ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
103. In celebrating this annual cycle of Christ's mysteries, holy Church honors with especial love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son. In her the Church holds up and admires the most excellent fruit of the redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be.
The treatment of Mary in the Church’s liturgical life leads a series of teachings on the calendar of feasts, ahead of directives on the primacy of Sunday as the Church’s day of worship and the centrality of the Lenten/Easter mysteries. Discussing the feasts of Mary at this point in the document seems somewhat misplaced. In truth, the place of Mary in the full hierarchy of salvation creeds was a matter of some debate prior to and particularly during the Council. The question of what to write about Mary, and where to place it, extended over several sessions and several documents. SC’s para. 103 is inserted here a bit awkwardly given that the Council fathers had not yet voted on the bigger question of Mary’s role in the Church in the future three sessions. It would not be until 1964 that a full treatment of Mary’s role in salvation would be promulgated, in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium)
Vatican II in general provides a good example of the nature of the Church. Given the commission of Jesus to preach the Gospel to the whole world [Matthew 28: 18-20], the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has enriched and preserved the full essential truths of God’s deliverance in an orderly way, beginning with the primitive creeds of the post-New Testament era, such as Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius [Acts 10: 28-47], and continuing through the formation of the [Council of] Nicene Creed in 325 A.D. and additional statements of universal belief up to 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to be an article of faith to be held by all Catholics.
When John XXIII declared his intention in 1959 to invoke an ecumenical or worldwide council [Eastern and Western Catholics] in 1962, his intention was not to expand the body of doctrines already in place, but to initiate a reform of the Church after two world wars and rapid changes breaking out around the world. The challenges of a council of this nature are hard to summarize: a body of 2500 bishops from around the world, each with his own vision of what future reform might look like. For some, the future looked rosy and utopian with countless possibilities to engage modern society; for others, the future was a purified version of the Council of Trent , a hardening of boundaries against Protestant errors and modern ways. I chuckled when I read the New York Cardinal Francis Spellman’s remark about the changes coming forth from Vatican II, “they’ll never get past the Statue of Liberty.”
[For an excellent one volume description of the workings of the Council, may I recommend What Happened at Vatican II  by Father John O’Malley.]
The teachings of creeds, councils, and infallible statements of popes represent the rational or organized structure of the teaching Church. But equally powerful in shaping the Church’s ongoing identity is the force of piety, the devotional faith and practices of baptized Catholics who people the liturgical and the popular grassroots expressions of prayer and practice. [The seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal was not far from the mark when he famously said, “The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about.”] Reason and affect have lived side by side in the Church from earliest times, and perhaps nowhere more passionately than in the person and meaning of the Virgin Mary.
As O’Malley [pp. 188-189] and many other historians of the Council observe, the era between the Council of Trent of Reformation days and the eve of Vatican II was a time of intense devotion to the Virgin Mary. This is not surprising; the post-Tridentine era was a time of strict reform, of doctrinal and legal precision. One of the major controversies of the time was the appropriate degree of strictness in the confessional, the rigorous Jesuits contending with the more benign St. Alphonsus Ligouri and the Redemptorists.] While the upper echelons of the Church contended with Protestants and later such anti-Roman tendencies as the Enlightenment, nationalism, democracy, and totalitarianism, the typical Catholic was more likely to seek the warm and comforting devotion to Mary, whose maternal connection to Jesus and her representations in art presented the Savior as not only approachable, but as eminently merciful.
Devotion to Mary represents a remarkable surge of grassroots faith, for love of Mary far exceeds her emphasis in the New Testament. St. Paul devotes all of four words to her, when he describes Jesus as “born of a woman” [Galatians 4:4]. The first Gospel reference—and the first mention of Mary’s name--is found in Mark, an incident in Jesus’ adulthood, a text that probably confused as much as enlightened many readers. Matthew’s Gospel presents an infancy narrative of Mary’s birthing of Jesus, but all the important dialogue is conducted between the angel and Joseph. Mary does not utter a word in Matthew’s text; her purpose in this Gospel is the establishment of Jesus’ Jewish heritage.
It is in Luke’s and John’s Gospels that Mary finds her voice, her persona, and her role in the Church. It is St. Luke who presents the full Christmas panorama we carry around in our heads, where the Archangel Gabriel makes multiple interventions, to Zachary in the Temple, and then later to Mary herself. Mary engages Gabriel in a lively exchange about how the Lord’s will is to be established through her agency before providing her full assent to the divine will. Although the overall intent of Luke’s Christmas narrative is the establishment of Jesus united with the Holy Spirit, it cannot be denied that the author has gone to great lengths to portray Mary as an active and willing agent in the divine mystery of Redemption. For this reason, the Church has walked a careful line between defining Mary as a co-savior, so to speak, and protecting the sovereignty and plan of God.
