An interpretation of the signs of the times for the path of the Church
and of humanity
On 25 March, Solemnity of the Annunciation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, presented the
Encyclical "Redemptoris Mater"
at a press conference for the representatives of the media accredited to
the Press Office of the Holy See. Also taking part were Archbishop
Miroslav Stefan Marusyn, Secretary of the Congregation for the Eastern
Churches and Fr Pierre Duprey, W.F., Secretary of the Secretariat for
Before replying to journalists' questions Cardinal Ratzinger gave the
following exposition of the Encyclical.
Why yet another encyclical on Our Lady? Why another Marian Year?
Undoubtedly during these recent weeks these questions have been asked,
not only by some of those "distant" from the Church, as they
are referred to, but also by some of the Catholic faithful. Whoever
reads the Holy Father's new encyclical attentively will find the answer
to both questions. In fact, the purpose of this document is precisely
that of indicating the scope and orientation of the Marian Year which
has been proclaimed. It thus becomes clear that for the Pope it is not
just another ordinary Jubilee Year nor a mere search for a new ecclesial
activity. The encyclical is marked by a strong historical awareness
which seeks for the interior link between the past, present and future,
for the purpose of discerning better the specific challenges of the
present historical moment and of finding the most adequate answer to
them. It could also be put this way: the Pope wishes to interpret the
signs of the times in the light of faith and thus to offer directives
for the journey of the Church and of humanity. This is the theme of the
new Marian Year.
The structure of the encyclical corresponds to this. The first part
devoted to Mary in the Mystery of Christ seeks to delineate the biblical
figure of Mary. The overall style of the encyclical is characterized by
a great closeness to Sacred Scripture and by a full and contemplative
immersion of love in its message. A particular element of the biblical
interpretation made use of is that, in harmony with the Council's
programme, it relies on a reading of Sacred Scripture in its totality
and its unity. Precisely by the frequently surprising matching of texts,
which at first sight seem to be poles apart, new and unexpected
perspectives are opened up. The second part follows the historical line
and treats of Mary's place in the Church's pilgrim journey. It is
especially here that the ecumenical dimension emerges. The third part,
speaking of Mary's maternal mediation, opens up all the elements
of the past to the present and the future.
It is impossible within the limits of a press conference to set out
all the riches of the message of this encyclical. Hence I can
only refer to some of the outstanding points which reveal the particular
style of this document as well as its doctrinal orientation. The main
lines of the encyclical, on the level of the philosophy of history,
become more immediately evident in the linking up of two scriptural
passages which apparently have little in common: chapter 12 of the
Apocalypse and the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. The last book
of the New Testament speaks expressly of the "sign of the
Woman" who, at a determined moment of history, rises up above it,
to reconcile heaven and earth from that moment onwards.
The origins of history
The Holy Father draws our attention to the fact that this
announcement refers us back to the very origins of history. In the
condemnation following original sin there is that mysterious passage
which the Fathers call the "protoevangelium": the very moment
of sin sees also the beginning of the Gospel.
The passage contains the words spoken to the serpent, "I will
put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her
seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel"
(Gen 3:15). Both biblical texts speak of a drama with three personages:
on the one side the Woman and the Child, on the other the Dragon (the
Serpent). One could also say that it is a drama between Life and Death,
between Salvation and Destruction—in other words, the drama of
The Pope derives the precise meaning of this "sign of the
Woman" by citing two other scriptural passages: the angel's
greeting to Mary, "Hail, full of grace" (Lk 1:28), which finds
its full explanation on the basis of the clarifications on grace, the
blessing and the choice mentioned by the Letter to the Ephesians,
"...God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in
the heavenly places..." (1:3). If a cursory reading of God's first
words on the "sign of the Woman" could give rise to the
impression that in history the blessing and the curse are equally
balanced, with the meaning of the sign remaining uncertain, its meaning
is decided with the entrance of Mary upon the scene: the blessing is
stronger than the curse. The "sign of the Woman" is the sign
of hope. She it is who indicates the path of hope. God's decision for
humanity, which is thus made manifest, "is more powerful than any
experience of evil and of sin, than all that 'enmity' which marks the
history of man" (Encyc. n. 11). In this perspective the Marian Year
signifies that the Pope wishes to maintain within our present historical
moment the "sign of the Woman" as the essential "sign of
the time"; on the path indicated by this sign we proceed in the
footsteps of hope towards Christ, who leads history through her who
indicates the way.
The second point of view to which one could refer is the doctrine of
Mary's mediation, which is very amply developed by the Pope in his
encyclical. Without doubt this is the point on which theological and
ecumenical discussion will be concentrated. The Second Vatican Council
also had already made use of the title of "Mediatrix" (LG
62) and spoke of the extent of Mary's mediation (LG 60 and 62).
