Our Lady, Mother of the Church

May 8, 2018

A woman prays before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Christ the Incarnate Word Catholic Church in Houston. Pope Francis has instituted a new Marian feast honoring Mary as Mother of the Church to be celebrated every year on May 21, the Monday after Pentecost. Photo by James Ramos/Herald.

In the month of May we celebrate Mother’s Day. On this day we give special honor to that woman in our life who gave us life. Our faith teaches that the month of May holds a special place for the Blessed Virgin Mary. May crownings, family rosaries, thirty day devotions and pilgrimages are encouraged by the Church for our devotional lives. 

Recently Pope Francis has decreed a new memorial for the Blessed Virgin Mary to be celebrated on May 21 under the title “Mary, Mother of the Church,” Mater Ecclesiae. The memorial will be added to the liturgical calendar and celebrated every year from this point forward on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday.

This update is inspired, I believe, from the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council having solid grounding in Scripture and Tradition.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen gentium,” dedicates the final chapter to a meditation on Mary as member and model of the Church. Quoting from St. Augustine, it teaches that “She is “the mother of the members of Christ . . . having cooperated by charity that faithful might be born in the Church, who are members of that Head.” (LG 53)

Immediately after the publication of the constitution, Pope Paul VI used this title. He is subsequently quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as saying, “Mary, Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church.” (CCC 963) St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI used this title and Francis has now moved it to a liturgical memorial.

A memorial is the lowest rank in the liturgical calendar among solemnities, feasts and memorials. A Solemnity is the highest in rank. Christmas is an example of a fixed date solemnity, while many others are moved to a Sunday.

A feast day is a special celebration of a saint, apostle, or mystery from Scripture such as the Transfiguration of Jesus. A memorial is another celebration of a saint, or in this case Mary under her title as Mother of the Church.

This title for Mary is not a post-Vatican II innovation. It has a theology based in the early fathers such as St. Augustine and Pope St. Leo the Great and used explicitly by Popes Benedict XIV (1740-58) and Leo XIII (1878-1903) according to the decree of Francis.

The memorial is closely associated with Pentecost which is considered the birthday of the Church. Scripture tells us that Mary was there (cf. Acts 1:14). Mary, however, had received the Holy Spirit for the Angel told her that when “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; hence, the holy offspring to be born will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:35).

St. John Paul II in “Mother of the Redeemer, Redemptoris Mater,” says that through the action of the Holy Spirit there is a relationship “…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… In both cases her discreet yet essential presence indicates the path of “birth from the Holy Spirit.” (RM 24)

Pope Francis believes that by adding a memorial for Mary as Mother of the Church, it can help us to realize the feminine and maternal nature of the Church. The connection between Mary as Mother of the Church is through her connection of being the mother of Jesus Christ.

The Ecumenical Council of Ephesus declared her Mother of God, Theotokos (God-bearer), for she is the mother of the human nature of the Person of the Word who acts in a unified way as God and man. The Church is nothing other than the Mystical Body of Christ. It is born from the blood and water which flowed from the pierced side of Jesus as he hung on the Cross.

During the crucifixion Jesus says to Mary and the beloved apostle John, “Woman behold your son…son behold your mother.” (Jn 19:26-7) The ancient Church Fathers saw this not simply as an exchange of individuals but “woman” was the woman of all the living, the New Eve of Genesis 2 as well as the woman clothed with the sun (cf. Rev. 12:1-6).

There is a communal identity in this passage where Mary is both the individual woman and the Church and John is both himself and all of us as disciples of Jesus. 

Steven J. Meyer is an assistant professor of theology for the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary.