The topic of Mary, the Mother of Jesus as a “co-redemptrix” has become the most hotly contested Mariological discussion of the day, due to non-scripted comments by Pope Francis on the title during his December 12, 2019 homily, during which he stated that Mary “never introduced herself as the co-redemptrix” (see “Pope Francis’ Guadalupe and Mary “Co-redemptrix”, National Catholic Register, December 21, 2019).
The doctrine of Mary’s unique human participation in the Redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ, the sole divine Redeemer, which is theologically contained in the single term, “co-redemptrix,” is already an official teaching of the Catholic Church and of the Second Vatican Council (see Lumen Gentium, 56, 57, 58, 61). The present global debate nonetheless begs the question: why? Why does the Church call Mary the unique human Co-redemptrix with Jesus?
The prefix “co” comes from the Latin word, cum, which means “with” and not “equal.” The title “co-redemptrix” applied to the Mother of Jesus never places Mary on a level of equality with Jesus Christ, the world’s sole divine Redeemer. To place Mary on a divine level of equality with Jesus constitutes both Christian heresy and blasphemy.
Rather, the Co-redemptrix term applied to Jesus’ human mother denotes Mary’s singular human participation with and under Jesus, her Divine Son, in the saving work of Redemption (redimere: to “buy back”) for the human family.
The biblical and the liturgical make clear that the prefix “co” does not mean equal. St. Paul refers to All Christians as “co-workers with God” (1 Cor. 3:9) but is not teaching that we are “equal workers” with God. The Liturgy refers to Christians as “co-heirs” with Jesus, but is certainly not signifying that we are “equal heirs” with Jesus. Pope St. John Paul II repeatedly called the Catholic faithful to be “co-redeemers in Christ” (e.g., May 8, 1988). Again, “co” signifies “with” and not equal, as it appropriately used biblically, liturgy, papally, and in the Marian title, “Co-redemptrix.”
Mary’s unique cooperation in the Redemption illustrates the central Catholic principle of participation, where creatures can share in an attribute or work of God, but without adding, subtracting, or competing with God through that participation. For example, every Christian participates in the very nature of God by sharing in his divine life through sanctifying grace (cf.2 Peter 1:14), but without adding, subtracting or competing with divine life of the Trinity. All Christians likewise participate in an entirely dependent and subordinate way in the “one mediation between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5) through, as St. Paul urges a few verses earlier, our own “supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving” for one another (1 Tim 2:1).
In a similar way, St. Paul calls Christians by example to participate in Jesus’ work of Redemption by “making up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his body, which is the Church (Col. 1:24)” that is, by participating in the mysterious release of the graces merited by Jesus through the patient endurance and faithful offering of our sufferings in union with Jesus for the salvation of souls. This is why Pope St. Paul II (and Pope Pius XI before him) rightly called all Christians to be co-redeemers in Christ: to share in Jesus’ saving mission of Redemption for our human brothers and sisters through our prayers, our intercession, our evangelization, our catechesis, our charity, our witness, and most of all by our sufferings united to that of the one divine Redeemer.
Couples “co-create” with the Eternal Father when they have children; bishops “co-sanctify” with the Holy Spirit when they administer Confirmation; and all Christians “co-redeem” with Jesus by offering their prayers and sacrifices in union with Jesus for the salvation of souls.
If every Christian is called to participate in the redemptive work of Jesus as co-redeemers in Christ, then surely the Mother of Jesus does— but on a level of participation like no other creature in history. Mary’s human participation in the Redemption of Christ is, once again, entirely dependent upon and subordinate to the infinite work of the divine Redeemer (Lumen Gentium, 60, 61). Still, no one shares in the Redemption by her divine Son more than his human mother.
How then does Scripture reveal Mary’s unique role as Co-redemptrix with Jesus?
From the beginning of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis prophesies the “woman” placed by the Eternal Father in total opposition or “enmity” with the diabolical serpent, who will intimately share with her Son, the “seed” of victory, in the crushing of the head of Satan and his seed (cf. Gen. 3:15).
