My first personal encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary happened while I was a student at an Evangelical Anglican seminary in England. I had been brought up as an Evangelical and found my way into the Anglican church. There I was preparing for ordination. A Catholic friend who was a Benedictine oblate suggested that I might like to visit a Catholic Benedictine monastery.
While there I told one of the monks that during a time of contemplative prayer I had sensed God’s presence in a very real, but feminine way. The femininity disturbed me because I knew God isn’t feminine. The monk smiled and said, “Don’t worry. That’s not God. It’s the Virgin Mary. She is the Mediatrix. She wants to help you with your prayers and bring you closer to God.”
I was shocked. At the time the Virgin Mary played no part in my devotional life. As a good Evangelical boy I had memorized 1 Timothy 2:5, which says, “There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” By calling Mary the “Mediatrix,” he had confirmed my prejudice that Catholics believe things that contradict the Bible. It also confirmed my suspicion that Catholics gave Mary an equal status with Jesus.
I put this notion firmly to one side and didn’t consider it again until after I had come into the Catholic Church. This postponement was possible because Mary’s role as Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix of grace is not a formally defined dogma of the Catholic Church. It remains a pious opinion—a useful devotional and theological way of meditating on Mary. My attention was drawn back to the question, however, when I was writing Mary: A Catholic/Evangelical Debate with an old friend who had attended Bob Jones University with me.
A Stick to Beat Us With
I understand how Mary’s titles of Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix remain one of the sorest points in Evangelical – Catholic discussions. A Protestant who has heard of these titles will use them as a big stick with which to beat Catholics, and it is important to know how best to engage the discussion.
For genuine dialogue, it is vital to listen to and understand the Evangelical point of view. The sincere, well-read Evangelical objects to exalted devotions and titles for the Mother of God because he thinks they detract from the honor and worship due to Jesus Christ alone. A thoughtful Evangelical does not intentionally despise Mary; he sidelines the Mother of God to defend the proper devotion to her Son.
The place to start in any discussion of Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix is to affirm that Catholics indeed believe that the death of Jesus Christ is all sufficient for the salvation of our sins. If you can quote an author who is a known devotee of Mary, it packs a stronger punch. “See, here’s someone who promotes Marian devotion,” you say, “He actually wants her to be proclaimed Co-Redemptrix, but insists that Christ’s death is all sufficient.”
For example, a booklet by the California-based Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici Petition Centre that promotes these titles for Mary begins with these words: “The salvation of humanity was accomplished by God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. The Passion and Death of Christ, our sole Redeemer, was not only sufficient but ‘superabundant’ satisfaction for human guilt and the consequent debt of punishment” (A New Marian Dogma? Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces, Advocate).
The booklet goes on to explain, “But God willed that this work of salvation be accomplished through the collaboration of a woman, while respecting her free will (Gal. 4:4).” This point introduces a good next step in discussing this Catholic belief with an Evangelical.
Will You Cooperate or Not?
Instead of wading into an argument about Mary being Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix, it is useful to discuss the principle and possibility of humans cooperating with God in the work of redemption. Protestants have a deeply ingrained resistance to the idea that we can cooperate with God for our redemption at all. In their desire to maintain the doctrines of sola gratia and sola fide, some of them go to the extremes of believing that we can do nothing at all to cooperate with God in our redemption because to do so would be tantamount to salvation by works.
As a result, most Evangelical belief systems contain a very strong element of Quietism. Quietism is a sort of fatalism: It is that heresy which says you can do absolutely nothing to engage in the work of your salvation. Instead each soul is like a leaf on the tide of God’s almighty Providence. Because of this understanding, it is difficult for many Evangelicals to comprehend the idea that God uses human cooperation to accomplish his will in the world. That human cooperation is actually crucial to the Redemption of the world is not part of their perspective.
Therefore, before talking about Mary’s collaboration with God, it is worth discussing the basic principle that humans can cooperate with God. Most Evangelicals will concede that we do, in fact, need to respond to God’s grace for it to be effective in our lives. Even at the most basic level, Evangelicals admit that a person has to “accept Jesus.” As soon as they do, you can point out that this is a form of cooperation with God. At this point the human will and the divine will are united for the work of salvation.
This cooperation with God is not just for the individual’s salvation. The New Testament makes it clear that there is more to it than that. So, for example, we affirm that Jesus is the one High Priest in the new covenant, but the New Testament also calls us to share in that priesthood (Rev. 1:5–6; 1 Pet. 2:5,9). We do this by sharing in Christ’s sufferings (Matt. 16:24; 1 Pet. 4:13). Paul calls himself a “co-worker with Christ” (1 Cor. 3:9) and says part of this is that he is crucified with Christ and shares in Christ’s sufferings (2 Cor. 1:5; Phil. 3:10).
