VATICAN CITY, 19 DEC. 2009 (ZENIT)
Here is the Advent reflection delivered Friday by Capuchin
Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical
Household, for Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia. The
talk was titled "Mary, Mother and Model of the Priest."
* * *
Mary, Mother and Model of the Priest
In his letter to priests on the occasion of Holy Thursday in
1979, the first of a series during his pontificate, Pope John
Paul II wrote: "In our ministerial priesthood there is the
wonderful and penetrating dimension of nearness to the Mother of
Christ." In this last meditation of Advent, I would like to
reflect on this closeness between Mary and the priest.
There is not much talk of Mary in the New Testament. However, if
we pay attention, we note that she is not absent from any of the
three central events of the Christian mystery, which are: the
Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery and Pentecost. Mary was present
at the Incarnation because it happened in her womb; she was
present at the Paschal Mystery, because it is written that
"standing by the cross of Jesus was Mary, his Mother" (cf. John
19:25), she was present at Pentecost, because it is written that
the Apostles were "with one accord devoted themselves to prayer,
together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus" (cf. Acts
1:14). Each of these three moments reveals to us something of
the mysterious closeness between Mary and the priest. As we are
now approaching Christmas, I would like to limit myself to the
first of these, and discuss what Mary says of the priest and to
the priest in the mystery of the Incarnation.
1. What Is the Relationship Between Mary and the Priest?
First of all I would like to refer to the question of the title
of priest attributed to the Virgin in tradition. A writer of the
end of the fifth century calls Mary "Virgin, and at the same
time priest, and altar who has given us Christ
bread of Heaven for the remission of sins." After this, there
were frequent references to the topic of Mary as priest, which
subsequently became the object of theological developments in
the 17th century, in the French school of St. Sulpice. In it,
Mary's priesthood is not placed so much in the context of a
relationship with the ministerial priesthood, but rather with
that of Christ.
At the end of the 19th century a true and proper devotion to the
Virgin-priest spread, and St. Pius X even accorded an indulgence
to its relative practice. However, when the danger was perceived
of confusing the priesthood of Mary with the ministerial
priesthood, the magisterium of the Church became reticent and
two interventions of the Holy Office practically put an end to
After the council, the priesthood of Mary is still spoken of,
but it is no longer linked to the ministerial priesthood nor to
the supreme priesthood of Christ, but rather to the universal
priesthood of the faithful. As figure and first fruits of the
Church, she possessed in a personal way that "royal priesthood"
(1 Peter 2:9), that all the baptized possess in a collective
What can we retain of this long tradition that associates Mary
to the priest and what meaning can we give to the "closeness "
between Mary and the priest affirmed by John Paul II? It seems
to me that what remains is the analogy or the correspondence
between the different dimensions of the mystery of salvation.
What Mary was once and for all times on the plane of historical
reality, the priest is ever anew on the plane of the sacramental
In this connection we can understand the words of Paul VI: "What
relationship and what distinctions are there between the
maternity of Mary, rendered universal by the dignity and charity
of the role given to her by God on the plane of redemption, and
the apostolic priesthood, constituted by the Lord to be an
instrument of salvific communication between God and men? Mary
gives Christ to humanity; and the priesthood also gives Christ
to humanity, but in a different way, as is clear; Mary through
the Incarnation and through the effusion of grace, of which God
filled her; the priesthood through the powers of the sacred
The analogy between Mary and the priest can be expressed thus:
Mary, through the power of the Holy Spirit, conceived Christ
and, after nourishing him and carrying him in her womb, gave
birth to him in Bethlehem; the priest, anointed and consecrated
in the Holy Spirit at ordination, is also called to be filled
with Christ to be able to give birth to him and have him be born
in souls through the proclamation of the word and the
administration of the sacraments.
In this connection, the relationship between Mary and the priest
has a long tradition behind it, much more authoritative than the
notion of Mary-priest. Taking up a thought of St. Augustine ,
the Second Vatican Council wrote: "[The Church is] converted
into Mother, because with preaching and baptism she engenders a
new and immortal life in her children conceived by the work of
the Holy Spirit and born of God."
The baptistery, said the Fathers, is the womb in which the
Church gives birth to her children, and the word of God is the
pure milk with which she nourishes them. "O mystic marvel! The
universal Father is one, and one the universal Word; and the
Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere, and one is the only
virgin mother. I love to call her the Church. [...] She is once
virgin and mother
pure as a virgin, loving as a mother. And calling her children
to her, she nurses them with holy milk, with the Word for
childhood" (cf 1 Peter 2:2).
