The Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Eucharist, is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” (1) Furthermore, it is “the sum and summary of our faith.” (2) The Eucharist is most properly “(the) true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is really and substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine, in order to offer himself in the sacrifice of the Mass and to be received as spiritual food in Holy Communion.” (3)
As the “true Body and Blood” of Jesus Christ, the Eucharistic species of bread and wine are “Christ himself, living and glorious… present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity.” (4)
As John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “Mary can guide us toward this most holy sacrament, because she herself has a profound relationship with it.” (5) The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship between the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin Mary—most especially in connection with her roles as Mother, Co-redemptrix, and Mediatrix of All Graces.
Mary’s Motherhood and the Eucharist
Mary’s primary and foundational role in the area of motherhood is that of Mother of God, or in the Greek, Theotokos. “This doctrine proclaims that the Virgin Mary is the true Mother of Jesus Christ who is God the Son made man.” (6) This is seen in Luke’s Gospel when Mary is addressed by the Angel who says, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,” (7) and later on adds, “the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (8)
The validity of this title can then be logically seen in “the following simple theological syllogism: Mary is the Mother of Jesus; Jesus is God; therefore, Mary is the Mother of God.” (9)
This doctrine is further elucidated in the Apostle’s Creed which states, “Jesus Christ, (God’s) only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” The title of Mother of God was “canonized by the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) in defense of Mary’s divine maternity against Nestorius, who claimed she was only the mother of the man Christ (Christotokos).” (10)
In drawing a connection between the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharist, the first stop is with Mary’s role as Mother of God. Through her “fiat” at the Annunciation, Mary “offered her virginal womb for the Incarnation of God’s Word. The Eucharist, while commemorating the passion and resurrection, is also in continuity with the incarnation. At the Annunciation Mary conceived the Son of God in the physical reality of his body and blood.” (11) It can be said, then, that “Jesus’ Body and Blood (is) taken from the body and blood of the Blessed Virgin.” (12) That is, “it is the very same body born of Mary which is glorified and present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.” (13) In other words, “in Jesus is always the Immaculate flesh and the Virginal blood of His Most Holy Mother.” (14)
This is attested to by the saints as well. Saint Thomas Aquinas states that “(taken) from the ‘intact Virgin’ … the Flesh of Jesus is the maternal flesh of Mary, the Blood of Jesus is the maternal blood of Mary. Therefore it will never be possible to separate Jesus from Mary.” (15) Saint Augustine states that “Jesus took His Flesh from the flesh of Mary.” (16) Going further, he says “that in the Eucharist ‘Mary extends and perpetuates Her Divine Maternity.'” (17)
In addition to being the Mother of God, Mary is also rightly called the Mother of the Church. At the Mass for the closing of the third session of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI said, “For the glory of the Blessed Virgin and our own consolation, we proclaim the Most Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of the Church, of the whole people of God.” (18) Pope John Paul II has also used this title repeatedly in his writings.
Historically, the title “Mother of the Church” has been used since the twelfth century, when it “was first used by Berengaud, bishop of Treves (d. 1125) in his writings. Later authors such as St. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence (d.1458) and St. Lawrence Justiniani (d.1455) also invited the church to venerate Mary as her Mother.” (19)
Near the end of the Gospel of John, from the cross Jesus entrusts “his Mother to St. John, who as the ‘beloved disciple’ had such a prominent place at the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper, and St. John to his Mother (John 19:26-27). Holy tradition recounts how Mary and St. John eventually settled at Ephesus, the place where Mary kept so much in her heart until her assumption (cf. Luke 2:33-35 and 2:51).” (20) In this, Mary becomes the mother to not only Saint John the Evangelist, but to all followers of Jesus, and hence Mother of the Church.