If the Evangelical believes the Bible and wants to live the Christian life, he will not only admit that he needs to cooperate with God for his own salvation, but also that this cooperation is part of a larger identification with Christ, and that this identification with Christ is for the salvation of the world. He will also admit that in some mysterious way, the sufferings we endure are part of the way God works to redeem the world.
Once an Evangelical admits that cooperation with God is not only possible, but necessary, it opens up the idea that there is a purpose for our co-working with God. We cooperate with God for the salvation of the world. Here is another point where the Evangelical critic can connect. The Evangelical believes that each one of us has a new mission in life: We are to proclaim Christ crucified. We are to spread the gospel and share the saving work of Christ with the world. We are called to prayer, holiness, and evangelism. From there, it is a small step to see that this is another way of saying that we are called to be mediators of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Every Christian believes that he or she is called to pray for the world, to intercede and to mediate for others, to have a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19). Evangelicals know the Old Testament examples of Moses and Abraham interceding on behalf of others to God, and all Christians agree about the need to mediate in prayer for others. This is a good way to explain the Mediatrix role of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary is the first evangelist. She carried the Word of God in her body, kept it there, and bore it to the world. This was her practical role in the Incarnation, but it was also her theological role. In doing this she shows us our lesser calling to be mediators of the New Covenant and ministers of reconciliation.
It is true that Mary’s role as Mediatrix is more cosmic than our own, but the principles are the same. Understanding our own share in God’s saving work through mediatory prayer and sacrifice helps us understand how she does the same thing, only bigger and better, because she is the holiest of human beings and the one who is closest to the Son of God.
It is worth discussing that the Fathers of the Church saw Mary as Mediator of All Grace. Cyril of Alexandria in the fourth century writes:
Hail, Mary Mother of God, venerable treasure of the whole world . . . it is you through whom the Holy Trinity is glorified and adored . . . through whom the tempter, the devil is cast down from heaven, through whom the fallen creature is raised up to heaven, through whom all creation, once imprisoned by idolatry, has reached knowledge of the truth, through whom nations are brought to repentance. (qtd. in Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought)
Ephrem the Syrian says, “With the Mediator, you are the Mediatrix of the entire world”; and Antipater of Bostra, a father of the Council of Ephesus, wrote about the Blessed Virgin in the fifth century, “Hail, you who acceptably intercede as Mediatrix for mankind” (qtd. in Gambero, Mary and the Fathers).
These quotations can be multiplied from the liturgies and theological writings of the day. The writers’ exalted language shows how highly they thought of Mary’s role as mediator and co-redeemer. This view of Mary as Mediatrix was not a later invention, but rather comes to us from the early Church.
The Evangelical critic may go along with you thus far, but he still finds the title “Co-Redemptrix” a stretch. Mary may have had an intimate understanding of the redemptive work of Christ, and she may have a role as intercessor and prayer warrior, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that she is the Co-Redemptrix. At this point it is worth explaining that we don’t suggest that Mary’s cooperation with God is equal to Christ’s work. It is of a different order, but it is necessary nonetheless. Mother Teresa’s words “No Mary, No Jesus” express a profound truth. God chose to bring his Son into the world through the cooperation of Mary. Without that cooperation there would have been no Incarnation and therefore no Redemption.
Mother of Sorrows
An Evangelical may accept this in theory, but still may find it difficult to understand how Mary can be called a “co-redemptrix.” It is worthwhile going back to the mysterious words of St. Paul. In an astounding phrase, St. Paul says that his sharing in Christ’s sufferings is actually effective. It completes “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” on behalf of the Church (Col. 1:24). If he has to complete Christ’s sufferings is St. Paul implying that Christ’s death on the cross was inadequate? Not at all. Instead, he is teaching that the all-sufficient sacrifice has to be completed by being preached, accepted, and embraced by our cooperation and that our suffering plays a mysterious part in this action. In that way the Redemption of Christ is applied and brought alive in the present moment by our own cooperation in that one, full, final sacrifice. No one says we are equal to Christ; instead, by grace, our cooperation becomes a part of Christ’s all sufficient sacrifice.
If Paul shared in a mysterious way in Christ’s sufferings, and if by doing so he shared in the redemptive work of the cross, then it is not too difficult to see how we are all called to do the same thing. In fact, in Romans 12, Paul exhorts us to do just that when he says, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice”(Rom. 12:1). Jesus also tells us that we must “take up our cross and follow him if we would be his disciples” (Matt. 16:24).
