THE ECUMENISM OF REDEMPTORIS MATER AND MULIERIS DIGNITATEM
In his encyclical letter on Mary, Mater Redemptoris, John Paul II speaks directly of ecumenism. "The journey of the Church, especially in our time," he says "is marked by ecumenism."  But the unity, which all long for, must be based on a true unity of faith. Differences divide Protestants and Catholics particularly in the areas of the mystery and ministry of the Church and the place of Mary in the work of salvation. That is not the case with the Eastern Churches. "I wish to emphasize," John Paul II writes, "how profoundly the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the ancient Churches of the East feel united by love and praise of the Theotokos." (R.M, 31) He points out that it was in the East that the great ecumenical councils defined the basic dogmas of our faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation. Christ was truly made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Eastern liturgy reserves a prominent place for veneration of Mary as God's mother, Theotokos.
In Redemptoris Mater John Paul II names specific Eastern Fathers who advanced veneration of Mary. St. Cyril of Alexandria brought contemplation of Mary's mysteries to the Coptic and Ethiopian tradition. St. Ephrem in the Syrian Church and St. Gregory of Narek in the Armenian left a legacy of hymns in praise of Mary. In the Byzantine liturgy her praise is linked with praise of Jesus and the Trinity. She is revered as the "All Holy Mother of God." (RM, 31) The year that John Paul II issued the encyclical, 1987, he notes, marked the twelfth centenary of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, which brought the fierce controversy on the veneration of images of Christ, Mary and the saints to an end. (RM, 33)
In the West we do not realize how critical that victory was. The blood of martyrs was shed in its defense. Christians at that time were influenced both by Judaism in which it is forbidden to make an image of Yahweh and the new faith of Islam which also abjured images of the invisible God. St. John of Damascus, the great defender of the cult of images, regarded the veneration of images as an inevitable consequence of the Incarnation. With the Incarnation a decisive change occurred in the relationship of material creation and God.  We worship, he argues, the Creator of matter not matter itself. "Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation."  Images in creation remind us of God. St. John ends his defense of sacred images with an address to God, himself:
"We venerate Your Image; we bow down before anything that is concerned with You; Your servants, Your friends; and most of all Your mother, the Theotokos . " John Paul II sees this defense of images as an important legacy to the West also where the Catholic Church contiues to venerate images of the Virgin and saints together with Christ and his Cross. (RM, 32)
The sacred image in the Eastern Church is not simply an object of veneration but it embodies profound theological reflection. Where the West has created specialized treatises on Mary, worship, liturgy and the icon are the privileged expression of the mystery of Mary and her place in salvation in the East. The veneration of Mary is central in Byzantine worship.  Leonid Ouspensky writes:
I do not believe that it is by chance that John Paul II chose the twelfth centenary of the Second Council of Nicaea to issue the encyclical on Mary. It seems to me that he had the Eastern Church in mind when he composed Redemptoms Mater. There are four parts to the encyclical. In the first he highlights Mary as hodegetria or the one who leads the way by her pilgrimage of faith. The second considers her as theocokos. In the third he reflects on her place in the mystery of the Church both as model ol faith and mother. And finally he emphasizes her role of maternal mediation. In other words, the icons of Mary as Hodegetria, Theotokos and Deesis. In this article today I first follow the pope's own pattern of highlighting Mary's "pilgrimage of faith" which was expressed primarily in her motherhood. Then I show how critical a model Mary's fiat is for the role of women in both East and West. Finally I conclude with the role of her maternal mediation.
Hodegetria Mary's Pilgrimage of Faith
In Redemptoris Mater, John Paul II says: "I wish to consider primarily that 'pilgrimage of faith' in which 'the Blessed Virgin advanced, faithfully preserving her union with Christ." He cites the Vatican Council II document, Lumen Gentium where Mary is described as the one who "has gone before and become a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ." He goes on to say, "Her exceptional pilgrimage of faith represents a constant point of reference for the Church, for individuals and for communities, for peoples and nations, and, in a sense, for all humanity." (RM, 5).
