Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I’ve just started reading your book By What Authority? I like the positive approach.
I’ve been in various protestant churches throughout my Christian journey. I call myself a reformed Lutheran catholic. Several years ago, I discovered the Office of the Hours, and it has become the foundation of my daily devotional life. I read The Imitation of Christ a few years ago and was amazed at how contemporary and applicable it is.
Now, a pastor friend of mine recently told me that he has entered full communion with Catholic church. So now I’m checking Catholicism out seriously. I’m coming to understand Catholic ideas on their own merits rather than the protestant filters that make it impossible to do so. I love my friend Chuck, but he’s being a little ... pushy, and I need some space and time to work through all this.
Understandable. Chalk it up to the zeal of a man in love. I’m a big enthusiast for taking it slow and thinking things through. “Count the cost.” At the same time, I’m confident that when you’ve really looked at the Church’s teachings, you’ll be persuaded they are sound. So I feel no need to push. The thing about the case for the Church is that it doesn’t require *force* because, paradoxically, it is compelling.
My number one, bottom-line concern in all of this is that I not dishonor our Lord Jesus Christ by taking away from His unique role as Redeemer and Mediator. I’ve heard about Mary as co-redemtrix, and I’m concerned about this. I have no problem with the idea that Mary and everyone else in heaven prays for the church on earth, but a co-redeemer?
Here are two passages from my Mary, Mother of the Son trilogy (Volume 3: Miracles, Devotion and Motherhood, Chapter 2: The Rosary) (which trilogy I would strongly urge you to get since, well, I wrote it precisely for guys like you, since I was once in exactly your shoes). They deal with the concept of Mary as co-Mediatrix in the context of a couple of meditations on two of the mysteries of the Rosary:
Every December 1, my mind fleets back to 1986 and a small bedroom in a small apartment in Seattle. Jan and I had just opened the first window in the Advent calendar when she announced I had better call the doctor because it looked like it was “time.”
Each moment of that graced evening stays with me. I remember a hauntingly beautiful moment as we passed in the dead of night over the Evergreen Point Bridge which spans Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue, when the fog off the lake curled up and over the bridge — and our car — like the palm of God’s hand enclosing us as we drove. I remember holding Jan’s hand through the labor, cracking jokes with her and the nurses, praying and wishing there were something more I could do as Jan’s labor intensified. But most of all, I remember the birth of our son, Luke Patrick Shea, and the amazement of seeing him with my mortal eyes. It was a sacred moment. My beloved was mine and I was hers to such a degree that a new soul had sprung into being like a laugh out of God’s heart.
Returning home with Jan and Luke a few days later, we tucked him into his new crib, swaddled against the cold and sung to sleep with lullabies. Then we found the Advent calendar and opened the windows we had neglected during the past three day’s ruckus. December 2 — Luke’s birthday — had the Scripture from the prophet Isaiah: “Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.”
Such divine whimsy.
And such solemnity.
When I read that verse now I can’t help but wonder how Our Lady felt at the birth of her Son. One wonderful children’s story called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells of a family of rowdy toughs who muscle in on the church Christmas Pageant and find themselves confronting the Gospel story for the very first time in their little pagan lives. At one point, somebody cites this passage from Isaiah and the raucous little cuss who grabbed the role of Mary retorts: “Unto me a child is born!”
In a certain sense, the reaction is understandable. What would it be like to have a Son Who is, quite literally, destined to be given to the whole world? What would be it be like to think that this precious little boy I hold on my lap is the Son, not just of me, but of Man, Whose very Body and Blood (Body and Blood He received from me) is to be the food and drink of the whole groaning, crying, clamoring, miserable, selfish, ungrateful world?
Could I offer my son to such a world?
The question is more than speculation. For the reality is that, in Christ, we must offer our sons and daughters to just such a world as surely as Mary did. Our children are not our property. They belong to God and exist to be chosen, blessed, broken and given by Him in Christ just as surely as Jesus was. For we are members of Christ and, in him, of one another. Where he goes and what he does we — and our little ones — must also go and do.
