Mary, the Spirit, and the Church

Mary prays in the heart of the Apostolic Church on Pentecost, “The Birthday of the Church” (Acts 1:12-14).

Detail from "Pentecost" (1308) by Duccio di Buoninsegna [Wikipedia]

Pentecost commemorates the “fiftieth day” after Our Lord’s Resurrection (May 20, this year). Originally, it was an agricultural festival that eventually was transformed into a commemoration of the giving of the Torah (the Law) to Moses and the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. On Pentecost Sunday, fulfilling His promise at the Last Supper, Jesus sent “another” Paraclete, which word means “Advocate” or one called to your side (from para + kaleo). This historic event takes place in the same “Upper Room,” also known as the “Cenacle,” where the Last Supper was celebrated and in which the Risen Lord appeared to confer on the Apostles the power to forgive or retain men’s sins. St. Luke the Evangelist notes Mary’s presence amidst the Apostles as they await the Holy Spirit’s arrival in that intermediate period between the Lord’s Ascension and His sending of the Spirit. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the heads of the Eleven Apostles as tongues of fire. Pentecost, therefore, is rightly termed “The Birthday of the Church.”

In Catholic tradition, Mary is venerated under the title of “Regina Apostolorum” (“Queen of the Apostles”). She played a central role in the Church’s first “novena” (“nine days” of prayer) imploring the Father to send the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ Name. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is known in theological terms as the “anima Ecclesiae” (“the soul of the Church”). The same Holy Spirit, Whom we profess in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is “The Lord and Giver of Life” and Who made fecund Mary’s virginal womb to bring about the mystery of the Incarnation, makes possible the birth of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, at Pentecost. Furthermore, it is this Holy Spirit, Who transforms mere bread and wine into the Eucharistic Body and Blood of the Lord.

Mary Immaculate is “gratia plena” (“full of grace”), that is to say, full of the Holy Spirit, from the first moment that she is immaculately conceived in the womb of her saintly mother, Anne. Mary, as the first member of the Church and the Church’s spiritual Mother, enjoyed the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit from her Immaculate Conception to the moment she fell asleep (dormition) and was assumed body and soul into the glories of Heaven where, even now, she has not relinquished her role as our maternal Mediatrix and Advocate (see: Lumen Gentium, n. 62).

The Blessed Virgin exercises this role of maternal mediation in subordination to that of her Divine Son and to that of the Holy Spirit. The efficacy of Mary’s prayers depends entirely on the Blessed Trinity. As both St. Alphonsus Liguori and Blessed John Henry Newman taught, Mary’s prayers are all-efficacious because she only wills what the Omnipotent God wills for our salvation. To this extent, as St. John Paul II also taught in his rich Marian Magisterium, Mary can be rightly venerated as “Mediatrix of all grace.” For this reason, we implore Mary’s intercession in this vale of tears: “Veni, Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam” (“Come, Holy Spirit, come through Mary,” the prayer of Monsignor Luigi Giussani, Founder of the Communion and Liberation Movement).

In 1987, to mark the “Marian Year,” St. John Paul II promulgated his Marian encyclical, “Redemptoris Mater” (“Mother of the Redeemer”). Reflecting on Mary’s maternal presence in the Cenacle on Pentecost Sunday in the heart of the nascent Church, he wrote:

In the redemptive economy of grace, brought about through the action of the Holy Spirit, there is a unique correspondence between the moment of the Incarnation of the Word and the moment of the birth of the Church. The person who links these two moments is Mary: Mary at Nazareth and Mary in the Upper Room at Jerusalem. In both cases her discreet yet essential presence indicates the path of “birth from the Holy Spirit.” Thus she who is present in the mystery of Christ as Mother becomes – by the will of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit – present in the mystery of the Church. In the Church too she continues to be a maternal presence, as shown by the words spoken from the Cross: “Woman, behold your son!”; “Behold, your mother” (n. 24).

Mother of the Church

Unfortunately, as a consequence of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council the Octave of Pentecost was abolished. Fortunately, however, according to a recent document issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, whose prefect is the renowned African Cardinal, Robert Sarah, author of God or Nothing and The Power of Silence, the Monday after Pentecost (May 21, this year) will now be observed in the universal Church as an obligatory memorial dedicated to the Mother of God under her venerable title of “Mater Ecclesiae” (“Mother of the Church”).

In a discourse delivered at the Second Vatican Council on November 21, 1964, Blessed Paul VI for the first time in the history of the Church officially declared Mary as “Mother of the Church.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes reference to Pope Paul VI’s discourse and dedicates several pragraphs to the theme of “Mary, Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church” (nn. 963-975), including a statement taken from Pope Paul VI’s “Credo of the People of God,” which reads: “We believe that the Holy Mother of God, the new Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in heaven to exercise her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ.”

