In an article for Faith Today, Fr Adrian Graffy considers the presentation of Mary in Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document on the Church, and shows how such an understanding nourishes our Catholic faith.
One of the hotly debated issues at the Second Vatican Council was whether to produce a distinct council document on the Virgin Mary, or to speak of Mary in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which came to be known by the first two words of its Latin text, Lumen Gentium. The voting on this question was tight, and, by a margin of just forty votes, the Council Fathers decided to consider the role of Mary in the document on the Church. Chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium is entitled ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church’. The Council quickly makes clear that it ‘has no intention of explaining the doctrine of Mary in its fulness, or of bringing to an end the debate on questions not yet fully elucidated by the work of theologians’ (54).
The Council considers the place of the Blessed Virgin in the ‘economy of salvation’. Certain texts in the Old Testament, when they are understood in the light of the complete revelation, already present an outline of the woman, the mother of the Redeemer (55). When the fullness of time came it was the will of the Father that the Incarnation ‘should be preceded by acceptance on the part of the predestined mother’. ‘With no sin to hamper her she wholeheartedly embraced God’s will of salvation and made a complete dedication of herself as the Lord’s handmaid to the person and work of her Son.’ (56)
Mary’s union with her Son in the work of salvation is in fact to be seen from his virginal conception until his death. She was hailed by Elizabeth as ‘blessed for her belief in the promise of salvation’. She, the Mother of God, ‘joyfully showed the shepherds and the magi her Son’. (57) During his public ministry she hears her Son ‘proclaim the blessedness of those who, as she did so faithfully, hear the word of God and keep it’ (58). ‘She loyally maintained her union with her Son right up to the cross.’ (58)
Mary is present with the apostles as they await the descent of the Holy Spirit. ‘We see Mary at prayer beseeching the gift of the Spirit who had already overshadowed her at the Annunciation.’ (59) The document’s survey of Mary’s role concludes with reference to the two great dogmas of the Church concerning Mary: ‘Finally the immaculate Virgin, who had been kept free of all stain of original sin, completed the course of her life on earth and was raised, body and soul, to the glory of heaven.’ (59)
The Council stresses that the role of Mary in no way undermines the unique mediation of Christ (60). Since she is Mother of the Redeemer, she continues to ‘care for her Son’s brothers and sisters on their pilgrimage, involved as they are in dangers and difficulties’ (62). The titles sometimes ascribed to Mary, such as Advocate and Helper, are always to be understood in this light. Mary therefore has a clear role in the Church, that of guiding people to her Son. The council document goes on to consider the ‘cult’ of Mary, by which it means the ways in which veneration is shown to the Blessed Virgin in the prayer life of the Church. Once again it is stressed that the forms of piety paid to the Mother of God do nothing to undermine the adoration rendered to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Council especially encourages liturgical practices in her regard. Theologians and preachers are urged ‘to be careful in their consideration of the unique dignity of the Mother of God’ (67). There is no room either for exaggeration or for meanness in the worship of the Mother of God.
It is particularly stressed that everything must be avoided ‘which might lead separated brethren, or others, into error over the Church’s true teaching’ (67). This ecumenical concern of the Council has borne considerable fruit. The document warmly acknowledges that honour is shown to the Saviour’s mother in Christian churches and communities which do not fully share our faith. The document concludes: ‘Now that she is placed high in heaven above all the blessed and the angels, Christ’s faithful must plead with her to make intercession before her Son in the communion of all the saints, until all the families of nations, whether they go under the name of Christian or are still without knowledge of their Saviour, shall have the happiness of assembling in peace and harmony in a single People of God to the glory of the most holy and undivided Trinity.’ (69)
In the final section of the chapter on the Blessed Virgin the Council speaks of ‘Mary, the sign of sure hope and of comfort for the people of God on pilgrimage’. This title is echoed in our liturgy each year in the preface at Mass for the Solemnity of the Assumption, when Mary is described as ‘a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way’.
In an audience given at Castel Gandolfo in September 2012 Pope Benedict recalled how as a young theologian he had witnessed the debate concerning the place of Mary in the Church. In the final chapter of Lumen Gentium, the figure of Mary ‘appears in all its beauty and singularity, well inserted in the fundamental mysteries of the Christian faith’. ‘Mary, whose faith is the focus, is situated in the mystery of the love and communion of the Most Holy Trinity; her cooperation in the divine plan of salvation and in the unique mediation of Christ is clearly affirmed and properly highlighted, making it thereby a model and point of reference for the Church.’
This article appeared in the May 2013 edition of Faith Today. See the article in its original print format (PDF)