‘It Involves the Heart’: Benedict XVI’s Thought on Mary and the Vocation of Women

The late pope expounded on the ‘great capacity for loving others which their femininity bears.’

Pope Benedict XVI holds a holy mass in front of the House of the Virgin Mary on November 29, 2006 in Ephesus, near Selcuk, Turkey.
Pope Benedict XVI holds a holy mass in front of the House of the Virgin Mary on November 29, 2006 in Ephesus, near Selcuk, Turkey. (photo: Carsten Koall / AFP/Getty)

The first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, titled Deus Caritas Est, that is, “God Is Love,” ends with the late pope calling on Mary, the Mother of the Lord, to show us as the Church how to live God’s love in the world: 

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
you have given the world its true light,
Jesus, your Son — the Son of God.
You abandoned yourself completely
to God’s call
and thus became a wellspring
of the goodness which flows forth from him.
Show us Jesus. Lead us to him.
Teach us to know and love him,
so that we too can become
capable of true love
and be fountains of living water
in the midst of a thirsting world. 

 His papal emphasis on Mary as an example for the whole Church was merely a continuation of his theological understanding of Mary from his thought as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Pope Benedict held a great love and reverence for the Blessed Mother, and his understanding of her is connected to his understanding of women and the feminine genius and the Church as a whole. 

 As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict expressed concern that devotion to Mary must be guided by the faith of the New Testament and that the theology around our understanding of Mary — Mariology — must be further Christology — theology of Christ — and is rooted from the time of the patristics in ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. In his book Introduction to Christianity, published in 1968, he presented Mary as the true Zion, in whom “the God who called forth being out of nothing makes a new beginning amid humanity: his Word becomes flesh.” God’s overshadowing of her “points to the Temple of Israel and the holy tent in the wilderness where God’s presence was indicated with the cloud.” Further, “As the true ‘daughter of Zion,’ Mary is the image of the Church, the image of believing man, who can come to salvation and to himself only through the gift of love — through grace.”  

In his widely published essay “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine and Piety in Faith and Theology as a Whole,” Ratzinger expounded on three points on Marian devotion: 

 “First, it is personalizing (the Church not as a structure, but as a person and in person). Second, it is incarnational (the unity of bios, person, and relation to God; the ontological freedom of the creature vis-à-vis the Creator and of the “body” of Christ relative to the head). These two characteristics give the Marian dimension a third: It involves the heart, affectivity.” 

In the sphere of the heart, Marian piety is Advent piety, awaiting the Lord’s coming. It is incarnational, focusing “on the Lord who has come” and trying “to learn with Mary to stay in his presence.” It is further a Passion-centered piety, for our hearts are linked to the pierced one of Mary.  

In relation to Christology, Ratzinger emphasizes Mary’s place as representing creation, called to respond to God in freedom: 

“Mary thus represents saved and liberated man, but she does so precisely as a woman, that is, in the bodily determinateness that is inseparable from man: ‘male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27). The ‘biological’ and the human are inseparable in the figure of Mary, just as are the human and the ‘theological.’” 

 He continues: 

“Mary’s virginity, no less than her maternity, confirms that the ‘biological’ is human, that the whole man stands before God, and that the fact of being human only as male and female is included in faith’s eschatological demand and its eschatological hope.” 

This emphasis on Mary as a woman ties right into Ratzinger’s thought on women and her feminine genius, in which he followed Pope St. John Paul II, continuing to develop the thought of his predecessor in his own scholarly way.  

In his “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World” from 2004, he strongly emphasized the equality of men and women as made in the image of God, but also the unique in their gifts. The creation of woman in Genesis 2:4-25 “characterizes humanity as a relational reality,” for it shows how man is incomplete and alone without her. Together man and woman can live out what humanity was meant for: to image God by living in community for the other in relationship but also in the Church. He goes on to talk about how the physical capacity a woman has to give children life shows her feminine capacity to live “for the other.” This idea connects back to Mary. Ratzinger then emphasizes that the vocation to “[v]irginity refutes any attempt to enclose women in mere biological destiny.” He says further:  

“Just as virginity receives from physical motherhood the insight that there is no Christian vocation except in the concrete gift of oneself to the other, so physical motherhood receives from virginity an insight into its fundamentally spiritual dimension: it is in not being content only to give physical life that the other truly comes into existence.” 

Ratzinger held that “what John Paul II has termed the genius of women becomes very clear” in the “irreplaceable role of women in all aspects of family and social life involving human relationships and caring for others.” This role is important for the life of the family, but also the workforce and in the organization of society. He sought for this to be done without compromising the differences between men and women, saying: 

“The witness of women’s lives must be received with respect and appreciation, as revealing those values without which humanity would be closed in self-sufficiency, dreams of power and the drama of violence. Women too, for their part, need to follow the path of conversion and recognize the unique values and great capacity for loving others which their femininity bears.” 

As pope, Benedict XVI continued this same line of thought, saying this in an address in 2008: 

“God entrusts to women and men, according to their respective capacities, a specific vocation and mission in the Church and in the world. Here I am thinking of the family, a community of love open to life, the fundamental cell of society. In it the woman and the man, thanks to the gift of maternity and paternity, together carry out an irreplaceable role in regard to life.” 

Thus we are brought back around to Mary, the one who models for all of creation an unswerving “Yes” to God, who is a model for all women in her maternity and virginal purity, but also is a model of the Church standing before her Bridegroom. May the thought of Pope Benedict on the Blessed Mother and women draw the whole Church into a deeper union with God’s love.