Our Blessed Mother is honored under many titles. The faithful have often referred to Mary as “the Mother of God”, “the Mother of the faithful” or simply “our Mother” to stress her personal relationship with each one of us, her children. Pope Francis has recently declared that a new memorial will be celebrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It will be devoted to Mary as Mother of the Church and will be celebrated on the Monday after Pentecost. This Marian memorial had already been celebrated in some dioceses and religious communities around the world, but will now be celebrated universally in the Catholic Church.
What is the meaning of this particular title and why is it important to honor Mary with the title “Mother of the Church”?
The Meaning and History of the Title
This Marian title, “Mother of the Church,” is relatively new. It was only officially bestowed on the Blessed Virgin Mary by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1964 at the Second Vatican Council, who invited the faithful to invoke her help under this title. Since then it has grown in popularity. During the Holy Year of Reconciliation of 1975, the votive Mass of Our Lady, Mother of the Church was proposed and subsequently added to the Roman Missal. In 1980, Pope Saint John Paul II added the title “Mother of the Church” to the Litany of Loreto (or the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary), the great Marian prayer which invokes her intercession under various titles and is often recited after the Rosary. In the 1990s, St. John Paul II also founded the Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae (Latin for Mother of the Church) at the Vatican. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI now resides at this very monastery.
Although venerating Mary as Mother of the Church is fairly new, it has ancient roots in Christian tradition. It can be traced back to St. Augustine and St. Leo the Great. This title reflects the belief that Mary is not only the mother of the person of Christ but also the mother of the faithful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“The Virgin Mary … is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and of the redeemer … She is ‘clearly the mother of the members of Christ’ … since she by her charity joined in bringing about the birth of believers in the Church, who are members of its head.” “Mary, Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church.” (CCC 963)
This Marian title has been used rarely over the centuries. Recently, there has been a greater focus on the mystery of the Church and the Blessed Mother’s relationship to her. It focuses on the unity of Jesus with all the members of the Church as one body, with Christ as its head (Ephesians 1:22-23). Since the Blessed Virgin Mary is Jesus’ mother, the faithful who are members of the Church, his own body, also share his mother. This led to Mary being invoked as “Mother of the Church”, a title which expresses Our Lady’s maternal relationship with the Church and is expressed through her faith, love, hope, and obedience.
The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Role
Several biblical passages describe Mary’s role in the life of the Church. Mary was the first to learn of Jesus’ mission and nature as “Son of the Most High” from the Archangel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38). She was the first believer, responding in faith to God’s message. We can imagine her as the most loving of mothers, nursing Jesus, caring for him when he was sick, teaching him to walk and to speak.
At the crucifixion, she stood at the foot of her Son’s cross, standing by Jesus even when other disciples had fled in fear. When the dying Lord spoke to his mother and John from the cross, he said to John, the beloved disciple, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27) and to his mother, he said, “Woman, behold, your son” (John 19:26). To John, he entrusted his very own mother as a gift. The disciple “took her into his home” (John 19:27), meaning not only that he took her into his physical home but into his heart as well. Jesus entrusts to Mary’s maternal care, not only the Apostle John but all the faithful in every period in history. He entrusts to his mother’s care the entire Church, past and present.
In the days following the Resurrection, the disciples gathered together in prayer in the Upper Room. She prayed together with the first Christian community who were preparing for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). She was present there as the mother of Jesus, the glorified Lord. She assisted the beginnings of the Church through her guidance and prayers.
The Virgin Mary was present both at the Incarnation of the Word through the action of the Holy Spirit and at the moment of the birth of the Church at Pentecost. Her discreet but fundamental presence reveals the role of the Holy Spirit in the birth of both Jesus and the birth of the Church. As Pope St. John Paul II states, “She who is present in the mystery of Christ as Mother becomes – by the will of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit – present in the mystery of the Church. In the Church too she continues to be a maternal presence, as is shown by the words spoken from the Cross: ‘Woman, behold your son!’; ‘Behold, your mother’” (Redemptoris Mater, 24). Mary played a maternal role in the life of the newborn Church and continues to play that same role today.
Mary – The Church’s Model and Help
Mary’s caring motherhood toward us as members of the Church is a spiritual motherhood, which is linked with the nature of the Church. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, at the wedding feast in Cana, Mary was moved with compassion and through her intercession brought about the beginning of Jesus’ miracles (John 2:1-12). This text describes a different aspect of her motherhood, her spiritual motherhood. Mary showed great concern for the difficulties and needs of others and came to their aid. She intercedes for them by bringing the needs of humanity to her Son’s attention. When we approach her, we move closer to Jesus, since she is completely devoted to her Son. Her only desire for the faithful is to direct them to Jesus, instructing them to “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
The Blessed Virgin Mary offers her example and heavenly aid to the faithful. In Redemptoris Mater, Pope St. John Paul II stated:
Mary is present in the Church as the Mother of Christ, and at the same time as that Mother whom Christ, in the mystery of the Redemption, gave to humanity in the person of the Apostle John. Thus, in her new motherhood in the Spirit, Mary embraces each and every one in the Church, and embraces each and every one through the Church. In this sense Mary, Mother of the Church, is also the Church’s model. (RM, 47)
The Blessed Virgin Mary’s entire life is a model for the Church. Her life was lived in imitation of her Son’s life. Mary was Jesus’ first and most perfect disciple. She always acted faithfully and courageously and dedicated her life to doing God’s will. Her deep faith and love for God offer the Church the most fitting example of how to bring Christ into the world and how to trust always in the Lord’s protection and guidance.
Turning to Our Heavenly Mother
The new memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church will be celebrated this year on May 21, the day after Pentecost. Let us turn to our Blessed Mother on this special day and rejoice in her loving example and motherly care. Let us offer her our sincere prayers for her intercession and heavenly aid, both for ourselves and for the Church.