At the Annunciation, Mary historically participates with the Redeemer like none other by bringing the divine Redeemer into the world, and by providing the divine Word with the very instrument of Redemption: his human body. As St. Teresa of Calcutta exclaimed, “Of course, Mary is the Co-redemptrix! She gave Jesus his body, and the offering of his body is what saved us” (August 14, 1993).
Simeon prophesies the future suffering of the Redeemer’s mother at Calvary in an explicit biblical reference to Mary’s coredemptive sacrifice with Jesus at Calvary: “And a sword shall pierce through your own soul, too” (Lk. 2:35).
The historic climax of human redemption at Calvary (Jn. 19:25-27) would likewise reveal the apex of Mary‘s role as Co-redemptrix. The Second Vatican Council describes her unparalleled role as testified in Scripture:
Thus, the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in union with her son unto the Cross…where, she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, enduring with her only begotten son the intensity of his suffering, associated herself with his suffering in her mother’s heart, and lovingly consented to the immolation of the victim born of her. Finally, she was given by the same Christ Jesus dying on the cross as a mother to his disciple with the words: ‘Woman, behold thy son (Jn. 19:26-27)” (Lumen Gentium, 58).
The early Christian Church faithfully handed on Mary’s unique role in Redemption contained in Scripture and Apostolic Tradition. The post- apostolic Church of the 2nd century conveyed Mary’s coredemptive role within the primitive model of the “New Eve”: as Eve had participated with Adam in the loss of grace for the human family, so Mary the New Eve, participated with Christ, the New Adam in the restoration of grace for the human family. St. Irenaeus identifies Mary as the “cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race” (Adversus Haereses, V, 180 AD), and St. Jerome sums up succinctly, “Death through Eve, life through Mary” (+420).
The medieval Church would also champion Our Lady’s role in the Redemption. St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of Mary’s compassion with Jesus at Calvary, and her “offering of her Son” for our Redemption (Sermo 3 de purificatione, +1153); while his disciple, Arnold of Chartres refers to Mary’s “co-suffering” and “co-dying” with her Son at Calvary (De Laud. BVM, +1160). The Co-redemptrix title is first used in the 15th century (Orat. Ms. S. Petri Slaisburgens cent XV), and is repeatedly defended by the great Jesuit Tridentine theologian, Alphonsus Salmeròn (Commentari in Evangel., Tr. 5, +1585).
The Popes of the last three centuries have repeatedly taught Mary’s coredemption, with Pope Pius XI explicitly using the Co-redemptrix title three times, and the great Pope St. John Paul II referring to Mary as Co-redemptrix on seven separate occasions, as well as teaching the doctrine of Marian Coredemption ubiquitously throughout his pontificate. For example:
Crucified spiritually with her crucified Son…she heroically contemplated the death of her God…at Calvary, she united herself with the sacrifice of her Son, that led to the foundation of the Church…In fact, Mary’s role as Co-redemptrix did not cease with the glorification of her Son (Jan 31, 1985 Guayaquil, Ecuador).
The extraordinary line-up of recently canonized saints who have legitimately referred to Mary as the Co-redemptrix include St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, St. Jose Maria Escrivà, St. John Henry Newman and, once again, Pope St. John Paul II. The great Fatima seer, Sr. Lucia, uses and sublimely explains the Co-redemptrix title for Mary on numerous occasions in her final writing, Calls from the Message of Fatima.
But why does Mary uniquely merit the title “co-redemptrix” among all humanity, and even the highest angels?
Mary is indeed superior to all humanity in her role as the human Co-redemptrix with Jesus in virtue of her unrepeatable role as the Mother of God. Mary alone could say of the Redeemer that he is “bone of my bone; flesh of my flesh.” God did not use Mary as a type of “surrogate mother”,” utilizing her solely as a type of physical “baby maker,” and then dismissing her from the plan of the Son. Mary’s yes at the Annunciation would lead to her yes at Calvary as the lifelong Co-redemptrix of her Redeemer-Son.
