Mary Is the Choice of God

Part I of a Marian Triptych

Where do we need to begin with a reflection on Mary, spouse of St. Joseph1 and Mother of the Lord?

On the one hand, in the times in which we live, it could be argued that we need to recover the variety and depth of the vocation of women and not, as it were, stereotypically “crush” the identity of women into a kind of “mould” of Mary; and, therefore, a meditation on Mary needs to recover the historical reality of women’s oppression and persecution and how it has “moulded” or even misshaped the identity of women. Thus Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, observes three types of erroneous feminism: “Exalt the woman better to oppress her”;2 “Mary’s song [the Magnificat] becomes the motto of a certain theology that considers it its duty to advocate the overthrow of established social structures”;3 and, thirdly, “Mary as the emancipated woman who, uninhibited and conscious of her destiny, confronts a culture dominated by men.”4

On the other hand, what if the claim that the historical reality of Mary’s marriage to St. Joseph is true and that her virginal motherhood, mystery that it is, is equally true; and that, therefore, there exists a starting point not of our choosing but, as it were, expressive of the will, choice, and love of God? In other words, we may have more difficulty in coming to the reality of Mary, precisely because she is the choice of God, than because she seems to express a “stereotypical” image of woman; for, in a word, Mary communicates a “word” of God which passes through all false perceptions of women, indeed through all varieties of legitimate and good vocations and gifts of women and brings us, simply, to a challenge of faith: that it has taken centuries to grasp, slowly but irrevocably, that Mary is a true “word” of salvation for men and women of all time (cf. Dei Verbum 115). Perhaps if there is a true appreciation of Mary in salvation history there will be a brighter recognition of the contribution of the Church to the development of women and the unfolding of their talents for the many-splendored benefit of others.

There are three parts to this “meditation” on Mary.6 In this, the first part, there are three aspects to be considered. I will answer my own interest in the question (I) and then continue with the liturgical expression: Mary “Gate of heaven” (II). It then seems opportune to consider the structure of Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. His letter sets out in a particularly relevant way the doctrine of St. Paul on the vocation of the Christian to be sharers in the suffering of Christ and the application of this doctrine to Mary (III). A fourth section constitutes a reply to some objections to a further dogmatic statement on the mystery of Mary (IV). Thus, the conclusion will address the possible benefit of a further elucidation of the salvific mystery of God’s choice of Mary in salvation history (V).

I: Origin of My Interest in Whether There Needs to Be a New Dogmatic Statement on the Mystery of Mary

I read with interest a series of articles in the Tablet on the theme of “the place of Mary”;7 each of them, for various reasons, rejected the benefit of a further dogma on Mary. I therefore offer this piece by way of a contrast to these positions and I do so for the following three reasons. Firstly, a legitimate difference, charitably expressed, is often a condition of the development of a discussion. Secondly, whether or not there is a new Marian dogma, this discussion is transforming what seemed to me to be an obscure and scarcely relevant question concerning Mary into one with increasing significance for us all. Thirdly, is the choice of Mary by God any different from asking about any other aspect of the history of salvation; indeed, is it not about asking why God acted the way He did in choosing the Hebrew people? In other words, does the choice of Mary “participate” in the choice God made of the Hebrew people and the history of salvation which has been expressed in terms of their history? Exploring “Marian doctrine” is, therefore, exploring what God is saying in the lived history of salvation.

While, however, these initial reasons were a certain starting point to these meditations on Mary, it is nevertheless true that the reality of salvation history being expressed in the language of “the Word [that] became flesh” (Jn 1:14) in the man Jesus Christ and the complementary reality of the “woman” (Jn 2:4), His mother Mary, are also encouraging us to “revisit” the very mystery of the creation of man, male and female, in the beginning. Thus, it was while looking again at what is called the “nuptial mystery,”8 the mystery of the union of God and man, that I found two short texts of Hans Urs von Balthasar worked on each other like chemical ingredients ripe for a reaction.

