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:
So it was that our Lord, before dying, wished to give us an indication of this spiritual motherhood by proclaiming his Mother our Mother and by confiding us to her in the person of St. John. His words did not create this motherhood, but proclaimed it and confirmed it at the most solemn moment of his life, at the very moment that this motherhood was being consummated by the consummation of the mystery of the redemption, and at the moment when Mary was best prepared to understand the fullness of its significance. Without doubt, this word, efficacious as are all divine words, rendered the maternal sentiments of Mary toward us even more profound and lively. (19)
What did John the Apostle—the beloved disciple—grasp from what Jesus did in conceding his Mother to him? Fr. Neubert opines:
Even though it may be difficult to determine precisely to what extent the disciple understood the mysterious meaning of this expression—”Behold your mother”—of the Master, Christ certainly saw the spiritual significance which we attach to it; for he would not have pronounced the word, or he would not have permitted John to record it, if he had not given it the meaning which the Church was to discover in it. It suffices that Jesus, in bequeathing his Mother to John, thought of the spiritual motherhood of Mary, for us to have the right to declare ourselves heirs of this legacy of love. (20)
These two Gospel texts provide a biblical foundation for further discussion of Mary’s spiritual maternity. Considered from an ecumenical point of view, these passages, given their presence in Sacred Scripture, offer hope for some substantive dialogue with other Christians.
The “Fullness of Time” (Gal 4:4): Fr. Neubert weighs in on Galatians 4:4, one of the most famous Pauline texts: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption.” For St. Paul, according to Fr. Neubert, “it was in being born of Mary that Christ merited for us our adoption as children of God.” (21) Hence, one concludes that since Our Lady is Christ’s Mother, she is ours, too—by nature, regarding Jesus, and by grace, concerning us.
The Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rev 12): Although complete agreement is lacking regarding the identity of the Woman in Chapter 12 of the book of Revelation, an ecclesiological and a Marian interpretation are reasonable and traditional. There has been a longtime use of this passage by many exegetes and preachers to demonstrate Mary’s singular function in the life of the Church.
Fr. Sebastian offers his perspective.
Yet if the passage in question undoubtedly has an ecclesiological meaning, is it entirely devoid of any Mariological connotation? What is surprising is that St. John here describes the Church with the allegory of a woman whose traits are those of the Blessed Virgin as described elsewhere in Scripture. The very use of the word “sign” recalls that other “sign,” a Marian sign, spoke of in Isaiah 7:14—the sign of the Virgin begetting a Son. Of even greater significance is the parallelism that exists between this prophecy and that of the Protogospel. In both instances the figures and persons are the same: the woman and her progeny, the serpent and his in the Protogospel; the woman, her male child, and the rest of her seed; the dragon and his followers in the Apocalypse. In both cases the first group triumphs over the second. Could it be that St. John, to whom our Lord entrusted his Blessed Mother, described the Woman of the Apocalypse without at once thinking of Mary? It seems logical to conclude that in the mind of the apostle the picture of Mary was to serve as a prototype for the Church whom he wished to describe. The child to whom she gives birth is Christ both in his personal and in his Mystical Body. She is pictured as suffering the pains of childbirth, because she brought forth the Mystical Body amid the sorrows of her compassion on Calvary. If this interpretation is valid, the passage of the Apocalypse may be used as a scriptural proof of Mary’s spiritual maternity. (22)
It is instructive to note that the Church uses Revelation 11:19; 12:1-6, 10 as the First Reading during Mass on the Solemnity of the Assumption, which signifies that the Church herself considers the passage to be endowed with a Marian meaning. Such significance is arguably that of the maternity she possesses not only vis-à-vis Jesus Christ her divine Son but also that concerning the brothers and sisters of Jesus—her very sons and daughters.
