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A Celebration of Mary, Mother of the Church


by Sean Innerst

The Church’s Marian identity will be honored in a new feast day, on the Monday after Pentecost

Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church) mosaic

A replica of the Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church) mosaic that overlooks St. Peter’s Square is displayed in permanent exhibit at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. The mosaic includes John Paul II’s coat of arms and apostolic motto, “Totus Tuus” (Totally Yours). Mosaic created by Vatican Mosaic Studio/Photo by Matthew Barrick

In 1974, I was received into the Catholic Church. I was a freshman in college and ready to believe everything that the Church taught. However, I remained a little ambivalent about Mary, afraid that she might be a distraction from my growing love for Jesus. I didn’t quite understand where she fit in.

A few years later, I was leaving Mass and passed in front of the statue of Mary in my parish church. The building had been renovated some time earlier to look very simple, all in oak. Two hand-carved statues of Mary and Joseph melted into the interior and were barely noticeable. But as I left the church that day, I was struck by the beauty of that statue of Our Lady. It had always just been furniture to me before, but suddenly, I was drawn to her. I marveled at how the oak of Mary’s face was actually one with the wooden interior of the entire church — that they were really, mysteriously united. To my surprise, love welled up in my heart for this woman in wood.

This experience came to mind when, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes (Feb. 11), it was announced that Pope Francis had established a new Marian feast day on the Monday after Pentecost. The Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, will be celebrated for the first time this year, on May 21.

A Feb. 11 statement by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments noted that Pope Francis “attentively considered how greatly the promotion of this devotion might encourage the growth of the maternal sense of the Church in the pastors, religious and faithful, as well as a growth of genuine Marian piety.” This dual purpose of the new feast — to promote greater appreciation of Marian piety and of the Church as Mother — can be better understood if we take a step back and look at the history of Marian devotion since Vatican II.


The fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962- 1965) had considered issuing a separate document on the Blessed Virgin Mary, and there was even a move to ask Blessed Pope Paul VI to define a new Marian dogma. Instead, they spoke about Mary in the eighth and final chapter of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which they titled “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church.”

Then, at the end of the last session of the council, Pope Paul VI made a solemn proclamation of Mary as “Mother of the Church,” the very title that Francis has now reaffirmed.

Despite the extremely rich content of Lumen Gentium’s treatment of Mary’s place within the context of the Church, the theological climate after the council tended to downplay the importance of Marian piety. Paul VI addressed this nearly 10 years after the council in an apostolic exhortation, Marialis Cultus, in which he noted two errors: Devotions of piety should not be inserted into the Mass, but neither should they be scorned and suppressed (31).

I remember this period very well, as Marialis Cultus was published in 1974, the same year that I became Catholic. Many of the priests and religious who helped me to enter the Church seemed to share my ambivalence toward Mary at the time, so I set Our Lady off to the side. Nonetheless, as I combed the Catholic section of the university library, I kept reading about Mary and devotions like the scapular and rosary, which seemed to have played such an important role in the lives of the saints.

All this “Catholic stuff ” was new to me and terribly fascinating, so I furtively taught myself how to say the rosary. However, I still didn’t quite get how Mary figured in the Christian life until a few years later when I met a Discalced Carmelite priest who had deep Marian devotion. As I spoke with him about my questions, he smiled and made one very simple suggestion: “Ask Jesus to introduce you to his mother.” What perfect advice for a former Protestant! Of course, Jesus was the one to help me understand Mary. I obediently made that request in prayer and returned home, not thinking much more about it.

It was a few days later that I was struck by the wooden statue of Mary at my parish. Only afterward, as I reflected on that moment while praying the rosary, did I remember asking Jesus to introduce me to his mother. I then realized that Jesus had answered my prayer. In so doing, he set my faith on a life-changing course. From that day, much that had been opaque to me became clearer; moral struggles that had seemed insurmountable became easier; and I saw myself not merely as a disciple of Jesus but a son in the Son. In Mary, I discovered the love that a perfect Son has for his mother, and the love that she has for her Son. My walk in faith has since been colored by the love of those two hearts and the remarkable way that a Catholic life can be lived out in that shared love.

Furthermore, I came to understand that there is a mystical identity between Mary and the Church. We do not offer Mary the worship that is owed to God, but rather the Church strives to be Marian in offering God the worship we owe to him.


The popes in recent decades have shepherded a revival of Marian piety, each in a particular way that indicates just how much the face of Mary is one with the whole fabric of the Church’s life. It is easy to oversimplify the rich teachings of recent popes as to the important place of Mary in the Church, but each, in his own way, has prepared for the institution of this new Marian memorial.

St. John Paul II directed the Church’s attention toward the Redeemer of Man, the very title of the first encyclical of his long pontificate. For this profoundly Marian pope, Mary was primarily Redemptoris Mater, the Mother of the Redeemer. In his 1990 encyclical of that name, she is the woman of faith, the first to believe in the mystery of Christ, as recorded in the words of Luke 1:45: “Blessed are you who believed.” She is not self-concerned, but entirely Christ-centered.

As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had put it, through her constant “maternal mediation,” the Church can learn not to “speak too much of herself ” but instead focus on the Redeemer and his mission.

In various works before and after becoming Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, he noted that Mary at the Annunciation is addressed by the angel Gabriel in terms that parallel prophecies from the Old Testament, particularly Zephaniah 3:14-15 and Zechariah 9:9. These prophecies foretell the joyful announcement of the coming of Messiah to “Daughter Zion,” and the promise that God would be “in the midst of you” (literally “in your womb”). Zion is the mount in Jerusalem on which the Temple was located, the place from which the sublime worship of the one true God went up to heaven.

For Benedict XVI, Mary is the woman of Zion and of the Magnificat, the canticle of praise she utters in Luke 1:46-55. She is the woman who remembers the covenant promises and realizes them with her “yes.” Mary is the woman who hopes, who believes and who loves (Deus Caritas Est, 41). She is also our “Mother of hope” (Spe Salve, 50) and reminds us of the central acts which constitute the Church: liturgical remembrance and worship, to which the Church must attend in order for her to carry out the works of love in truth (Caritas in Veritate).

Finally, Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), returns to a call for ecclesial selfreflection. He quotes Paul VI’s assertion that “vivid and lively self-awareness inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged her … and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today” (26).

Through this interior gaze on the part of the Church, Francis hopes for an “ecclesial renewal” characterized not by self-critical introversion but by “a missionary impulse” (27).

He goes on to write, “With the Holy Spirit, Mary is always present in the midst of the people. She joined the disciples in praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14) and thus made possible the missionary outburst which took place at Pentecost. She is the Mother of the Church which evangelizes, and without her we could never truly understand the spirit of the new evangelization” (284).

In this light, it is not surprising that Francis, harkening back Pope Paul VI’s declaration at the end of the Second Vatican Council, has established the new memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church.

Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the Daughter Zion and caused Christ to find a home under the heart of Mary at the Annunciation, he also caused the Body of Christ, the Church, to be born around the heart of Mary at Pentecost. This coming May 21 and every Monday following Pentecost in the years to come, may the Holy Spirit find us gathered faithfully around Our Lady and waiting eagerly for his coming to bring us to rebirth as the Mystical Body of Christ.

SEAN INNERST is director of the Theology Cycle at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and a cofounder and professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver. He is a member of Holy Name Council 8539 in Sheridan, Colo.