Mary and the Unity of the Church


I extend my warm greeting to you all, and also a heartfelt greeting from the Holy Father, who was here in Lourdes only some days ago. A greeting to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops with him, to the Catholic bishops and not least to the Bishop of Tarbes–Lourdes, who has so hospitably received us.

Lourdes is known for its miracles; today we too are witnesses of a miracle of a particular sort. Who could have imagined only twenty or thirty years ago that – as is happening today – Catholic and Anglican pilgrims would undertake together a pilgrimage from the National Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham in Great Britain to this internationally recognised site of Marian pilgrimage for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady, and that on this occasion a Roman Catholic Cardinal and the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, together with seven other Anglican bishops, would worship together? For those who are aware of the disputes and the polemics of the past about Mary between Catholics and Christians from non–Catholic Churches, for those who know of the reserves in the non–Catholic world towards Marian pilgrim sites such as Lourdes, for all these people this unprecedented event today is a kind of miracle.

Yes, indeed, we could even say that the whole ecumenical movement could be classified among miracles. After centuries of division and often of enmity between Christians of many denominations, our modern times have marked the beginning of a common pilgrimage towards the unity that Jesus prayed for on the eve of his death, when he asked His Father that all his disciples may be one. The Second Vatican Council was right when it affirmed that the ecumenical movement is not a merely human enterprise and effort, but an impulse of the Holy Spirit to fulfil Jesus’ testament at the end of his earthly life. So since the Second Vatican Council the Church is in mission for the unity of all Christians, as you highlight by your pilgrimage, and I congratulate you for this wonderful idea.

So let us reflect this afternoon on a theme which is not a usual or obvious one among ecumenists, but which is nevertheless an important one. Let us talk about Mary and the unity of the Church, Mary and the ecumenical movement towards full visible unity.


This is not such a hopeless issue as some may think. There has been Marian devotion in all periods of Church history, as Our Lady herself prophesised: “From now on all generations will call me blessed!” As Catholics we share the veneration of Our Lady especially with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, who praise her in many wonderful hymns as the Theotokos (Mother of God), the Aeiparthenos (Ever virgin) and the Panhagia (the All-holy).

But there was Marian devotion also at the time of the Reformation. Martin Luther in 1521 wrote a wonderful and admirable text on Mary’s famous canticle, the Magnificat, a text which only 17 years later was published also in English. Luther remained all his life a fervent venerator of Mary, whom he confessed with the ancient Creeds and Councils of the undivided Church of the first millennium as virgin and Mother of God. He was critical only about some practices, which he believed to be misuses and exaggerations. There are also many other texts from the Reformers of the 16th century, which in the last century were collected and published under the title “Das Marienlob der Reformatoren” (“Mary’s praise by the Reformers”, 1987).

In the English Reformation of the 16th century we find the same phenomenon. Though the medieval Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham dating from the 11th was sadly destroyed by order of King Henry VIII, the English Reformers themselves continued to receive the doctrine of the ancient church concerning Mary – Mary as ever virgin, as Mother of God – because they considered these doctrines both scriptural and in accord with ancient common tradition. So the Anglican Common Prayer Book of the 16th century maintained the traditional Marian feasts during the liturgical year: Conception of Mary; Nativity of Mary, Annunciation, Visitation and Purification/ Presentation.

But sadly – especially since the time of the Enlightenment – there has mainly prevailed a spirit known as Mariological minimalism in Protestant and also in some Anglican circles. Our Lady was often neglected and the biblical witnesses about her overlooked; some have even believed that they have to complete the Reformation by rejecting what the Reformers still maintained from the ancient and common tradition.

In our times through a renewed and fresh reading and meditation of the Holy Scriptures we see a slow but decisive shift. There are today not a few Evangelical and Anglican women who discover Mary as their sister in faith. In the official German “Evangelical Catechism for Adults” published exactly 20 years ago in 1988 one finds the interesting and to some extent surprising affirmation: “Mary is not only ‘catholic’; she is also ‘evangelical’.” She is evangelical because she occurs in the Evangelium, in the Gospel. A further Lutheran-Catholic statement “Communio sanctorum” [“Communion of Saints”], (2000) and a statement of the famous Group of Dombes in France “Mary in God’s Salvation Plan and in the Communion of Saints” (1997) deepened this view and brought further progress in a common understanding and believing.