It is Mary's faith that places her at the center of the mystery of salvation. John Paul II reflects on St. Luke's account of the Annunciation and of Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Of all the praises that Elizabeth sings of Mary He finds the most significant in the words, "And blessed is she who believed." (RM, 12) This expression, John Paul II holds, is "a kind of 'key' which unlocks for us the innermost reality of Mary." (RM, 19) Throughout the encyclical, like a chorus, the Pope inserts a new commentary on the phrase, "Blessed is she who believed." With her fiat Mary abandons herself in "the obedience of faith" to whatever God's plan for her might be. And it is at the foot of the cross that she most completely "abandons herself to God' without reserve." (RM, 18.)
These are the two high points of Mary's life of faith, the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. But her life was marked by one continuous journey of faith. Simeon's prophecy called forth faith as did the hidden years in Nazareth as well as Jesus's public life. (RM, 16, 17, 20). Mary's obedience in faith at the crucifixion, where she shares in Christ's own self-emptying, his kenosis, becomes, as the Fathers of the Church teach, "the counterpoise to the disobedience and disbelief embodied in the sin of our first parents." (RM, 19) In Lumen Gentium the Vatican Council II Fathers cite the words of St. Irenaeus, the second century Greek bishop who lived and preached in Gaul. "The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience; what the virgin Eve bound with her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith." (RM, 19)
The contrast between Eve and Mary is one that the Fathers of the Church, both Eastern and Western, loved to draw. John Cardinal Newman, the Anglican convert to Catholicism in the nineteenth century, collected many of the sayings of the Fathers on this contrast between Eve and Mary. It was part of his struggle of faith in his journey towards Catholicism. This exploration of the thought of the Fathers of the Church on Mary was decisive for him.
The parallelism, of course, refers to Eve's role in the fall of the human race as well as her specific dignity as "the mother of all the living," the name given to her by Adam in Genesis 3:20. From this parallelism, "we are able," writes Newman." by the position and office of Eve in our fall, to determine the position and office of Mary in our restoration. He painstakingly extracts the sayings of the Fathers from East and West from the earliest times. He proposes that to have spread so far and wide by the second century it must go back to the Apostles.  St. Justin Martyr (AD 120-65) in Palestine; Tertullian (160-240) in North Africa and Rome; and St. Irenaeus in Asia Minor and Gaul, all contrast Eve's disobedience which brought death with Mary's fiat,
By the fourth and fifth centuries the parallelism between Eve and Mary had become so universal that it was even expressed in slogans as in St. Jerome's (33 1-420) "Death by Eve, life by Mary." again "By a woman death, by a woman life." This parallelism has many theological implications. Some of these are drawn out by Marian scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan in his book, Mary Through the Centuries. The one I want to emphasize here is the contrast between what Pelikan calls "a calamitous disobedience by someone who was not more than human, Eve, and a saving obedience by someone who was no more than human, who was not 'from heaven' but altogether 'of the earth,' Mary as the Second Eve." It is essential to understand that in both the case of Eve and Mary it was by their own free will they brought about death in the one case and life in the other.
The Annunciation in which Mary pronounces her fiat to the message of the angel has been one most favored by painters in both the East and the West. The greatest significance of the annunciation is, of course, its role in the Incarnation of Christ. It is absolutely essential to establish Jesus' humanity as well as his divinity. But, as Pelikan points out, it also represents the relationship between necessity and free will, between human freedom and divine sovereignty. For too many centuries Mary has been considered as Pelikan puts it "the model of patience, of quietistic passivity and unquestioning obedience." Social custom also placed her in that role as a woman who was expected to be submissive to God, to her husband and to the Church. Pelikan shows that is only half the picture. He bases his interpretation on the understanding that an obedience that is open to the future, far from being passivity, is, on the contrary, supreme activity. The actual Greek word used for "handmaid" of the Lord, is doule or slave of the Lord which has its masculine counterpart of doulos or slave of Jesus Christ in Romans 1:1 a term that came to designate an apostle. Later the bishop of Rome or Pope began to call himself "the slave of the slaves of God." The great Philippian hymn which extols the paradox of Christ as God who takes the form of a slave (Phil. 2:6-7) provides the reference point for the metaphor. Looking at these uses of the term doulos or slave, Mary's fiat can hardly be viewed as passive.
