February 12th, 2015
In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar the first day of the year marks the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. On this occasion the Pope delivers a Marian homily that highlights the unique status of Mary and her unparalleled role in Catholic doctrine and spirituality. Given the strong Marian devotion of Pope Francis it is no surprise that he celebrated this solemnity with great enthusiasm that also included an unexpected finale. A recent book (Francesco e Maria. L’amore di Papa Bergoglio per la Madonna, edited by V. Sansonetti, Milano: Rizzoli 2014) highlights the love of Pope Francis for the Madonna by collecting a number of Marian prayers and devotions which are extremely dear to him.
In his first speech of the year Francis offered a meditation on the inseparability of Christ and his mother. He then elaborated on that inseparability by underscoring the relationship between Mary and the church and ultimately between Mary and the whole of mankind. “Jesus cannot be understood without his Mother” said the Pope. This is true of course, but with certain limits and biblical distinctions. With the Incarnation the Son of God became a man by being born of Mary. He is the sinless God-man that brings forth the Father’s grace through the Spirit while his mother is a sinful creature that receives God’s grace. That inseparability needs biblical qualifications otherwise it can lead to the exaltation of Mary beyond what Scripture allows.
Having established the inseparability between Mother and Son, the Pope went on to apply it to another relationship: that of Mary and the Church. Here is what he said: “Likewise inseparable are Christ and the Church – because the Church and Mary are always together and this is precisely the mystery of womanhood in the ecclesial community – and the salvation accomplished by Jesus cannot be understood without appreciating the motherhood of the Church”. The train of thought is that Mary is inseparable from Christ and from the Church; therefore Christ is inseparable from the Church through Mary. Mary is the connecting point between Christ and the Church. As she is inseparable from the former, she is also inseparable from the latter and mediates the relationship between the two. Thus Mary is theologically central in the overall Roman Catholic scheme.
There is yet another step. As Mary is the mother of Jesus and the mother of the Church, she is also deemed to be the mother of all mankind. The Roman Catholic transitive property of the inseparable link is at work here. In lyrical style Francis concludes: “Mary, the first and most perfect disciple of Jesus, the first and most perfect believer, the model of the pilgrim Church, is the one who opens the way to the Church’s motherhood and constantly sustains her maternal mission to all mankind. She, the Mother of God, is also the Mother of the Church, and through the Church, the mother of all men and women, and of every people”. The human inseparability between Mary and Jesus is worked out in the inseparability between Mary and the Church and then between Mary and the whole of humankind.
A Crescendo With A Marian Grand Finale
Francis’ speech is a clear example of how Roman Catholic Mariology has been at work throughout the ages. An initial step with some biblical support (i.e. the Son-Mother link in the context of the Incarnation) was developed in subsequent syllogisms that lacked biblical criteria (e.g. Mary mother of the Church, Mary mother of mankind). The outcome is a brand new theological framework that has little resemblance to how it began.
As an experienced bishop with pastoral warmth, Francis ended his homily with an unusual request that is hardly common in Vatican celebrations. “Let us look to Mary, let us contemplate the Holy Mother of God. I suggest that you all greet her together, just like those courageous people of Ephesus, who cried out before their pastors when they entered Church: “Holy Mother of God!” What a beautiful greeting for our Mother. There is a story – I do not know if it is true – that some among those people had clubs in their hands, perhaps to make the Bishops understand what would happen if they did not have the courage to proclaim Mary “Mother of God”! I invite all of you, without clubs, to stand up and to greet her three times with this greeting of the early Church: “Holy Mother of God!”.
Reports say that the puzzled crowd that was sitting and standing in the Vatican basilica shouted “Holy Mother of God” three times as the Pope had instructed. Thus the first day of the year was an occasion to introduce a highly sophisticated Mariological doctrine and a strongly felt Mariological devotion which were blended together by a committed Marian Pope. For those who desire to live according to the Word of God, it was not a very promising start to the year.