Mary from Lumen Gentium to Redemptoris Mater

Michael F. Hull

Lumen gentium VIII (nn. 52-69) marked a turning point in theological reflection on the Blessed Virgin Mary. After considerable debate, the Council completely shifted the foundations of Mariology by doing two simple things. First, the Council did not offer a separate document on Mary. This highlighted the fact that future Mariology could not stand apart from other theological emphases. Second, the Council incorporated its relatively brief instructions on Mary in Lumen gentium—the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. This placed Mariology in a context of the Incarnate Word and the Mystical Body without purporting new doctrine on Mary or hindering theological reflection (LG, n. 54). Indeed, upon reading this eighth chapter, one would have thought Mariology’s turning point to be the concomitant starting point for new and rich insights. Yet they did not come immediately, and Mariology waned for a time. Although Paul VI would try to awaken a deeper understanding with his apostolic exhortation Marialis cultus (February 2, 1974) and other writings, the Church would have to wait almost a quarter of a century for John Paul II’s encyclical letter Redemptoris mater (March 25, 1987) to rekindle interest in Mariology among theologians.

The inclusion of Mary’s treatment within Lumen gentium, rather than within a distinct document dedicated to Mariology, came only after much debate at the Council. What eventually became Lumen gentium VIII started out, in its nascent stages, as a plethora of suggestions: from declaring a new dogma of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces to making no detailed mention of Mary at all. It is often remarked that Lumen gentium VIII is a compromise between two poles such as these. However, this thinking ignores the fact that the Council’s final decision was not one of concession, vis-à-vis theological truth, but one of decided emphasis on Mary’s role in the revelation of Jesus Christ. That is, the Council clearly pointed out that it neither intended to offer a complete doctrinal exposition on things Mariological nor did it intend to decide questions then being debated by theologians (LG, n. 54). It behooves us to remember that Lumen gentium VIII is hardly a diluted exposition on Mary. Much less is it an appeasement or reassessment for the sake of clarification in Mariology. Instead, Lumen gentium VIII is, according to John Paul II, "in a certain sense a magna charta of Mariology in our era" (Discourse at the General Audience of May 2, 1979). The Council’s emphasis on Mary’s role in the Church and her role in salvation history (past, present, and future) by her inclusion in Lumen gentium is the impetus for innovative theological speculation. The Council sought to reawaken Mariology by focusing on Mary’s role as integral to that of the Redeemer, to reground her significant role in the mission of the Church, and to restore a somewhat passive cultural devotion into an active exemplarism.

Thus it should come as no surprise that there was no new Marian teaching in Lumen gentium VIII. Nevertheless, we find a concerted summary of what the Church held throughout the ages. Though this summary has (unfortunately) become more famous for what it did not say rather than for what it did say, its emphases are notable. Mary is situated within the mystery of salvation (LG, n. 52). Mary is "hailed as preeminent and as a wholly unique member of the Church" (LG, n. 53). Both the Old and the New Testaments bear witness to her role in salvation history (LG, n. 55). By divine favor, Mary is born free from original sin; her free cooperation in God’s salvific plan makes her "mother of the living" (LG, n. 56). Mary is with and beside the Lord in his birth, his public ministry, and his crucifixion; she remains with his apostles until they receive the Holy Spirit, and she is finally assumed into heaven (LG, nn. 57-59). Mary’s role as the mother of men and mother in the order of grace flows from her role as mother of the Mediator and Redeemer, Jesus Christ; her intercession continues now in heaven, and thus she "is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix" (LG, nn. 60-62). Indeed, it is her motherhood that makes her an exemplar in the Church, and it is to her that the Church’s members turn for "the model of virtues" as they grow in faith, hope, and charity (LG, nn. 63-65). "Mary has by grace been exalted above the angels and men to a place second only to her Son"; for this reason a cult has developed in her honor, and this cult is to be fostered, but exaggerations must be avoided, so that her proper intercessory role might continue to be promoted to "the glory of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity" (LG, nn. 66-69). Accordingly, Lumen gentium VIII reiterates what the Church has always believed: that Mary’s election, free cooperation, and intercession resound to the greater glory of God.

Since the full Revelation of God to his people is Jesus Christ and his Church, it makes perfect sense that Mary’s part in God’s salvific plan ought to be included in a dogmatic constitution that proclaims Christ and his Church as the light to all nations. The task that lay before theologians at the end of the Council was to elaborate that role. Regrettably, theologians were slow to take up the task. While Christological, soteriological, and ecclesiological studies flourished after the Council, theologians were unhurried to illuminate Mary’s share in the person of Jesus Christ, his redemptive activities, and his Church. With theological attention focused elsewhere in the years immediately following the Council, Mariology and, concomitantly, Marian devotion declined. With due regard for the advances made by the Council, both Paul VI and John Paul II wrote in such wise as to reinvigorate the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in study and devotion.