John Paul II in Redemptoris Mater emphasizes Mary's active response. Indeed at the Annunciation Mary entrusted herself to God completely, with the
In Mulieris Dignitatem, the Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, John Paul II expands on this, saying that through her response she exercised her free will since "all of God's action in human history at all times respects the free will of the human 'I."(MD 4)
Modern Western theologians underscore the difference between a view of human freedom so prevalent in our society of doing whatever one wishes regardless of its effect on oneself or others and "the liberty to obey," in the words of the French poet, Paul Claudel. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss theologian sees the liberty to obey God as authentic freedom. "No finite freedom can be freer from restriction than when giving consent to infinite freedom." All this, as we shall see, has profound implications for understanding Mary's fiat in relation to the family.
Mary's journey of faith did not end at the foot of the cross. She was present on the day of Pentecost when the Church's journey of faith began. It was Mary's faith that inaugurated the new and eternal covenant so that as John Paul II says, she "precedes' the apostolic wimess of the Church." Veneration of Mary as Theotokos always includes a sharing in her faith. And that "determines her special place in the Church's pilgrimage." Mary's titles of hodegetria and theotokos are inseparably linked.
At the end of Redemptoris Mater, John Paul II makes reference to the "special importance" of the Marian dimension in relation to women and their status. "Femininity has a unique relationship with the Mother of the Redeemer." And he adds:
In a sense he was preparing for the document on the dignity and role of women issued in the Marian
It was on August 15, 1988 that the Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women was issued. The close connection between all these references warrants the conclusion, I believe, that John Paul II was addressing the Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, to the Eastern Church as well as the Western - in other words to the universal Church. And his use of the term theotokos at the beginning of the Letter would lend further credence to this view (MD, 4).
What specific aspect of Mary as theotokos does he wish to highlight? And why? There are two aspects in particular, which comprise Mary's dignity: first her union with God which surpasses that of any other human being and secondly the union between mother and Son (MD, 4). Every human being is called to ultimate union with Jesus Christ and in that sense Mary represents the whole human race but her union with God in the Incarnation is unique to her as the "woman" who was foretold in the Protoevangelium of Chapter 3 of Genesis. The Council of Ephesus in the fifth century affirmed that Mary is indeed the mother of God, because "motherhood concerns the whole person." She conceived Jesus who was truly God and truly man. (MD, 4)
Mary was given the "fullness of grace" in view of her destiny to be the mother of God. That fullness expresses the essence of what it means to be a woman (MD, 5). In fact the reality "woman-mother of God," says John Paul II, not only delineates the dignity and vocation of women but expresses the dignity of every vocation, male or female. For the union with God it comprises must be the horizon for all human fulfillment. Mary responded to the gift with all the humility of the creature. "Behold the (servant) handmaid of the Lord." Christ himself came to serve. "It is precisely this service," says John Paul II "which constitutes the very foundation of that kingdom in which to 'serve'. . . means to reign." (MD, 5)
It is difficult not to be astounded by John Paul II's boldness in going to the heart of the radical feminist's rejection of. both motherhood and service. Far from beginning his meditation on woman with a discussion of her creation together with man in the image of God, which affirms her equality, he finds the essence of her dignity in motherhood and service. This does not mean that he ignores the reality of the Fall whose consequences are far more serious for the woman than the man. But in the name of correcting injustice, the woman must not appropriate to herself masculine characteristics. If she does she will lose what is uniquely feminine. (MD, 10) It is in motherhood especially that a woman expresses her feminine originality. Both the man and the woman are called to make a sincere gift of themselves to each other and through the gift to realize their own fulfillment but the woman has a "special openness" to the child. The man is called to realize that he owes a particular debt to his wife in their shared parenthood (MD, 18).
