Pope Francis on Mary and the Church

On the Feast of the Mother of God, in one of his most theologically sublime homilies [Italian; English], Pope Francis inaugurated the Year of Our Lord 2015 by powerfully asserting the unbreakable bond between Christ and the Church. Beginning with the constant presence of Mary throughout Jesus’ life and ending with a story from the Council of Ephesus, Francis delivered a wonderfully edifying sermon, marked by a vibrant Ignatian spirituality, demonstrating the fundamental unity between Christology, Marian devotion, and Ecclesiology.

Erano insieme, come sono stati insieme al Calvario, perché Cristo e la sua Madre sono inseparabili: tra loro esiste un rapporto strettissimo, come tra ogni figlio e la sua madre. La carne di Cristo – che è cardine della nostra salvezza (Tertulliano) – è stata intessuta nel grembo di Maria (cfr Sal 139,13). Tale inseparabilità è significata anche dal fatto che Maria, prescelta per essere Madre del Redentore, ne ha condiviso intimamente tutta la missione rimanendo accanto al Figlio fino alla fine sul Calvario.

They [Mary and Jesus] were together, as they were together on Calvary, because Christ and his mother are inseparable: between them exists a bond of great closeness, as exists between every son and his mother. The flesh [caro] of Christ– which is the fulcrum [cardo, literally, “hinge”] of our salvation (cf. Tertullian)– was woven into the womb of Mary (cf. Psalm 139:13). This inseparability is signified also by the fact that Mary, pre-chosen to be Mother of the Redeemer, shared in His mission, remaining at the side of the Son until his end on Calvary.

Because of this tight bond between Christ and Mary, Francis reminds us that “one cannot understand Jesus without his Mother”– non si può capire Gesù senza sua Madre. And in true Patristic fashion– as a certain Bavarian Pope would have done– the reigning Pope analogically links Christ’s bond to Mary to Christ’s bond to the Church, for Mary is the archetype of the Church.

Altrettanto inseparabili sono Cristo e la Chiesa, perché la Chiesa e Maria vanno sempre insieme e questo è proprio il mistero della donna nella comunità ecclesiale, e non si può capire la salvezza operata da Gesù senza considerare la maternità della Chiesa. Separare Gesù dalla Chiesa sarebbe voler introdurre una «dicotomia assurda», come scrisse il beato Paolo VI (cfr Esort. ap. Evangelii nuntiandi, 16). Non è possibile «amare il Cristo, ma non la Chiesa, ascoltare il Cristo, ma non la Chiesa, appartenere al Cristo, ma al di fuori della Chiesa» (Ibid.) Infatti è proprio la Chiesa, la grande famiglia di Dio, che ci porta Cristo. La nostra fede non è una dottrina astratta o una filosofia, ma è la relazione vitale e piena con una persona: Gesù Cristo, il Figlio unigenito di Dio fattosi uomo, morto e risorto per salvarci e vivo in mezzo a noi. Dove lo possiamo incontrare? Lo incontriamo nella Chiesa, nella nostra Santa Madre Chiesa Gerarchica.

Christ and the Church are likewise inseparable, because the Church and Mary always go together, and this is the very mystery of woman in the ecclesial community; and one cannot understand the salvation wrought by Jesus without considering the maternity of the Church. To separate Jesus from the Christ would be to introduce “an absurd dichotomy,” as Blessed Paul VI wrote (cf. Evangelii nuntiandi 16). It is not possible “to love Christ but not the Church, to listen to Christ but not listen to the Church, to belong to Christ but outside the Church” (ibid). In fact, it is the Church herself, the great family of God, who brings us to Christ. Our faith is not an abstract doctrine or a philosophy, but is the vital and complete relation with a person: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who became man, who died to save us, and who lives among us. Where can we meet him? We meet him in the Church, in our Holy Hierarchical Mother Church. [emphasis mine]

That last phrase, the reference to “our Holy Hierarchical Mother Church”, resounds with the unshakable faith of the Jesuits of old. Pope Francis emphatically pronounced that phrase in his homily, underlining it as a matter not to be taken lightly. This, of course, is a direct reference to Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, who as part of his Spiritual Exercises included “certain rules for being one in mind with the Church” (the famous section concerning the sentire cum Ecclesia). Among these rules, we find:

Prima: deposito omni judicio proprio, debemus tenere animum paratum et promptum ad obendientium in omnibus verae Sponsae Christ Domini nostri, quae est nostra sancta Mater Ecclesia Hierarchica.

First Rule: All judgment laid aside, we ought to have our mind ready and prompt to obey, in all matters, the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, which is our holy Mother the Church Hierarchical.

Decima tertia: ut in omnibus veritatem assequamur ne in nulla re erremus, debemus semper fixum tenere, ut album, quod ego video, credam esse nigrum, si Ecclesia Hierarchica ita illud esse definiat, credendo inter Christum Dominum nostrum Sponsum et Ecclesiam ejis Sponsam eumdem esse spiritum, qui nos gubernat et regit ad salutem animarum nostrarum, quia per eumdem spiritum et Dominum nostrum, qui dedid decem mandata, regitur et gubernatur sancta nostra Mater Ecclesia.

