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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2013

Mary, Mother of the Church

by Joanna Bogle 

A standard media commentary on Pope John Paul II’s Marian theology is to state that, as he lost his mother at a young age, his pious father encouraged him in devotion to the Virgin Mary, and thus began a lifelong attachment that revealed itself throughout his pontificate.

This explanation, even when adopted with generous insights and a sense of real respect for Pope John Paul’s knowledge and wisdom, manages to convey a slightly patronizing note.  

The reality is (as Brendan Leahy notes in his book on the life and teachings of Pope John Paul II, Believe in Love1) that although Pope John Paul’s personal devotion to Mary certainly owes much to the traditional Marian piety in which he was reared (and the strength that this brought to the Polish people during the terrible years of World War II and the Cold War), much more important is the theological insight that connects Mary to the very nature of the Church.

This is an insight very much needed for our times. It was discussed at the Second Vatican Council, owes much to the work of theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac — both influential at the Council, and is perhaps only now becoming better known and understood.

Pope John Paul’s Marian piety was hugely influenced by his reading of Saint Louis Grignion de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary as a young man. As he would later write:

At one point I began to question my devotion to Mary, believing that, if it became too great, it might end up compromising the supremacy of the worship owed to Christ. At that time, I was greatly helped by a book by Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort… There I found the answers to my questions. Yes, Mary does bring us closer to Christ: she does lead us to Him, provided that we live her mystery in Christ.2

Mary, Vatican II, and the Church

The period immediately before the Second Vatican Council was a strongly “Marian” one in the Church, with the declaration of the doctrine of the Assumption by Pope Pius XII in 1950.  With the encyclical Fulgens Corona in 1953, Pope Pius designated 1954 as a “Marian Year,” the first in the Church’s history. Images of Mary had been popular throughout the Church’s history, but a whole new genre had been created with the apparitions at Lourdes in the mid-19th century: a century later pictures and statues of her — as a young girl of pale complexion and serene gaze, in a white robe with a blue sash, a rose on her foot and a rosary in her hand — were everywhere in the Catholic world.

The 1943 film The Song of Bernadette3 popularized Lourdes with cinema audiences at a time when there was a longing for a spiritual uplift, during and immediately after World War II. The apparitions at Fatima in 1917 included a message calling for prayer and penance for “the conversion of Russia,” and this message was linked to worries over the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. 

At the Second Vatican Council, then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla “stood with the rest of the Polish hierarchy in asking for a separate conciliar document on the Blessed Virgin Mary, a position the Council would eventually reject for theological and ecumenical reasons” (Weigel).4 

The background to the discussions about the role of Mary has, like the background to much else at Vatican II, been discussed and debated: opinions range from those espoused by the it-was-all-a-masonic-plot conspiracy theorists who maintain that the whole Council was essentially a stitch-up to impose Modernism on the Church, to the trite observations of the finally-we-were-able-to-get-rid-of-old-fashioned-ideas school. Both extremes are wrong, but it can hardly be disputed that there were debates and machinations and the establishment of factions and counter-factions: such has been the nature of all Church Councils down the centuries. 

The final decision — achieved only after a very narrow vote — was to incorporate a specific section on Mary in the document on the Church. This proved to be something of great value.

The decision having been made, Wojtyla’s contribution was important.  In his intervention in the debate he emphasized that the document should speak of Mary’s “motherhood” in the Church, a “maternal care that all the sons and daughters of the Church be conformed to Christ” (Weigel).5  Wojtyla stressed an urgency about this, noting that in its original draft of the document “the Church is presented to us more as a teaching society than as a mother,”6 and that the Marian presence was what would correct this.

This was all part of a new insight into the nature of the Church that had begun in the 19th century with a move away from the post-Reformation message that the Church was a “perfect society,” a structure with answers to every question and a formula by which all should live, toward an understanding of the Church as a communion, as the Bride of Christ, and also as His mystical Body. Pope Pius XII had developed this in Mystici Corporis,7 his wartime encyclical emphasizing the Church as a loving reality offering a message of hope to a divided, angry, and wounded world. Now the Marian aspect of this would be brought forward, developing further the important insights that Pius XII had taught.

Lumen Gentium

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium follows the language of Pius XII in speaking about the Church, but tends to use a more direct and less “flowery” style. It states: 

Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.8

Speaking of Mary, Lumen Gentium mentions several times her role as subordinate to that of Christ: the tone speaks of a need to answer Protestant criticisms that Catholics worship Mary as a deity, and to reassure these critics that they have been heard and that their fears are groundless.  There is also much detail about Mary’s life, and the centrality of her role in salvation history: she carried the living Word of God in her womb, she lived in complete obedience to the Father’s will, was exemplary in charity, and became a mother to all the faithful through Christ’s words at Calvary.