II: Mary, “Gate of Heaven”

The first of Balthasar’s thoughts was this: “the Father’s act of self-giving, with which he pours out his Son through all space and time of creation, is the definitive opening of the very trinitarian act in which the ‘persons’ of God, ‘relations,’ forms of absolute self-donation and loving flow.”9 And the second was that this definitive opening of the very trinitarian act is hidden within the very mystery of Mary’s conception of our Blessed Lord; he says: “The angel announced to her not just the incarnation but fundamentally the entire mystery of the Trinity.”10

Now the present task is to say that it was through thinking about the fact that the Son of God chose to come to us through the “Gate of heaven,” as Mary is called in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, that Mary is by God’s own choice put in the position she is. In other words, if there is anything to this theological reflection on Mary, then it is because it is about formulating what is in the first place the word within the deed of God (Dei Verbum 2) which is both the Annunciation and the Incarnation: first the Annunciation and then the Incarnation. Thus the task of theology is to read the work of God; and, therefore, what comes first in all this is the fact that God chose Mary to be the “Gate of heaven.” So the question arises: Why did God put Mary in a position which will inevitably mean that in thinking about our salvation in Christ we will be confronted as it were with the “scandal” of a human being, indeed a woman, right at the open heart of it? The Church of Christ11 recognizes that there is a sense in which Mary is the “cause” of our salvation. In the words of St. Irenaeus, quoted with approval by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (56), the Church says of Mary: “she ‘being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.’”

Thus one cannot escape the thought of the coincidence between the following facts of our time: Pope St. John Paul II called for a “new feminism” in his encyclical letter on The Gospel of Life (99); the current onslaught against the woman bearing a child is a kind of culmination of discrimination and prejudice against the poor of the Lord (cf. Lk 1:46–5512). At the same time there has been a growing reflection on Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos), as the Immaculate Conception (in 1854), conceived without original sin and full of grace and the dogma of her Assumption into heaven (in 1950), body and soul. Then, as a kind of culmination of an appreciation of her identity as a type of the Church, Lumen Gentium says in the teaching of St. Ambrose: “the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ” (in 1964).13 Drawing on St. Augustine’s doctrine as quoted in Lumen Gentium, the Church says of Mary, “she is clearly the mother of the members of Christ,”14 and so Blessed Paul VI promulgates her title as “Mother of the Church”15 (in 1967).

Thus, it is very much in the spirit of the times in which we live that there is a development of doctrinal reflection on Mary; indeed, in a certain way, Mary has come to be recognized as expressing a kind of “totality” of human being: at once completely human and religious. In other words, Mary is being identified as a “living” expression of an anthropology of the whole, even completely redeemed human being. Thus Cardinal Ratzinger says of her: “The ‘biological’ and the human are inseparable in the figure of Mary, just as are the human and theological.”16 In a very concrete way concerning the beginning of life, Lumen Gentium says that Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendor of an entirely unique holiness” (56). Thus, if Mary was “enriched from the first instant of her conception,” that implies that there is a personal presence from the “first instant of . . . conception” and, therefore, that just as Mary is conceived from “the first instant” then we, expressing the same humanity, are conceived from the “first instant of . . . conception,” too.17

More widely, the Church recognizes a number of titles when she says of Mary: “the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.”18 Thus the particular title of Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces,19 does seem to be characteristic of this renewed understanding of how fully and how intimately she participates in the redemption of the world, “under and with” (Lumen Gentium 56) her son Jesus Christ.

III: Sharers in the Suffering of Christ20

In keeping, however, with the fact that the context of all Christian doctrine is the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, it is worth adding a thought of St. John Paul II on the origin of our redemption in the heart of the Father. Two years after his Letter on Suffering, in his Encyclical Letter On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church in the World, St. John Paul II says that there is an origin to the mission of the Son of God in the reaction of God the Father to the sin of man. The Pope calls this reaction of God the Father, out of which comes the redemptive mission of the Son, His “fatherly ‘pain’.”21 On the one hand, then, there is the “fatherly ‘pain’” of God the Father which is not expressed, as it were, abstractly — but in the suffering of the Son of God; and, on the other hand, there is the whole, multifaceted “face” of human suffering. Thus Pope St. John Paul II, as I have indicated, takes up the whole interconnected, almost-feminine face to this sign of our times in the suffering of women amidst the multitude of sufferings with which the world almost abounds, and draws out of it a modern word on the theme fundamental to Christianity: What is the meaning of suffering?