The Blessed Isaac of Stella, in a passage which we read in the
office of readings last Saturday, made a synthesis of this
tradition: "Mary and the Church are one mother, yet more than
one mother; one virgin, yet more than one virgin. Both are
mothers, both are virgins. Each conceives of the same Spirit,
without concupiscence. Each gives birth to a child of God the
Father, without sin. Without any sin, Mary gave birth to Christ
the head for the sake of his body. By the forgiveness of every
sin, the Church gave birth to the body, for the sake of its
What is said in these texts of the Church as a whole, as a
sacrament of salvation, should be applied in a special way to
priests, because by way of their ministry they are the ones who
concretely engender Christ in souls through the word and the
2. Mary Believed
This is the objective analogy to be made between Mary and the
priest, or the analogy of grace. There is, however, an analogy
to be made on the subjective plane, that is, between the
personal contribution that the Virgin gave to the grace of
election and the contribution that the priest is called to give
to the grace of ordination. Neither one is a pure channel which
lets grace past without any contribution of itself.
Tertullian speaks of a version of Gnostic Docetism, according to
which Jesus was born, yes, of Mary, but not conceived in her and
by her; the body of Christ, come down from heaven, would have
passed through the Virgin, but not generated in her and by her;
Mary was for Jesus a way, not a mother, and Jesus for Mary a
guest, not a son.
To not repeat this form of Docetism in his life, the priest
cannot limit himself to transmit to others a Christ learned from
books that did not become first flesh of his flesh and blood of
his blood. As Mary (the image is of St. Bernard), he must be a
reservoir that is overflowing with what has filled it, and not
simply a channel that allows the water to pass without holding
The personal contribution, which Mary and the priest have in
common, is summed up in the faith. Mary, wrote St. Augustine,
"by faith conceived and by faith gave birth" (fide concepit,
fide peperit). The priest also by faith carries Christ in his
heart and through faith communicates him to others. It will be
the center of today's meditation: What can the priest learn from
When Mary reaches Elizabeth, the latter receives her with great
joy and, "full of the Holy Spirit," she exclaimed: "And blessed
is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what
was spoken to her from the Lord" (Luke 1:45). There is no doubt
that this having believed refers to Mary's answer to the angel:
"Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according
to your word" (Luke 1:38).
At first glance, Mary's was an easy act of faith, even taken for
granted. To become the mother of a king who was to reign for all
eternity over the house of Jacob, mother of the Messiah! Was it
not the dream of every young Jewish girl? But this is a way of
reasoning that is too human and carnal. Mary found herself in
total solitude. To whom could she explain what happened to her?
Who would believe her when she said that the babe she is
carrying in her womb is the "work of the Holy Spirit"? This had
never happened to anyone before, and would never happen to
Mary certainly knew what was written in the book of the law, and
that is that if a young girl at the moment of marriage was not
found in a state of virginity, she had to be brought to the
front door of her father's house and stoned by the people of the
village (cf. Deuteronomy 22:20 ff). We speak willingly today of
the risk of faith, understanding in general with this, the
intellectual risk; but for Mary it was a real risk!
Carlo Carretto, in his book on Our Lady, recounts how he came to
discover Mary's faith. When he lived in the desert, he knew from
some Tuareg friends that a girl from the camp was promised as
spouse to a young man, but that she did not go to live with him,
being too young. He connected this fact with that which Luke
says of Mary. Therefore, going over two years later in that same
camp, he asked for news of the girl. He noticed a certain
embarrassment among his friends, and later one of them,
approaching with great secrecy, made a sign: He passed his hand
on the throat with the characteristic gesture of Arabs when they
wish to say: "They cut off her head." She was discovered
pregnant before marriage, and to preserve the honor of the
family they had to kill her. He thought again of Mary, and that
same night he chose her as his travel companion and teacher of
God never takes consent from those he calls, hiding the
consequences they will have to face. We see it in all the great
calls of God. He tells Jeremiah: "They will fight against you"
(Jeremiah 1:19). And of Saul, he says to Ananias: "I will show
him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts
9:16). Could he have acted differently with Mary, for a mission
such as hers? In the light of the Holy Spirit, which accompanies
God's call, she certainly would have perceived that her path
would not be different from that of the others who had been
called. In fact, Simeon would soon express this premonition,
when he tells her that a sword would pierce her soul.
A modern writer, Erri De Luca, has described in a poetic way
this premonition of Mary at the moment of Jesus' birth. She is
alone in the grotto, Joseph is watching outside
by law no man can be present at a birth; and scarcely has she
given birth to the son, when strange associations flashed
through her mind: "Why my son were you born here in Bet Lehem,
House of Bread? And why must we call you Ieshu? Make this
shivering up my back, this shiver come from the future be far
away from him." Mary senses that her son will be taken from her,
then she repeats to herself: "Until the first light Ieshu is
mine alone. I want to sing a song with these three words and no
more. This night, here, at Bet Lehem, he is mine alone." And,
thus saying, she took him to the breast to nurse him.
Mary is the only one who believed "as a contemporary," that is,
while the event is happening, before any confirmation or any
corroboration on the part of events and of history. Jesus
said to Thomas: "Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (John
20:29): Mary is the first of those who have believed without yet
St. Paul says that God loves the one who gives with joy (2
Corinthians 9:7), and Mary said her "yes" to God with joy. The
verb with which Mary expresses her consent, and which is
translated as "fiat" or as "let it be done." In the original
Greek it appears in the optative mood ("genoito"), which is used
to express desire and even joyful impatience that a certain
thing should happen. It is as if the Virgin said: "I also want,
with all my being, what God wants; may what he wishes be
fulfilled soon." In truth, as St. Augustine said, before
conceiving him in her body, she conceived him in her heart.
However, Mary did not actually say "fiat" as she didn't speak
Latin, and she didn't even say "genoito," which is a Greek word.
What did she say then? What is the word, which in the language
spoken by Mary, corresponds most closely to this expression?
When a Jew wished to say to God, "yes, so be it," he said
"amen!" If we try to go back to the exact word that came from
Mary's lips, we arrive precisely at the word "amen." Those
Psalms that in the Latin Vulgate ended with the expression:
"fiat, fiat", in the Greek text of LXX, end with "genoito,
genoito" and in the original Hebrew known by Mary with "amen,
Amen is a Hebrew word, the root of which means to be solid, to
be certain; it was used in the liturgy as a response of faith to
the Word of God. With "amen" one recognizes what has been said
as firm, stable, valid and binding. Its exact translation, when
it is a response to the Word of God, is this: "So it is, and so
It indicates faith and obedience at the same time; it recognizes
that what God says is true and one submits to it. It is to say
"yes" to God. In this sense it appears on the lips of Jesus.
"Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will" (cf Matthew
Furthermore, Jesus is amen personified
"The Amen […] says this" (Revelation 3:14)
and through him all other amen's that are said in the world are
taken to God (cf 2 Corinthians 1:20). Mary as well, after her
son, is the amen to God made person.
The faith of Mary is an act of love and docility, mysterious
like every encounter between grace and liberty. This is the true
personal greatness of Mary, her blessedness, confirmed himself
by Christ. "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts
at which you nursed!" (Luke 11:27), says a woman in the Gospel.
The woman proclaims that Mary is blessed because she carried
Jesus; Elizabeth proclaimed her blessed because she believed;
the woman proclaims blessed the one who carries Jesus in the
womb; Jesus proclaims blessed the one who carries him in the
heart: "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it,"
Jesus responds. In this way, it helps this woman and all of us
to understand from where this personal greatness of Mary comes
from. Who "keeps" the Word of God better than Mary, of whom it
says on two occasions in Scripture that she "kept all these
things, reflecting on them in her heart?" (cf. Luke 2:19,51).
We should not finish our contemplation of the faith of Mary with
the impression that Mary believed once, on one occasion, and
never again in her life; that there was only one great act of
faith in the Virgin's life. How many times, after the
Annunciation, Mary was martyred by the apparent contrast of her
situation with all that was written and known about the will of
God, in the Old Testament, and about the figure of the Messiah.
The Second Vatican Council gave us a great gift by affirming
that Mary also walked in faith, and more, that she "advanced" in
faith, that is to say, faith grew and was perfected in her
("Lumen Gentium," 58).
3. Let's Also Believe!
We move now from Mary to the priest. St. Augustine wrote: "Mary
believed, and in her what was believed came to pass. Let's also
believe so that what came to pass in her can also happen to
us". Let us also believe! The contemplation of Mary should
bring us to renew above all our personal act of faith and
abandonment to God.
We all should and can imitate Mary in our faith, but in a
special way the priest should. "The just man, because of his
faith, shall live" (cf. Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17). This
applies, in a special way, to the priest. He is the man of
faith. Faith is what makes him what he is, that is to say, his
"weight" and the efficacy of his ministry.
What the faithful capture immediately in a priest, in a pastor,
is if he believes in what he says and in what he celebrates.