Early Witnesses—First through the Ninth Centuries
The maturation in the Tradition of the concept of Mary’s spiritual maternity is both long and rich. Fr. Laurentin asserts: “The development of this doctrine coincides with the development of Marian cult.” (23)
One Mariologist after another rightly focuses on the early centuries as being the key in understanding how the notion of the spiritual motherhood grew. Fr. Neubert contends: “During the first three centuries, Mary was regarded as the woman who procured supernatural life for us, that is to say, as a mother. But the word ‘Mother’ does not yet appear.” (24)
What follows is a necessarily brief survey of some of the authors from the beginning of the Christian era. But before we do, let us not forget the prayer Sub Tuum Praesidium as an outstanding example of an early testimony to the divine and spiritual maternity of Mary. During his Wednesday general audience of November 27, 1996, the Servant of God John Paul II stated:
Already in the third century, as can be deduced from an ancient written witness, the Christians of Egypt addressed this prayer to Mary: “We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all evil, O glorious and Blessed Virgin” (from the Liturgy of the Hours). The expression Theotókos appears explicitly for the first time in this ancient witness. (25)
St. Justin Martyr (+c.165): “Eve gave birth to disobedience and death. … Mary obeys: From who is born he who delivers from death.” (26) Although the spiritual maternity is not referenced directly here, the concept is present. Whom does Jesus deliver from death other than those who have inherited death through original sin? Thus, by bringing forth Christ from her virginal womb, Mary participated in the great reconciliation of her spiritual sons and daughters to the Father wrought by Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
St. Ireneaus (+c.200): “It was because of a disobedient virgin that mankind was stricken, fell, and died. Likewise, it is by the Virgin obedient to the Word of God that man, reanimated by Life, has again recovered life.” (27) The notion of spiritual regeneration comes to the surface here. The Word of God empowered Our Lady to assist those who had lost grace to find it anew.
In another place, St. Irenaeus writes:
And those who proclaimed him Emmanuel born of the Virgin showed the union of the Word of God to his handiwork, because the Word will become flesh, and the Son of God the son of man—the Pure One opening purely that pure womb, which regenerates men unto God, which (womb) he made pure, and he became the same as we are. (28)
From the above text we note that Jesus Christ opened “purely” the chaste womb of his Mother, and it is the same womb of Mary that “regenerates” human beings. Hence, not only is Mary responsible for the birth of Christ but she is also involved with the rebirth of man and woman.
A third passage from the Bishop of Lyons and Father of the Church follows.
How will a man go to God, if God does not go to man? And how shall a man leave his
mortal birth unless he comes to the new birth wondrously and unexpectedly given by God as a sign of salvation, and which is from the Virgin, and by faith, a regeneration? Or what adoption will they receive from God by remaining in that birth which is according to man in this world? … The Son of God became man receiving in himself the ancient formation. (29)
The theme of spiritual regeneration and Mary’s connection to it appears again. St. Irenaeus very forthrightly credits Our Lady with a substantial role in effecting the spiritual rebirth of the friends of Christ.
Origen (+c.253): Fr. Neubert emphasizes that Origen “is often cited as the first to see in the words of the dying Christ to his Mother and to his beloved disciple an affirmation of Mary’s spiritual motherhood in our regard.” (30) In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, the theologian of Alexandria declares:
We dare to say that the first fruits of the Scriptures are the Gospels, and of the Gospels, the one written by John. No one understands this Gospel unless he has reposed on the bosom of Christ or has received from Jesus, Mary, who also becomes his Mother. He who is to become another John must be so great that Jesus can also say of him that he, like John, is Jesus. For there is no other Son of Mary … but Jesus, and Jesus says to his Mother: “Behold thy Son,” and not: “Behold, he is also thy son.” In reality every perfect Christian no longer lives himself; it is Christ who lives in him. And since Christ lives in him, Mary hears the words, “Behold thy Son, Christ.” (31)
Such words from Origen testify that as Mary is the Mother of Christ, so she is the Mother of those in whom Christ lives, namely the brothers and sisters of Jesus. This contention manifests the belief that Mary is the Mother of the disciples of the risen Lord.
St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker (+c.270): The Bishop of Caesarea, Gregory Thaumaturgus, echoes the idea that in a real sense, Jesus Christ recapitulated the human race in the virginal womb of his Mother. “From on high came the divine Word, and in thy (Mary’s) holy womb reformed Adam.” (32) Jesus took it upon himself to renew his creatures by way of Our Lady’s chaste body.
St. Epiphanius of Salamis (+403): Fr. Neubert identifies the Bishop of Salamis as responsible for “the first explicit and precise protestation of Mary’s spiritual maternity.” (33) St. Epiphanius penned the following in response to the question of how Eve after her sin could have been described as the mother of the living.
Eve, mother of the whole human race, prefigured Mary, and this name ought properly to be applied to her; for it is truly through Mary that Life has been brought into the world, so that she might bring forth the “Living One” and be the “Mother of the living.” (34)
St. Augustine of Hippo (+430): The renowned Doctor Gratiae confronts the theme of Mary’s participation in the birth of the Faithful.
