The Blessed Virgin Mary - Vatican II asked: Is she truly our sister?

By Biagio Mazza

During the Second Vatican Council, discussions on Mary, Jesus’ mother, were very heated and manifested a great deal of disagreement among the gathered bishops. During the 19th century, devotion to Mary had grown tremendously, making it one of the clearest identity markers for Catholics. Along with all sorts of Marian apparitions, novenas, litanies, May-crowning and multiple variations on rosary devotions, two infallibly defined doctrines concerning Mary, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, were declared by Pius IX in 1854 and Pius XII in 1950, respectively.

Many bishops participating at the council desired an increase in devotion to Mary, wanting to honor her with new titles that would show her unique role in God’s plan of salvation. They insisted on a council document that would be devoted exclusively to Mary, highlighting her as co-redeemer or co-redemptorix with Christ in God’s plan, as well as declaring her Mother of the Church. These, along with her other titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress and Mediatrix, would highlight God’s special graces to Mary because of her role as Mother of the Redeemer. This viewpoint focused primarily on Mary’s unique place in relationship to her son and in God’s plan of salvation.

Many other bishops felt that this direction could lead to significant distortion that would remove Mary even further from scripture and liturgy, compromising the council’s emphasis on the eucharistic liturgy as the “source and summit” of all Christian living. They also felt that this approach would be ecumenically offensive, since it would continue to distort scripture and divert devotion from Christ to Mary, the consistent accusation that other Christians leveled toward Catholics.

These bishops wished to highlight Mary not as different from the rest of God’s people, but as an integral member of the people of God, a model member of the church and a true example of discipleship. Instead of creating a separate document devoted exclusively to Mary, they said, the council participants should include her in the document on the church. In this manner, her role as a member of the church and a premier example of the discipleship to which we are all called would shine forth.

On October 29, 1963, in an attempt to resolve the conflict, the bishops voted on whether Mary should have her own document, or should be included in the document on the church. By a vote of 1114 in favor to 1074 against, the bishops decided to include Mary in the document on the church. Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” contains the reflections of Vatican II on Mary’s role and function in the church. However, due to Paul VI’s insistence on harmony among the bishops, compromise positions and statements had to be included so that near unanimous approval could be achieved. This dynamic led to a statement on Mary that attempted to balance different Marian theological strands that are often at cross purposes.

Despite the tension that resulted from trying to blend in both sides of the bishops’ arguments, one fact dominates: Mary is understood primarily as a member of the church, one of us, a fellow pilgrim on our journey to God, who has walked our walk and models for us attunement to God, fidelity and discipleship at its best. The document roots Mary in scripture, making ecumenically sensitive reflections on her role and function. Mary is not unique in her fidelity to God’s will but models what all disciples are called to do: listen and respond to God’s word. Like Mary, we are to cooperate with God in bringing about God’s saving presence in the world. Like Mary, we are called to hear God’s word, reflect on what it demands of us, allow it to take flesh in our lives, and share that life with the world.

Christ is the mediator between God and humanity. Christ is the full manifestation of God who gifts us completely with God’s love and saving presence. Mary attuned herself to God, agreed to cooperate in God’s plan to bring Christ into the world, and amid many challenges, spent her life in learning what discipleship entailed. Every member of the people of God has that same vocation. Mary, our sister in faith, and all those who have gone before us “marked with the sign of faith” are the “cloud of witnesses” cheering us on in our pilgrim journey, encouraging, supporting and caring for us as we struggle to learn what discipleship entails while facing life’s many challenges and striving to cooperate with God’s saving plan for all humanity.

_ _ _
This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Celebration. Biagio Mazza is an author and adult faith formation coordinator for St. Sabina Parish in Belton, Mo. Email:

Learn more about Celebration or subscribe.