Mary and Ecumenism: Our Mother Wants Her Family United

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God the Father of heaven, have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
God the Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity; one God.
Holy Mary, pray for us.

The Litany of Loreto, also known as the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a litany of praises to Mary approved by the Catholic Church in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V. The litany of titles – Mother, Virgin, Queen, Mystical Rose, Tower of David, Vessel of Honor, Seat of Wisdom, Morning Star – has evolved through the centuries. Phrases were simplified, omitted, or added as the understanding of Mary and her role increased. In the last century, the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition show the role of the Blessed Virgin in relation to man and to the Church in an ever clearer light amid changes in the modern world. Toward the end of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI officially bestowed a new title to Mary, that of “Mother of the Church” in the dogmatic constitution, Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations) promulgated in 1964. The Holy Father wanted to articulate that the Mother of God, who is the Mother of Christ, is the mother of all men, and particularly of the faithful. She is the Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ.

There are eight chapters in Lumen Gentium, and the Marian chapter is the last. The document is principally an ecumenical one, concerned with unity, not only of the Church but of the entire human race. It is significant that the motherhood of Mary is stressed because this motherhood has a relationship to the ecumenical movement. The word “mother” has a special power in any language, any religion, and any time, summoning up a host of associations, memories, emotions, and longings. (Baker, 386) Mothers are the source of new life, and life is the most important and immediate reality for every person. To call Mary the Mother of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, means she is also the mother of the shepherds, the flock, the pastors, and the people. She is “Our Blessed Mother.”

Pope Paul VI issued another ecumenical encyclical in the same year entitled Ecclesiam Suam (His Church). In this document, Pope Paul VI explained that the Church is also a mother, “the Church was founded by Jesus Christ to be the loving mother of the whole human family and minister to its salvation.” (Section 1) He invited all Christians to unity, defending the papacy as essential for this unity. Marian teachings are presented as ecumenical, calling the Virgin Mary the ideal of Christian perfection, a “most loving teacher.” (Section 57) Christians are encouraged to nurture a devotion to her because she is the model of Christian perfection, mirror of true virtue, and pride of our humanity.

Pope Paul VI’s encouragement was an echo of Pope Leo XIII’s words in 1896 in an encyclical he promulgated, Satis Cognitum (Investigation on the Unity of the Church), that addressed the unity of the Church and heresies denying that unity. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical addressed those who have left the “flock.” In the benediction, he urged the “sheep that have strayed” to be brought back. It was a command for unity. Pope Leo XIII pleaded with those who have left the Church to “come back to their most loving Mother,” even if the assent of faith seems to be a burden. He reminded that when we seek to do the will of God, we will have the help of grace, the “yoke is sweet” and the “burden light.” (Matthew 11:30)

The ecumenical movement requires a renewal in evangelization and the methods for dialogue. Pope Paul VI articulated a useful model. He identified four concentric circles that define humanity around the central point, the innermost circle 1) the Catholic Church. The nearest circle radiating outward is 2) the community of other Christians, followed by 3) communities of other religions, and, farthest away and widest, 4) the community of mankind, including non-believers, non-religious, and atheists. (Sections 97, 107, 109, 113)

The role of Mary as Mother of the Church, Mother of Christ, Mother of Jesus, and Mother of the Savior of Mankind with can be overlaid with each of these concentric circles. There is a mystical connection with nature here in Pope Paul VI’s model, a drawing of creatures toward their origin and destiny, like electrons are drawn toward nuclei, like rocks are drawn to the ground, like planets are drawn to their suns, like children are drawn to their mothers. God is drawing all people to salvation through the loving teacher and exemplar, Mary. Pope Paul VI’s model inspires a deeper insight into what the Church is and how she, a mother herself, is drawing all people home. Our Mother wants her family united.

