Learning the 'intimacy of Christ' from Mary
Thanks to her faith in Christ, the Church has her own keys for the
interpretation of the humanum. Contemporary culture rightly
endeavours to understand the "mystery" of the feminine, dismissing the
paradigms or old-fashioned, sterile models that kept women within bounds
that were not in keeping with their true identity or their mission in
The results of this endeavour, however, experience ups and downs.
Frequently they do not correspond to the nobility of the great
insights that exist, for example, in the finale of Goethe's Faust
on "The Eternal Feminine", a text magnificently set to music by Gustav
Mahler (1860-1911) in the last chorus of his Eighth Symphony, and by
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) at the end of the last movement of his Faust's
Symphony.1 This Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic
Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the
World, 31 May 2004, has already alluded to these difficulties (cf.
nn. 2-4), so I insist upon them no further.
However, if reason can and must strive to reveal the fortitude and
greatness of woman, it does not in every case possess all the keys that
make it possible to be always and everywhere equal to the situation,
either because of its limitations (which it does no harm to recognize),
or because of sin, which convinces reason that its power is unlimited.
The Church, as stated above, has those keys that enable her to remedy
the weakness of reason. If she has not always used them satisfactorily
in the past, this does not mean she does not possess them, at least in
the depths of her faith. This is what the Document wishes to bring to
the fore, seeking to use the keys mentioned more profitably.
In the wake of the important insights of the Second Vatican Council,
the Magisterium of John Paul II has indisputably opened up important
paths in this direction.2
The Document published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith addresses the specific problems of our day. It sets out to respond
to them —
and this itself deserves to be stressed because of the newness of the
with recourse to the human wisdom found in Sacred Scripture and to the
contribution of Revelation that is one of its features.
The Document comes in continuity with this approach, enriching it with
original and stimulating viewpoints.
In the fourth part of this Document on which I intend to comment
briefly, the Church's keys for interpretation, which I mentioned
earlier, are immediately perceptible.
Relations between woman and man, understood in terms of
collaboration rather than opposition, are seen in light of the
relationship of the Church and Christ: "It is this 'mystical' identity,
profound and essential, which needs to be kept in mind when reflecting
on the respective roles of men and women in the Church" (n. 15). This is
already a notable acquisition from the theological viewpoint.
Precisely because of the depth of this relationship, the Document
adds another insight that is closely connected to it. It introduces the
mystery and makes access to it easier.
It is like an aria that frames the cantus firmus of a chorus
so as to bring its riches within the listener's reach. The type of
relationship between man and woman, seen in light of the relationship
between the Church and Christ, is now perceived through Mary's
relationship with Christ.
In other words, and borrowing an image used in the Document, the
mirror that reflects the woman's bond with the man has the twofold depth
of Mary and the Church, seen in their relationship with Christ.
Discover Mary's qualities
After this assertion, the Document suggests that through Mary, the
woman discovers the values of her "dispositions of listening, welcoming,
humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting" (n. 16), values with very
deep roots that consequently are not improvised and do not belong solely
to our day, since the antecedents of the triad Mary-Church-Christ3
are found in the people of Israel, the "bride" chosen by God, loved by
him and mysteriously present since the origins of his unforeseeable and
gratuitous love (cf. n. 5ff.).
In this context one passage of the Document is striking, so evocative
and meaningful for the identity and role of women in the Church that it
seems to me useful to cite it:
"It is from Mary that the Church always learns the intimacy of
Christ.... She who received the broken body of Jesus from the Cross in
her arms shows the Church how to receive all those in this world whose
lives have been wounded by violence and sin" (n. 15).
In reading these lines, we cannot ignore the image that so many
Christian artists have attempted to sculpt or paint. Michelangelo
Buonarroti (1475-1564) is certainly the most important of them. Before
the face of the Virgin in his Pietà,
all claims of bewildered feminism melt away like snow in the sunshine.