Mary alone among all women is mother and virgin, not only according to the spirit but also according to the flesh. According to the spirit she is not mother of our Head, the Savior Jesus, of whom rather she was born spiritually …, but she is mother of his members, which we are. For she cooperated by her charity in the birth into the Church of the faithful—the members of the Head. According to the flesh, she is Mother of the Head himself. (35)
Fr. Neubert concludes that St. Augustine “is not speaking here of that special maternity that we attribute to Mary as a result of her co-operation in the mysteries of the Incarnation and of the redemption” but neither does he “exclude that co-operation and, no doubt, had the situation called for it, he would have explained her charity through her unique role in the work of her Son.” (36) Fr. Sebastian concurs: “Although Augustine attributes our spiritual birth to Mary, it is not too clear whether that birth is involved in the birth of Christ.” (37)
Interestingly, St. Augustine stresses that Our Lady is the Mother of Jesus in the order of nature but not in the order of grace. In fact, Mary herself was born of Christ spiritually. In the order of grace, she is our Mother because we are the members of Christ the Head.
St. Cyril of Alexandria (+c.444): There is a distinct hue of Pauline theology in the following text by this avowed enemy of Nestorianism.
We affirm … that the only-begotten … became man economically … and that with us and like us he submitted himself to generation … so that, born of a woman according to the flesh, he might recapitulate in himself the human race … and by the flesh united to him, he might incorporate all in himself. (38)
A careful glance at Ephesians 1:7-10 reveals that St. Cyril relies heavily on St. Paul’s understanding of redemption. For St. Cyril, Jesus Christ accomplished his task of incorporating the human race to himself by surrendering to human generation—and this coming through his birth from Mary.
Other Ephesian Fathers besides St. Cyril of Alexandria: Fr. Sebastian provides a quick look at the assertions of Theodotus of Ancyra and St. Proclus of Constantinople and presents his own helpful commentary.
Theodotus of Ancrya (+c.446) writes: “God … chose the virginal birth as the inauguration of the dispensation (oikonomia)”; and he even goes so far as to call Mary “the Mother of the dispensation (oikonomia).” St. Proclus of Constantinople (+446) is no exception to the Tradition we are discussing. “The virginal womb,” he observes, “bore this mystery of the divine dispensation (oikonomia)”; and with a daring equal to that of Theodotus, he calls Mary “the mother of the mystery.” This beautiful theology of the Ephesian Fathers is an evolution of the theology of St. Irenaeus. Equally conversant with Pauline terminology, St. Irenaeus calls Mary the Mother of the recapitulation, St. Theodotus gives her the title of Mother of the dispensation (oikonomia), and St. Proclus greets her as the Mother of the mystery. Mary is at once the Mother of God and the Mother of men in Christ Jesus; such is the message of the Ephesian Fathers. (39)
Pseudo-Modestus of Jerusalem (+634): This author identifies Our Lady with our spiritual rebirth when he submits, in referring to Mary’s Assumption: “O most blessed dormition of the most glorious Mother of God, through whom we are mystically re-created and made the temple of the Holy Spirit.” (40)
George of Nicomedia (+c.860): Presenting a conversation between Jesus Christ and John, his beloved apostle, George writes:
Now I constitute her (Mary) as a parent and guide not only of yourself but of the rest of the disciples, and I absolutely wish her to be honored with the prerogative of mother. … Although I forbade you to call anyone your father on earth, still I wish this mother to be honored and called such by you. (41)
True, as Fr. Sebastian avers, there “is no indication in this passage as to the basis of Mary’s spiritual maternity, although it is a testimony of its existence.” (42)
We close this section as we began, by pointing to a prayer—in this case, a hymn that
arguably speaks to some extent of Mary’s motherhood in our regard—that highlights our Blessed Mother’s maternity. Recognizing that during the period which we have just reviewed, the term “Mother” is rather rarely given in print to Our Lady, Fr. Neubert nevertheless inquires:
And yet does not the popular hymn, Ave Maris Stella, dating at least from the early ninth century with its stirring “Monstra te esse matrem—Show thyself a Mother,” prove that our forefathers from the days of Charlemagne and even before, loved to praise and invoke Mary as mother? When we study the succession of ideas, we notice that the word matrem refers to her insofar as she is Mother of Jesus and not as our Mother. In the preceding verses the hymn asks for all sorts of graces, the deliverance from evils, the increase of all things good. And it continues: “Monstra te esse matrem, sumat per te preces,” which means: “Employ your rights as Mother with him who willed to be your Son, so that through you he may receive our prayers.” (43)
Scholastic Period to the Present
Scores of pages would be required to sketch an adequate summary of the thoughts of theologians and spiritual writers during this era. What comes next is an overview of a few selected authors in the hope that the reader will see again how the concept of Mary’s spiritual maternity developed over time.