The Catholic Circle

The Holy Father stressed that obedience is to be exercised by Catholics and that internal relationships in the Church should be founded on love. Catholics are called to observe canons and respect superiors in the hierarchy as obedient, loving children, rather than with a spirit of independence, criticism, defiance, and arrogance. Such lack of humility and charity vitiates dialogue and causes disagreement and dissension. Faith is the starting point of obedience. The faith and obedience of the Blessed Virgin Mary is our example. (ES, 114)

From the moment Mary was conceived, according to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, sanctifying grace was in Mary’s soul so that she was born without Original Sin and she would grow in virtue her whole life. She was chosen to be the Mother of God. From the first moment of her conception she was full of grace, holy. Whatever grace is available to humans was given fully to Mary. Thus, she possessed a greater degree of sanctity from her conception than did Adam and Eve at the moment of their conception. She possessed a greater degree of sanctity than any angel or human. (Baker, 333-335) She is the highest creature.

However, as a creature, her fullness of grace is not comparable to the fullness of grace in Jesus Christ, since He is the source of grace for Mary and every other creature. Christ was not able to increase in grace, but Mary was, and she increased in grace her whole life. As St. Thomas wrote in the Summa Theologiæ, she “remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.” (III.7.9) Her obedience, humility, and total devotion to the Son of God make her a supreme exemplar of the Christian life.

The eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium goes into the Scripture and Tradition of the mystery of Mary. “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law: That he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons.” (LG, 52, Galations 4:4-5) In the Nicene Creed we profess: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” The mystery of salvation is revealed this way and continued in the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, placing first reverence to the memory of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Virgin Mary “received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world.” (Section 53) She is honored as the Mother of God and the Mother of the Redeemer, the Mother of the Son of God. She belongs to the line of David, and is an offspring of Adam, of the natural order, and she is also united with the saved, the “mother of the members of Christ.” (Section 53) Mary’s role as Mother of the Redeemer was foretold as a victory over the serpent which participated in the fall of the first parents. “I will put enmities between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed: she shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for her heel.” (Genesis 3:15) It was also foretold that by Isaiah that a virgin would bear the Son who is God with us, “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

In Mary’s grace and obedience, she accepted this predestination when the angel Gabriel greeted her. Luke 28-35 tells the story we all know so well. “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women.” Gabriel counseled her not to be afraid:

“Fear not, Mary, for you have found grace with God. Behold you shall conceive in your womb and shall bring forth a son: and you shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Mary said to the Angel, “How shall this be done, because I know not man?”

The Angel answered: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon you and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God.” Thus she conceived, so that just as the choice of a woman contributed to death, so also the choice of a woman contributed to life. She freely cooperated in the work of salvation. St. Irenaeus summarized it:

“And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” (Against Heresies, III, 22, 44)

Mary continued in obedience during the life of Christ, presenting her Son to the shepherds, and to the Lord in the temple when Simeon foretold that He would be a sign of contradiction, “And your own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:35) When the Child was lost, his parents were sorrowful, finding Him in the temple where He was about His father’s business. (Luke 2:49) In His public life, Mary makes appearances. At the marriage feast of Cana, when moved with pity, she interceded for a miracle and asked her Son to turn the water into wine. “Whatsoever he shall say to you, do.” (John 2:5) As Christ preached of a blessed kingdom beyond the bonds of flesh and blood, she advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, receiving His words and preserving her union with Him all the way to the cross. (Luke 11:27-28)

Even at the cross, where she consented to suffer with her Son and united her maternal heart with His, she was given over in His death as a mother to His disciple, “Behold your mother.” (John 19:27) On the day of Pentecost, Mary implored the Holy Spirit, who overshadowed her in the Annunciation, to pour forth on the human race. At the end of her life on earth, preserved from all sin, she was taken up body and soul into heaven, exalted as Queen of the Universe so that she would be close to her Son, the conqueror of sin and death, “exalted to the heavenly throne, above the choirs of angels.” The encyclical of Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Queenship of Mary, Ad Caeli Reginam, in 1954.