After acknowledging the different kinds of suffering which correspond to the full reality of the human person, the pope considered the theme raised in the Old Testament book of Job: What mystery of God is hidden in the fact that God permits the suffering of the innocent? This theme is relevant to our question concerning Mary because she is the one who remains faithful in her innocence22 to the gift of her own Immaculate Conception: a gift which she receives in “view of the merits of Jesus Christ,” as it says in the definition of this dogma.23

The reflection on Job is a prelude to his meditation on the sufferings of Christ, the sinless one. It is the suffering of Christ which is the sole cause of our redemption (cf. 1 Tim 2:5): a suffering which is, as it were, in the relationship of the Father and the Son;24 and it is a suffering which does, therefore, intimately involve the Holy Spirit.25

In chapter five of this little masterpiece, St. John Paul II goes on to show the development, in the writings of St. Paul, of the Christian doctrine of the continuation of the sufferings of Christ in the sufferings of the Body of Christ, the Church; for St. Paul says: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24)26. At the beginning of chapter six of The Gospel of Suffering, St. John Paul II considers how Mary receives through her vocation as the Mother of God the gift of her “contribution to the redemption of all”: a contribution which is as “unrepeatable” as it is of “an intensity which can hardly be imagined.” Thus the pope comes to say of Mary: “She truly has a special title to be able to claim that she ‘completes in her flesh’ — as already in her heart — ‘what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.’”27

In a word, then, would it be inconsistent with this development of Marian reflection if the Church was to define Mary as Mediatrix of all Graces? Indeed, if all graces are ordered to or flow from Christ and His Church, then all graces are related to “the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.”28 If all can intercede for the grace of God to help each other, then Mary can especially intercede for us all; and, if Mary is a type of the Church, then Mary’s intercession preeminently expresses God’s willingness to draw man into the work of redemption. If Mary, then, is the Gate of heaven in virtue of her personal involvement in the Son of God’s Incarnation, then it follows that God Himself has brought about Mary’s graced, wholly human participation in His work of salvation: a participation that is as unbounded as God’s redemptively generous love.

IV: Some Objections to this Point of View

1. Would a new dogma be an obstacle to ecumenism? It is Hans Urs von Balthasar who says, in his commentary on Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical on The Mother of the Redeemer: “each denomination should first explore the depths of its own beliefs rather than try to reach out, for these depths may indeed provide the common ground to meet the other.”29 In other words, does this would-be dogma uncover, as it were, common ground between the different denominations? Indeed, does it uncover differences which are proportionately clearer, easier to discuss, and in some way encompassed between what already unites the followers of Christ — precisely because we are called to consider anew the very first thing, which is not “what do we think” but “what has God done”?

2. Is this proposed Marian dogma Scriptural? It has been shown, albeit all too briefly, that the doctrine of the Christian as co-redeemer “under and with” Christ is preeminently true of Mary, but also of each interceding member of the Body of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium 56), and that this is indeed the doctrine of St. Paul. The application of this doctrine to Mary in a way which clarifies what is “unique” to her contribution to our salvation, which God chose for her as Mother of our Savior, is an application of a principle enunciated by Cardinal Ratzinger: that our understanding of Mary is first “anticipated” in our understanding of the Church.30 At the same time, just as the Church discovered, as it were, the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in the Scriptural evidence of the angel Gabriel addressing her as “full of grace” (Lk 1:28), so it is possible that the Church is in the process of articulating the fullness of her identity as revealed by Christ on the Cross when He said to His mother: “‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” (Jn 19:26–27).

3. In what sense can Mary be the mediator of graces which were given before she even existed?31 Is this not a “part” of the same mystery by which the grace of our Redeemer was applied to Mary’s own Immaculate Conception prior to the fact of the coming of Christ? And, just as Christ’s own redemptive work is efficacious throughout time, implying a relationship to everyone, from the beginning, so in a certain way His relationship to His Mother Mary is inseparably implicated in His redemptive mission of redeeming love. In other words, the work of God does not follow the ordinary chronology of time; but, nevertheless, it is expressed in terms of the relationships which are integral to it.