By the time of Vatican II there were about twenty feasts in the Church calendar devoted to Mary, and the sentiment to elevate Mary’s role in liturgy and doctrine was great. If my memory is correct, there were 29 proposals for new Marian feasts from a variety of Council fathers, and strong support for another Marian doctrine. The Assumption had been declared in 1950. In the throes of the Cold War, devotion to Mary, particularly the rosary, was among the most cherished practices in Catholic piety. [Father Patrick Peyton, the twentieth century “Rosary Priest,” coordinated his rosary rallies with the CIA in Latin America to ward off communist insurrections.]
The Council was divided between bishops looking for expansion of official Marian practice, on the one hand, and greater emphasis on Scripture, Liturgy, reform, and Ecumenism on the other. [Protestants were very skittish about Marian doctrines with minimal biblical support, such as the Assumption of Mary into heaven.] Given this stalemate, the Council had to determine whether to issue a full constitution on Mary in the model of Sacrosanctum Concilium, or to place her treatment within an existing constitution, and if so, which one. A vote was called for to determine the support for a full constitution on Mary in the Council declarations. Those favoring a stand-alone Marian constitution lost by a razor thin margin, 1114–1074. I cannot recall a closer vote during the Council. The hesitation to devote a doctrinal declaration on Mary reflects the concern of the majority that too much emphasis upon Mary—theologically speaking—might confuse her role in the plan of salvation with that of Jesus himself. [There are theologians and even popes who in good faith have promoted the idea of a new doctrine, Mary the mediatrix or distributor of all graces, but this is overreach.]
The Council Fathers returned to the Scriptures to treat of Mary in the decree Lumen Gentium, or “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” proclaimed on November 21, 1964, during the third session. LG is the teaching on the structure and purpose of the Church itself, the theological science of “ecclesiology.” The term “Mother of the Church” had been applied devotionally to Mary as early as St. Augustine in the fifth century. However, the term “Mother of the Church” still needed a doctrinal basis in Scripture and Tradition, and closer studies of John’s Gospel would influence the articulation of Mary’s full role in the Church.
Consider the final moments of Jesus’ life as narrated [uniquely] by the evangelist John. As Jesus is dying on the cross, his mother, the disciple whom he loved, and several other women including Mary Magdalene, are standing beneath him. Jesus says to his mother, “behold your son” and to the beloved disciple “behold your mother.” Then, in the NABRE translation, “And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.” After his death, a soldier lances his side and a cascade of blood and water flowed forth.
Until the last century Biblical scholars have tended to take this account from John with a literal eye. In more recent times more attention has been paid to the teaching John hoped to convey in his singular account. Although we do not know for certain if the “beloved disciple” is the Apostle John, he certainly would become a critical leader of the infant Church. Jesus, on the cross, identifies his mother as the mother of this revered disciple and early leader of the church that would follow. Jesus has gathered and collected the nucleus of his church, and his gifts to them would continue from the cross.
The most accurate translations of the Bible indicate that at the moment of his death, Jesus “handed over the spirit.” The term “the spirit” is much too concrete to be taken metaphorically. Jesus did not “give up the ghost.” Rather, he actively handed over the [S]pirit. This is a Pentecost moment; the deed [Jesus’ passion] is done, his church is constituted, his leaders are confirmed by the Spirit, and they have one more gift to receive. A soldier lances the side of the deceased Christ, and water and blood splash out on those under the cross. Even the earliest Church scholars drew a connection between water and blood and the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. In John’s Christology, the Spirit-filled Church has been founded, with Mary as its mother.
The Council successfully married the enormous pious appeal of Mary to the doctrinal structure of the Church. Father Joseph Ratzinger, a theological peritus or expert at Vatican II before his election to the papacy as Benedict XVI, describes the Council’s embrace of Mary as Mother of the Church far better than me:
Pope Benedict XVI addresses the issue, why Roman Catholic Mariology is related to ecclesiology, the teaching about the Church. On first sight, he argues, it may seem accidental, that the Council moved Mariology into ecclesiology. This relation helps to understand what "Church" really is. The theologian Hugo Rahner showed that Mariology was originally ecclesiology. The Church is like Mary.
The Church is virgin and mother, she is immaculate and carries the burdens of history. She suffers and she is assumed into heaven. Slowly she learns that Mary is her mirror, that she is a person in Mary. Mary on the other hand is not an isolated individual, who rests in herself. She is carrying the mystery of the Church.
I should add here that in 2019 Pope Francis instituted the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, into the Church’s calendar of feasts, to be celebrated, fittingly enough, on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday every year.
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