Mary is the Mother of the Church in the order of grace. (LG, 61-63) It began when she consented in faith at the Annunciation, and as she sustained her faith all the way to the cross united with her Son in suffering. It was sustained at Pentecost and as she was taken into heaven. Through her maternal charity, she cares for the human race still journeying on earth. Because she is intimately united with her Son, Mary is also intimately united with the Church which He instituted. Her belief and obedience as the new Eve she brought forth the Son of God, the “first-born among many brethren” who are the faithful. (Romans 8:29)

Thus, the Second Vatican Council bestowed on Mary a new title, the “Mother of the Church” as the Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Mother of all the faithful. The Church contemplates her sanctity, imitates her charity, and seeks to fulfill the Father’s will by receiving the word of God in faith. (LG, 64-65) In this way the Church is also a mother, bringing forth new life of the children born to her in baptism, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God. The Church is a virgin, keeping the faith with her spouse, and imitating the Mother of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Most Holy Virgin Mary has already reached the perfection full of grace, the members of the pilgrim Church on earth have not, so they turn their eyes to Mary as the model of virtue.

Virgin most venerable, Mystical Rose, Queen of Angels, Queen of Patriarchs, Queen of Prophets, Queen of Apostles, Queen of Martyrs, Queen of Confessors, Queen of Virgins, Queen of all Saints, Queen conceived without original sin, Queen assumed into Heaven, Queen of the most holy Rosary, pray for us, Mother of the Church.

The Christian Circle

The second circle named in Ecclesiam Suam is the one nearest to Catholics, that of other Christians. This section highlights what we already have in common. The Church, Pope Paul VI wrote, is ready to meet legitimate desires but without conceding the integrity of faith and the obligations of charity. The Papacy is an apparent obstacle because other Christians do not acknowledge papal primacy, and that is a matter of deep distress. This apparent “obstacle” however is derived from the honor and jurisdiction Christ bestowed on Peter, which the hierarchy inherited. Some say that removing the Papacy would unite churches, but Pope Paul Vi said this opinion is groundless because if there were no sovereign Pontiff, the Church would no longer be Catholic. There would be no authority to unite. As St. Jerome observed, “There would be as many schisms in the Church as there are priests.” (Cited in ES 109)

Other Christians, nonetheless, reverence the nativity story told in the Gospels. This basis of Christianity is a starting point for dialogue. The Father sent Christ, Christ sent the Church into the world to save that which had perished – the whole human race. The Church is, therefore, bound to communicate to all men and to be united.

Satis Cognitum had addressed the unity with other Christians as well. Pope Leo XIII explained that to justify the existence of more than one Church would literally be to create “a new and unheard-of race of men.” (Section 4-5) The Church is one body with Christ as the Head, after the manner of the human body. His mortal body suffered and died for man’s redemption, His one mystical body allows man to partake in holiness. Scattered and divided members, amputated from the head, cannot be part of the living body, they will die. Christ nourishes and cherishes His Church, He is the only Head, there cannot be another invented. “What is cut away from the mother cannot live or breathe apart.”

Christ gave the Church unity, and commanded that this unity should be so close as to shadow the union of Himself and His Father, “I pray that they all may be one as Thou Father in Me and I in Thee.” (John 17:20-23) There must be a union of minds, then, to maintain this concord among men, there must be a unity of faith. St. Paul implored Christians to be all of the same mind, and to avoid differences of opinion. “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms amongst you, and that you be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10) The faithful must assent to the revealed truths. The human mind, left to its own devices, would interpret a variety of interpretations and beliefs. There would be controversies and wrangling, such as happened even in the first century. (SG, 7)

The Church will rediscover its unity not by changing its legislation but by submitting to the will of God as Mary did. The secret of renewal lies in its metanoia, change of heart towards perfection. The blessings come from living in accordance with divine grace, faithfulness to the Gospel, unity in the hierarchy, loyal and strong followers. Charity is the goal of the Christian life, and should assume the foremost position, toward God and toward each other and the whole human race. Charity is the key to everything, and Mary is a most loving teacher, the model of Christian perfection, mirror of true virtue, and pride of our humanity. (ES, 51-57)