Then comes an important paragraph in which the life and role of the Church are described, in language that calls attention to the unity between the Church and Mary:

The Church indeed, contemplating her hidden sanctity, imitating her charity and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will, by receiving the word of God in faith becomes herself a mother. By her preaching she brings forth to a new and immortal life the sons who are born to her in baptism, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God. She herself is a virgin, who keeps the faith given to her by her Spouse whole and entire. Imitating the mother of her Lord, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, she keeps with virginal purity an entire faith, a firm hope, and a sincere charity.9

And there is more:

For Mary, who since her entry into salvation history unites in herself and re-echoes the greatest teachings of the faith as she is proclaimed and venerated, calls the faithful to her Son and His sacrifice and to the love of the Father. Seeking after the glory of Christ, the Church becomes more like her exalted Type, and continually progresses in faith, hope, and charity, seeking and doing the will of God in all things.10

But at the time of its publication, this emphasis on the bond between Mary and the Church was overlooked by many commentators. Attention was paid instead to the sections of the document that discussed ecumenical relationships, and the need for Catholics to respect the worries and fears of other Christians who believed that Catholics worshipped Mary as God. The faithful were urged to take this seriously, and to show, in their Marian devotions, the truth of the Church’s belief: 

Let them assiduously keep away from whatever, either by word or deed, could lead separated brethren or any other into error regarding the true doctrine of the Church. Let the faithful remember moreover that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love toward our mother and to the imitation of her virtues.11

The emphasis given to sensitivity in ecumenical relationships — and to the need for an authentic cult of Mary that avoids all superstition and is purified of an excess of cultural baggage — was translated into a crude and blunt instruction to abandon popular May processions, eliminate statues from churches, and generally “downplay” Marian devotion.  This was not what the Fathers of the Council had wanted to convey, but it was what some commentators — often with an agenda of their own — and confused bystanders succeeded in publicizing.

In the ensuing turmoil in the Church — the word is not too strong, for many Catholics this was a time of deep upheaval — the importance of the bond between Mary and the Church was largely lost.

Mary, Mother of the Church: Paul VI

But meanwhile, Pope Paul VI, conscious of a certain confusion among the faithful, had taken action.  In closing the third session of the Vatican Council (November 21, 1964) Paul VI solemnly declared Mary to be “Mother of the Church” (September 21, 1964). In 1974 he issued an apostolic exhortation, Marialis Cultus, on Mary. In this, he tackled the mood of debate and confusion concerning traditional devotions of various kinds:

In our time, the changes that have occurred in social behavior, people’s sensibilities, manners of expression in art and letters, and in the forms of social communication have also influenced the manifestations of religious sentiment. Certain practices of piety that not long ago seemed suitable for expressing the religious sentiment of individuals and of Christian communities seem today inadequate or unsuitable because they are linked with social and cultural patterns of the past.12

And the role of women had changed and was changing:

The picture of the Blessed Virgin presented in a certain type of devotional literature cannot easily be reconciled with today’s life-style, especially the way women live today. In the home, woman’s equality and co-responsibility with man in the running of the family are being justly recognized by laws and the evolution of customs. In the sphere of politics women have in many countries gained a position in public life equal to that of men. In the social field women are at work in a whole range of different employments, getting further away every day from the restricted surroundings of the home. In the cultural field new possibilities are opening up for women in scientific research and intellectual activities.13

All of this meant that devotion to Mary needed to be renewed, but remained wholly valid, with the teachings of the Fathers and of the saints down the centuries providing rich insights and important messages.  Mary needed to be seen as the strong figure that she truly was, one whose decisive courage was central to salvation history, and who spoke of hope and of trust in God, of justice and mercy.

Pope John Paul II’s Bond with Mary

Pope Paul VI’s initiative on Mary gave a fresh and important message, but was too easily ignored in the general post-conciliar turmoil.14 After his death and the short-lived pontificate of John Paul I, the arrival of John Paul II brought a strikingly “Marian” figure to the papacy.

Pope John Paul II’s profound personal bond with Mary — and his understanding of her protective and prophetic role in the Church and in the life of every Christian — came into spectacularly sharp focus when he was shot in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. As he was rushed to hospital, bleeding profusely from savage wounds to his internal organs and very near to death, he was heard praying “Mary, my mother…”  Today, a marble slab in St. Peter’s Square marks the spot, and as you look up, a mosaic of Mary high up on the Vatican wall carries the words “Totus Tuus,” commemorating Pope John Paul’s prayer to Mary.

The fact that the assassination attempt took place on the anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima, and the near-miraculous recovery of the pope from a point-blank shooting, seemed to involve John Paul in the drama of the Fatima mystery.15 His pondering of this would result in his consecration of the world to Mary with the world’s bishops in 1984 and the dramatic unveiling of the famous “Third Secret” in 2000.