Marialis Cultus

If it can be said that the Council’s teaching in Lumen gentium VIII did not bring about a revival in Marian studies, it must also be said that Paul VI’s attempt to spark a revival also floundered. Despite the fact that Paul invoked Mary as "Mother of the Church" in his encyclical letter Mense maio (April 29, 1965), that Paul once again invoked Mary as Mother of the Church in his encyclical letter Christi matri (September 15, 1966), that Paul extended his teaching on Mary as Mother of the Church in his apostolic exhortation Signum magnum (May 13, 1967), that Paul urged an ever deeper devotion to the Rosary in his apostolic exhortation, Recurrens mensis october (October 7, 1969), and that Paul often preached on Our Lady and mentioned her prominently in almost every document he published during his pontificate, Marian writings and devotion sagged after the Council. Catholics became disturbed at a perceived change in the Church’s understanding of the Blessed Mother and many national episcopal conferences responded to the confusion. For example, in the United States the bishops’ conference published "Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith" on November 21, 1973.

The following year Paul addressed the same difficulty with Marialis cultus and a year later wrote his "Letter to Cardinal Suenens," for the Marian Congress of 1975, known as "The Holy Spirit and Mary" (May 13, 1975). In both, Paul made important contributions to the Church’s understanding of Mary, even if they went unnoticed in theological inquiry. Marialis cultus is given in three parts. First, Paul describes the prominence of Mary in the renewed liturgical life of the Church (nn. 1-23). Second, Paul outlines the themes for a renewal of Marian devotion in the light of tradition and the needs of our time (nn. 24-39). Third, Paul lends his observations on two important Marian devotions, the Angelus and the Rosary (nn. 40-55). Paul concludes with an exposition of the theological and pastoral value of devotion to Mary (nn. 56-58).

Here, we concern ourselves with the second part. Paul maintains that "exercises of piety directed towards the Virgin Mary should clearly express the Trinitarian and Christological note that is intrinsic and essential to them" (n. 25). All expressions of devotion to Mary ought to be oriented to her Son, so that we might attain full "knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself" (Eph 4:13). In like manner, devotion to Mary, in whose earthly life the Holy Spirit is most manifest, brings us to a deeper understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation history (n. 26). The consequence of further theological reflection on the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation history and an examination of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin bring about "a more profound meditation on the truths of the Faith" from which flows "a more vital piety" (n. 27). Paul calls us back to the teaching of Vatican II, specifically to its teaching on the people of God. The ecclesiological nature of God’s chosen people mandates an understanding of brotherhood under the tutelage of Mary, our Mother. So too, Mary’s maternal concern inspires the love that the Church espouses for all people, especially the poor and the weak. "Devotion to the Blessed Virgin must explicitly show its intrinsic and ecclesiological content: thus it will be able to revise its forms and texts in a fitting way" (n. 28).

In order to bring about that revision, Paul outlines four guidelines: the biblical, the liturgical, the ecumenical, and the anthropological. Paul recommends that every form of Christian worship be permeated with biblical imprints, including devotional material. "What is needed is that texts of prayers and chants should draw their inspiration and their wording from the Bible, and above all that devotion to the Virgin should be imbued with the great themes of the Christian message" (n. 30). Paul recommends that all Marian devotions be harmonized with the liturgical celebrations and seasons. Devotion must never obscure worship or be merged inappropriately with it. When the two are properly distinct, the value of each emerges clearly (n. 31). Paul also recommends that Marian devotion take great care to foster an ecumenical spirit. On the one hand, since devotion to the Mother of the Lord can be shared by all who call upon the Son, Marian piety is a theme all Christians can share; on the other hand, caution must be taken to avoid excess, so that the true nature of the Church’s understanding of Mary is apparent to all Christians (nn. 32-33). Lastly, "devotion to the Blessed Virgin must pay close attention to certain findings of the human sciences" (n. 34). It is necessary that Mary be used as an example for all people in her acceptance of the will of God. Mary’s fiat transcends time and culture. The weight of Marian devotion ought not to be placed on the particular details of Mary’s immediate circumstances, but on her role in fulfilling the mission given to her by God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (nn. 35-36).

Paul’s emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in Marialis cultus, "The Holy Spirit and Mary," and his other Marian writings notwithstanding, there was no upsurge in Mariology during his lifetime. Indeed, it would seem that as the Holy Spirit metaphysically overshadowed Mary in the conception of the Incarnate Word, so too the Holy Spirit metaphorically overshadowed Mary in the conception of theologians immediately after the Council and throughout Paul’s pontificate. Auspiciously, that same Holy Spirit would grant Paul a successor in the person of John Paul II to revive the work begun at the Council to emphasize Mary’s role in the Church and in salvation history.

