The Virgin Mary, Our Lady, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

The Virgin Mary, Our Lady, has always had a prominent place in the piety of the early Christians.

Geraldo Luiz Borges Hackman-November 1, 2017-Reading time: 9 minutes
Virgin Mary.

Since the beginning of the existence of the Church, the Virgin MaryOur Lady has always had a prominent place in the piety of the first Christians. And so it continues to be to this day. The Puebla Document (1979) recognizes the pre-eminent place of Marian devotion in the religiosity of the Latin American people, stating that the Blessed Virgin Mary has helped sectors of the continent that were not reached by direct pastoral care to remain attached to the Catholic Church, since Marian devotion has often been "the strong bond that has kept faithful to the Church sectors that lacked adequate pastoral care" (Puebla, n. 284).

This importance does not derive from herself, but is the fruit of the role she fulfilled in the history of salvation by becoming the Mother of God (Council of Ephesus, 431). With this in mind, the following lines reflect on the orientation given to Marian devotion by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, as well as by two recent papal magisterial texts, namely those of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.

The Virgin Mary at Vatican II

The exhibition of the Vatican II Ecumenical Council (1962-1965) on Our Lady is found in the eighth chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentiumentitled The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church. This title clearly exposes the Council's intention regarding Mariology: the Mother of God is not considered in isolation, as if she were someone independent in the history of salvation, but within the mystery of Jesus Christ, her Son, and of the Church, showing its Christocentric and ecclesiological orientation. Here it appears that both a maximalist interpretation of Marian theology, which maintains a devotion to the Virgin Mary detached from the worship of the Church, and a minimalist one, which wished to diminish Marian devotion in the life of the Church, have been overcome. 

This chapter was not intended to exhaust everything that could be said about the Virgin Mary, nor to resolve the controversies between various trends in Mariology, but rather to make a sober and solid presentation, inserting the Mother of God in the mystery of salvation, from which her personal prerogatives and privileges derive. The text of the Council itself declares this intention: "[The Council] intends to explain carefully both the role of the Blessed Virgin in the mystery of the Incarnate Word and of the Mystical Body and the duties of men, especially of the faithful" (Lumen Gentium, n. 54).

Understanding the Marian mysteries

It is true that Vatican II did not bring about any quantitative increase in the Church's doctrine on Our Lady, given the refusal to define the dogma of the "Mediatrix"; but there is a qualitative progress, since the text favors a sober and solid Marian exposition, based directly on the sources of theology and understood in the light of the central and total mystery of the Church, resulting in a deepening of Marian doctrine. The conciliar text legitimizes the value of Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church, which, together with Sacred Scripture, serve as a basis for the progress of Mariology.

For this reason, the text of the chapter privileges the Virgin Mary from a historical-salvific perspective and leaves aside the theological-speculative orientation, as the text of the chapter explains: the Council does not have "the intention of proposing a complete doctrine on Mary nor of resolving the questions that have not yet been fully elucidated by the research of theologians" (Lumen Gentium, n. 55). Finally, the text of this chapter deepened the understanding of the Marian mysteries and did not want to dwell on the exposition of debatable theological questions.

Vatican II presents Mary as the ideal type of the Church as Virgin and Mother, because she is intimately related to the Church by virtue of the grace of motherhood and mission, which unites her in a privileged way with her Son, and of her virtues (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 63). She is the ideal image of the Church - the type of the Church - because of her faith and her obedience to the will of Deus, which enabled her to fulfill God's plan for her in the history of salvation. She is the "new Eva"as opposed to the "former Eva". Mary is the obedient mother, while Eve is disobedient to God. Mary generated the Son of God, the author of new life, while sin entered the world through Eve.

The "Marialis Cultus" of Paul VI

On February 2, 1974, Pope Paul VI published the Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus -The Worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary", aimed at giving orientations on the right ordering and development of the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also pointing to a renewed Marian theology, which recovers the meaning of Mary for the Church. Therefore, the aim of the exhortation is the "right ordering and development of the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary," which is inserted in Christian worship, as the Pope writes: "The development, desired by Us, of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, inserted in the channel of the only worship which 'justly and deservedly' is called 'Christian' - because in Christ it has its origin and efficacy, in Christ it finds full expression and through Christ it leads in the Spirit to the Father - is a qualifying element of the genuine piety of the Church" (Introduction).