St. Anselm of Canterbury (+1109):
Every nature has been created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. God, who made all things, made himself from Mary; and so, all things which he had made, he remade. He who was able to make all things from nothing was not willing to remake them, when they were violated, without Mary. God then is the father of created things, and Mary the mother of re-created things. God is the Father of the constitution of all, and Mary is the mother of the restitution of all. God generated him through whom all things are made, and Mary bore him through whom all things are saved. God generated him without whom there is nothing at all; and Mary bore him without whom nothing is well off at all. (44)
Thou art the Mother of Salvation (of the Savior) and of those who are saved. O blessed confidence! O safe refuge! The Mother of God is our Mother: the Mother of him in whom alone we hope, whom alone we fear, is our Mother. The Mother, I repeat, of him who alone saves, who alone condemns, is our Mother! (45)
Eadmer of Canterbury (+c.1124):
O Lady, if your Son has become our brother through you, have you not become our Mother through him? This is what he said to John when he was about to die for us on the Cross; to John, I say, who had nothing else than ourselves in the nature of his condition: “Behold,” he said “your mother.” O sinful man, rejoice and exult, for there is no reason to despair or to fear; whatever your judgment will be depends entirely upon the sentence of your brother and of your mother. … Your judge, that is, your brother, has taught you to fly to the aid of his mother, and to the same one, your mother, has admonished you to cling faithfully to the protection of the wings of her Son. (46)
Rupert of Deutz (+1129/1135):
By what right is the disciple whom Jesus loved the son of the mother of the Lord, or she his mother? It is by the fact that she then bore without pain the cause of the salvation of all when she gave birth to God made man from her flesh; and now with great pain she was in labor when, as we have just been told, she stood by his Cross. … Accordingly, because there the Blessed Virgin truly bore pains as of a woman in labor and in the Passion of her only-begotten Son gave birth to the salvation of us all, she is clearly the Mother of us all. Because then it was said by him (Christ) of this disciple: “Woman, behold your son,” most justly did he (John) have the care of his Mother. Likewise the words to the disciple, “Behold your mother,” could rightly be said of any other disciple, if he were present. Although, as we have said, she is the Mother of us all, yet more fittingly was she, as a virgin, commended to this virgin. (47)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (+1153):
All generations will call you blessed because you have generated life and glory for all generations. … Rightly do the eyes of every creature look up to you because in you, and by you, and of you the benign hand of the Almighty has re-created whatever it had created. (48)
St. Bonaventure (+1274):
Because the Virgin Mary conceived him who is the head of all the elect and whose members are the rest of the saved, she must have had an immense charity and benevolence to love all the elect with a maternal affection. (49)
St. Albert the Great/Pseudo-Albert (+1280):
During Christ’s Passion when the Mother of mercy collaborated with the Father of mercy in a work of greatest mercy and endured with her Son the sufferings of the Passion—for a sword of sorrow pierced her heart—she, participating in the Passion, co-operated in the redemption and became the Mother of the new birth. That is why at that moment because of the spiritual fruitfulness by which she became the spiritual Mother of the whole human race, she was justly called woman; for only through an anguishing childbirth did she call all men to be re-born to eternal life in and by her Son. (50)
The Blessed Virgin is the Mother of all good … she was predestined before the ages to be the principle from which every created thing was to be re-created. (51)
Inasmuch as she was the cooperator (adjutrix) of the redemption by compassion Mary became in this way the Mother of all by re-creation. … (She) bore her first-born Son without pain in his Nativity; afterwards she bore the whole race simultaneously in the Passion of her Son, where she became a helpmate to him like unto himself, where as the very Mother of mercy she helped the Father of mercies in the highest work of mercy, and together with him regenerated all men. (52)
St. Bernardine of Siena (+1444)
She had in her womb, that is in her intimate, maternal affection, the Son of God and the whole mystical Christ; that is, the head with the whole body of the elect. (53)
St. John Fisher (+1535)