This is one of the reasons some Catholics have used honorifics like “Co-Mediatrix” and even “Mediatrix of All Graces” to refer to Mary. It’s not that they think Mary died for our sins, or that Jesus won’t listen to your prayer unless your first make an appointment with his secretary Mary in the front office. Rather, these titles (like all Marian titles) are about Jesus and the way he works through us. They point out that God has chosen to gratuitously associate us with his saving work to the shocking degree that our choices, our prayers, and our actions really matter. C.S. Lewis writes:
Can we believe that God ever modifies His action in response to the suggestions of man? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to cooperate in the execution of His will. ‘God,’ says Pascal, ‘instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.’ But it is not only prayer; whenever we act at all, He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.
For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, “to wield our little tridents.” Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something — indeed, makes gods — out of nothing.
In ordinary life, everybody realizes our choices matter. Indeed, as Christians, we know that our choices can have eternal consequences. Nobody says, “It doesn’t matter if I drive drunk or sober. God, in his sovereignty, will see to it that I don’t kill anybody.” Nobody says, “It doesn’t matter whether I work or not. If I don’t bring home the bacon, God will just find somebody else to take care of my family.” Nobody says, “It’s no matter if I don’t get my kids vaccinated: God will take care of them.” But for some mysterious reason, we Evangelicals easily concluded that the most important choice any mortal ever made — the choice to be the Mother of Jesus Christ — didn’t matter at all and that the one who made the choice is of no consequence to us. “If she had said No, God would have found somebody else,” we’d say.
Yet the reality is that Mary’s Yes truly was a free cooperation with grace, not the act of an automaton. Mary was, by the specifically-willed grace of God, granted the dignity of being a cause of the Incarnation. Mary had a choice — a terrifying choice. She could have said No to the Incarnation. If she had, we simply do not know what would have happened. But she chose to say Yes. She kept saying Yes even when the prophet warned of the sword that would pierce her soul. She could have pulled a Jonah and begged Joseph to let them just stay in Egypt or flee to some distant land where her son would be safe. But she remained faithful to God and made Yes the permanent choice of her life. And it was therefore truly through her that all grace was mediated to us — because Jesus is All Grace.
That’s the pattern of life for every disciple. For it turns out that when Scripture refers to Jesus as the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5), the term “one” means “unique” not “sole.” Christ, the one supreme mediator, makes us sharers in his mediation of grace. In a similar way, Scripture describes Jesus as the one Son of God. Yet his whole purpose is to make us sons and daughters of God, as well. So we participate in mediating his grace to the world in imitation of his greatest disciple, Mary. In a similar but secondary way, we too are, so to speak, Mediators and Mediatrices of Grace. That is, “we are the only Jesus some people will ever see.” It’s through us that our children encounter God’s love, that our friends find the love of Christ. As St. Teresa of Avila says, “Christ has no hands on earth but yours.”
The Agony in the Garden
Another title sometimes used to honor Mary is “Co-Redemptrix.” It’s not an “official title.” It’s just an expression of piety among some Catholics. And it affords a fairly typical example of the way in which the Church mulls things over for long time (usually centuries) before it makes any hard and fast decisions. At present, the Church doesn’t condemn the title, but it doesn’t encourage it either. A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) was asked about the many petitions Rome has received asking that Mary be formally declared “Co-Redemptrix.” He replied:
“I do not think there will be any compliance with this demand, which in the meantime is being supported by several million people, within the foreseeable future. The response of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is, broadly, that what is signified by this is already better expressed in other titles of Mary, while the formula “Co-redemptrix” departs to too great an extent from the language of Scripture and of the Fathers and therefore gives rise to misunderstandings. ... A correct intention is being expressed in the wrong way. For matters of faith, continuity of terminology with the language of Scripture and that of the Fathers is itself an essential element; it is improper simply to manipulate language.”
So does this mean the Church condemns those who honor her by this title? No. It just means that Pope Benedict is (rightly) worried non-Catholics will not understand the “correct intention” behind the title. So the title remains, for the foreseeable future, something Catholics may use if it matters to them (providing they rightly understand what it means) but it’s not something one finds in the Church’s liturgy or dogma.