However, until the present time this subject had never been dealt with
so extensively in a document of the Magisterium. As regards its content,
the encyclical does not go beyond what was already said by the Council,
whose terminology it follows. However, it examines more deeply the
Council's statements and gives them a new weight for theology and
First of all I would like to clarify briefly the concepts in which
the Pope expounds theologically the idea of mediation while safeguarding
it from all danger of misunderstanding; only then can the positive
intention be fully understood. The Holy Father strongly emphasizes the
uniqueness of Christ's mediation; but this uniqueness is not exclusive,
but inclusive, that is to say, it renders possible forms of
participation. In other words, Christ's uniqueness does not cancel the
reciprocity and collaboration of human beings among themselves before
God, so that all can be, in multiple ways, one for another, mediators
with God in communion with Jesus Christ.
This is, moreover, a simple fact of our daily experience, since no
one believes by himself, but each one lives one's faith thanks to the
presence of others. No human intervention of itself would suffice to
cross the bridge that leads to God, because no one of himself could
attain absolute certainty on the existence of God and his closeness.
However, in communion with Christ human beings can be mediators for one
another and in fact are such. Thus first of all there is defined in a
complete and general way the possibility and limits of a human mediation
subordinate to that of Christ. Starting from this the Pope develops his
terminology. Mary's mediation is a participated mediation", it is a
"subordinate role" (n. 38). In the words of the Council, it
flows from the superabundance of the merits Christ; it is founded on his
mediation, absolutely depends on it..." (n. 22; LG 60). Her
mediation is in the nature of "intercession" (n. 21).
An extraordinary mediation
All that has been said thus far is valid for Mary as for every other
human cooperation in Christ's mediation. In this Mary's mediation does
not differ from that of other persons. At this point, however, the Pope
adds that the proper modality of this mediation has a character of
"extraordinariness", and in a specific and unrepeatable way it
surpasses even that mediation which is fundamentally possible for
everyone in the communion of saints.
The Pope opens up a perspective from which the, significance of
mediation emerges, especially through a reflection in depth on the
miracle of Cana, in which Mary's intervention obtains from Christ, as it
were, the anticipation of "his hour" which was yet to come (n.
21). The real and proper conceptual elaboration of the specific
character of Mary's intercession is found especially in the third part.
Once again this is done by means of a very subtle linking up of
different passages of Scripture which apparently have nothing in common,
but which precisely in their reciprocal relationship project a
surprisingly new light.
The Pope's basic thesis is as follows: the specific character of
Mary's mediation consists in the fact that it is a maternal
intercession, ordered to an ever new birth of Christ in the world. It
guards the feminine dimension in the Church's present activity by
continuing to be its permanent origin. In this context the, encyclical
quotes Paul's words, "I am again in travail until Christ is formed
in you!" (Gal :19). The Pope sees expressed here the so often
forgotten "awareness of her own motherhood by the early
Church" (n. 43).
But in what way should we see manifested and permanently anchored in
Mary this feminine and maternal dimension of the Church? The encyclical
bases its thought on a passage of Scripture which from the outset seems
to say exactly the contrary. When an unknown woman, thrilled by Jesus'
discourse, burst out in praise of the womb that bore such a man, the
Lord answered her with the words, "Blessed rather are those who
hear the word of God and keep it" (Lk 11:28). To this the Holy
Father links these other words of the Lord which are in similar vein,
"My mother and my brethren are those who hear the word of God and
do it" (Lk 8:21).
These apparently antimarian expressions lead in fact to two very
important results. The first is that beyond the unique and unrepeatable
physical birth of Christ, there is another dimension of motherhood which
can and must continue. The second result is that this motherhood which
makes Christ to be ever born anew, concerns the hearing, the guarding
and the observance of the word of Jesus. Now it is precisely Luke, from
whose Gospel both these texts are taken, who describes Mary as the ideal
image of her who hears the Word, bears the Word in herself, and who
guards it and brings it to maturity. This implies that Luke, in
transmitting these words of the Lord, does not in fact deny veneration
of Mary, but rather leads it back to its true motive. He shows that
Mary's motherhood is not merely a unique and unrepeatable biological
event, but that she was mother with her whole person and therefore she
remains such still.
This becomes concrete at the moment of the Church's birth by the
action of the Holy Spirit. Mary is in the midst of the praying community
which becomes the Church by means of the descent of the Spirit. The
analogy between the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth through the power
of the Spirit and the birth of the Church at Pentecost is of
incalculable importance. The connecting link between these two events is
Mary (n. 23). In the Pentecost event the Pope would like to see an icon
of our time, an icon of the Marian Year, the sign of hope for the time
in which we are living (n. 33).