It was through Mary's fiat that motherhood was introduced into the new covenant. John Paul II goes so far as to say
In this listening, Mary has preceded all mothers in her pilgrimage of faith. John Paul II empathizes deeply with the suffering of women who are wronged or exploited, who struggle to bring up children alone, who are widowed or suffer when their children go astray. Mary's heart too was "pierced with a sword." No suffering could equal hers at the foot of the cross. But her suffering is closely linked to the joy of the Resurrection. Jesus, himself, compares the pain of his going away to a mother's pain in labor and her joy at the birth of her child. (Un. 16: 22-23) (MD, 19)
At the end of Mulieris Dignitatem John Paul II returns to the theme, Eve-Mary, this time from the perspective of the Book of Revelation. The "woman clothed with the sun" is suffering the pangs of childbirth (Rev. 12.1). The "ancient serpent seeks to devour her child." "Is not the Bible trying to tell us," asks John Paul II, "that it is precisely in the 'woman'-EveMary-that history wimesses a dramatic struggle for every human being, the struggle for his or her fundamental yes or no to God and God's eternal plan for humanity?" (MD, 30)
Much good has been accomplished by the feminist fight for the vote and for other essential human rights. John Paul II himself applauds these achievements but radical feminism is flawed in the area of reproductive rights, in other words in its approach to motherhood. Radical feminists at the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995 and now in the discussions on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are pressing for abortion to be defined as an essential reproductive right. John Paul II is acutely aware of the struggle. In Letter to Families, (No. 23) he writes,
And it is, as he says precisely in the "woman" that this struggle takes place for all humanity. Mary as Theotokos is key to a new feminism which affirms the wholeness or holiness of women, which cannot be separated from motherhood whether physical or spiritual. "Blessed is she who believed." In accepting motherhood according to God's plan she has gone before all women in the journey of faith. She serves both as a model for human motherhood and intercedes for all humanity before God.
It is precisely in her motherhood that Mary's mediation consists. (RM 38) Christ is the one mediator between God and man but the Church has always taught that Mary has a special mediation through her role as theotokos. The source of her mediation is Christ himself (RM, 38). Lumen Gentium recalls that Mary's role as intercessor began at Cana but it continues throughout the pilgrimage of the Church. In the same way, the Orthodox Church sees in Mary the Mother of God, who "without being a substitute for the One Mediator, intercedes before her Son for all humanity." While remaining in a state of glory, she continually prays and intercedes for mankind. Paul Evdokimov, author of The Sacrament of Love describes how
At the end of Redemptoris Mater John Paul II returns explicitly to the theme of ecumenism.
And he concludes by recalling the plea of Lumen Gentium for prayers by all the faithful to Mary to
2 John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater,
Encyclical Letter, (Boston, MA: St. Paul Books & Media, 1987) #29. References to Redemptoris
Mater will from now on be placed in the body of the text as RM and the section number.
4 lbid., 23.
5 lbid., 49.
6 John Samaha, "Is there a Byzantine Mariology?" Diakonia
30/1 (1977) 21-2
10 Ibid., See also Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996) 43-4.
12 5t Irenaeus, Adv, Haer. iii. 22.34. "Extracts from the Times."
13 Jerome, Ep/ xxii.21, Ad Eustoch, "Extracts from the Times"
14 Ibid., Serm. 23.
15 See above.
16 Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries, 43.
17 The scene is depicted in the West in the Catacombs as well as in Medieval and Renaissance
art. In the East the many icons which stand independently or in the iconostasis of the great Byzantine churches,
attest to its enduring popularity.
19 Ibid, 84.
21 John Samaha, "Is there a Byzantine Mariology?" Diakonia, 30/1 (1997) 26.
22 John Paul II, "Mulieris Dignitatem,
On the Dignity and Vocation of Women Apostolic Letter, Origins, 18 (17 October 6, 1988) no. 25. Henceforth references
to Mulieris Dignitatem will be cited within the body
of the text as RM and the section number.
25 Ibid., 139.
26 Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in
the Light of the Orthodox Tradition, trans. By Anthony P. Gythiel and Victoria Steadman
This article was orignally published in Diakonia, XXXIII (3) 2000. It is reproduced on this website with permission.
Version: 11th February 2003