Therefore, since this blessed Lady Mary goes as a dawn between our night and the day of Christ, between our darkness and his brightness, and lastly between the misery of our sins and the mercy of God, to whom should wretched sinners turn for help, so as to be delivered quickly from their wretchedness and come to mercy, but to this Blessed Virgin Mary? Who can come or attain from one extreme to another without a mean between both? Let us therefore acknowledge our wretchedness to her and ask her help. She cannot fail to hear us, for she is our Mother. She shall speak for us to her merciful Son and ask his mercy, and he will undoubtedly grant the petition of his Mother and the Mother of mercy. Let us therefore call to her, saying, O most holy Virgin, you are the Mother of God, the Mother of mercy, the Mother of wretched sinners and their singular help, the Comfort of all the sorrowful; vouchsafe to hear our wretchedness and provide for it a fitting and suitable remedy. (54)
St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (+1716):
If Jesus Christ, the Head of men, is born in her, the predestinate, who are members of that Head, ought also to be born in her, by a necessary consequence. One and the same mother does not bring forth into the world the head without the members, or the members without the head; for this would be a monster of nature. So in like manner, in the order of grace, the Head and the members are born of one and the same Mother. … Besides this, Jesus being at present as much as ever the fruit of Mary—as heaven and earth repeat thousands and thousands of times a day: “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”—it is certain that Jesus Christ is, for each man in particular who possesses him, as truly the fruit of the womb of Mary as he is for the whole world in general; so that if any one of the faithful has Jesus Christ formed in his heart, he can say boldly: “All thanks be to Mary! What I possess is her effect and her fruit, and without her I should never have had it.” We can apply to her more than St. Paul applied to himself the words: “I am in labor again with all the children of God, until Jesus Christ my Son be formed in them in the fullness of his age” (Gal 4:19). (55)
St. Alphonsus Mary Liguori (+1787):
It is not without a meaning, or by chance, that Mary’s clients call her Mother; and indeed they seem unable to invoke her under any other name, and never tire of calling her Mother. Mother, yes! For she is truly our Mother; not indeed carnally, but spiritually; of our souls and of our salvation.
Sin, by depriving our souls of divine grace, deprived them also of life. Jesus our Redeemer, with an excess of mercy and love, came to restore this life by his own death on the Cross, as he himself declared: I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly (“Ego veni ut vitam habeant, et abundantius habeant.”—Jn 10:10). He says more abundantly; for, according to theologians, the benefit of redemption far exceeded the injury done by Adam’s sin. So that by reconciling us with God he made himself the Father of souls in the law of grace, as it was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: He shall be called the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace (“Pater future saeculi, princes pacis.”—Is 9:6). But if Jesus is the Father of our souls, Mary is also their Mother; for she, by giving us Jesus, gave us true life; and afterwards, by offering the life of her Son on Mount Calvary for our salvation, she brought us forth to the life of grace. (56)
St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe (+1941):
She loved us even to the point of sacrificing her divine Son for us; at the Annunciation she had already deliberately accepted us as her children. (57)
The Immaculata has left this earth; but her life has only grown deeper and richer; it grows and flourishes more and more in the lives of Christians. If all the souls that have lived on this earth, and all those that still struggle here could make known the all-powerful influence the Immaculata has exercised over them, and her maternal solicitude for these souls redeemed by the precious Blood of her divine Son, what an incalculable number of volumes would be required! All these persons would relate only what they had been able to discover as special graces received through Mary. But in fact every grace that comes to a soul comes from her hands, for she is the Mediatrix of all grace; and at every moment new graces penetrate into the souls of men. There are graces which enlighten the intellect, which strengthen the will, which draw us toward what is good. There are ordinary and extraordinary graces; some graces directly concern our natural life, and others have to do with the sanctification of our souls. Only at the last judgment, only in heaven will we discover with what loving attention our heavenly Mother watched over each one of us without ceasing, over every soul individually, because all are her children. She strives to shape them after the model, Jesus, her firstborn, the archetype of all sanctity, the Man-God. (58)
Finally, we cite an additional prayer, this one coming from the period just examined that captures the belief of the Faithful in Mary’s spiritual maternity: the famous Memorare, often attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux but evidently written later. It was popularized by Fr. Claude Bernard (+1641), who maintained that he learned it from his father. The Memorare was known to and used by St. Francis de Sales (+1622), and derives from the much longer fifteenth century prayer, Ad sanctitatis tuae pedes, dulcissima Virgo Maria.