As Mother of the Church, Mary again has a role linked to the Eucharist. From the beginnings of Christianity, Mary in the Eucharistic celebration, is the “memory” of a Church, who like Mary yearns to ponder the Word of God in her heart (cf. Lk. 2:19-51), to unite herself as bride to Christ the Redeemer (Jn. 19:25-27). The Church assembling makes her mind and heart one with those in the Cenacle, “with Mary the Mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). Today as in the first community, Mary is present in the celebration of the “reaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42). (21)
These two maternal roles as Mother of the Church and Mother of God connect in that Mary “sees the living Jesus in every Christian participating in the Eucharist.” (22) In addition, just as Mary “nourished the Child of her womb, so she nourishes those who are being born of her spiritually by providing them with the fruit of her womb. It is, of course, a subordinate role.” (23) Mary is also “a symbol of the communicant, for she bore the God-Man in her bosom. She is a perpetual invitation to Holy Communion, for she is as attached to her son in the Holy Eucharist as she is in all other phases of His life.” (24) Because of this, “there is a profound analogy between the Fiat which Mary said in reply to the angel, and the Amen which every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord.” (25) Thus, as Mother of the Church Our Lady sees us as her children and desires to see us nourished with the Bread of Life.
There is a third title related to Our Lady’s maternity—that one being the Immaculate Conception. The meaning of this title is that “from the first instant of her existence the Mother of God never experienced the stain of Original Sin, and that from the earliest days of the Church the faithful acknowledged that our most Holy Mother was the purest of creatures, purer than the angels, entirely free from the least stain of sin.” (26)
The reality of the Immaculate Conception is prophesied in Genesis, where God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” (27) The word enmity does not merely signify a dislike, but rather an “absolute and complete opposition … (this is) because there is absolute and complete opposition between Jesus and all evil.” (28) Similarly, Mary must also be completely opposed to all sin and evil, otherwise she would be “in at least partial participation with Satan and sin, thereby destroying the complete God-given opposition as revealed in Genesis 3.” (29)
Mary is also referred to as free from sin by many saints. Saint Ambrose of Milan lived in the fourth century, “refers to Mary as ‘free from all stain of sin.'” (30) This and other patristic references to the Immaculate Conception indicate that the “fundamental understanding of the doctrine (of the Immaculate Conception is) present in the Church’s Tradition.” (31)
In 1854, Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. “This definition testifies that the Immaculate Conception was a unique privilege given by the all-powerful God to Mary alone. This free gift from God prepared Mary to be the stainless Mother of God-made-man. And it fittingly allowed Mary to give Jesus an immaculate human nature, identical to her own.” (32) This provides a rudimentary background into the theology behind the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as demonstrating that this doctrine is rooted in the Tradition of the Church.
In her role as the Immaculate Conception, Mary was created to be the perfect tabernacle for Our Lord. “And from Mary therefore, Jesus comes to be given to us day by day; and in Jesus is always the Immaculate flesh and Virginal blood of His Most Holy Mother, which penetrates our hearts and inebriates our souls.” (33) As Jesus took his humanity solely from the Blessed Virgin, “Mary’s purity, Her virginity, Her tender ways, Her sweet manner, Her love, and even the very features of Her heavenly face—all these we find in Jesus.” (34) So not only in virtue of her Divine Motherhood is Our Lady connected to the Blessed Sacrament, but also as Mother of the Church. In addition, through the Divine preparation for her maternity she also participates in a unique way in the Eucharist.
Mary’s Role as Co-redemptrix and the Eucharist
The title of Co-redemptrix when applied to Mary requires a certain metaphysical understanding. The question to be asked is: Does one believe that there can be a subordinate cause to a primary cause of an event? Take as an analogy the writing, mailing, and delivery of a letter. You write the letter, put a stamp on it, drop it in a mailbox, and your friend receives it in his mailbox. You, as author of the letter are responsible for its content; yet did you manufacture the paper or the ink? How did the letter go from your mailbox to his mailbox? While all analogies fall short, hopefully this one will help to understand Our Lady’s role. Her role as Co-redemptrix is as a subordinate cause of our salvation—not equal to or in competition with the role of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. That is, the title of Co-redemptrix “means that Mary uniquely participated in the Redemption of humanity with her Son Jesus Christ, although in a completely subordinate and dependent manner to that of her Son.” (35)
Further breaking this down, there are two ways that Our Lady uniquely participated in the Redemption. In the first place, Mary participated “by accepting the invitation of the angel to become the Mother of God and giving flesh to the Savior.” (36) Secondly, on Calvary “Mary offered the maternal rights of her Son on the cross to the Father in perfect obedience to God’s will, and in atonement for the sins of the world.” (37) Her role was not only unique, but also “far beyond that of any other creature.” (38) To clarify, Our Lady’s “participation in the redemption of the human family was completely and in every way secondary and dependent to the sacrifice of Jesus the Savior.” (39) It would be incorrect to see Mary’s role as competing with Jesus’ role, or as equal to His role.