Pope John Paul declared 1987-1988 a Marian Year and as part of this he issued an encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, and Mulieris Dignitatem, an apostolic letter on the subject of women.  But a particularly significant message in this Marian Year was his teaching on the “Marian profile” of the Church, launched with his address to the Roman Curia in December 1987.16

Here he discussed in detail the message of Lumen Gentium and Mary, declaring that Vatican II “effected a great synthesis between Mariology and ecclesiology.”17 Quoting Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose, he spelled out the bond between Mary and the Church, centered on her total openness to the will of God, and the way in which her role as mother and protectress flows from this: “Mary united to Christ, Mary united to the Church. And the Church united to Mary finds in her the most refined and perfect image of its own specific mission which is simultaneously virginal and maternal.”18

The “Marian Profile”

The Church must be like Mary, utterly and freely open to the will of God in every way, the pope said: “The Virgin Mary is the archetype of the Church because of the Divine maternity; just like Mary the Church must be, and wishes to be, Mother and Virgin. The Church lives in this authentic ‘Marian profile’, this ‘Marian dimension.’”19

He went on:

Mary is she who, predestined to be the Mother of the Word, lived continuously and totally in the sphere of divine grace, subject to its vivifying influence; she is the mirror and transparency of the life of God Himself … hers was the “yes” and the fiat par excellence… The Divine Maternity, that unique and sublime privilege of the ever-virgin, must be seen in this perspective as the supreme glory of the fidelity of Mary in corresponding with grace.20

And this “Marian profile,” he taught, precedes the Petrine profile: the Church is not essentially a structure, it is a great “yes” to Christ.

Pope John Paul II writes in Redemptoris Mater: “from Mary the Church also learns her own motherhood: she recognizes the maternal dimension of her vocation, which is essentially bound to her sacramental nature… If the Church is the sign and instrument of intimate union with God, she is so by reason of her motherhood, because, receiving life from the Spirit, she ‘generates’ sons and daughters of the human race to a new life in Christ.”21 


Catechism of the Catholic Church (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1992)

The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1966)

John Paul II Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination (New York: Doubleday, 1996)

Pope Benedict XVI on Vatican II (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2013)

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, The Last Secret of Fatima (New York: Doubleday, 2007)

Sister Sara Butler, The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church (USA: Hillenbrand Books, 2006)

John G. Clancy, Apostle for our Time: Pope Paul VI, a Biography (London: Collins, 1964)

Henri De Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956)

Hans-Joachim Fischer (ed.), John Paul II, a Pope for the People (New York: Harry Abrams Inc., 2003)

Austin Flannery (ed.), Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (USA: Costello Publishing, 1975; new edition, 1984)

James Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church from the Apostolic Age to the Third Millenium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012)

John Paul II, The Place within: Poem (London: Hutchinson, 1982)

Brendan Leahy, Believe in Love: The Life, Ministry and Teachings of John Paul II (Dublin: Veritas, 2011)

M. Kehland and W. Loser (eds.), The Von Balthasar Reader (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1982)

M. Malinski, Pope John Paul II: The Life of my Friend Karol Wojtyla (London: Burns and Oates 1979)

Joseph Ratzinger, Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1977)

George Weigel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II, the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. (New York: Doubleday, 2010)

——— Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (USA: HarperCollins, 1999)

Christopher West, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (USA: Random House, 2012)


1 Citing Avery Dulles and others, the author notes that Pope John Paul II “had a deep theological and spiritual understanding of Mary’s central place in the whole plan of salvation that centers on Jesus Christ,” Believe in Love, page 44.

2 Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery: on the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination, page 29.

3 Starring Jennifer Jones, adapted from the book of the same name by Franz Werfel.

4 George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II, page 162.

5 ibid.

6 Acta Synodalia 1-4, pages 598-599.

7 Mystici Corporis Christi, Encyclical Letter of Pope Pius XII on the Mystical Body of Christ, 1943.

8 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 1964, section 1.

9 Lumen Gentium 64.

10 Lumen Gentium 65.

11 Lumen Gentium 67.

12 Marialis Cultus, Apostolic Exhortation for the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Paul VI, 1974, introduction.

13 Marialis Cultus 34.

14 “There have been mass rejections of Catholic belief before, but never I think on the same scale.” Philip Trower, Turmoil and Truth: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church, Family Publications, 2003, page 18. See also James Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, page 508.

15 To add to the extraordinary mix of coincidences, the Turkish assassin’s mother’s name was Fatma, the Turkish form of Fatima. (Independent, Jan. 13, 2006 “Shooting of John Paul II: The Man who Nearly Killed the Pope”). See also Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, The Last Secret of Fatima.

16 December 22, 1987.

17 Pope John Paul II, Address to the Roman Curia, Dec. 22, 1987, 2.

18 ibid.

19 ibid.

20 Pope John Paul II, Address to the Roman Curia, Dec. 22, 1987, 3.

21 Redemptoris Mater 453.

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith and appears frequently on the radio.

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