That said, it’s worth asking what “correct intention” lies behind the title. And when we do ask, we discover a truth similar to that behind the similarly unofficial honorific “co-Mediatrix.” For while Mary did not die for our sins, it’s also true that her sufferings were joined to those of Jesus, for the good of the Church. That’s not because she’s a goddess. That’s because the innocent sufferings of every Christian in the world are joined to Jesus’ sufferings for the good of the Church. That’s solidly biblical teaching. It’s why Paul could write “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). And it’s why the Catholic Faith offers such profound consolation for those who suffer innocently. For since Jesus has joined himself to us in our pain, our pains are joined with his. Our suffering is not simply meaningless garbage that happens to no purpose and does no one any good. Rather, our pain, joined with Jesus on the Cross, has value for his Body, the Church, and makes us participants in the redemption of the world.
This is supremely seen in Mary’s endurance of her suffering. For, of course, there are two kinds of agony: the agony we feel for ourselves and the agony we feel for another. Jesus felt all the terror of mortal flesh when he contemplated the fate that was snaking toward him as the little trail of torches wended its way across the Kidron Valley and up the slope of the Mount of Olives on Holy Thursday evening. He sweated blood and begged to be spared. Three times he pleaded with his Father to let the cup pass from him. But it could not pass. In that hour, his disciples slept and he was completely alone.
Except for one kindred spirit. We do not know where Mary was at this time. The Gospels are silent. But we know ordinary human experience. We know the anguish of a mother who begs God that her baby be spared the ravages of cancer and that she suffer in her child’s place. We know of parents who drown in the attempt to save their children. We know of parents who push their children out of the way of oncoming cars and are killed or crippled to save them. We know the agonies of parents bereft of their sons and daughters by drunk drivers, or school violence, or the thousand idiot havocs the world wreaks on our lives. We know how powerfully their hearts cry out like David’s and say, “Would that I had died instead of you!” And because of this we know that Mary could not have contemplated the terrible agonies Jesus was about to face without wishing with all her heart that she could take the blows rather than him. Jesus’ cup was to endure hanging upon the Cross. Mary’s cup was to endure not hanging upon the Cross.
A few years ago as I was working in my garden after my good friend Leon died and I had asked him to pray for us in heaven if he could, I started thinking about praying to Mary. I explained to her that I meant no disrespect to her, but I just couldn’t see giving her honor that belongs to her Son, and certainly she could understand and appreciate that concern. So I told her that although I can’t in good conscience ask her to intercede for me regularly, if I’m wrong about her role, this one time I’m asking her to please do pray for me now and at the hour of my death. That probably seems a little weird, but I’m trying to work through this.
Yours is a very common concern. The good news is that the Church has already worked through it and agrees with you: We cannot give Mary the honor due to God alone. That honor is called latria: the highest form of honor (and root of such words as idolatry and Mariolatry). The Church refuses to give Mary or any creature such honor. But it does not follow from this that creatures are due no honor and in fact God commands we honor creatures (“Honor your father and mother. Honor the king”, etc.). We can honor creatures all we want, just so long as we do not honor them above God. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a restatement of the two greatest commandments: Love God and Love Your Neighbor as yourself. Honor is a species of love. And, of course, we honor creatures differently according to the kind of creature it is. You honor your father’s watch, but not the way you honor your father. You honor the President when he enters the room, but not the way you honor the Pope when he does. And you honor a saint (should he happen to appear to you in glory), but not the same way as you honor an actor with applause after a great performance. We could go on and on with this, but the point is that, of all God’s creatures, the one mere creature most worthy of honor above all other creatures is the one God favored above all creatures by choosing her to be the Mother of his Son: the one who sufferings most closely mirror his, and the one who bravely consented to lose more than anybody else who ever lived. Here’s an illustration (again from the Rosary chapter) that tries to get across the way in which Mary’s sufferings (like ours) are joined to Christ’s:
Jesus Dies on the Cross
The suffering of Jesus on the cross is, like all human suffering, a shared suffering. That’s why Mary is honored under the title “Our Lady of Sorrows.” Some people imagine this detracts from Jesus’ suffering. However, it should be noticed that people only tend to talk this way about Mary. Certainly the prophet Simeon (and the Evangelist Luke) understand the depths of agony Mary endured. So does anybody who reads a headline about the parents of a kidnapped or murdered child. Nobody says, “Only the child truly suffered and we should not allow the sufferings of his merely human parents to detract from the meaning of this event.” Yet, advocates of the “Mary is just a vessel” school of thought often talk this way when Catholics honor Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows.