Those who seek God above all in the priest, realize immediately;
those who do not seek God in him can be easily fooled and even
fool the priest himself, making him seem important, brilliant,
in step with the trends, when in reality he is a "resounding
gong or a clashing cymbal."
Those who don't believe, but approach the priest with a spirit
of seeking, understand the difference immediately. What puts one
in a healthy crisis is not generally a learned discussion on
faith, but rather an encounter with one who truly believes with
all his being. Faith is contagious. One does not catch something
by hearing someone speak of a virus or by studying it, but
rather by entering into contact with someone who has it. This is
At times we suffer and even complain in prayer to God, because
people abandon the Church, they don't leave sin behind them. We
talk, and talk and talk ... and nothing happens. One day the
apostles attempted to expel a demon from a young man, but they
couldn't do it. After Jesus expelled the demon from the young
boy, they approached Christ and took him to one side and asked:
"Why could we not drive it out?" Jesus responded: "Because of
your little faith" (Matthew 17:19-20).
St. Bonaventure tells us how one day, when he was living on the
Alvernia Mount, it came to him what the Fathers say, that is to
say, that the devout soul, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and
the power of the Almighty, can spiritually conceive by faith the
blessed Word of the Father, give birth to it, give it a name and
seek it and adore it like the Three Kings, and finally present
it happily to God Our Father in his temple. He then wrote a work
titled "The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus" to show how the
Christian can relive in himself each one of the five moments of
the life of Jesus. I limit myself to what St. Bonaventure says
of the first two feasts, the conception and the nativity, and I
will apply it in particular to priests.
The priest conceives Jesus when, unhappy with the life he is
living, and moved by holy inspirations and inflamed with holy
ardour, detaching himself resolutely from his old customs and
attachments, remains spiritually fecund by the grace of the Holy
Spirit and conceives the proposal of a new life.
Once conceived, the blessed Son of God is born in the heart of
the priest if, after having conducted a holy discernment, asked
opportune counsel, invoked the help of God, he put into practice
the holy proposal, beginning to realize what he had been
thinking but never undertaken for fear of not being capable.
This proposition of new life should, however, translate itself
immediately, without delay, into something specific, in a
change, possibly something external and visible, in our life and
in our customs. If the proposal is not fulfilled, Jesus is
conceived, but is not born. It would be one of so many spiritual
abortions, which, unfortunately, the world of souls is full of.
There are two simple words that Maria said in the moment of the
Anunciation, and that the priest says in the moment of his
ordination: "Here I am," and "Amen" or "Yes." I remember the
moment of my ordination, together with some 10 other companion,
when my name was called. I responded with emotion, "Here I Am!"
During the rite, they ask us some questions: "Do you want to
exercise the priestly ministry during your entire life?", and
"Do you want to undertake faithfully and with dignity the
ministry of the word through preaching?" "Do you want to
celebrate with devotion and fidelity the mysteries of Christ?"
To each question we respond: "Yes, I do."
The spiritual renewal of the Catholic priesthood, desired by the
Holy Father, will be proportional to the enthusiasm with which
each one of us, priests and bishops of the Church, will be
capable of pronouncing again a joyful "I am here" and "yes, I
do," making one relive the anointing received in the ordination.
Jesus entered the world saying: "Behold, I come to do your will"
(Hebrews 10:7). Let's welcome him at Christmas saying these same
words: "I have come, Lord Jesus, to do your will!"
 Ps. Epiphany, Homily in praise of the Blessed Virgin, (PG
 Cf. On the questions, R. Laurentin, Mary
priesthood, Paris 1952; art. "Sacerdoti" in the New Dictionary
of Mariology, Ed. Paoline 1985, 1231-1242.
 Paul VI, General Audience, Oct. 7, 1964.
 St. Augustine, Sermons, 72 A, 8 (Misc. Aug. I, p.164).
 "Lumen Gentium," 64.
 Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, I, 6.
 Blessed Isaac Stella, Sermons, 51 (PL 194, 1863).
 Tertulliano, "De Carne Christi," 20-21 (CCL 2, 910 ss.).
 St. Augustine, Sermons, 215, 4 (PL 38,1074).
 C. Carretto, "Beata te che hai creduto," Ed. Paoline, 1986,
pp. 9 ss.
 E. De Luca, "In Nome Della Madre," Feltrinelli, Milano,
2006, pp. 66 ss.
 "Lumen Gentium," 58.
 St. Augustine, Discourses, 215,4 (PL 38, 1074).