“This Sweetest of Names”: Mary as Mother of the Church

mary mother of the church

At the conclusion of the third session of the Second Vatican Council, in November 1964, Pope Saint Paul VI gave an address in which he drew attention to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s spiritual motherhood for every Christian. In the course of the address, he promulgated a new title for our Lady, “Mother of the Church”:

We declare Mary Most Holy to be Mother of the Church, that is, of the whole Christian people, faithful and Pastors alike, who invoke her as their most loving Mother; and We establish that by this sweetest of names the whole Christian people should henceforth give still greater honor to the Mother of God and offer her their supplications.1

Twenty-five years later, at the request of Pope Saint John Paul II, a new mosaic honoring Mary as Mater Ecclesiae (“Mother of the Church”) was installed in St. Peter’s Square a few months following the failed assassination attempt on the pontiff, which he attributed to Mary’s intercession.2

In our own day, just a few years ago in 2018, Pope Francis instituted the celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church as a liturgical memorial for the universal Church. It was inscribed in the General Roman Calendar to be celebrated every year on the Monday following Pentecost.3

But what theology undergirds “this sweetest of names” for Mary? The documents of Vatican II had avoided the use of the title Mother of the Church over concerns by some that it “lack[ed] sufficient traditional (patristic and medieval) background or dogmatic clarity” and could give rise to “confused reactions about Mary being both ‘member’ and ‘mother’ of Christ’s body.”4

What case can be made for Paul VI’s solemn confirmation of this title for the Blessed Virgin Mary and his insistence that this is “a title by no means new to Christian piety.”5

We propose that a close consideration of the Church’s liturgical celebration of this feast—focusing on the lectionary readings for the Mass—yields a richer understanding of the biblical rootedness of the Church’s teaching that Mary is Mother of the Church. We will consider each of these texts in turn here, with special attention to the ways they are further illumined by the accompanying prayers in the Roman Missal and the Liturgy of the Hours. Selected writings from the Church Fathers and Magisterium also lend support to reading these passages of Scripture as providing sound biblical warrant for the acclamation of Mary as not only Mother of God, but also Mother of the Church.

The readings for this Memorial are proper, with an option between two passages for the first reading:

  • First Reading: Genesis 3:9–15, 20 or Acts 1:12–14
  • Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 87:1–2, 3 and 5, 6–7
  • Gospel: John 19:25–34

Mother of all the living (Gen 3:9–15, 20)

The Old Testament option for the first reading recounts the immediate fallout of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Eden. Attention is given to the Protoevangelium (“first gospel”), which foretells the mysterious coming of a future offspring (seed) of the woman, the New Adam, who will win a great victory over evil by striking the head of the serpent.6

In giving us this passage from Genesis, the Church draws attention to the typological relationship between Eve and Mary. Eve, who “became the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20), prefigures Mary, the mother of all who are reborn in Christ Jesus through faith and baptism. This Eve/Mary typology is found in the writings of many of the early Church Fathers, including St. Irenaeus of Lyons. In Book 3 of his Against Heresies, Irenaeus famously contrasts the Blessed Virgin Mary with Eve: “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience. For what the virgin Eve tied by her unbelief, this Mary untied by her belief.”7

By Mary’s obedience, Irenaeus is certainly referring above all to her wholehearted response to the divine messenger—“Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The Preface prayer in the Liturgy of the Eucharist (prayed by the priest immediately before the Sanctus) speaks of Mary’s obedience in a striking way: “Receiving your Word in her Immaculate Heart, she was found worthy to conceive him in her virgin’s womb and, giving birth to the Creator, she nurtured the beginnings of the Church.”8

As mother of the divine Son of God in his humanity, Mary is truly the Mother of God, as the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE affirmed.9

Mary’s being the Mother of the Church is entirely dependent upon her being the Mother of God. Her nurturing the beginnings of the Church becomes more fully apparent in the opening chapter of Acts of the Apostles.

In prayer with the mother of Jesus (Acts 1:12–14)

The second option for the first reading focuses on the time between the Ascension of the Lord and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This brief passage from the first chapter of Acts speaks of the eleven gathered in prayer in the upper room with other disciples of the Lord— specifically “some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). This is the only mention of Mary in the book of Acts. Nonetheless, her being mentioned in this context alongside the nascent Church awaiting the “promise of the Father”—the Holy Spirit—is significant.

The Preface for the Mass brings our attention to this moment “at the dawn of the ‘end time’ which the Spirit was to inaugurate.”10

It highlights a twofold dimension of Mary as model disciple and image of the Church: “As the Apostles awaited the Spirit you had promised, she joined her supplication to the prayers of the disciples and so became the pattern of the Church at prayer.”11

Mary appears as a “caring guide to the emerging Church.”12 As the one who was uniquely “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:35), here the Blessed Mother waits in prayer alongside all the disciples upon whom the gift of the Spirit will be poured out at Pentecost. In this, she models for all the faithful the humble and prayerful posture of a disciple of Jesus.13

But as the Preface highlights, Mary also appears as a representative figure of the Church as a whole—“the pattern of the Church at prayer.” As in the account of the Annunciation in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel, here at the opening of Acts, Mary “becomes an image of the Church as she considers the word of God, tries to understand it in its entirety and guards in her memory the things that have been given to her.”14

Behold your mother (John 19:25–34)

In the collect prayer of the Mass,15 the priest recalls the crucifixion of Jesus, and specifically the tender scene of filial love recorded in the fourth Gospel, when the “Only Begotten Son … chose the Blessed Virgin Mary, his Mother, to be our Mother also.” Since the Collect is prayed at the conclusion of the Introductory Rites of the Mass (before the first reading), it orients the faithful in how they should hear the Gospel proclaimed. That is, the faithful are invited to identify with the beloved disciple at the foot of the Cross, and to hear the words of our Lord, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27) addressed to each of us personally as members of the body of Christ.