If Mary was the person who was closest to Jesus, and if she was his first disciple, doesn’t it follow that these truths would also apply to her? This is just what the New Testament prophesies. When Jesus was presented in the temple, the prophet Simeon, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, told Mary that “a sword will pierce your own heart also” (Luke 2:35). This verse is the basis for the Catholic understanding that Mary shared in the sufferings of Jesus in a mysterious way, and that her sufferings were a part of the suffering he went through.
I remember when a member of our church lost her teenage son in a car accident. The mother’s grief was a terrible thing to see, and it was like a part of her had died that day. These natural examples can help others to understand why we believe Mary had an intimate relationship with the suffering of Jesus.
In Westminster Cathedral in London, a beautiful painted crucifix hangs over the central altar. On the front is a portrayal of the crucified Lord, and on the back is a portrait of Mary with a pained expression, her arms in the orans position of prayer. This crucifix illustrates the idea of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. Through her suffering she identified totally with her son, and by bringing him into the world, enabled the accomplishment of Redemption.
You Can’t Just Throw Me Away!
The Evangelical may accept Mary as vital for the Incarnation and therefore the Redemption but may wonder why we insist that she has a continuing redemptive and mediatory role. We believe this because Mary’s role was not once and done. Mary did not conceive and bear Jesus, then just disappear. If her action had meaning, then it was as a continuing relationship with her Son.
Within the New Testament Mary’s cooperation with God is ongoing. As she conceived Jesus, Mary began to cooperate with the work of Redemption (Luke 1:38). She continued to do so as she bore him (Luke 2:7), and went on doing so as she interceded with him at the wedding of Cana of Galilee (John 2:3). Her work continued as she attended to him at the cross (John 19:25). As the first Christian, she kept cooperating with grace by being present at the founding of the Church at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). She persists in this role as our Mother in heaven today (Rev. 12:17).
We believe Mary’s role continues because we insist that she was not simply a neutral channel for God to come into the world. She engaged with God, and that matters. Mary was not discarded by God once her purpose was completed. Instead, her cooperation installs her into an eternal relationship with God for the salvation of the world.
There’s a memorable line in a movie where a boy is breaking up with a girl, and she feels used. She cries out, “I am not a tissue! You can’t just throw me away!” To have used Mary to accomplish the Incarnation and then forget about her is to treat her like a tissue. God doesn’t work like that. When Catholics recognize Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix, we acknowledge that God’s work in a person’s life transforms them eternally. Mary was given a new name at the Annunciation: Full of Grace. The new name indicates an ontological change. She was changed into a new person with a new role forever.
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught:
[The] motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 62)
Understanding Mary’s role in redemption sheds light on her Son, but it also sheds light on each one of her Son’s disciples. He completed in her what he wants to complete in us—total transformation into his image. Your Evangelical brother or sister may not agree with you that the Mother of God is Mediatrix and Co-Redeemer, but the proper explanation of the titles should at least give him a new appreciation of Mary and a new appreciation of the wonders God has in store for each of his sons and daughters.
Mary’s Mediation Originates with Christ
The Church knows and teaches that all the saving influences of the Blessed Virgin on mankind originate . . . from the divine pleasure. They flow forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rest on his mediation, depend entirely on it, and draw all their power from it. In no way do they impede the immediate union of the faithful with Christ. Rather, they foster this union. This saving influence is sustained by the Holy Spirit, who, just as he overshadowed the Virgin Mary when he began in her the divine motherhood, in a similar way constantly sustains her solicitude for the brothers and sisters of her Son. In effect, Mary’s mediation is intimately linked with her motherhood. It possesses a specifically maternal character, which distinguishes it from the mediation of the other creatures who in various and always subordinate ways share in the one mediation of Christ, although her own mediation is also a shared mediation. In fact, while it is true that no creature could ever be classed with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer, at the same time the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise among creatures to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this unique source. And thus the one goodness of God is in reality communicated diversely to his creatures. . . With the redeeming death of her Son, the maternal mediation of the handmaid of the Lord took on a universal dimension, for the work of redemption embraces the whole of humanity. Thus there is manifested in a singular way the efficacy of the one and universal mediation of Christ between God and men. Mary’s cooperation shares, in its subordinate character, in the universality of the mediation of the Redeemer, the one Mediator.
—Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer), 40
Neither Taking Away nor Adding Anything
[T]he Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix. This, however, is so understood that it neither takes away anything from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator.
No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.
—Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 62
Written by Fr. Dwight Longenecker