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen. (59)
Miravalle sets the stage for a perusal of documents from the Papal Magisterium concerning the spiritual maternity.
Historically, the voice of the Magisterium has been clear and consistent regarding the truth of Mary’s spiritual motherhood. The first pope to refer to Mary as spiritual Mother, particularly as “Mother of grace,” was Pope Sixtus IV in 1477 (in the Apostolic Constitution Cum praecelsa). Since Pope Sixtus IV, no less than twenty-nine subsequent popes have referred to Mary as spiritual Mother with an always increasing specificity and clarity. (60)
Of special interest to us are the contributions of the Popes who served during the twentieth century and Pope Benedict XVI. (61)
Pope Leo XIII (+1903): The August 15, 1889, Encyclical Quamquam Pluries was Pope Leo’s special tribute to St. Joseph.
Now the divine house which Joseph ruled with the authority of a father, contained within its limits the scarce-born Church. From the same fact that the most holy Virgin is the Mother of Jesus Christ is she the Mother of all Christians whom she bore on Mount Calvary amid the supreme throes of the redemption; Jesus Christ is, in a manner, the firstborn of Christians, who by the adoption and redemption are his brothers. (62)
In his Encyclical Adiutricem Populi, dated September 5, 1895, which was one of his numerous encyclicals regarding the most holy Rosary, Pope Leo addresses the belief in the spiritual motherhood of Our Lady. Here are two excerpts:
The mystery of Christ’s immense love for us is revealed with dazzling brilliance in the fact that the dying Savior bequeathed his Mother to his disciple John in the memorable testament: “Behold thy son.” Now in John, as the Church has constantly taught, Christ designated the whole human race, and in the first rank are they who are joined with him by faith. It is in this sense that St. Anselm of Canterbury says: “What dignity, O Virgin, could be more highly prized than to be the Mother of those to whom Christ deigned to be Father and Brother!” With a generous heart Mary undertook and discharged the duties of her high but laborious office, the beginnings of which were consecrated in the Cenacle. With wonderful care she nurtured the first Christians by her holy example, her authoritative counsel, her sweet consolation, her fruitful prayers. She was, in very truth, the Mother of the Church, the Teacher and Queen of the apostles, to whom, besides, she confided no small part of the divine mysteries which she kept in her heart. (63)
It is impossible to measure the power and scope of her offices since the day she was taken up to that height of heavenly glory in the company of her Son, to which the dignity and luster of her merits entitle her. From her heavenly abode she began, by God’s decree, to watch over the Church, to assist and befriend us as our Mother; so that she who was so intimately associated with the mystery of human salvation is just as closely associated with the distribution of the graces which for all time will flow from the redemption. (64)
Pope St. Pius X (+1914): In his Encyclical Ad Diem Illum of February 2, 1904, which was published on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pope St. Pius not only affirmed the doctrine of the spiritual maternity of Mary before the whole world, but at the same time gave a presentation of it which, while not claiming to be complete nor to treat the question ex professo, shows remarkable vigor in its precision. (65)
Commenting on what Pope St. Pius X left the Church in Ad diem illum, Fr. Neubert writes “that the two chief reasons given as the basis for this maternity are our incorporation in Christ and the role of Mary in the mystery of the Incarnation.” (66)
Pope St. Pius explains:
For is not Mary the Mother of Christ? Then she is our Mother also. And we must in truth hold that Christ, the Word made Flesh, is also the Savior of mankind. He had a physical body like that of any other man: and again as Savior of the human family, he had a spiritual and mystical body, the society, namely, of those who believe in Christ. “We are many, but one sole body in Christ” (Rom 12:5). Now the Blessed Virgin did not conceive the eternal Son of God merely in order that he might be made man taking his human nature from her, but also in order that by means of the nature assumed from her he might be the Redeemer of men. For which reason the Angel said to the Shepherds: “To-day there is born to you a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11).