Magisterial sources from the last century articulate Mary’s unique role in several places. Pope Benedict XV wrote in 1918 that Mary “together with Christ redeemed the human race.” (40) Pope Pius XI “referred to Mary as the Co-redemptrix no less than six times in various papal documents.” (41) In the Second Vatican Council, Mary’s role is stated as follows.
(The) Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, enduring with her only begotten Son the intensity of his suffering, associated herself with his sacrifice in her mother’s heart, and lovingly consented to the immolation of this victim which was born of her. (42)
Mary’s role as Co-redemptrix also unites her in a special way to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is “the sacrament that is also a sacrifice… because it literally reproduces, re-presents, the Calvary sacrifice in the… Mass.” (43) Extending this to Christ’s Eucharistic presence, Mary “as mother of the Eucharistic Jesus … remains just as closely united with his sacramental sacrifice as with its prototype on Golgotha.” (44) Pope John Paul II, addressing the crowd after the Angelus in 1983, further elaborated that “At the root of the Eucharist is the virginal and maternal life of Mary,” (45) because “(every) Mass puts us into intimate communion with (Mary), the mother, whose sacrifice ‘becomes present’ just as the sacrifice of her Son ‘becomes present’ at the words of consecration.” (46) So in the Mass, Christ “in and with Himself, offers the sacrifice of praise of His entire Body, so in Him and with Him, Mary offers and is offered in each Eucharistic celebration in that utterly unique way which reflects her role in the Redemption her Son achieved for her and for all of us.” (47)
The question might arise regarding Our Blessed Mother’s role in the offering of her Son—”Is her role a priestly role?” The answer to this is “not in a ministerial way.” In regards to Mary, her offering totally transcends that of the ministerial priesthood. Indeed the ministerial priesthood exists to make this transcendent offering sacramentally present. Therefore, it is quite useless to attempt to describe Mary’s role in the Eucharist in terms of ministerial priesthood. The ministerial priest, acting in persona Christi, operates in the order of the sacramental effectuation of the Eucharistic mystery; Mary operates on the level of the realities which are made sacramentally present in the earthly Eucharistic celebration. (48)
Our Lady as Co-redemptrix seeks only to do the Holy Will of God. Moreover, Mary does not seek to become an alter Christusthrough ministerial priesthood, rather “Mary’s priesthood (is) identical at all points with the so-called priesthood of the faithful.” (49) Yet, in her role as Co-redemptrix, “Mary exercised the priesthood of the faithful … (but) in a pre-eminent and universal way.” (50)
Mediatrix of All Graces
The Second Vatican Council states that Mary “is a mother to us in the order of grace.” (51) Furthermore, “(this) motherhood in the order of grace flows from her divine motherhood.” (52) On top of this, “Mary’s role as dispenser or mediatrix of the graces of the Redemption follows appropriately from her role as Co-redemptrix.” (53) Therefore, Our Lady’s role as Mediatrix of All Graces allows her to “fulfill her role as Spiritual Mother, since she spiritually nourishes the faithful of Christ’s body in the order of grace.” (54)
Our Lady “mediates all the graces of Jesus to the human family in two regards. First, Mary mediated all graces to humanity by giving birth to Jesus and by bringing the source and author of all graces to the world (theologically called ‘remote mediation’). Secondly, Mary mediates all graces by distributing the graces merited on Calvary to the human family by her willed intercession (cf. Jn 19:26 (theologically called ‘proximate’ or ‘immediate’ mediation).” (55) Thus all graces come from God through Mary, solely based on His divine plan. “To receive all graces through Mary is simply to continue the perfect plan of God which began with His gift of the source of all graces, Jesus Christ, who came to us through Mary.” (56)
In the last two centuries, popes have spoken frequently on this role of Our Lady. Pope Pius VII “referred to Mary as the ‘Dispensatrix of all graces.'” (57) Pope Pius IX, in his declaration on the Immaculate Conception said “that through (Mary) are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation.” (58) Pope Leo XIII “boldly professed … (that) nothing of the immense treasure of every grace which the Lord has accumulated, comes to us except through Mary.” (59) And from there to the present, every pope has spoken on the unique role of Our Lady as Mediatrix of All Graces.
