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The Instrumentality & Sacramentality of the Blessed Virgin Mary

It can be said that from Mary the Church also learns her own motherhood: she recognizes the maternal dimension of her vocation, which is essentially bound to her sacramental nature . . . if the Church is the sign & instrument of intimate union with God, she is so by reason of her motherhood, because, receiving life from the Spirit, she “generates” sons and daughters in the human race to a new life in Christ (Redemptoris Mater, n. 43)

This statement by the Holy Father reflects the Second Vatican Council’s insight (L.G. n. 1) that the Church is, by analogy, in the nature of a sacrament—a sacrament of Christ.

This insight by the Council Fathers with regard to the sacramental nature of the Church provides an insight with regard to the nature of Mary’s maternal mediation that will be the focus and end goal of this article.

The nature of Mary’s mediation has been in the forefront of discussion for some time now. How does Mary exercise her maternal, mediatorial role? This becomes particularly important when she is invoked under the traditional title of “Mediatrix of all Graces.” Is her mediation by intercession alone, or is it more immediate and direct? Does she pray and graces are then “released” if you will (sometimes referred to as a “moral” cause of grace, as in the case of the saints in general), or is it by a direct maternal action? Most will agree that Mary exercises par excellence some true causality in the actual dispensation of graces, but the type of causality (a physical instrumentality, or merely a moral causality) and the manner in which it is exercised is a central question.

While a future solemn definition of Mary’s maternal mediation might not specify the modality, as Trent did not specify the particular causality with regard to the production of grace in the sacraments, this does not mean this issue of causality is not important! It seems to this author that this issue directly impinges on our response to Mary as our true mother. Did Christ’s words from the Cross have merely a symbolic meaning, that Mary has a maternal mission only resembling a mother, or is Mary our mother in the strict sense of the term in the supernatural order, just as our earthly mother is in the natural order? As Pope St. Pius X in Ad diem illum (n. 10) teaches, we truly are children of Mary!

It is important to render Mary’s role effective in the life and perfection of the Church. Mariology has the same pivotal role as the hypostatic union in Christology and must include both a distinction in the order of being and in the order of operation. We must not only know who she is, but what she does. We must understand how she exercises her role—as a “Mother to us in the order of grace”—as Mediatrix, as our spiritual Mother.

What is the causal relationship between Mary and the Redeemer? Mariology will not achieve its full development until this relationship is more clearly understood and developed.

To get there, to shed some light on what causal relationship exists, we will take a slightly different approach: We will use as the starting point the Council Statement that “the Church is a sacrament of Christ.” Can we also say, in a similar way, that Mary is a sacrament of Christ?

It is interesting to note that it was a Protestant theologian, Erwin Reisner, who, in 1951, stated that Our Lady’s role is much the same as that played by “the Church, the sacraments, and even the Incarnation itself.” If this is so—that Mary, like the Church, is a sacrament of Christ—what would the implications of this be? How would this illuminate our understanding of Mary’s maternal vocation with regard to the causal relationship between Mary and the Redeemer?

To support this inquiry, we will lean on St. Thomas, the “philosophical patrimony that is forever valid”—as the same Council documents remind us—for a thomistic understanding of grace, causality, and the sacraments. For example (to highlight a few key tenets), it is from Thomas we know that:

1) A physical (efficient) cause has a real, direct, immediate (proximate) influence on the effect, and can influence either by its own power (as a principal cause) or by a transient communicated power (as an instrumental cause).

2) Grace can pass from its cause to its subject through an instrument according to its receptive nature, that grace is a physical objective reality (a quality or entity), that it does posit something in the soul, and that it is educed from the obediential potency of the soul, which can be actualized by an independent power or agent.

3) If we distill out the important elements of Thomas’ definitions, such as the above two tenets, it can be shown that there is no obstacle with regard to Mary’s role as a proximate cause of grace wherein she has a real direct action and proximate influence on the effect as an efficient cause of grace. This is so because…

4) With Thomas, an instrumental cause can produce grace! And, as Thomas states: “There is nothing to hinder an instrumental spiritual power from being in a body (subject); in so far as a body can be moved by a particular spiritual substance so as to produce a particular spiritual effect.” Thus, the principal agent or cause can pass on a power of operation to the first instrumental cause which can then act as a secondary principal cause in relation to the instrument that follows it, with each cause contributing something of its own, but dependent on the first principal cause. This leads to:

5) Instrumental causality is also the keystone of thomistic theology with regard to the sacraments—the sacraments being co-joined instruments—signs that cause grace used by Christ, that is, actualized by God, the principle cause, to effect what they signify through instrumental causality.