Unitatis Redintegratio (Restoration of Unity) is the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, yet another such document promulgated by Pope Paul VI also in 1964, and in the Council also addressed dialogue with other Christians. (Section 11) The Council advised that the way the Catholic faith is explained should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our separated brethren. Catholics should remember that there is a “hierarchy of truth,” which means that some truths are a based on other truths, so it is best to start with the most fundamental truths, such as the motherhood of Mary. This is a commonality between most Christians, Mary is the Mother of Christ, and Christ is God, the Creator of the universe. The Catholic faith must be explained entirely, profoundly, and precisely, in terms our brothers and sisters can understand, in the spirit of love for truth, charity, and humility.

Holy Mother of God, Holy Virgin of virgins, Mother of Christ, Mother of divine grace, Mother most pure, Mother most chaste, Mother inviolate, Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Savior, Spiritual vessel, Singular vessel of devotion, Tower of David, Ark of the covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Refuge of Sinners, Help of Christians, pray for us, Mother of Christians.

The Religious Circle

The next circle is vast, yet not so far away from us and includes anyone who is religious believes in One God. Honesty compels us, Pope Paul VI wrote, to confess that the Christian religion is the one, true religion. There are, however, common ideals among religions, and we can join them in defending and promoting those ideals in the public sphere. A declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965, yet again proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, describes the spiritual ties of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock, the Jewish people. The beginnings of the Church are found among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. Abraham’s sons are included in the salvation of the Church foreshadowed by the chosen peoples’ exodus from bondage. (Section 3-4)

The Church received the Old Testament through these people of God, as the root of the olive tree draws sustenance for its branches, and believes the Cross reconciled the Jews and Gentiles. Christ and Mary came from these people, as did many of the Apostles. Jerusalem did not recognize Christ in the time of the Gospel, nevertheless God holds the Jews dear for the sake of the Fathers, and the Church awaits the day when all people will address the Lord in a single voice. Since the spiritual patrimony between Jews and Christians is so great, Catholic are instructed to foster mutual understanding and respect. The Jews are not rejected or cursed by God, and we decry hatred and violence against them, proclaiming the message of Christ so all may reach salvation. (NA, 3-4)

The Church also esteems Moslems who adore the One God through the faith of Islam, but notes they do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord or Mary as His virgin Mother. They do, however, revere and honor both, awaiting the Day of Judgment with us. They also value moral life through prayer and fasting. All are urged to work for mutual understanding. Among Asiatic and African religions that acknowledge One God, Mary provides a bridge for dialogue because the most honorable and respectful way to address a woman is to say to her “mother.” (See Father Johann G. Roten, S.M., “Mary and Inter-religious Dialogue,” Introduction.) Even other religions that do not acknowledge Christ as God, acknowledge that Mary is His mother, and hold her in reverence for all that is good in motherhood.

There has been much prayer for peace among Christians and we are becoming more united in our rejection of violence from war to social justice. We are called to make greater efforts. It is apparent that religious considerations are not the cause of the conflicts. Pope John Paul II issued a decree in 1995 on the commitment to ecumenism with world religions, Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one). He described the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace where Christians prayed with one voice for peace (come to pray together), and Jews and other non-Christian religions prayed in a parallel way (come together to pray). This unity struck a deep cord in the human spirit, and there have been other such events.

Mother most amiable, Mother most admirable, Mother of good counsel, Mirror of justice, Seat of wisdom, Vessel of honor, Health of the sick, Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us, Mother of Jesus.

The Mankind Circle

The widest circle, encompassing all the others, is that of mankind, immense stretching beyond our view and comprising the whole human race. (ES, 93-101) We all share a common human nature with its gifts and problems. The moral values of the Church offer advantage to everyone, and are rooted in the conscience of humans. Wherever people are striving to understand themselves and the world, they are open to communication. Atheists may parade their godlessness, asserting it in education and politics in the fatal belief that they are freeing mankind. And this is a most serious problem of our time.