St. Augustine taught that the mystery of the “totus Chrisus,” that is, the mystery of the “whole Christ,” is the union of Christ (Head) of the Church with His members (all baptized believers). This mystical union between Christ and His Church, we can say, is like the indissoluble bond of marriage insofar as it is based on the theology of St. Paul in Ephesians 5, whereby a husband is called to love his wife with sacrificial love (agape), as Christ loved His Church and laid down His life to save and sanctify her. A wife, in turn, owes obedience to her husband, just as the Church owes obedience to Christ. Furthermore, as Mary cooperated with the Holy Spirit in forming the physical Body of Christ in the mystery of His Divine Incarnation, so too does she cooperate with the Holy Spirit in helping to form the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.

It is interesting to note that occasionally artists through the centuries have chosen to depict Mary in the Cenacle at Pentecost in a way that was noticeably different from the other Apostles. First, it strikes us that she is placed at the center of the image, so that the Apostles are gathered around her as to the visible source of their unity. Secondly, Mary does not always have resting above her head tongues of fire like the Apostles. Perhaps this is meant to underscore how Mary, being “full of grace” from the moment of her Immaculate Conception, is already entirely imbued, body and soul, with the power of the sanctifying Spirit.

At the same time, we can consider that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council decided to treat Mary in chapter eight of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), so as to highlight Mary’s role as “Mother of the Church.” This point was a contentious one, both historically and theologically, because initially there was a desire on the part of not a few Council Fathers to treat Mary in a separate document. While some bishops opposed a separate document in an effort to downplay Marian doctrine and devotion, in the plan of Providence, including Our Lady within the Council’s arguably most important document, actually highlighted her place within the economy of salvation.

Thus, we should not forget, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 773) teaches, citing Mulieris Dignitatem of St. John Paul II, “the Marian dimension of the Church precedes the Petrine.” Both Mary and the Pope (as successor of St. Peter) are members of the Church. However, Mary’s role as our Mother “in the order of grace” – a felicitous expression of Lumen Gentium – is more significant, spiritually speaking, than the role of the Pope as the “visible head” of the Church. For this reason, the Virgin Mary is the “Theotokos” (“God-bearer”) and the “Seat of Wisdom” (“Sedes Sapientiae“), Our Blessed Lord’s first and best disciple, the first and most preeminent daughter of the Church, the highest of all creatures, human and angelic.

Along these lines, Mary is lauded in the Byzantine Rite in the context of the Anaphora (the Greek word for the Eucharistic Prayer). After the epiclesis (which occurs after the Consecration – not before as it does in the Roman Rite), the priest invokes (literally: “calls down”) the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ as well as to sanctify the faithful as the Mystical Body of Christ, the priest incenses the gifts of consecrated Bread and Wine while he sings: “Especially for our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.” The people then respond with this beautiful Marian hymn: “It is truly proper to glorify you, who have borne God, the ever-blessed and immaculate and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, who, a Virgin, gave birth to God the Word, you, truly the Mother of God, we magnify.”

St. John Paul offered this prayer to the Mother of the Church:

Hail Mary, Mother of Christ and of the Church! Hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope! To your care I entrust all the necessities of all families, the joys of children, the desires of the young, the worries of adults, the pains of the sick, the serene old age of senior citizens! I entrust to you the fidelity and the abnegation of your Son’s ministers, the hope of all those preparing themselves for this ministry, the joyous dedication of virgins in cloisters, the prayers and concern of men and women religious, the lives and the commitment of all those who work for Christ’s reign on this earth. In your hands, I set the fatigue and the sweat of those who work with their hands; the noble dedication of those who learn it; the beautiful vocation of those who alleviate the pain of others through their science and their service; the commitment of those who seek truth through their understanding and intelligence. In your heart I leave the aspirations of those who uprightly seek the prosperity of their brethren through economic activities; of those who, in service to truth, inform and correctly form public opinion; of those who, in politics, in armies, in labor or trade unions, or in service to civic order, lend their honest collaboration in favor of just, peaceful and secure social life. Come to the aid of those suffering misfortunes, those suffering because of loneliness, of hunger, of lack of work. Strengthen the weak in faith. Blessed Virgin, increase our faith, strengthen our hope, reawaken our charity.


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About Fr Nicholas Gregoris 11 Articles
Fr Nicholas Gregoris is a founding member of the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and managing editor of "The Catholic Response." He holds a bachelor's degree in sacred theology from the Gregorian University and a licentiate and doctorate in Mariology from the Marianum, both in Rome. He is the author of four books.

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