With this in mind, let us go back to the main thesis: First—is Mary in the nature of a sacrament, a “sacrament” of Christ? Elaborating on the Council statement, one can ascertain its implications with respect to the nature of the Church. In the encyclical, Dominum et Vivificantem, n. 63, Pope John Paul II echoes the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council when he states, referring to LG n. 1:

…The Church is in Christ as a sacrament or sign and instrument of the intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race. As a sacrament, the Church is a development from the Paschal Mystery of Christ…continually present in the mystery of the Church…(which) happens in a sacramental way, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who, ‘drawing from the wealth of Christ’s Redemption,’ constantly gives life. As the Church becomes ever more aware of this mystery, she sees herself more clearly, above all as a sacrament…

The International Theological Commission (ITC) also refers to the Church as “a sacrament of Christ,” a “Sacrament of the Kingdom.” The point that “Sacrament” here is used in an analogical sense only must be emphasized, but, nevertheless it is a sacrament in the sense of being “a visible reality instituted by Christ to confer the grace it signifies.” Restated, as we read again in Dominum et Vivificantem (64):

…When we use the word “sacrament” in reference to the Church, we must bear in mind that in the texts of the Council the sacramentality of the Church appears as distinct from the sacramentality that is proper, in the strict sense, to the Sacraments . . . what matters and what emerges from the analogical sense in which the word is used in the two cases is the relationship which the Church has with the power of the Holy Spirit, who alone gives life: the Church is the sign and instrument of the presence and action of the life-giving Spirit.

What is, then, the key element of a “sacrament” as it applies, by analogy, to the Church? The term is applied to the Church because, through the power of the Holy Spirit, it effects what it signifies! The Church is an instrumental (and not merely indicative) sign and instrument that actually confers the grace it symbolizes. And this is a key point! It’s an instrumental cause of grace! The ministry of the Church becomes a channel of grace. “It is in Christ like a sacrament, a sign and instrument in union with God and humanity” (George A. Kelly, The Sacrament of Penance in Our Time, Daughters of St. Paul, Boston, 1984, p. 127). We see this expressed by John Paul II, again in Dominum et Vivificantem (n. 63):

…It is through the individual sacraments the Church fulfills her salvific ministry to man. This sacramental ministry, every time it is accomplished, brings with it the mystery of the “departure” of Christ through the Cross and the Resurrection, by virtue of which the Holy Spirit comes. He comes and works: “He gives life.” For the sacraments signify grace and confer grace: they signify life and give life. The Church is the visible dispenser of the sacred signs, while the Holy Spirit acts in them as the invisible dispenser of the life which they signify. Together with the Spirit, Christ Jesus is present and acting.

Therefore Christ, of course, is the primordial sacrament upon which the Church depends.

No less than eight times, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (e.g. ns. 774-776) also addresses the sacramental nature of the Church and the physical instrumentality it suggests. It notes that the term “sacramentum” (in Greek mysterion) has been used to emphasize the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation. The saving work of Christ’s holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church’s seven sacraments, the “signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body” (CCC 774)

The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense that the Church is called a “sacrament.” The CCC continues:

“The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men” (n. 775).

“As a sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument. “She is taken up by him also as an instrument for the salvation of all,” “the universal sacrament of salvation,” by which Christ is “at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for men” (n. 776)

The documents of the ITC point to Lumen Gentium 9 and 48, and also underline the Church as a visible “sign and instrument” of salvation both through the grace of the seven sacraments and through the Church’s daily mission of witness and action in the world:

The application of the word “sacrament” to the Church allows one to underline the Church’s original origination in and absolute dependence on God and Christ… and orientation toward the manifestation to men, and presence among them, of God’s universal love… (and, therefore) calling the Church “sacrament” strikingly highlights the Church’s link with Christ… (The Church is) truly indwelt with Christ in such a way that who finds her, finds him… (and thus)… The Church is not a mere sign (sacramentum tantum) but a sign in which the reality signified is present (re et sacramentum)…

Certainly, not everything in the Church has the same efficaciously saving quality as the seven sacraments. But notice, as the ITC points out, the use of this term does convey an essential reality or quality! So there are implications in this title; it means something!

Now we get to our Blessed Lady. Can this “sacramental quality” also be applied in an analogical sense to Mary? Like the Church, Mary is distinct from a perfective, as in the seven sacraments, but is also, this author would suggest, in the nature of a sacrament in as much as she is a model and type of the Church (as expressed in Lumen Gentium 1), that is to say both a sign and instrument through which the Holy Spirit wills the grace of Christ to the Body.