Atheism, however, is utterly irreconcilable with its own underlying principles of thought, leading the atheist to a futile existence. Pope Paul VI wrote that any social system based on atheism is doomed because atheism is not a liberating force, but a catastrophic one. Dialogue is difficult with atheists because of the absence of the moral order and freedom of thought and action, and it may even be impossible, but for the lover of truth discussion is always possible. Catholics are challenged to understand the mind of the atheist to understand his or her reasons for denial of God. If we come to a prudent understanding of them, we can answer them effectively.

These people sometimes do strive for noble causes and dream of justice, but reject the divine. In their hearts they yearn for ultimate answers, they struggle to explain the universe scientifically, but must stop short in the reasoning. Some people who reject God still make use of sentiments and expressions found in the Gospel, so perhaps they can be led back to the Christian sources of the moral values. The hope for dialogue is a hope for peace. For them Mary’s motherhood and wisdom also presents a bridge, for even if they do not acknowledge and reverence her, they pine for what she is and for what the Church has to offer them.

Virgin most prudent, Virgin most renowned, Virgin most powerful, Virgin most merciful, Virgin most faithful, Tower of ivory, House of gold, Queen of peace, pray for us, Mother of the Savior of Mankind.

An Earthly Pilgrimage—Home

This dialogue can take on new inspiration, new themes, new speakers, and increase the holiness and vitality of the Mystical Body of Christ. (ES, 90-95) The dialogue has already begun, the Church is as alive as ever, but there is still a long way to go. The Church is on an earthly pilgrimage. There must be a renewal of fervor, conducted with all people of good will inside and outside the Church. The Church can regard no one as excluded from the embrace of its motherly care. The Church’s only enemies are those who wish to make themselves enemies. The Catholic mission is to foster love, unity and peace among men. The Church is the seed, the salt and light of the world, holding her place in confidence and teaching people about their future life which transcends nature, and speaking of truth, justice, freedom, progress, concord, civilization, and peace.

Finally, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, wrote in Church Ecumenism and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology, “Church as People of God,” that Marian doctrine enters immediately into the teaching on the Church to show that the Church is not a contrivance or apparatus, not an institution as in civil society, but a person, a woman, a mother, alive. People do not make the Church, he proclaimed, but must be the Church, and they are only the Church insofar as faith shapes their being – and only in Marian being do people become Church. The Church was not made but born out of Mary’s fiat, and the most profound desire of the Second Vatican Council was that the Church might awaken in our souls. Mary shows us the way.

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
That we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.
Amen.

Bibliography

Church Documents

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican Website.
  • Council of Ephesus, 431 A.D., Second letter of Cyril to Nestorius, Papal Encyclicals Online.
  • Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, Proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI, October 28, 1965.
  • Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964. Vatican Website.
  • Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on the Unity of the Church, Satis Cognitum, June 29, 1896. Vatican Website.
  • Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Church, Ecclesiam Suam, August 6, 1994. Vatican Website.
  • Encyclical of Pope Pius XII on Proclaiming the Queenship of Mary, Ad Caeli Reginam, to the Venerable Brethren, the Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and Other Local Ordinaries in Peace and Communion with the Holy See, October 11, 1954. Vatican Website.
  • On commitment to Ecumenism, Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, May 25, 1995. Vatican Website.
  • Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, November 21, 1964. Vatican Website.

Other Writings

  • Baker, Kenneth S.J., Fundamentals of Catholicism, Volume 2 God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1938.
  • Roten, Father Johann G., S.M., “Mary and Inter-religious Dialogue,” Introduction. University of Dayton Website.
  • Santi, Angelo de.  “Litany of Loreto.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. New Advent.
  • Sheed, Frank, Theology and Sanity. CA:  Ignatius Press, 1978.
  • St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 22, 4, New Advent.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiæ. New Advent.

Image: “The Madonna in Sorrow” by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, 17th century

Note: This essay is based on the reading material for Dr. Cynthia Toolin’s graduate theology course, Ecumenism and Ecclesiology, at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. As a mother myself longing for my family to always stay together, these instructions from the Holy Fathers touch me specially during the Season of Advent.

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