Wherefore in the same holy bosom of his most chaste Mother Christ took to himself flesh, and united to himself the spiritual body formed by those who were to believe in him. Hence Mary, carrying the Savior within her, may be said to have also carried all those whose life was contained in the life of the Savior. Therefore all we who are united to Christ, and as the apostle says are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones (Eph 5:30), have issued from the womb of Mary like a body united to its head. Hence, though in a spiritual and mystical fashion, we are all children of Mary, and she is Mother of us all. Mother, spiritually indeed, but truly Mother of the members of Christ, who are we (St. Augustine De Sancta Virginitate, c. 6). (67)
Pope Benedict XV (+1922): In his Letter of May 25, 1915, to Serafino Cardinal Vannutelli, Pope Benedict exhorts: “Let us all turn with confidence to the afflicted and Immaculate Heart of Mary, the most gentle Mother of Jesus and our Mother.” (68)
Pope Pius XI (+1939): In his Encyclical Lux veritatis of December 25, 1931, which was published on the occasion of the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Ephesus, Pope Pius states:
We feel that we should mention another function of the motherhood of Mary which is still more pleasant and delightful. By the fact that she brought forth the Redeemer of the human race, she is also, in a certain sense, the most gracious Mother of all of us whom Christ our Lord willed to have as brothers. (69)
The Servant of God Pope Pius XII (+1958): The June 29, 1943, Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi was the context in which Pope Pius wrote of Our Lady as the Mother of Christ, who is the Head of his Mystical Body, and the Mother of his Body, which is composed of the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
Thus she who, according to the flesh, was the Mother of our Head, through the added title of pain and glory became, according to the Spirit, the Mother of all his members. She it was through her powerful prayers obtained that the spirit of our divine Redeemer, already given on the Cross, should be bestowed, accompanied by miraculous gifts, on the newly founded Church at Pentecost; and finally, bearing with courage and confidence the tremendous burden of her sorrows and desolation, she, truly the Queen of Martyrs, more than all the faithful “filled up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ … for his Body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24); and she continues to have for the Mystical Body of Christ, born of the pierced Heart of the Savior, the same motherly care and ardent love with which she cherished and fed the Infant Jesus in the crib. (70)
A later Encyclical, Ad Caeli Reginam (October 11, 1954) of the same Pontiff, commemorating the Marian Year and expressing the truth of the queenship of Mary, refers to the care and concern mentioned in Mystici Corporis Christi that our Blessed Mother has for all of her children.
From the earliest ages of the Catholic Church a Christian people, whether in time of triumph or more especially in time of crisis, has addressed prayers of petition and hymns of praise and veneration to the Queen of Heaven. And never has that hope wavered which they placed in the Mother of the divine King, Jesus Christ; nor has that faith ever failed by which we are taught that Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, reigns with a mother’s solicitude over the entire world, just as she is crowned in heavenly blessedness with the glory of a queen. (71)
The Servant of God Pope Paul VI (+1978): This Vicar of Christ contributed the Apostolic Exhortation Signum Magnum, whose date of May 13, 1967, was fifty years to the day of Mary’s first appearance at Fatima, Portugal, to the three little shepherds. This document was written to draw attention to the golden jubilee of the initial apparition. One sees immediately that the two texts from the apostolic exhortation given below are redolent of the spiritual motherhood.
The first truth is this: Mary is the Mother of the Church not only because she is the Mother of Christ and his most intimate associate in “the new economy when the Son of God took a human nature from her, that he might in the mysteries of his flesh free man from sin,” but also because “she shines forth to the whole community of the elect as a model of the virtues.” Indeed, just as no human mother can limit her task to the generation of a new man but must extend it to the function of nourishing and educating her offspring, thus the Blessed Virgin Mary, after participating in the redeeming sacrifice of the Son, and in such an intimate way as to deserve to be proclaimed by him the Mother not only of his disciple John but—may we be allowed to affirm it—of mankind which he in some way represents, now continues to fulfill from heaven her maternal function as the cooperator in the birth and development of divine life in the individual souls of redeemed men. This is a most consoling truth which, by the free consent of God the All-Wise, is an integrating part of the mystery of human salvation; therefore it must be held as faith by all Christians.