In seeking to connect Mary’s role of Mediatrix to the Eucharist, it would be best to reflect that “(while) all graces originate from the God of grace truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, by his ordinance their channel to us is the Mother of Divine Grace.” (60) This can perhaps be more clearly understood by a vision of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. “St. Ignatius was given a mystical awareness during Mass that Mary was the ‘portal’ of the divine gifts flooding his soul.” (61) In addition to being the channel or portal of graces, Our Lady also intercedes for her children. In Eucharistic adoration one unites “in faith and love with the Source of grace himself … (and) His mother co-adores with us, interceding at the same time for us to come ever closer to the God hidden in the Host.” (62)
Summary and Reflection
Mary’s relationship to her Son in the Eucharist also offers a rich source of material suitable for private reflection and personal devotion. While perhaps not the deepest of theologies, they provide opportunities to draw closer to both Our Lady and Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. After all, “(big) things are not required; for the greatest thing is simply the practice of pleasing our dear Mother in all the little things of every day. This should be the ordinary fabric of our devotional life, woven together thread by thread, action by action, performed lovingly and out of affection for the Madonna.” (63)
Our Lady’s three roles as Mother, Co-redemptrix, and Mediatrix could be said to reflect a deeply Eucharistic life. The four aspects of a Eucharistic life based on a Eucharistic paradigm are, “taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing.” (64) It could be said that Mary is taken in being chosen for her unique role in the Immaculate Conception, blessed in her virginal maternity, broken in her union with Jesus’ suffering, and shared in her universal motherhood—that is, her role as Mother of the Church.
In sacred hymnody, the relationship of the Blessed Mother to the Eucharist is also apparent. The 14th century Eucharistic hymn Ave Verum echoes the strain, “Hail, true body born of the Virgin Mary … Jesus, Son of Mary.” (65) The text of this hymn “can serve to indicate two other aspects of Mary’s relationship to the Eucharist. She is, in the first place, the great defender of Eucharistic truth. … what has risen from the tomb and what is in truth now our food is the verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine, the very Body born of Mary. … In the second place, as the Ave Verum helps to recall … Mary is the model of devotion for all who are called, imitating her, to receive the enfleshed Word.” (66)
Another way to reflect on the closeness of Our Lady and the Blessed Sacrament is in the thanksgiving after receiving the Eucharist. “Right after Holy Communion we carry Jesus within our souls and bodies, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary did when She had received the message of the angel … It can be helpful in achieving this, to recite the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.” (67) In this way, one can reflect on Mary’s “fiat,” her bringing graces through Christ to her relative Elizabeth, and her bringing Jesus into the world at his Nativity.
Finally, these three roles of Our Lady—those of Mother, Co-redemptrix, and Mediatrix—were tied together quite nicely by the Second Vatican Council.
This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross. This maternity will last without interruption until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. For, taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside this saving role, but by her manifold acts of intercession continues to win for us gifts of eternal salvation. (68)
So in summary it can be said that “Mary always guides us towards the Eucharist, as the privileged central sacrament of the entire ecclesial mystery.” (69) That is, a “Marian spirituality becomes a living remembrance of the Eucharistic presence.” (70) It is also helpful to remember the answer given by St. Bernadette Soubirous when asked “‘What would please you more, to receive Holy Communion or to see the Madonna?’ The little Saint thought for a minute and then answered, ‘The two cannot be separated. Jesus and Mary always go together.'” (71)
David Jenuwine was a graduate student at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
(1) Lumen Gentium, 11; Flannery, Austin, OP, editor. “Lumen Gentium” in Vatican Council II: The conciliar and post conciliar documents (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 1998).
(2) Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishop, 1997), 1327.
(3) John A. Hardon, SJ, Modern Catholic Dictionary, (Bardstown, KY: Eternal Life, 1999), 194.
(4) CCC 1413, (quoting the Council of Trent: DS 1640; 1651).
(5) Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 53.
(6) Mark Miravalle, STD, Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing Company, 1993), 34.
(7) Luke 1:31, NAB (New American Bible).