There is a small chapel, located at the very end of the left aisle in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, called the Chapel of Our Lady of the Column, after an ancient icon of the crowned Blessed Virgin holding a crowned baby Jesus. On the left side of the chapel is an altar with the title “Mater Ecclesiae.” Blessed Pope Paul VI, who honored Mary with the title “Mater Ecclesiae” (“Mother of the Church”) in 1964, also created this altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. At his General Audience of November 18, 1964, as the third session of the Second Vatican Council was taking place, Paul VI prophetically recognized the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mater Ecclesiae, saying, “This will be a title that will help us to celebrate Mary Most Holy, Loving Queen of the World, the motherly center of unity, the pious hope of our salvation.”
The title Mater Ecclessiae was not new to Christian piety, Pope Paul VI explained days later at the closing of the Council’s third session and the celebration of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple. “It is precisely by this title, in preference to all others, that the faithful and the Church address Mary. It truly is part of the genuine substance of devotion to Mary, finding its justification in the very dignity of the Mother of the Word Incarnate,” he specified.
The Pope was making explicit what chapter eight of the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium said implicitly about Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church. Mary as Theotokos is mother and heart of Mystical Body of Christ – the Church. The bold proclamation and theological clarifications of Pope Paul VI encountered resistance in some circles, and charges against the collegiality of Vatican II were made against the Pontiff. Nonetheless, in May 1967, Paul VI re-iterated Mary’s role as mother of the Church in his apostolic exhortation to the bishops of the world, Signum Magnum:
Mary is the Mother of the Church not only because she is the Mother of Christ and His most intimate associate in ‘the new economy when the Son of God took a human nature from her, that He might in the mysteries of His flesh free man from sin,’ but also because ‘she shines forth to the whole community of the elect as a model of the virtues.’ Indeed, just as no human mother can limit her task to the generation of a new man but must extend it to the function of nourishing and educating her offspring, thus the blessed Virgin Mary, after participating in the redeeming sacrifice of the Son, and in such an intimate way as to deserve to be proclaimed by Him the Mother not only of His disciple John but – may we be allowed to affirm it – of mankind which he in some way represents, now continues to fulfill from heaven her maternal function as the cooperator in the birth and development of divine life in the individual souls of redeemed men. This is a most consoling truth which, by the free consent of God the All-Wise, is an integrating part of the mystery of human salvation; therefore it must be held as faith by all Christians.
In 1974, in the apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus, Paul VI focused his attention on the integral relatedness between Mary and the Church:
The faithful will be able to appreciate more easily Mary’s mission in the mystery of the Church and her preeminent place in the communion of saints if attention is drawn to the Second Vatican Council’s references to the fundamental concepts of the nature of the Church as the Family of God, the People of God, the Kingdom of God and the Mystical Body of Christ. This will also bring the faithful to a deeper realization of the brotherhood which unites all of them as sons and daughters of the Virgin Mary, ‘who with a mother’s love has cooperated in their rebirth and spiritual formation,’ and as sons and daughters of the Church, since we are born from the Church’s womb we are nurtured by the Church’s milk, we are given life by the Church’s Spirit.
Fast forward 54 years after Blessed Paul VI’s proclamation of Mary, Mother of the Church: on March 3, 2018, Pope Francis decreed the insertion into the liturgical calendar the Memorial of Mary, Mater Ecclesiae, to be celebrated on Pentecost Monday. This year’s celebration falls on May 21.
Pope Francis has acknowledged Paul VI’s prophetic legacy, and his status as a pope of “firsts.” In the homily for the beatification of Paul VI in October 2014, Francis said:
When we look to this great Pope, this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle, we cannot but say in the sight of God a word as simple as it is heartfelt and important: thanks! Thank you, our dear and beloved Pope Paul VI! Thank you for your humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his Church!
The Marian devotion of Blessed Pope Paul VI (born Giovanni Battista Montini) ran deep and went back to his childhood in the Italian city of Brescia, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. The future pope received a devotion to praying the Holy Rosary from his mother Giuditta Montini Azghisi. Moreover, the future pope grew up in “the proximity” of Mary. His childhood home was near Santa Maria delle Grazie (“Holy Mary of Grace”) Shrine, to which he and his family remained attached for life. According to his biographer and former personal secretary, Msgr. Pasquale Macchi, on May 30, 1920, young Father Montini celebrated his first Mass at the altar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Throughout his priestly life, Mary and churches dedicated to Mary played a special role in the future pope’s life, so much so that he called the Marian shrines “hospitals of the spirit,” because in these God continued his work of healing broken lives under Mary’s motherly guidance and assistance.
In 1954, when Pope Pius XII appointed Montini archbishop of Milan, he continued his devotion to Mary. In conclusion of the annual spiritual exercises, Archbishop Montini hiked on foot among the 14 chapels of the Viale delle Cappelle (“Avenue of the Chapels”) in Varese, reciting the Rosary. The tradition of praying the Rosary while hiking among the chapels of the Sacred Mountain of Varese, first started by Archbishop Montini, became a popular pilgrimage destination for many faithful visiting from the Piedmont and Lombardy regions and from as far as Switzerland.
No doubt Montini was the pope of the firsts regarding Mary and Mariology. On May 13, 1967, Pope Paul VI flew to Portugal and became the first pope to visit Fatima, where he met with Sister Lucia. Paul VI was the first Roman Pontiff to visit Ephesus in Turkey and the house where, according to tradition, Mary lived. On July 26, 1967, Paul VI visited the church of the Council of Ephesus, where in A.D. 431 Mary was proclaimed Theotokos, Mother of God, a dogma of faith accepted by the then-undivided Church, East and West. This visit is particularly memorable in the history of ecumenism; Paul VI entrusted ecumenical efforts to Mary and her special intercession, adding that common faith and common veneration of Mary build a solid ground for ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Upon his return to Italy, at his August 2, 1967, general audience, Paul VI spoke with praise for the Christian East and the common faith as defined by the first ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451), which were all held in the East. “These are not the only Ecumenical Councils celebrated in the East; but these four Councils were and remain worthy of particular reverence. It was they who gave the Church, after the first centuries of persecuted and almost clandestine life, the conscience of its constitutional and unitary structure. It was they who highlighted and established with authority the fundamental dogmas of our faith, on the Most Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, and Our Lady,” he said to the people gathered in Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence.
Like his papal predecessor, Jorge Bergoglio’s devotion to Mary and Marian iconography is well known. As a bishop and then a cardinal, Bergoglio would visit the Basilica of St. Mary Major to pray every time he visited Rome. In Germany, Bergoglio was particularly devoted to a Bavarian painting of “Mary Untier of Knots”; he brought a copy of the painting back to Argentina and promoted devotion to Mary under this special title.
Pope Francis’ March 3, 2018 decision to include the Memorial of Mary, Mater Ecclesiae, in the liturgical calendar on Pentecost Monday is continuing and fulfilling Vatican II and what “the pope of the firsts” established. There is an integral continuity between Blessed Paul VI and Pope Francis, and their common dedication to Mary proves it. What Paul VI defined Francis decreed, so that the devotion to Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, continues in an unbroken continuity.
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