Still in the Introduction, Pope Paul VI recalls his own efforts to promote Marian worship (he wrote a specific document on the Rosary titled Christi Matri Rosariidated September 15, 1966, in which he designated October 4, the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as the Day of Prayer for Peace to ask for her intercession for world peace, and in two other documents he recommends true Marian piety: the Apostolic Exhortation Signum MagnumMay 13, 1967, and the homily delivered on February 2, 1965, on the occasion of the offering of candles), not only with "the desire to interpret the sentiments of the Church and our personal impulse, but also because such worship - as is well known - fits as a most noble part in the context of that sacred worship where the summit of wisdom and the apex of religion converge and which therefore constitutes a primary duty of the people of God".

The Apostolic Exhortation is divided into three parts. In the first part, Paul VI analyzes the cult of the Blessed Virgin starting from the liturgical dimension, showing the relationship between liturgy and Marian piety, thus opening a new perspective for the cult of the Virgin Mary, which cannot be isolated from the liturgical life of the Church. The second part gives orientations for the renewal of Marian piety by: (a) showing the Trinitarian, Christological and ecclesial note of Marian worship, and (b) giving some biblical, liturgical, ecumenical and anthropological orientations for the worship of the Virgin Mary.

In the third part, he gives indications about the pious exercises of the Angelus Domini and of the Holy Rosary. These three parts of the document give a very clear idea of the "right ordering" of Marian piety desired by Paul VI in accordance with the orientation outlined in the eighth chapter of the Lumen Gentium. The Pope wanted to be faithful to this new orientation and gave these guidelines so that the Church could, on the one hand, put into practice the determinations of Vatican II for Mariology and, on the other hand, give continuity to Marian piety in the Church with a new accent, without minimizing or exaggerating it.

As for the Rosary, Pope Paul VI also wished to encourage it, giving continuity to what his predecessors did - who dedicated to this practice "vigilant attention and solicitous solicitude" (n. 42) - and to renew it. Thus, the Pope reaffirms the evangelical nature of the Rosary (n. 44), which inserts the Christian in the harmonious succession of the principal salvific events of human redemption (n. 45) and, as an evangelical prayer, is at the same time "a prayer with a profoundly Christological orientation" (n. 46) and favors contemplation which, by means of the litanic form, harmonizes mind and words (n. 46). Moreover, the Rosary is related to the Christian Liturgy as "an offshoot germinated on the secular trunk of the Christian Liturgy, 'the psalter of the Virgin,' by means of which the humble are associated with the 'canticle of praise' and the universal intercession of the Church" (n. 48).

In the Conclusion of the document, Pope Paul VI reflects on the theological and pastoral value of the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, since "the piety of the Church towards the Blessed Virgin is an intrinsic element of Christian worship". for having deep roots in the revealed Word and, at the same time, solid dogmatic foundations, having its supreme raison d'être in the unfathomable and free will of God (n. 56). As a pastoral value, Paul VI emphasizes that "piety towards the Mother of the Lord becomes for the faithful an occasion for growth in divine grace: the ultimate goal of all pastoral action" (n. 57).

For this reason, "the Catholic Church, basing herself on her secular experience, recognizes in devotion to the Virgin a powerful help for man towards the conquest of his fullness" (n. 57).

The "Redemptoris" Mater of St. John Paul II

The encyclical Redemptoris MaterPope John Paul II, published on March 25, 1987, wishes to give continuity to the Marian teaching of Vatican II and, for this reason, it follows the path opened by the eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium and emphasizes Mary's presence in the mystery of Christ and in the mystery of the Church, for "Mary, as Mother of Christ, is united in a special way to the Church, which the Lord constituted as his Body" (n. 5).

In this way, the Pope wishes to present her as the "pilgrim in faith" who walks together with the people of God, united to Jesus Christ, as he himself proclaims: "In these reflections, however, I wish to refer above all to that 'pilgrimage of faith' in which 'the Blessed Virgin advanced,' faithfully maintaining her union with Christ. In this way that double bond, which unites the Mother of God to Christ and to the Church, acquires a historical significance. It is not only a question here of the history of the Virgin Mother, of her personal journey of faith and of the 'better part' she has in the mystery of salvation, but also of the history of the whole People of God, of all those who take part in the same pilgrimage of faith".