The Preface for the Mass beautifully captures the sacramental and ecclesial dimensions of this scene in John’s Gospel: “Standing beside the Cross, she received the testament of divine love and took to herself as sons and daughters all those who by the Death of Christ are born to heavenly life.” As in the Collect, the Preface invites us to see the beloved disciple as representing each of the faithful individually, but also the Church as a whole.

The Gospel reading does not end with the reciprocal giving of mother to son, but concludes rather with the moment when Christ’s side is pierced and “blood and water flowed out” (John 19:34). In this we have the visible sign of the living water of the Holy Spirit Christ had promised to bestow (see John 7:38–39). As Eve was formed from the side of Adam, so here the Church, the bride of Christ, is formed by the sacramental outpouring of the Spirit from the side of Jesus. The Blessed Virgin Mary, present at the foot of the Cross, thus “became the tender Mother of the Church which Christ begot on the cross handing on the Spirit.”16

Conclusion: Honoring Mary as Mother of the Church

The Second Vatican Council taught about Mary that “The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formulation she cooperates with a mother’s love.”17

This teaching is echoed in the Preface for the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church, when the priest prays, “Raised to the glory of heaven, she accompanies your pilgrim Church with a mother’s love and watches in kindness over the Church’s homeward steps, until the Lord’s Day shall come in glorious splendor.”

St. Augustine, writing at the turn of the fifth century CE, powerfully captures why devotion to Mary as Mother of the Church is fitting:

That woman, and she alone, was both a mother and a virgin, not only spiritually but also physically. She is not spiritually the mother of our head, as that is the Savior himself. On the contrary, she was born spiritually from him, as everyone who believes in him, including her, is rightly called a child of the bridegroom. On the other hand, clearly she is the mother of his members, which is ourselves, since she has cooperated with charity for the birth of the faithful in the Church. They are the members of that head, but she is physically the mother of the head himself. So it was fitting that by a unique miracle our head was born physically from a virgin, to signify that his members would be born spiritually from the virgin Church.18

With Augustine, we can say that Mary is “the mother of the ‘whole Christ,’”19

whose spiritual motherhood is found in her ongoing intercession for the Church on earth. In celebrating Mary as Mother of the Church, the Church asks that Mary intercede with “her loving help” in order that the Church might become daily “more fruitful” and “draw to her embrace all the families of the peoples.”20

To address Mary as Mother of the Church is to see in her both the model of faithful obedience to the word of God, and an icon of the Church herself.

verbum 10 is here
  1. Translation taken from “Address of Pope Saint Paul VI,” in the Office of Readings for the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church, accessed at https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year-and-calendar/mother-of-the-church.
  2. Images of this mosaic, featuring the Papal crest and motto of John Paul II, can be found at https://www.vatican.va/content/vatican/en/ra/mosaico-mater-ecclesiae.html.
  3. The official decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) can be accessed at https://www.vatican.va/content/vatican/en/ra/mosaico-mater-ecclesiae.html. Henceforth cited as CDW, “Decree.”
  4. Denis Farkasfalvy, The Marian Mystery: The Outline of a Mariology (New York: St. Pauls, 2014), 225.
  5. “Address of Pope Saint Paul VI.”
  6. As paragraph 410 of the Catechism helpfully explains, “After his fall, man was not abandoned by God. On the contrary, God calls him and in a mysterious way heralds the coming victory over evil and his restoration from his fall. This passage in Genesis is called the Protoevangelium (‘first gospel’): the first announcement of the Messiah and Redeemer, of a battle between the serpent and the Woman, and of the final victory of a descendant of hers.”
  7. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, ed. Irenaeus M. C. Steenberg, trans. Dominic J. Unger, Ancient Christian Writers 64 (New York: Newman Press, 2012), 3:105.
  8. The Roman Missal, 3rd. typical ed. (1348).
  9. See CCC 466, 495.
  10. CCC 726.
  11. Roman Missal (1348).
  12. CDW, “Decree.”
  13. “Mary is the perfect Orans (prayer), a figure of the Church. … We can pray with and to her.” CCC 2679.
  14. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 33–34.
  15. This prayer is also used at the concluding prayer for each hour in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church.
  16. Decree on the Celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of the Church in the General Roman Calendar. Accessed at https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2018/03/03/0168/00350.html#ingD.
  17. Lumen Gentium 63, quoted in CCC 501.
  18. St. Augustine of Hippo, Holy Virginity, The Works of Saint Augustine I/9 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1999), 6.6.
  19. CCC 726.
  20. The English translation of the Collect may leave some to wonder whether it is the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Church who is “exulting in the holiness of her children” and drawing peoples from all nations “to her embrace.” The Latin makes clear that it is indeed the Church (Ecclesia tua) who draws the people to her embrace (in gremium suum attrahat).
Written by
Kevin Clemens
View all articles
Written by Kevin Clemens