What Luke sets out in evidence by means of a delicate pattern of
hints, the Holy Father finds fully developed in John's Gospel—in the
words of Christ on the Cross to his mother and to the beloved disciple
John. The words "Behold thy Mother" and "Woman, behold
thy son" have always led commentators to reflect on Mary's special
role in the Church and for the Church; they are really the central point
of all Mariological reflection. The Holy Father interprets them as
Christ's testament from the cross. Here within the interior space of the
Paschal Mystery Mary is given to all mankind as a Mother. There appears
a new motherhood of Mary, which is the fruit of the new love matured at
the foot of the cross (n. 23). "The Marian dimension of the life of
Christ's disciples" becomes evident. This is true not only of John
... but of every disciple, of every Christian ... Mary's motherhood
which becomes man's inheritance is a gift: a gift which Christ himself
makes personally to every individual" (n. 45) .
The Holy Father then gives a very subtle interpretation of the words
with which the Gospel closes the scene, "And from that hour the
disciple took her to his own home" (Jn 19:27). This is how it is
usually translated: "he took her to his own home". But to
translate it literally one should say: he welcomed her among his own
things". For the Pope this means a completely personal relationship
between the disciple—every disciple—and Mary. It means bringing Mary
into everything that makes up his inner spiritual and religious life; it
means allowing oneself to be led into the intimacy of her motherly and
feminine existence, a mutual entrusting of one to the other, which is an
ever new way for the birth of Christ and which brings the human person
into conformity with Christ. Thus Mary's role sheds light also and in a
special way on the figure of woman, on the feminine dimension and
on the specific role of women in the Church (n. 45).
At this point all those scriptural texts which the encyclical weaves
into a unified pattern are mutually linked together. In fact the
Evangelist John, both in the episode at Cana and in the account of the
crucifixion, does not call Mary by her own name, nor does he refer to
her as mother. Instead he uses the term "Woman". The link with
Genesis 3 and Revelation 12, that is, with the "sign of the
woman" is thus delineated, and undoubtedly by the use of this term,
John had the underlying intention of indicating Mary as "the
Woman" with general and exemplary validity.
In this way the account of the crucifixion becomes in itself a
message on the level of the philosophy of history, a reference to the
"sign of the Woman" who participates in a motherly role in the
struggle against the forces of negation, and is thus a sign of hope (n.
24 and n. 47). All that is deduced from this text is summed up by the
encyclical in a phrase taken from Paul VI's "Credo of the People of
God": "We believe that the Most Holy Mother of God, the new
Eve, the Mother of the Church, carries on in heaven her maternal role
with regard to the members of Christ, cooperating in the birth and
development of divine life, in the souls of the redeemed" (n.
All this immediately determines the content of the Marian Year. While
the Marian Year of Pius XII was directed to the two Marian dogmas of the
Immaculate Conception and of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven,
this time the purpose is to call attention to the special presence of
Our Lady in the mystery of Christ and of his Church (n.48). The new
Marian Year is not intended merely to recall, but. also to prepare (n.
49): it has a dynamic impulse directed to the future.
The Pope recalls the celebration of the millennium of the Baptism of
St Vladimir, which can be seen as the celebration of the millennium of
the conversion of Rus' of Kiev to the Christian faith, and he links this
occasion with the celebration of the second millennium of Christ's
birth. This anniversary requires from us not merely a remembrance, but
something much more. It calls upon us to turn again to our true
historical and human identity, that which is expressed by these dates.
Such a renewed orientation of our history towards its foundation is the
most profound meaning of this jubilee year. Who could deny that we
especially, in our historical period with the new scientific discoveries
which follow swiftly on one another and with the contemporary crisis of
all spiritual values, have urgent need of this recognition of the place
of origin of our existence?
The setting given by the Pope to the Marian Year emphasizes in a
completely evident way its inner meaning. It begins with Pentecost. The
icon of Pentecost should be—as is said—the icon of our identity, and
therefore of our true hope as well. The Church must learn again from
Mary the meaning of being Church. Only by turning again to the
"sign of the Woman", to the feminine dimension of the Church
correctly understood, does there take place the new opening to the
creative power of the Spirit and therefore to conformity with Christ
whose presence alone can provide the central point and hope for history.
The Marian Year will conclude with the feast of Mary's bodily Assumption
into heaven and thus refers us back to the great sign of hope, humanity
already saved in Mary, in whom the place of salvation, the place of all
salvation becomes so evident.
In the conclusion of the encyclical the Pope again offers a dramatic
concretization of the spiritual condition of our present time and also
of the meaning of the Marian Year. In connection with his vision of the
Advent character of our present historical moment, he interprets the
ancient Advent hymn: "Loving Mother of the Redeemer", and he
stresses particularly the words, "assist your people who have
fallen, yet strive to rise again". The Marian Year is situated in a
certain way in the crucial point between "falling" and
"rising". Here too we also are found. The Marian Year is
intended as a challenge to the conscience of each one to follow the path
of "not falling", to learn from Mary what this path is. The
Marian Year should be a single cry, "Assist, yes assist, your
people who have fallen". The Marian Year, as the encyclical
explains, is far from being a mere sentimental devotion. It is a
heartfelt appeal to our generation to recognize the task required of it
in this historical moment, and to follow the path of "not
falling" in the midst of so many dangers.