The following article is from a chapter in the recently published Marian anthology, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons, Seat of Wisdom Books, A Division of Queenship, 2008. Fifteen international Mariology experts contributed to the text. The book features a foreword by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke and has 17 chapters divided into four parts: 1. Mary in Scripture and the Early Church; 2. Marian Dogma; 3. Marian Doctrine; and 4. Marian Liturgy and Devotion. – Asst. Ed.
When pondering the Church’s teaching about the Blessed Virgin Mary, one may be immediately inclined to think about her Divine Maternity, Perpetual Virginity, Immaculate Conception, and Assumption—and rightly so, given that these truths have been defined as dogmas of the Catholic faith. (1) Yet, there are other Church teachings concerning Our Lady that are also important because they, too, glorify God and assist in the salvation of souls. One such doctrine is the spiritual maternity (or spiritual motherhood) of Mary. (2)
The purpose of this article is to present this doctrine, which “is one of the most certain and most universally accepted doctrines of Mariology.” (3)
The spiritual maternity of Mary is “a particular and unique cooperation of Mary, as Mother of God the Savior, with the redemptive work of her Son, in restoring supernatural life to immortal souls.” (4) The spiritual motherhood of Mary means that the ever-Virgin is my Mother in the spiritual order, often called “the order of grace,” in a similar fashion to the way in which the woman who conceived and bore me is my Mother in the natural order or “the order of nature.”
The great Mariologist Fr. Emil Neubert (+1967), a religious of the Society of Mary (Marianists), in his Mary in Doctrine, writes: “Even the least instructed among Catholics know that Mary is their Mother. Before he has heard the words Immaculate Conception, virginity, Assumption, any child who can lisp a prayer knows that the Mother of Jesus is also his Mother.” (5) Eschewing as “incomplete” the ideas that the spiritual maternity is “metaphorical” and/or “adoptive,” (6) Fr. Neubert, seconding the previous remark, continues: “This spiritual maternity means that Mary has given us supernatural life just as truly as our mothers have given us natural life. What our mothers do for our natural life, Mary does in the supernatural order, nourishing, protecting, increasing, and developing our life so as to bring it to maturity.” (7)
The late Jesuit Fr. Bertrand de Margerie (+2003) also provides a description of Mary’s spiritual maternity.
Spiritual motherhood means a supernatural activity, received and subordinate, in the work of eternal salvation of another human being, by which a created person receives and transmits to another person the divine life. Spiritual maternity presupposes divine paternity and human fraternity. The human being who is elevated to the level of spiritual motherhood receives from God the Father the possibility of engendering supernaturally those who are his brothers and sisters in the natural order. (8)
Hence, Mary’s spiritual maternity is real—a true relationship has been established between her and the children of Adam. Far from “make-believe” or wholly symbolic, this rapport, as we will now see, is based in large measure on the “handing over” of John the beloved apostle by Jesus to Mary.
Five biblical texts are often cited when discussing the spiritual maternity.
The Protogospel (Gen 3:15): Over the centuries, there have been multiple theories as to if and how Mary is prefigured in this verse. (9) Fr. Wenceslaus Sebastian, O.F.M., along with other scholars, believes “that the woman of Gen. 3:15, is to be understood of Mary alone, and that in the strict literal sense.” (10) Fr. Sebastian explains:
This last opinion seems acceptable on several grounds. For one thing, it does not violate any rules of textual criticism. Though the Hebrew article in ha’ isscha (the woman) can have an anaphoric meaning, thus making Eve the term of reference, it can also signify “a certain woman,” different from Eve. Furthermore, the passage in question is a Messianic prophecy, and for that reason does not require the word “woman” to have an identical meaning here and in the context. Besides, as Father Peirce remarks, the fact that the speaker in verse 15 is God, whereas in the context he is the inspired author, also permits a difference of signification. Above all, the meaning of the passage seems entirely to exclude Eve. The verse prophesies perfect enmity between this woman and Satan, her seed and his. This perfect enmity could not have been verified in Eve who everywhere in Holy Scripture and Tradition appears as the cause of ruin, never as one who opposed Satan. On the other hand, it was clearly verified in Mary, who was all pure, and never for a moment under Satan’s power. (11)
If one admits this interpretation, then the path is clear in using the Protogospel as a biblical basis for Our Lady’s spiritual motherhood.
