lord to be a minister, but to be the spouse, that helpaccording to what is stated in the book of Genesis: “Let us make him a helpmate” (2:18). The Blessed Virgin is not a vicar (an agent), but a coadjutrix and a companion, participating in the kingdom as she has participated in the Passion, when all the ministers and disciples had run away and she alone remained at the foot of the Cross. The wounds which Christ received in His body, Mary felt in her heart… (17)
Although Mary is not a priest, she is entirely joined to the priestly oblation of her Son. She herself offered Him to the Father in the act of the Presentation in the Temple, (18) an offering which prefigured the sacrifice she would make in the moment of His passion and death. In this, she is a pattern for those who share Christ’s priesthood and are exhorted at their ordination to allow themselves to be transformed by the sacrifice they offer:
Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: Model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross. (19)
The priest is helped in his oblation by the example and intercession of Our Lady, bound to her in an intimacy which is willed by God at the very moment the sacrament of the Church is coming to birth on the Cross. As He offers the supreme sacrifice for salvation, she stands at his side as the model of one who responds to the invitation of that sacrifice; an idea which is powerfully expressed in the Preface of the Sacred Heart:
Lifted high on the cross, Christ gave His life for us, so much did He love us. From His wounded side flowed blood and water, the fountain of sacramental life in the Church. To His open heart the Savior invites all, to draw water in joy from the springs of salvation. (20)
Mary unites herself to the offering of Christ her Son and is therefore united to the offering of His priests, each an alter Christus, (21) continuing His one unique offering in time and space, allowing the possibility of the fruits of its grace to be applied to the world. Surely this is the meaning of the uniting of Our Lady and St. John at the foot of the Cross. In that most powerful moment of the sacrifice which changes human destiny for eternity, this union of hearts is of immense significance. Mary, already united perfectly to the heart of her Son, now is united to the heart of St. John, a union which echoes through time. One of the great spiritual writers of the French Oratory, Monsieur Olier, explains that:
St. John was for Mary the continuation of Jesus Christ… and in the culminating moment of his ministry, he was entirely hers. He had to enter into her intentions and lose his own intentions in those of Mary. He was given to her as her own special priest, so as to offer up the sacrifice for the intentions she wished… (22)
The cumulative effect of this idea of intense union should begin to dawn on us bringing an equally intense awareness of the Marian character of the priesthood as willed by God. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of a truly Catholic understanding of the priesthood without reference to its essentially Marian character. In his Holy Thursday Letter to Priests ( 1979), Pope John Paul II wrote: “there is in our priestly ministry, the stupendous and penetrating awareness of the nearness of the Mother of Christ.” How often is this entirely overlooked, when we speak and teach of the priesthood? Because the priesthood is so closely linked to the eucharistic mystery of the Church, we so often fall short of recognizing its all important Marian aspect. The same Holy Father reminds us that:
Mary is present at the memorial—the liturgical action—for she was present at the sacrificial event… She is present on every altar where the memorial of the Passion-Resurrection is celebrated, for she was present at the event of the historic and salvific death of Christ, intimately adhering with her entire being to the plan of the Father. (23)
She was present then; she is present now. She stood by Christ, she stood by John, she continues to stand by those who have come after him.
In this article, I have attempted to explore some of the theological ideas which underpin our understanding of the relationship between Mary’s sharing in the redemptive mystery of the Cross and the ministerial priesthood of the Catholic Church which is the fruit of that same mystery. I do so at a time when many consider there to be a crisis not only of vocations to the priesthood but also in a general understanding of the true nature of the priesthood. It will come as no surprise that personally I am convinced that a Marian understanding of the priesthood is the answer to this crisis, whether it be a crisis in the personal lives of so many priests who seem to struggle to remain faithful or a lack of understanding on the part of many Catholics of the centrality of the priesthood in God’s saving plan.
In preparing this reflection I was struck by the nature of the love of Our Lady for St. John, love which in the words of the French writer St. Exupery “does not consist in two people looking at one another, but both looking in the same direction.” The love of Our Lady for priests is the direct consequence of the fact that her entire being is focused on the person of her Son. When we contemplate the scene at the foot of the Cross, it is a scene of great sadness. A sadness which we contemplate in the beautiful sequence “Stabat Mater” which we hear on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (24) and often sing during the Stations of the Cross. There is a beauty in this sadness: the beauty of love which is crucified and resurrected, such is the love of Mary for priests. Let us turn once more to Mary, Mother of the Eternal Priest and all priests, let us by inspired by her and acknowledge our need of her now and always.
Fr. Andrew Wadsworth holds a license in Theology from the Pontifical University of Maynooth, Ireland. He is currently professor of Biblical Greek and Ecclesiastical Latin at Allen Hall, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster.
(1) “Mother of the Redeemer.”
(2) “Mother of the Church.”
(3) A major formative influence on Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Philippe, supervised his doctoral thesis at the Angelicum.
(4) Cardinal Pierre Paul Philippe, OP: The Virgin Mary and the Priesthood; Alba House, New York (1993), p.3.
(5) Redemptoris Mater, 8.
(6) Redemptoris Mater, 14, 24.
(7) St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, III, q.22, a.1 and q.26, a.1.
(8) Lumen Gentium, 60.
(9) Cf. F.W. Faber: At the Foot of the Cross.