Beyond this perspective, this document can be read in the light of the category of "presence". In setting out the meaning of the Marian Year that he himself had convoked, John Paul II emphasizes the sense of presence: "Following the line of the Second Vatican Council, I wish to emphasize the special presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of Christ and his Church. This is, in fact, a fundamental dimension that flows from the Mariology of the Council, the closing of which is now more than twenty years away. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which took place in 1985, exhorted everyone to follow faithfully the magisterium and the indications of the Council. It can be said that in them - Council and Synod - is contained what the Holy Spirit himself wishes to 'say to the Church' in the present phase of history" (n. 48).

These two categories, both the "pilgrimage of faith". as that of "presence"The words "Mary's life" are found throughout the document, particularly when John Paul II recalls the entire trajectory of Mary's life, from the moment of the Annunciation to the birth of the Church, which associates her with the history of salvation. Stefano De Fiores understands that the word "presence" does not appear in the Marian conciliar text, but it is a conclusion that results from the premises of the conciliar text and from the overall structure of the eighth chapter of the Lumen Gentium.

For this author, the category of presence is the common thread of the encyclical, the term that connects the other themes addressed in the three chapters of the encyclical, although he considers that the "faith of Mary" is placed at the center of the encyclical (De Fiores, S., Presence. In Id. Maria. Nuovissimo DizionarioBologna: EDB, 2006, 1638-1639).

The document is divided into three parts: the first part is titled Seaíin the mystery of Christthe second part, Mother of God at the center of the pilgrim Churchand the third part is entitled the Maternal mediation. Thus, the continuity with the Marian text of Vatican II is perceived: it places Mary, the mother of God, in the mystery of Christ and in the mystery of the Church, including faith as the way in which the Virgin Mary lives the response to the mission of the divine maternity received from God in her life, making her a type or model of the Church.

The third chapter, on the mediation of Mary, occupies an important place in the encyclical, since John Paul II makes abundant use of the term mediation, applying it to the Virgin Mary, in continuity with the previous doctrine and, at the same time, giving it an original progress: through mediation she is situated, as the Mother of God, in the mystery of Christ and in the mystery of the Church, her presence in the life of the Church is effectively realized and her pilgrimage of faith is understood.

This is the perspective that Pope John Paul II gives to Marian spirituality in the Church and to her cult in the Church: "For these reasons Mary 'is rightly honored with a special cult by the Church; already from the most ancient times... she is honored with the title of Mother of God, to whose protection the faithful in all their dangers and needs have recourse with their supplications'. This cult is quite particular: it contains within itself and expresses that profound link existing between the Mother of Christ and the Church. As virgin and mother, Mary is for the Church a 'perennial model'.

It can therefore be said that, especially in this aspect, that is, as a model or rather as a 'figure,' Mary, present in the mystery of Christ, is also constantly present in the mystery of the Church. Indeed, the Church too 'is called mother and virgin,' and these names have a profound biblical and theological justification" (n. 42).


Although Pope Benedict XVI has not written any text specifically dedicated to the theme of the Virgin Mary, nevertheless, in the Encyclical Deus caritas estpublished on December 25, 2005, dedicates at the end of the document an issue to the Virgin Mary, where it reflects on the virtues and the life of the Virgin Mary in the light of the Magnificat. Thus, she emphasizes that she is a humble woman; aware that she contributes to the salvation of the world; a woman of hope and faith; her life is woven by the Word of God, she speaks and thinks with the Word of God - "the Word of God is truly her own house, from which she goes out and enters with all naturalness"-; in short, she is a woman who loves (Deus Caritas est, n. 41).

We conclude these lines with the same prayer with which Benedict XVI ends his encyclical: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, you have given the world the true light, Jesus, your Son, the Son of God. You have given yourself completely to God's call and have thus become the source of the goodness that flows from him. Show us Jesus. Lead us to him. Teach us to know and love Him, so that we too may become capable of true love and be sources of living water in the midst of a thirsty world" (Deus Caritas est, n. 42).

The authorGeraldo Luiz Borges Hackman

Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Soul (PUCRS), Brazil (

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