But in what way does Mary cooperate in the growth of the members of the Mystical Body in the life of grace? First of all, by her unceasing prayers inspired by a most ardent charity. The Holy Virgin, in fact, though rejoicing in the union of the august Trinity, does not forget her Son’s advancing, as she herself did in the “pilgrimage of the faith.” Indeed, contemplating them in God and clearly seeing their necessities, in communion with Jesus Christ, “who continues forever and is therefore able at all times to intercede for them,” she makes herself their Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix and Mediatrix. Of this intercession of hers for the People of God with the Son, the Church has been persuaded, ever since the first centuries, as testified to by this most ancient antiphon which, with some slight difference, forms part of the liturgical prayer in the East as well as in the West: “We seek refuge under the protection of your mercies, Oh Mother of God; do not reject our supplication in need but save us from perdition, O you who alone are blessed.” Nor should anyone believe that the maternal intervention of Mary would prejudice the predominant and irreplaceable efficacy of Christ, our Savior. On the contrary, it draws its strength from the mediation of Christ of which it is the luminous proof. (72)
Pope Paul’s Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus of February 2, 1974 extols the divinely-given maternal role enjoyed by Our Lady.
The Blessed Virgin’s role as Mother leads the People of God to turn with filial confidence to her who is ever ready to listen with a mother’s affection and efficacious assistance. Thus the People of God have learned to call on her as the Consoler of the afflicted, the Health of the sick, and the Refuge of sinners, that they may find comfort in tribulation, relief in sickness and liberating strength in guilt. For she, who is free from sin, leads her children to combat sin with energy and resoluteness. This liberation from sin and evil (cf. Mt. 6:13)—it must be repeated—is the necessary premise for any renewal of Christian living. (73)
The Servant of God Pope John Paul II (+2005): As one would expect, the relevant writings—Angelus and Regina Caeli remarks, apostolic exhortations, apostolic letters, audiences, encyclicals, homilies, messages, speeches, etc.—from the pontificate of Pope John Paul about the spiritual maternity fill a sizeable volume. Let us highlight several.
The Encyclical Redemptoris Mater (March 25, 1987) identifies the motherly presence of Mary in the Church 2,000 years ago and even today.
According to the Council the very moment of the Church’s birth and full manifestation to the world enables us to glimpse this continuity of Mary’s motherhood: “Since it pleased God not to manifest solemnly the mystery of the salvation of the human race until he poured forth the Spirit promised by Christ, we see the apostles before the day of Pentecost ‘continuing with one mind in prayer with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren’ (Acts 1:14). We see Mary prayerfully imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.”
And so, in the redemptive economy of grace, brought about through the action of the Holy Spirit, there is a unique correspondence between the moment of the Incarnation of the Word and the moment of the birth of the Church. The person who links these two moments is Mary: Mary at Nazareth and Mary in the Upper Room at Jerusalem. In both cases her discreet yet essential presence indicates the path of “birth from the Holy Spirit.” Thus she who is present in the mystery of Christ as Mother becomes—by the will of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit—present in the mystery of the Church. In the Church too she continues to be a maternal presence, as is shown by the words spoken from the Cross: “Woman, behold your son!”; “Behold, your mother.” (74)
Published in 1992 during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls Mary “our Mother in the order of grace” (75) in the heading before articles 967-970. Articles 968-970 are especially germane to our topic and reproduce much of what is contained in paragraphs 60-62 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), as we shall see later.
The 70 papal discourses dedicated to unfurling the beauty of our Blessed Mother and her crucial mission were given by Pope John Paul within the context of his weekly general audience in Vatican City from September 6, 1995, through November 12, 1997. The Holy Father made several references to Mary’s spiritual maternity. The following are some of them.
3rd Discourse (October 25, 1995):
By sharing in Christ’s redemptive work, Mary’s spiritual and universal motherhood is also recognized. In the East, John the Geometer told Mary: “You are our Mother.” Giving Mary thanks “for the sorrow and suffering she bore for us,” John shed light on her maternal affection and motherly regard for all those who receive salvation. …
In the West, too, the doctrine of the spiritual motherhood developed with St. Anselm, who asserted: “You are the Mother … of reconciliation and the reconciled, the Mother of salvation and the saved.” (76)
Mary’s motherhood in our regard does not only consist of an effective bond. Because of her merits and her intercession she contributes effectively to our spiritual birth and to the development of the life of grace within us. This is why Mary is called “Mother of grace” and “Mother of Life.”
The title “Mother of Life,” already employed by St. Gregory of Nyssa, was explained as follows by Bl. Guerric of Igny, who died in 1157: “She is the Mother of the Life from whom all men take life: in giving birth to this life herself, she has somehow given rebirth to all those who have lived it. Only one was begotten, but we have all been reborn.” (77)