Presentation of Redemptoris Mater

Author: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

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 Christian Unity.

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 theelements of the past to the present and the future.

It is impossible within the limits of a press conference to set out all the richesof 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 history.

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 religious piety.

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 femininedimension 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. 47).

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.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 March 1987, page 21

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