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The Spiritual Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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.

Sacred Scripture

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.