For the text prophesies that Mary, with her divine Son, will crush Satan’s head; and this crushing, as we know, took place through the objective redemption. Since the objective redemption marks the rebirth of mankind to the supernatural life, Mary by her share in the work of the redemption can aptly be called our spiritual Mother.
Genesis 3:15 can, therefore, be quoted as a valid scriptural proof of the spiritual maternity. (12)
The Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38): The meaning of the Annunciation event that marked the moment of the Incarnation is clear: the Second Person of the most Blessed Trinity took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, there is a further significance spelled out by Dr. Mark Miravalle, who contends that:
The Blessed Virgin began her mission as spiritual Mother of humanity with her “fiat” at the Annunciation. Her “let it be done” (Lk 1:38), leads her to becoming the Mother of Jesus, who is the Head of the Mystical Body (which is the Church), and also mysteriously begins her spiritual motherhood in relation to the rest of the Body of Christ which is mystically connected to Jesus the Head. (13)
Fr. Neubert identifies the Annunciation as being crucial in the mystery of Mary’s spiritual maternity, even being the first of “three separate moments … in our supernatural birth.” (14) He argues:
Our spiritual regeneration began in the mystery of the Incarnation; for without the Incarnation we would all still be buried in the death of sin. But it was in Mary that God accomplished the Incarnation. And in this mystery Mary was not a purely physical and blind instrument; she knew through the prophets, and God owed it to himself to reveal more clearly to her at this moment, the consequences which would result for us and for her answer to Gabriel. In giving this answer, she realized that our life or our death depended on it. Her fiat of acquiescence to the divine message was a fiat of acquiescence to our supernatural birth, a fiat of acquiescence to her function as our Mother. Supposing Christ had not been able to pronounce his last recommendation to Mary and John on the Cross, or that the Blessed Virgin had disappeared from this earth immediately after the birth of her Son, she would still be in all reality our Mother. (15)
Thus, the free consent given by Mary to God at the Annunciation was essential—it served as a kind of “permission” granted to God by Our Lady so that he could do through her whatever necessary in reconciling sinful humanity to himself. Our Lady unhesitatingly uttered her fiat to the Incarnation but also to the attendant ramifications, including and especially the spiritual maternity, willed by God.
The Consignment (Jn 19:25-27): In the Crucifixion narrative of St. John, specifically the famous entrustment on Calvary wrought by the dying Christ on the Cross to his Mother and his beloved apostle, we find demonstrated in vivid but simple words the intention of the Crucified Christ in emphasizing Our Lady’s role in our salvation. (16)
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then to the disciple he said, “Behold your mother.” And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home.
About this passage Fr. René Laurentin has written: “Many have seen there only a personal and private act: Jesus confided his Mother to St. John, they say, so that she not be abandoned to lonesomeness.” (17) On the other hand, a plethora of Catholic commentators view this text as a sure basis for Mary’s spiritual maternity.
It is impossible to claim with any kind of integrity that Christ had nothing in mind when he entrusted his Mother to John and vice versa. It is clear that he was initiating a fresh and deep, lasting relationship between Mary and the apostle. And John in turn carried out the desire of his crucified Master by providing a place for Our Lady in his house.
Fr. Neubert is convinced that in the Johannine text we have an unambiguous reference to Mary’s spiritual motherhood. He explains the connection between the Incarnation that occurred during the Annunciation and the redemption that was Christ’s salvific death.
The mystery of the Incarnation is completed by that of the redemption. Only by his death did Christ effect the destruction of “him who had the empire of death” and definitely merit for us that we should live his life. Mary did not co-operate in the redemption any less knowingly or less really than she did in the Incarnation. Consequently, just as our spiritual regeneration begun in the mystery of the Incarnation achieved its completion in that of the redemption, so the spiritual motherhood of Mary, which began in the first mystery, was completed in the second: at Nazareth, Mary conceived us; on Calvary, she brought us forth. And she who, always a virgin, knew only joy at the birth of her firstborn, suffered the most cruel pangs in the birth of her other children. (18)
What exactly did Jesus do from the Cross in highlighting this spiritual maternity of Mary that had its roots at the Annunciation? Again, Fr. Neubert: