Pope Pius XI and the Theotokos

“If private and public morals take a turn for the worse ... we all take refuge with her, imploring heavenly aid.” —Pope Pius XI

The Salus Populi Romani icon, crowned by Pius XII in 1953. After the renovation, the crown was deleted and is now in the museum of the sacristy of Saint Peter. The picture today in Rome exists therefore only without the crown.
The Salus Populi Romani icon, crowned by Pius XII in 1953. After the renovation, the crown was deleted and is now in the museum of the sacristy of Saint Peter. The picture today in Rome exists therefore only without the crown. (photo: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This article originally appeared Oct. 16, 2018, at the Register.


On the Roman Calendar of the 1962 Missal promulgated by Pope St. John XXIII, Oct. 11 is the Feast of the Divine Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast was proclaimed in an encyclical letter issued by Pope Pius XI on Dec. 25, 1931 in celebration of the anniversary of the great Council of Ephesus in 431, 1500 (one thousand, five hundred) years before.

Pope Pius XI reigned from 1922, succeeding Pope Benedict XV, and died in 1938, succeeded by Pope Pius XII. In his encyclical, Lux Veritatis, Pope Pius XI celebrated the history of the Council of Ephesus and explained how the doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Divinity Incarnate, was essential to Catholic teaching and devotion about the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Incipit—the first words—of this encyclical Lux Veritatis, refers to the light of truth found in the true understanding of history. One shining truth revealed by history, Pius XI declares, is that God is always with His Church, defending her in the midst of troubles, whether the troubles are from within or from without. He will protect “the integrity of the sacred deposit of Gospel truth.” (paragraph 2)


Nestorius’ Error and the Blessed Virgin Mary

The heresy of the priest Nestorius was that he “denied that wondrous and substantial union of the two natures which we call hypostatic; and for this reason he asserted that the Only begotten Word of God was not made man but was in human flesh, by indwelling, by good pleasure and by the power of operation.” Nestorius said that Jesus should be called Theophoros, or God-Bearer, like a prophet who had received God’s inspiration. If Jesus was not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnate, with a human nature and human will (and a Divine nature and will), then Mary was not the Mother of God: she was not the Theotokos, but merely the Christotokos, the Mother of the human person Jesus. (pp. 9 and 10)

Pope Pius XI is careful to explain how both the pope at the time, St. Celestine I, and St. Cyril of Alexandria, who was leading the Ecumenical Council in Ephesus, were united in upholding the teaching of the Church. As Pope Pius noted, Pope Celestine warned Nestorius in 430 that he would be excommunicated unless he preached “concerning Christ our God those things which are held by the Romans, the Alexandrian and the whole Catholic Church, and which the holy Church of the City of Constantinople most rightly held . . . and unless” he condemned “in an open and written confession this perfidious novelty which seeks to separate that which the venerable Scripture joins together.” (p.14)


The Laity and Our Lady

When the Council of Ephesus reaffirmed the teaching of the Church regarding the Person of Jesus (as we proclaim it in the Nicene Creed on Sundays), the people of Ephesus rejoiced:

And the populace of Ephesus were drawn to the Virgin Mother of God with such great piety, and burning with such ardent love, that when they understood the judgment passed by the Fathers of the Council, they hailed them with overflowing gladness of heart, and gathering round them in a body, bearing lighted torches in their hands, accompanied them home. 

Quoting Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on October as the month of the Holy Rosary, Octobri Mense (Sept. 21, 1892), Pius emphasized that because Jesus “committed all mankind, in the person of His disciple John, to her care and protection” at the foot of the Cross Mary “began at once to fulfill all a mother’s duties to us all.”

Pope Pius places great trust in Mary’s maternal prayers for the Church and each of us:

From this it comes that if more difficult times fall upon the Church; if faith fail, if charity have grown cold, if private and public morals take a turn for the worse; if any danger be hanging over the Catholic name and civil society, we all take refuge with her, imploring heavenly aid. From this it comes lastly that in the supreme crisis of death, when no other hope is given, no other help, we lift up to her our tearful eyes and our trembling hands, praying through her for pardon from her Son, and for eternal happiness in heaven. (p. 41)

He also calls on the Christians of the East to return to unity with Rome through their devotion to the Theotokos, noting that the further Christians separate themselves from the unity of the Church, the harder it is for them to accept and defend the teachings of Jesus and His Church.


The Anniversary of Ephesus

Returning to the theme of the 1500th anniversary of the Council of Ephesus, Pope Pius XI concluded his encyclical with a note about the Basilica of St. Mary Major and the new feast he was announcing. He mentions that during the celebration of this anniversary, he had restored the image of the Virgin Mother of God, “admirably depicted in the tessellated work of Our predecessor, Sixtus III, in the Liberian Basilica.” (p. 48) Pope Liberius, who is recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church because of his support of St. Athanasius against the Arians, reigned from 352 to 366; he traced the shape of the church that became the Basilica of St. Mary Major when snow fell on the Esquiline Hill on Aug. 5—the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica we celebrate every year. Pope Sixtus III (432-440), the successor of Pope St. Celestine I, restored the Liberian Basilica and dedicated it to Our Lady in the aftermath of the Council of Ephesus. The icon of the Salus Populi Romani, the image of the Mother of God so precious to both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Francis, is one of the treasures of that basilica.

Finally, Pope Pius XI announced the institution of the feast of the Divine Maternity on Oct. 11, directing the “supreme council presiding over Sacred Rites to publish and Office and Mass . . . to be celebrated by the universal Church.” (p. 52)


The Light of Truth

Pope St. John XXIII chose the Feast of the Divine Maternity of the Mother of God as the first day of the Second Vatican Council, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained in 2012, “so as to entrust the great ecclesial assembly, which he had convoked, to the motherly goodness of Mary and to anchor the Council’s work firmly in the mystery of Jesus Christ.”

Although we now celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on Jan. 1 in the Roman Calendar, the history of the development of this feast shines the light of truth on the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Divine Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.