Meditating on Mary

Among the many fascinating aspects of the life and ministry of Blessed Pope John Paul II, his intense and very personal devotion to Our Lady is well known. This was clear in the large M that was prominent on his coat of arms and by his motto, Totus Tuus (“totally yours”), taken from a prayer of personal dedication to Mary penned by the 18th-century French priest, St. Louis de Montfort. 

But on a doctrinal level, the late pope’s devotion is reflected most clearly in his sixth encyclical, Redemptoris Mater (“Mother of the Redeemer”). This remarkable document was published March 25, 1987. Exactly 25 years later, it is well worth a second look. 

The context of the encyclical’s publication is itself significant. Pope John Paul had recently announced that the Church would observe a special “Marian Year” as part of its long-range spiritual preparation for the celebration of the Great Jubilee Year 2000. It would be observed from Pentecost Sunday, June 7, 1987, to Aug. 15, 1988, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.  

“The Marian Year is meant to promote a new and more careful reading of what the [Second Vatican] Council said about the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the mystery of Christ and of the Church, the topic to which the contents of this encyclical are devoted,” he wrote in Redemptoris Mater. 

The pope later closed this Marian Year with another major document, an apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem, published Aug. 15, 1988. 

At nearly 25,000 words, Redemptoris Mater is the longest papal document on Mary in the history of the Church. It is divided into three parts.  

Scriptural view

In his introduction, the pope noted that he wanted to look again to the rich teaching of Vatican II on Mary. The Council Fathers had included an important chapter on Mary in the historic Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, emphasizing her role as a model for all Christians and her important place in the saving work of her son.  

The encyclical’s first part focuses on Mary’s role in the life and work of Jesus. Starting with the story of the Annunciation, the pope explores the Angel Gabriel’s words to Mary, especially his reference to her being “full of grace” (Lk 1:28). He also considers other important scriptural passages that relate to Mary. 

“There is no precedent in previous papal documents for the extensive exegesis of scriptural passages that refer to Mary,” Father Thomas Buffer, president of the Mariological Society of America, told Our Sunday Visitor.  

“John Paul does not merely use brief quotations from Scripture as proof texts to justify Marian dogmas or encourage devotion. He offers a close reading of key passages and shows how one text reinforces and casts light on another. Especially noteworthy is the way the pope relates Mary to the New Testament teaching on grace,” Father Buffer said. 

The pope explains in this section that the Bible presents Mary as a powerful model of faith, not only at the Annunciation, where she trusted Gabriel and offered her “let it be done to me” in response, but also in the Holy Family’s hidden life at Nazareth and especially at the foot of the cross. 

By looking at Mary as a model of faith, the pope writes, “we can therefore rightly find a kind of ‘key’ which unlocks for us the innermost reality of Mary.” 

Our common mother

Part two of the encyclical addresses the place of Mary in the life of Christians and of the whole Church. Here Pope John Paul includes important reflections on the ecumenical aspects of the Church’s understanding of Mary. The pope noted that many Protestant denominations recognize Mary’s important role in the life of her Son, especially at the foot of the cross, where Jesus gave her to John, the beloved disciple, as a mother. 

“Therefore, why should we not all together look to her as our common Mother, who prays for the unity of God’s family and who “precedes” us all at the head of the long line of witnesses of faith in the one Lord, the Son of God, who was conceived in her virginal womb by the power of the Holy Spirit?” he wrote.  

The encyclical also celebrates the unity in that the Catholic Church shares with the Orthodox Church and ancient churches of the East in their love and praise for Mary. Father Buffer noted that when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger officially presented the new encyclical during a press conference, he was accompanied by the heads of the Vatican offices in charge of the Church’s relations with Eastern churches and its ecumenical efforts.  

“This reveals some of the hopes that the Holy See had at the time the document was published,” Father Buffer told OSV. 

These ecumenical considerations, he said, make Redemptoris Mater especially unique among Marian documents.  

“Previous papal encyclicals on Mary have very little to say to non-Catholics, because their authors didn’t much care what non-Catholics thought about the topic. John Paul’s concern for Christian unity produced a very different kind of document. Any Christian of good will would find much food for thought — and soul — in Redemptoris Mater,” Father Buffer said. 

Mary’s mediation

Part three of the encyclical presents a reflection on Mary’s “maternal mediation,” that is, her role in mediating God’s grace to humanity — though always in subordination to the singular mediation of Jesus, who died and rose so that humanity could receive God’s grace. 

“This role is at the same time special and extraordinary. It flows from her divine motherhood and can be understood and lived in faith only on the basis of the full truth of this motherhood,” Pope John Paul wrote. “… This role constitutes a real dimension of her presence in the saving mystery of Christ and the Church” (No. 38). 

“No previous magisterial document gives such a thorough and extensive treatment of Mary’s mediation,” Father Buffer noted. 

‘Perfect gold mine’

What has been the legacy of Redemptoris Mater? Father Buffer said such an assessment is difficult, but he acknowledged the nature of the document makes it hard for many American Catholics to digest and make a part of their own prayer and living. 

“In the U.S., much popular attention to Mary focuses on apparitions and private revelations, and Redemptoris Mater has little to say on these points. Also, the document calls for careful and meditative reading, and one wonders how many people are going to devote the needed time and energy to doing so, in a fast-paced age of semi-literacy, blogs and Facebook posts,” he said. 

Father Buffer recommends that priests and teachers of the Catholic faith turn to the encyclical regularly in preparing lessons or homilies related to Mary, as well as for spiritual reading. In this regard, he said, the encyclical is “a perfect gold mine.”  

“Every time I read the encyclical, I am more deeply impressed by its depth and richness of content. I can’t help but feel that it is underappreciated,” he told OSV. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if many people read or re-read it to celebrate its anniversary?” 

Barry Hudock is the author of The Eucharistic Prayer: A User's Guide">“The Eucharistic Prayer: A User’s Guide” (Liturgical Press, $16.95).