4. Can Mary be the mediator of sanctifying grace?32 This question directs us to the mystery that the Father first gave His Son to Mary, through whom the Father gave His Son to us all. The possibility, then, of Mary being the mediator of all grace follows on or is an inseparable part of her vocation, what Pope St. John Paul II calls her “maternal mediation.”33 In other words, and one has to continually come back to this: if God chose to come to man through a woman, then this woman is the way through which God gave us “the grace and truth” which “came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17). Just, then, as the person of Jesus Christ is perfectly “one in body and soul” (Gaudium et Spes 14), being the bearer of the whole redemptive grace of God, so Mary is chosen by God to be the “Gate” through which we enter and receive all that God gives us; and, therefore, the whole of what God gives us, which includes the fullness of His Trinitarian Being and the whole reality of redeemed relationships, beginning with our relationship to the Blessed Trinity, to His Mother, and to all the redeemed. In other words, God, having entrusted His very self to Mary, entrusts everything He is to her, too.

5. Would such a dogma of Mary being Mediatrix of all Graces elevate Mary to “a status which is divine, not human”?34 The vocation of the Christian, according to St. Peter (2 Pet 1:3–4) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, involves the mystery which is expressed in the words of St. Athanasius: “those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized” (CCC 1988). Thus it is a question of Mary being the created creature that the rest of us are and the particular recipient of the extraordinary favor of God (cf. Lk 1:28–30), which is yet a gift adapted to the one to whom it is given. On the one hand, then, the very humanity of Christ entered, inseparably, into the mystery of our redemption; and, as I have repeatedly said, all that is essentially human entered therein, beginning with His relationship to His Mother. Is it for us, then, to reject the generosity of God in including everything that is fully human in His plan of redemption and, as it were, showing us its resplendent fullness in the very act of redemption? On the other hand, in the very mystery of the divinization of all truly human relationships, lies the mysterious nature of the Church and all her members: “In order that we might be unceasingly renewed in him (cf. Eph 4:23), he has shared with us his Spirit who, being one and the same in head and members, gives life to, unifies and moves the whole body. Consequently, his work could be compared by the Fathers to the function that the principle of life, the soul, fulfills in the human body” (Lumen Gentium 7).

6. What is the justification of the doctrine that Mary can “dispense” the grace she receives?35 The answer to this riddle lies in the heart of Mary becoming, at the Annunciation, the “cause” of her own and our salvation. The act of consent by which Mary becomes the Mother of God is the act of consent by which a mother brings a child into the world — not exclusively for herself, but primarily for the sake of the child and, as it were, in anticipation of all the relationships into which that child will enter on entering human society.36 In other words, the full human reality of the Annunciation is an act in which Mary “gives” what she herself has “received,” just as a mother gives to the family of man the child she has first received (cf. Gn 4:1). In the relationship of Mary, therefore, to her son Jesus Christ, is the acceptance of the will of God that her motherhood pass, as it were, through the cross (cf. Lk 2:35); and, in the very nature of Mary’s love being taken up into the redemptive love of her son, lies the mystery that her relationship to Him is according to the reality of motherhood (cf. Jn 2:1–12): that she exercises a ministry, as it were, which is a “redemptive transfiguration” of being the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church. In that the whole human reality entails freedom of action, is it not expressive of the “completeness” of Christ’s redemptive love that the whole, living, free expression of Mary’s being and action is wholly active in being Mother of Christ and Mother of the Church?

7. What about the implication of this doctrine that Mary is the Mediatrix of all Graces? Is there a sense in which it would make all Christians “givers of the grace of Christ”? Would it “endanger” the unique nature of Christ’s salvific mission if His Church “communicated” His saving work to the men and women of each generation? Immediately there comes to mind the Church’s giving of the sacraments of Christ. Is this part of the “‘Marian’ principle” which is an inseparable and complementary part of the Church of Christ?37 In other words, God is not jealous of the treasury of His Son’s death and resurrection; and, in so far as anyone is a disciple of the Son, anyone can, through intercession, through the ministry and gifts they possess for the benefit of others, and through the grace He gives to be at work in us, be a petitioner and indeed beggar of the gifts of Christ for those who need His help.

V: Conclusion

Now the question that surfaces for me at the end is the same question that surfaced for others: What difference will it make if there is a dogmatic formulation of what is, at best, the doctrines of the Christian Faith concerning Mary?

One possibility is that it will make our belief in the work of God which can be called the “mystery of Mary” so increasingly fundamental to our faith that the repudiation or rejection of it would be a repudiation and rejection of our salvation in Christ.