Yet the fact remains: Nobody is related to Christ in the way Mary is. She is more than just a “vessel.” She’s a human person who freely chose to offer her flesh to God as the medium for the redemption of the human race. At the normal, simple, practical, lived level, the willing offering Mary made of herself and her Son is breathtaking and deeply moving. We can well up with tears as we imagine the pain a war widow feels in receiving the dreaded “We regret to inform you” telegram from the Defense Department. And yet, so often when it comes to Mary, we Evangelicals are so strangely eager to exclude her from the drama of salvation that we end up saying (as an Evangelical correspondent of mine did) that “It is not the people that we should honor, including Mary, but rather God Who has given people gifts. In Mary’s case God gave her a child, Who would be the savior of the world. Her ‘may it be to me as you have said,’ is merely an assent to what God was doing through her. God made the salvation of the world possible through Jesus, and Mary merely assented to be a part in God’s plan.”
Evangelicals reserve this sort of language exclusively for Mary. Imagine an Evangelical service for the parents of a son killed in Iraq in which the pastor points to the grieving parents and says, “God was the one who gave these parents their child and it was he who sent their son to die for the freedom of the Iraqi people. They didn’t sacrifice anything. They merely assented to be a part in God’s plan.”
Nobody talks that way at any time about any sacrifice that any ordinary person ever makes. All the rest of the time, we can grasp the fact that, while God is the Author of all things, our sacrifices and choices really matter too — by the grace of God. The only time people talk this way is when Evangelicals who are weirded out by Mary dehumanize her and dismiss the sword that pierced her heart so they can talk as though she was utterly irrelevant to the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, instead of the one who was, in fact, more intimately bound up with him than any person who ever lived.
Mary, I’m sorry I dismissed your agonies. Jesus, thank you for your sacrifice and for the courage of those you have made the members of your divine family. Help me to have that courage, as well, when my cross (or, worse still, the cross of one I love) is to be borne.
I’ve read some hymns and prayers to Mary, and it seems like if I changed the pronouns and gender around it would be a prayer or hymn to Christ. Can that be right? Would Mary want people to give her the honor that belongs to her Son?
The Church gives Mary the honor that is properly due to her as God’s greatest creatures (called “hyperdulia”), but rejects giving her latria since that is due to God alone. This is not a lawyer’s trick. It is a serious distinction. The measure of it is easy. Go to any Mass and you will notice that, though there are occasionally Masses in honor of Mary or some other saint (or in the case of a funeral, in honor of the deceased, or in the case of a wedding, in honor of the happy couple), there is no such thing as a Mass in worship of Mary. The focal point of the Mass is the worship of the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary is, so to speak, part of the congregation. We ask Mary to pray with us to the Father and we ask her to pray for us, but we do not accord her latria. (There was a sect called the Collyridians who really did propose to worship Mary; the Catholic Church was their mortal foe.)
And why isn’t there some seed of Mary’s role in Scripture? In Galatians when Paul develops the idea of Abraham as the father of all who have faith, he mentioned that “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” Wouldn’t that have been the place to say something about the role of Mary as the second Eve? Or in 1 Corinthians 15 along with Christ as the Second Adam? If the early church gave Mary the place she has in the Catholic Church, wouldn’t there be some indication of that somewhere in Scripture?
The seeds of all these things are in Scripture, but primarily in John and Luke (who gets much of his Gospel from Paul, so don’t underestimate Mary’s influence on Paul’s thinking). The Mary trilogy demonstrates that all this Marian theology really is there in the apostolic DNA. That’s why I urge you to read it.
Well, I’m rambling. I’m really just trying to think through things.
I don’t expect a response. Anyway, I’m really looking forward to reading your book. I appreciated the opening part about your evangelical heritage. I thought that was a very positive approach to take.
Thanks! If you want to check out Mary, Mother of the Son (which will give you as thorough an overview of the sources of Marian theology, doctrine and practice as is available in English, to my knowledge), then go here: www.mark-shea.com/books.html . I hope it helps! May God bless you on your pilgrimage to Holy Church!