Another answer to the “why” of Mary Co-redemptrix is essentially linked to her Immaculate Conception. Mary was created “full of grace” and without sin, so as to faithfully join Jesus in his work of Redemption without infidelity to his mission, to be his perfect human partner in the Redemptive mission without any “double agency” with Satan. The Immaculate Conception also allowed Mary to give Jesus his own immaculate human nature, which would become the instrument of Redemption (Heb. 10:10). As explained by Bishop Josef Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam in A Bishop Explains Mary To Protestants:
…the Father could only conceive the Incarnation of his Son along with the Woman, from whom his Son would take flesh. And nowadays through science, we know better what flesh means: not only muscles, bones etc., but all his DNA, his “gene cart,” his whole human potential and qualities. Besides his divinity and his human soul, all else came from Mary, and from her alone. As Mother Teresa put it simply: “No Mary, no Jesus.” Therefore, in Catholic understanding, Mary could not be a sinful being. Original sin also affects our DNA. By the grace of God, a grace derived in advance from the Redemption, she was therefore created in the original purity and original freedom, not yet corrupted by sin. We call it “the Immaculate Conception’.” It had to be that way.
Only in that true freedom, in the name of all humanity, Mary could say “yes” to God, where Eve said “no,” and by this free act, and by her free suffering with Christ from birth to death, she corrected the sin of Eve, and became the “cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race,” as the Church Father, St. Irenaeus writes as early as the second century. Her “yes” is just as crucial in the history of mankind as the “no”of Eve. As Eve cooperated with Adam in sin, Mary cooperated with Jesus in Redemption. Christ is our sole divine Redeemer, but in the human sense, Mary truly deserves to be called Co-redemptrix with Jesus, not only because she is his Mother, but again, because she is the Immaculate Conception.
Is it still possible that the Co-redemptrix title for Mary could still be misunderstood as somehow placing Mary on a level of equality with Jesus? Surely it could. But so could Mary’s first dogmatic title “Mother of God,” be misunderstood to mean that Mary was mother of God the Father, or mother of the Holy Spirit. Just one more reason why a solemn declaration of exactly what the Church means when she calls Mary the Co-redemptrix might well be in order.
These are the reasons why Mary is truly Co-redemptrix.
These are also the reasons why the People of God worldwide continue to pray for and respectfully petition our holy Father, Pope Francis, for its solemn definition.
It would, moreover, be inaccurate to evaluate the overall Marian character of the pontificate of Pope Francis based upon a few spontaneous comments during his non-scripted December 12, 2019 homily. The authentic Marian character of Pope Francis’ pontificate is evident, for example: in the establishment the feast of Mary, “Mother of the Church,” with its profound pneumatological significance on the Monday after Pentecost; his spreading of the powerful devotion of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots globally; his elevation of the liturgical celebration of Our Lady of Loreto to the Universal calender; his repeated teaching on the importance of the Rosary; his Marian devotional witness by beginning and ending every international journey by bringing flowers and praying before Our Lady ‘s renowned “Salus Populi Romani” icon at St. Mary Majors in Rome;; his fervent devotion and pilgrimage to Our Lady of Fatima; his unprecedented approval of official pilgrimages to Medjugorje, even before its formal approval of authenticity; his repeated (and potentially ecumenically threatening) motto that “A Christian without Mary is an orphan;” his recent repeated references to Our Lady as the “Mother of All Peoples” (October 20, 2019; Dec. 8, 2019), which is the overall Marian doctrine requested to be solemnly defined as dogma.
The heart of Pope Francis is open to the Mother. This is why we will continue to pray and petition for the solemn definition of Our Lady’s Spiritual Motherhood, inclusive of her three motherly functions as Co-redemptrix, Mediatrix of all graces and Advocate, but always in complete obedience, fidelity and respect for the present Vicar of Christ on earth.
Dr. Mark Miravalle
St. John Paul II Chair of Mariology
Franciscan University of Steubenville
President, Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici
January 1, 2020
Solemnity of the Mother of God