Thirteenth Rule: that in all things we may discern the truth and err in no matter, we must always firmly hold that, upon seeing white, I should believe it to be black, if the Hierarchical Church defined it so, believing that believing that between Christ our Lord the Bridegroom, and the Church his Bride, there is the same Spirit who governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls, for by the same Spirit and our Lord who issued the Decalogue, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.

The maternity of Mary is the model of the Church’s maternity; just as the Son of God came into the world through Mary, Jesus Christ remains in the world today through the Church. By invoking Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, Francis exhorts all men to the humble, filial obedience owed to our Holy Mother Church. The inclusion of the word “hierarchical” for Ignatius (and Francis) implies the mark of apostolicity, the divinely constituted structure of the Church, through which is exercised the authority to teach and govern the faithful. Under the guidance of the entire college of bishops, who themselves are legitimately constituted cum et sub successore Beati Petri, the faithful encounter Christ himself through the holy sacraments.

Returning to the homily text, we saw Francis mentioning that “the Church and Mary always go together, and that this is mystery of woman in the ecclesial community”. What does he mean by this? The answer is simple, if one sees the central theme of this Feast and of the homily: maternity! Of course, this does not always mean a literal maternity– although the Church certainly grows stronger as Christian mothers raise their children in the faith. The mission of women in the Church is a spiritual maternity, to follow the example of the Virgin, lovingly accompanying the Church in its joys and triumphs, caring and providing for all her children. This is a distinct role from the paternal task of sacramental ministry, which falls to the ordained clergy. All this is completely in line with something Francis has said before– “women need to be valued in the Church, not clericalized”. In not so many words, the Pope reasserted the uniqueness of women, which, of course, implies the complementarity-in-difference of the sexes– a clear repudiation of “gender theory”.

Don’t expect this Pope’s unabashedly Catholic preaching to find coverage in secular media!

Francis completed his reflection by recalling the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 where, in an effort to quash the Nestorian heresy (which, in short, denied the unity of human and divine in the Incarnation), the Council officially bestowed on Mary the title Θεοτόκος (Theotokos) or “bearer of God” [the Latin equivalent of which is Deipara, not Mater Dei or Dei Genetrix as is common now in the West, though the three convey the same dogmatic truth which we celebrate on today’s Feast]. This declaration affirmed in fact that Jesus Christ was truly God and man from the beginning of his earthly life. Though this controversy over Mary came to a head only in the fifth century through Nestorius, the title Theotokos goes to the very beginning of the Christianity; around 60 AD, the Liturgy of St. James as celebrated in Jerusalem already made use of this term.

Ephesus is where, according to Sacred Tradition, the Virgin Mother spent the final years of her earthly life, and her house in that city remains a pilgrimage site to this day; accordingly, the people of Ephesus have always held a deep devotion to the Virgin. It is no surprise, therefore, that during the Council, the people of Ephesus vigorously pushed the assembled bishops to uphold the perennial doctrine of the Church by honoring Mary. The ancient title Theotokos became the people’s rallying cry, and we know that the bishops heard their plea. In concluding his homily, Francis said:

Guardiamo Maria, contempliamo la Santa Madre di Dio. E vorrei proporvi di salutarla insieme, come ha fatto quel coraggioso popolo di Efeso, che gridava davanti ai suoi pastori quando entravano in Chiesa: “Santa Madre di Dio!”. Che bel saluto per la nostra Madre! Dice una storia, non so se è vera, che alcuni, fra quella gente, avevano i bastoni in mano, forse per far capire ai Vescovi cosa gli accaderebbe se non avessero avuto il coraggio di proclamare Maria “Madre di Dio”. Invito tutti voi– senza bastoni– ad alzarvi e per tre volte salutarla, in piedi, con questo saluto della prima Chiesa: “Santa Madre di Dio!”

Let us look upon Mary, let us contemplate the Holy Mother of God. And I suggest that you all greet her together, just like the brave people of Ephesus, who shouted before her pastors when they entered into the Church, “Holy Mother of God!”. What a beautiful greeting for our Mother! There is a story– I’m not sure if it’s true– that some of the people of Ephesus held clubs in their hands, perhaps to make the bishops understand what would happen to them if they had not the courage to proclaim Mary as “Mother of God”. I invite you all– without clubs– to stand and to greet her three times, with the greeting of the ancient Church: “Holy Mother of God!”

As one, the faithful present in St. Peter’s Basilica rose to their feet, and facing the statue of Mary near the altar, exclaimed three times, Santa Madre di Dio! And in thrice acclaiming the Mother of God, we at the same time thrice acclaim our Holy Mother Church, who takes Mary as her archetype; therefore, let us be obedient to the Church as Christ was obedient to Mary, for though the Church– as through the Virgin Mother– we encounter the blessed Son of God, Jesus Christ, our Lord, to whom be honor and glory forever.

Ave, Sancta Dei Genetrix! Ave, Sancta Mater Ecclesia!

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