But why do this? A possible justification for such an action would be if it were to unequivocally lead people to their salvation in Christ. In other words it would be like saying that God’s own choice of Mary’s contribution to our salvation is a work of His to which He calls us; and he would call us to contemplate this particular work of His because it will yield a fruit for our salvation which will be of particular relevance to the ongoing task of the Church. Perhaps such a dogmatic formulation is a singular way of opposing the destruction of the dignity of the poor, particularly the dignity of child-bearing women, by proclaiming the dignity of this exemplary Mother of the Lord: as if Mary is in some way able to mirror, through the gift of God, the irreproachable dignity of all the poor of the Lord.

Finally, perhaps the answer lies more fundamentally in the completeness of the redemptive love of God becoming known for what it is; and, therefore, it is not so much about extrapolating from what God has done and is doing so much as showing, as completely as possible, how completely redemptive the love of God is! Thus a more explicit recognition of Mary as Mediatrix of all Grace is about revealing how integrally complete is Christ’s redemptive love of mankind, beginning with His Mother Mary, the better to appreciate what becomes of us in the divinization of mankind which the love of God makes possible.

  1. Cf. St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos.
  2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Sign of the Woman: An Introduction to the Encyclical,” in Mary: God’s Yes to Man (San Franscisco: Ignatius, 1988), 9. This is small book with a commentary by Hans Urs von Balthasar and an introduction by Cardinal Ratzinger published with Redemptoris Mater by Pope St. John Paul II.
  3. Ratzinger, “Sign of the Woman,” Mary: God’s Yes, 10.
  4. Ratzinger, “Sign of the Woman,” Mary: God’s Yes, 10.
  5. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Second Vatican Council.
  6. The second of these meditations on Mary is called “Our Hope in Mary: Part II of a Marian Triptych”; and, finally, the third is called “Mary and Prayer: Part III of a Marian Triptych.”
  7. These articles will be specifically referenced later on, but they were published in 1998, in English, in England.
  8. This was the theme of a lecture by Bishop Angelo Scola on March 21, 1998, at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, organized by Stratford Caldecott of the Centre for Faith and Culture.
  9. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Neue Klarstellungen (New Elucidations), 67–70; The von Balthasar Reader, eds. Medard Kehl and Werner Loser, trans. Robert J. Daly and Fred Lawrence (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982), 146.
  10. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary for Today, trans. Robert Nowell (Slough: St. Paul Publications, reprinted 1989), 35.
  11. Cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Second Vatican Council, no. 8.
  12. Redemptoris Mater 37; Mary: God’s Yes, 121.
  13. Lumen Gentium, 63, referring to the teaching of St. Ambrose: Epist. 63: PL 16, 1218.
  14. Lumen Gentium, 53; cf. St. Augustine, De S. Virginitate, 6: PL 40, 399.
  15. Signum Magnum: w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exh_19670513_signum-magnum.html.
  16. “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine and Piety in Faith and Theology as a Whole,” Communio 30 (Spring 2003).
  17. Cf., too, chapter twelve of Francis Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), and Etheredge, Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, forthcoming from enroutebooksandmedia.
  18. Lumen Gentium 62.
  19. “Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces,” by Fr. William G. Most: ewtn.com/faith/teachings/marya4.htm.
  20. St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris; this is the title of chapter five.
  21. St. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, no. 39.
  22. Cf. Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, no. 120.
  23. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, “The Definition.”
  24. Salvifici Doloris 18.
  25. St. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, nos. 39 and 41.
  26. Quoted in Salvifici Doloris 24.
  27. Salvifici Doloris 25.
  28. Lumen Gentium 13, but cf. also 14; and cf. also Gaudium et Spes 22.
  29. Mary: God’s Yes, 162.
  30. Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion, trans. John McDermott, SJ, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1983), 68.
  31. Cf. The Tablet (Jan. 31, 1998), 153.
  32. Cf. Tablet (Jan. 31, 1998), 153.
  33. Redemptoris Mater 40; Mary: God’s Yes, 130. Cf. also the first sentence of no. 41: “her mediation, subordinate to that of the Redeemer . . .”
  34. Tablet (Feb. 7, 1998), 185.
  35. Cf.  Tablet (Feb. 7, 1998), 185.
  36. Cf. page 192 of an article by Antonio Sicari (based on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar): “Mary, Peter and John: Figures of the Church,” Communio 19, no. 2 (Summer 1992).
  37. St. John Paul II, Letter to Women (June 29, 1995), 11.
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); and Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020).

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a co-founder of the Donum Vitae Institute.