Mary's sorrow, both unfathomable and serene as she contemplates the dead
treasure of her mother's heart, the treasure that she herself had known
would be the true treasure of humanity (cf. Mt 13:44) but who had
nevertheless been nailed to a cross, instills silence, but one from
which emerges a pressing invitation, partially formulated in our
Here we find condensed the woman's full greatness: the acceptance of
others without reserve whoever they may be, because Mary's heart was
enlarged by the Son so that she could include all her children in her
embrace. From here she was raised to the throne of the Father, who
creates and recreates humanity through love and in view of love.4
There are many Christian women of this Marian and ecclesial fibre in
the world. When we are granted the grace to live beside them, we are
filled with wonder, not to say overpowered by the capacity for boundless
love of the female heart, and we feel very close to God.
A royal service
Is this perhaps an argument that advocates passivity in the Church,
with inevitable repercussions on the conception of woman? To believe
this would be an error.
If there is an intrinsic receptivity in love
Paul recognizes it when he writes: "Love is patient and kind.... Love
bears all things... endures all things" (I Cor 13:4, 7)
this receptivity is extremely active and fertile, as moreover our
Document explicitly emphasizes (cf. n. 16).
Jesus' service, like the service of the Church and that of his Mother
which correspond to it and in which is mirrored the woman's service to
the man, is a service officially recognized and made known to everyone
as a royal service. In fact, above the head of the Crucified
Christ, hence, also above that of his Mother who takes him in her arms
after his deposition from the Cross, the Roman Procurator had a notice
posted written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. It read: "Jesus the Nazarene,
the King of the Jews" (Jn 19:19).5
In this perspective, we understand how women, such as Thérèse
of Lisieux, who once desired to become priests or ordained ministers of
the Church, soon abandoned this desire.6 Indeed, how would it
be possible to prefer the mediation of love to love itself? Or to prefer
to be an ordinary member of the body rather than its heart?
"I understood", wrote the Saint of Lisieux, "that the Church had a
Heart and that this Heart was burning with Love. I understood that Love
comprised all Vocations, that Love was everything".7
When one knows where to find the all and to possesses it, what would
be the point of wanting anything less?
1 "All in transition / Is but reflection; / What is
deficient / Here becomes action; / Human discernment / Here is passed
by; / Woman Eternal / Draw us on high". J.W. Goethe, Faust [Part
II], 12104-110 (Goethes Werke, V. Teil, Berlin-Leipzig-Wien-Stuttgart,
2 Cf. Note 1 of the Letter.
3 Concerning this triad, De Lubac's book on Teilhard de
Chardin's "eternal feminine" needs to be re-read and pondered. I would
like to cite a passage of it here. After observing that for the believer
Teilhard, the "feminine" was not a neutral principle, De Lubac
continues: "The perfection [of the feminine] is found to be fulfilled in
a person: this person is the Virgin Mary.... To explain the essential
role of Our Lady and to avoid making her encroach upon the sovereign
role of Christ, [Teilhard] notes that it will subsequently be necessary
to study the relationship of the Virgin with Christ... then that of
Christ with the Church, and lastly, in the Church, sacramental marriage
and chastity, which is 'an attachment to the pure or spiritual
feminine'. Hence, this will be a meditation 'before the veiled Virgin:
Who is she? Where is she leading us?'". H. de Lubac, L'éternel
sur un texte du Père
Teilhard de Chardin suivi de Teilhard et notre temps, Paris, 1968,
4 On this point, I refer to my book Voi, luce del mondo...
La vita morale dei cristiani: Dio fra gli uomini, Bologna, 2003,
5 The pages that J. Ratzinger dedicated years ago to the
royal character of the service of the Cross have lost nothing of their
value and meaning for the Church and the world today (cf. J. Ratzinger,
in das Christentum. Vorlesung
das Apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis, Munich, 1968, 139ff., 173ff.).
6 cf. Manuscript B, 2v° [S. Teresa di Gesù
Bambino e del Volto Santo, Opere complete, Rome, 1997, 221ff.].
See too: Lettere, 135, 2v° [ibid., 438]; Lettere,
201, 1r° [ibid., 542]; Quaderno giallo, 4, 8, 5; 6, 8, 6;
21, 8, 3 [ibid., 1054, 1059, 1080].
7 Manuscript B, 3v° [Opere 223].