Redemptoris Mater

John Paul II’s pontificate ushered in a revival of Marian reflection and devotion in everything from the large blue "M" on his coat-of-arms to the adoption of his motto "Totus Tuus," but most especially in his encyclical letter Redemptoris mater. Redemptoris mater stirred the sleeping giant of Marian affection among the people of God, who sought to reground their personal and formal devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary in light of the liturgical changes in the wake of the Council. It piqued the interest of theologians, who had heretofore neglected to proffer any significant treatment of the latter part of Lumen gentium. And it fulfilled the initial enterprise inaugurated in Lumen gentium VIII: to cast an image of Mary in relation to her Son and his Church. Redemptoris mater is divided into three main parts. First, John Paul addresses Mary in the mystery of Christ (nn. 1-24). Second, he addresses Mary as the Mother of God who stands at the center of the pilgrim Church (nn. 24-37). Third, he speaks of Mary’s maternal mediation (nn. 38-50). John Paul concludes with the prayer that the Mother of the Redeemer might come to our aid (nn. 51-52).

In the Annunciation, we find Mary "full of grace." She is full of grace by virtue of her divine election, the Incarnation she bears, and her fiat to a journey of faith comparable to that of Abraham. Just as Abraham believed and sojourned at God’s direction, so Mary travels to visit Elizabeth, to Bethlehem, to the temple for the presentation, to Cana, and eventually to the cross. "In the expression ‘Blessed is she who believed,’ we can rightly find a kind of ‘key’ which unlocks for us the innermost reality of Mary, whom the angel hailed as ‘full of grace.’ If as ‘full of grace’ she has been eternally present in the mystery of Christ, through faith she became a sharer in that mystery in every extension of her earthly journey" (n. 19). John Paul pays special attention to John’s recounting of the wedding at Cana, wherein Mary stands as intercessor between her Son and the needs of the people, and wherein she says to them: "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:5). From this first sign, Mary stands behind her Son, even to the cross. Moreover, "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’" (n. 24).

The Church, the pilgrim people of God, "proceeds along the path already trodden by the Virgin Mary, who ‘advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and loyally persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross’" (n. 4 and LG, n. 58). Mary was present on the day of Pentecost, present as a witness to the mystery of Christ, and remains present in the mystery of the Church as it strives to meet the Lord when he comes. This journey of the pilgrim people of God cannot be understood without the example of Mary. "The Virgin Mother is constantly present on this journey of faith of the people of God towards the light. This is shown in a special way by the canticle of the Magnificat, which, having welled up from the depths of Mary’s faith at the Visitation, ceaselessly re-echoes in the heart of the Church down the centuries" (n. 35). Mary’s soliloquy in the words of the Magnificat constantly inspires the Church in its preferential option for the poor and humble. The simplicity of Mary’s own life, her fiat, and her uncomplicated commitment to God’s will stand as a stark reminder to the Church of its mission. At the end of the second Christian millennium, the Church requires of itself a renewed commitment to its mission to the poor—a mission intimately connected with the Church’s own understanding of freedom and liberation. In terms of the Church’s mission, John Paul quotes the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation" (March 22, 1986): "Mary is totally dependent upon God and completely directed towards him, and at the side of her Son, she is the most perfect image of freedom and of the liberation of humanity and of the universe. It is to her as Mother and Model that the Church must look in order to understand in its completeness the meaning of her own mission."

John Paul devotes the third section of Redemptoris mater to Mary’s maternal mediation. Mindful of 1 Tim 2:5-6—"For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all"—and quoting liberally from Lumen gentium, n. 60, the pope reminds us that "Mary’s mediation is intimately linked with her motherhood. It possesses a specifically maternal character, which distinguishes it from the mediation of the other creatures who in various and subordinate ways share in the one mediation of Christ, although her own mediation is also a shared mediation" (n. 38). As two sides of a coin, Mary is both a unique mother and a unique mediator. Mary is, of course, redeemed by her Son, even as she stands with her Son in his redemptive act on the cross, already bearing the first fruits of the Redemption in her Immaculate Conception. It is at the cross that our filial relationship to Mary is manifest. "Here we perceive the real value of the words spoken by Jesus to his Mother at the hour of the cross: ‘Woman, behold your son’ and to the disciple: ‘Behold your mother’ (John 19:26-27). . . . It is a motherhood in the order of grace, for it implores the gift of the Spirit, who raises up the new children of God, redeems through the sacrifice of Christ that Spirit whom Mary too, together with the Church, received on the day of Pentecost" (n. 44). Therefore, it is right and fitting that we should turn in filial devotion to the Mother of Redeemer in all our needs.

Redemptoris mater enlivens an enthusiasm for a deeper awareness of Mary’s role in the mystery of our redemption. It is both the fulfillment of the mandate offered in Lumen gentium VIII and an impetus to further study of and fidelity to the Mother of the Redeemer. John Paul has marked a milestone in Mariology with Redemptoris mater, and it is destined to continue to be the sine qua non of Mariology in the future. In his poignant encyclical letter, John Paul II rekindled the spark of Mariology. And he continues to illumine and advance Marian doctrinal understanding, especially in his general audiences. From September 1995 through November 1997, the pope delivered seventy general audience talks on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Additionally, dozens of theologians have turned themselves to questions related to Mary’s special part in the life and mission of her Son and of the Church. The third millennium of Christianity promises to be a rich one in terms of Marian reflection and devotion as the Church grows in understanding of and devotion to the Mother of the Redeemer.