First, it must be noted that what we say of the Church, we say too of Mary! Recall the teaching of Matthias Scheeben that there exists between Mary’s Motherhood and that of the Church, a mutual relation, an organic connection so close, complete, so intrinsic a connection and likeness, that they can be known only in and with the other. She is the archetype and prototype of the Church, the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. And so, this author concludes with this syllogism: If the Church is in the nature of a sacrament, a sacrament of Christ as the Council teaches—a visible sign and instrument of the grace of Christ in the world today—and if what we can say of the Church we can also say of Mary, then Mary also must be in the nature of a sacrament!

There is support for this from Tradition. As Henri De Lubac states:

Mary is the “ideal figure of the Church,” “the sacrament” of it (ecclesiae sacramentum) and the “mirror in which the whole Church is reflected…” Mary is figured in the Church, and the Church is figured in Mary… Everything that is written of the Church, may also be read as applying to Mary… Our Lady “comprises in an eminent degree all the graces and all the perfections” of the Church; All the graces of the saints flow into her, as all the rivers flow into the sea… (the Church) is—again, like Our Lady—the Sacrament of Jesus Christ… (Mary) too, is a “Sacrament of Jesus Christ,” and her heart is a “living Gospel” (The Splendor of the Church, Sheed & Ward, NY, 1956, pgs 241-245).

There is also support for this from the papal Magisterium. One could cite Pius X in Ad diem illum and Pius XII in Ad coeli Reginam, who both use the same terminology to describe Mary’s conferral of grace as that typically used to denote the close association between the sacramental sign and the conferral of grace, a causality which is “opere operato.”

The opening quote above from Pope John Paul II draws a striking parallel between Mary’s spiritual Motherhood and the sacramental nature of the Church. The Holy Father more than once portrays Mary as a sign and an instrument, generating Christians through grace, as a true Mother, touching each believer directly and personally, as in the nature of a sacrament, which thus suggests physical, instrumental (not moral) causality.

In summary, and note the parallelism here between the Church, the sacraments, and Our Lady:

1) A Sacrament and the Church are both a sign of unity. Mary too is a sign of Unity!

Vatican II adds that the Church is “a sacrament…of the unity of all mankind…a sacrament, that is sign and instrument” of this coming together of the two poles of creation and redemption, God and man” (DEV 64). We see this at the Annunciation! In this same analogical sense, Mary is also a sign of unity. Our Mater Unitatis, as Augustine calls her, so also can she be called a sacrament or sign of unity. It is the goal of a Mother not to divide but to unite her children. Her role and mission is the lead us to Christ, to lead us to the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity. John Paul II affirms that she leads us to unity (RM 30). And in his 1986 symposium states that Mary: “exercises a unique instrumentality in bringing us to Him.” And we are also reminded of the union of the two Hearts of Jesus and Mary, which becomes manifest most especially at the Cross. In his 1986 ITS Symposium address, in fact, Pope John Paul II stated: “devotion to Mary’s Heart has prime importance—for through (the) love of her Son and all of humanity she exercises a unique instrumentality in bringing us to Him.”

And, by analogy, like the Church and the sacraments …

2) Mary is also both a visible and invisible sign and reality of Salvation, of the redemptive grace of Christ, and as the instrument of the Holy Spirit. We see this become manifest at the Annunciation.

“The Lord will give you a sign … the virgin shall be with child” (Is 7:14).

Mary brings about what she signifies when she brings forth the God-man, the source of grace. Mary is the sign of salvation because here life is drawn into the mystery of her Son’s life; she is a reflection of Jesus and a window into the one and only Son of God that can also unify people torn apart by misunderstandings and prejudice.

Also: “A great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet…” (Rev 12). Mary, the Daughter of Zion, as an image or type of the Church (LG 58, 63) is also a visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation (RM 50). Visible, too, as in her assumed body, and other visible manifestations such as in her apparitions. She is continually present in the Church, and a sign of the Kingdom (as is the Church) not only here and now in a temporal sense, but also in her assumption, in the final sense, in the eschatological fulfillment of all the elect (RM 6).

3) Just as the sacraments confer the grace they signify, by analogy, so too the Church. And does it not follow, so too Mary as mediatrix or dispensatrix of all grace? This is what the popes (e.g. Leo XIII) and saints (e.g. Bernard) over the years have taught us…. The distribution of life-giving grace then becomes a maternal function in God’s providential plan!

As a summation to this point, the ITC notes:

One could not offer a true reading of the Constitution Lumen Gentium without integrating somehow the bearing of its eighth chapter into our understanding of the mystery of the Church. Church and Kingdom find their highest realization in Mary. The Church’s identity as the proleptic presence “In mysterio” of the Kingdom is illuminated in an unsurpassable way when we look at Mary, the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, model of faith, the Real symbol of the Church (and the ITC emphasizes REAL). This is why the Council affirms of her that “in the most Blessed Virgin the Church has already reached its perfection…”

Thus sacramentality in itself suggests instrumentality!

Therefore, that in as much as the Church is a “sacrament of Christ,” that is, it is in the nature of a sacrament because it makes the saving work of Christ present, especially through the seven sacraments—signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ, and by communicating to the world the invisible grace she signifies, and remembering that whatever we can say of the Church we can also say of Mary, we can conclude that Mary too in a similar sense can be considered (analogically) as a sacrament of Christ—and therefore—a visible (physical) instrumental cause of grace. Mary, like the Church, is a sign and instrument of union with God by which she generates Christians through grace.

Now—one must emphasize—just as the Church can only be a sacrament by way of total dependence on Christ, who is intrinsically the “primordial sacrament,” so too Mary, as a “sacrament,” is also totally dependent, secondary, and subordinate to Christ, the source of all grace. However, just as in the imposition of hands, for example, by divine institution is in some sense the cause of the reception of the Holy Spirit, so too Mary, by divine institution, and in the manner in which the sacraments are the cause of grace, is also an instrumental cause of grace.

To designate the Church (or Mary) as a moral cause of grace only, one could not hold that the Church (or Mary) is in the “nature of a sacrament,” because this infers that the sacraments are the cause of grace in the manner of an indispensable (sine qua non) cause, that is, not by any power vested in them, but solely from God who upholds them. But, just as Christ healed the leper by his touch, actively and instrumentally, so too this cause is applied to us bodily through the sacraments.

So, to be “as in the nature of a sacrament,” they must be the cause of grace as disposing instruments acting by the divine virtue as God’s instrument.

The renowned Bertrand de Margerie reminds us that supernatural and divine life is usually conferred by the sacraments, and Mary’s spiritual motherhood is fully actualized only in the very heart of sacramental life.

Therefore, it is proposed that Mary, if she is truly a type and image of the Church, is in the “nature of a sacrament.” The “nature” of sacrament, even in an analogical sense as applied to the Church or Mary, consists of a visible form of an invisible grace in the sense that it bears the image and becomes the cause of the grace. As with the seven sacraments, something visible is required that are signs of grace and some effect upon our receiving grace, and do so not as a principal agent or inherently of themselves, but instrumentally. Such then can be applied to the Church and Mary—both have an effect upon grace in as much as they are moved by God to this effect.

As a result, can we not, as with the Church, invoke Mary as “a sacrament of Christ,” at least as much as we do for the Church? This is a valid title—denoting too an order of operation. And we can carry this further, to aTrinitarian context!

Recall the work of St. Maximilian Kolbe as he highlights the importance of the Immaculate Conception, which in turn highlights the close association between Our Lady and the Holy Spirit. Kolbian theology conveys an interdependent, inseparability between the Holy Spirit and Mary. And if the Church is “as in the nature of a sacrament” because it is a sign and instrument of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, how much more is Our Lady, as the instrument of the Holy Spirit, “in the nature of a sacrament,” a sacrament of the Holy Spirit?

St. Maximilian writes: “Mary’s action is the very action of the Holy Spirit who acts only by The Immaculata, His spouse, who is the instrument He uses in all he does in the order of grace.”

Consequently, the Holy Spirit has a willed providential dependency on Mary. The Holy Spirit lives in Mary, dwelling within her, not only in her soul, but in her body, and acting only through her.

Therefore, if the Church is the sacrament of Christ, of the intimate union with God in Jesus Christ, she is such through the power of the Holy Spirit wherein the “fullness of the salvific reality, which is Christ in history, extends in a sacramental way in the power of the Spirit Paraclete” (DEV 64); and in as much as the Holy Spirit is the divine sanctifier and the distributor of the graces of Redemption, is not Mary, in an analogical sense, as the visible sign, the “personification” and instrument of the Holy Spirit, also in the nature of a sacrament, a sacrament of the Holy Spirit?

And yes—we can carry it one more step. In as much as our Lady is a sign and instrument of the Triune God, of his Trinitarian life and continuing work of subjective redemption, as the created Immaculate Conception, participating in the fecundity of the Father, and as Mother of the Son—the source of grace, and through which redemptive graces “flow,” can not Mary, in a sense, rightly be considered (analogically) as “in the nature of a sacrament,” a sacrament of the Holy Trinity?


We return to our original goal. Is there any contribution or insight to be gained here? What is the causal relationship between Mary and the Redeemer?

If the Church is in the nature of a sacrament, and everything we can say of the Church we can say of Mary, then, like the Church, Our Lady is in the nature of a sacrament, and—the qualities that apply to this title go with it—that like the Church, she too must be an instrumental cause of life giving grace to the Body!

And is that not the role of a true Mother? To bring us life?

Richard May is an aerospace engineer who holds a Bachelors of Theology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, and a Masters of Theology from the Franciscan University in Steubenville.


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