Finally, of special importance in our context there is the latest document, an agreed statement, of our common Anglican / Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), issued in 2004, which bears the significant title “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ”. While this agreed statement did not reach full consensus, there was an unexpected very high degree of consensus about the special place of Mary in salvation history, in the life of the Church and in Christian discipleship.

This short account of our ecumenical dialogues tells us: Mary is not absent, she is present in the ecumenical dialogues; the churches have made progress in rapprochement about the doctrine on Our Lady. Our Lady is no longer dividing us, she is reconciling and uniting us in Christ her son. Especially the result of our Anglican / Roman Catholic dialogue, in the midst of some sad turbulences and disappointments in other fields in our relations, we can nonetheless see as a positive and encouraging hopeful sign, perhaps even almost a small miracle, for which gift we cannot be grateful enough to the Lord. There is reason for hope, that Our Lady will help us to overcome the present difficulties in our relations so that with God’s help we can continue our common ecumenical pilgrimage, which we started by the impulse of God’s Spirit and which up to now has been blessed with so many good fruits. I am really convinced: as has happened often in the past, Mary will also in our times and in the future be the helper of Christianity in situations of need, as we experience today in our ecumenical pilgrimage.


In what follows I do not intend to give a full account of all the abovementioned documents, and even less a full account of the whole theological debate on the doctrine on Mary in the present ecumenical context. Here I want to deal with the theme “Mary and the Unity of the Church” only from a Catholic perspective, and I can do this only in a fragmentary way. But I will take some inspiration from the title of the abovementioned Anglican/Catholic agreed statement “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ”. For this title tells us that Mary is a unique sign and a unique witness of what is the centre and the heart of the Good News of the Gospel; she is a unique sign and a unique witness of what is central in Christian discipleship; finally she stands for what we today lack and what we need the most: grace and hope – grace and hope also on the way to the unity of the Church: grace and hope.

First, grace. The evangelist Luke in the beginning of his Gospel tells about the annunciation of the coming of the Son of God in the flesh of our world. The angel greets the virgin Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”. In the Greek text we read, Hail Mary, kecharismene, which in English is often translated as “You are favoured”, i.e., God has a special eye for you, he has favoured and elected you from all eternity, he has blessed you and prepared you with the fullness of his grace in order that you without any stain of sin would be prepared for your unique vocation and your unique mission to become the mother of the Lord, the Son of God and the Saviour of all mankind. With you, the salvation of the world enters its final step; you, full of grace, are the dawn of the new mankind, of the new creation.

To look at Mary means to cast our minds on eternity and to see the eternal plan of God for the salvation of mankind and to know God’s abundant grace by which He did not want that after the fall into sin and all its tragic consequences, the alienation between men and women, between the different ethnic groups, the alienation within us which followed from the alienation from God, He did no want that we should be lost for ever. It is only by God’s Yes to us and to the world, it is only by His grace that mankind can survive.

In this eternal plan of salvation Mary has her place and her mission. She stood at this moment of the annunciation vicariously for the whole of mankind. By her Yes, “Yes, here I am; I am the servant, the handmaid of the Lord”, by this her Yes the eternal Yes of God could take place in our world. She spoke this humble Yes on behalf of us all, on behalf of all mankind. But she did it not for herself, as she did nothing for herself, she did it as the kecharismene, as blessed and as full of grace. So she could magnify God: ”Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord; rejoice, rejoice, my spirit in God my saviour.”

Thus, Mary is sign, witness, prophet and receiver of God’s grace. She tells us: Nothing is possible, nothing can be done, neither we nor the whole world could survive, without God’s grace. For all we are, we have to thank God; for all, we have to praise God, our creator and our redeemer. We too have to rejoice for his gracious Yes, which He speaks to every one of us. We exist also only by grace. In each moment of our life God has to say to us: Yes, I want you to be. And above this, we are saved not by our modest merits and efforts, not by our more or less decent moral behaviour or our human deeds, but only by grace, sola gratia. In this fundamental truth Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants no longer have any controversies; in this fundamental truth they can witness and proclaim together to a world which needs this message, because it is wrong when it thinks that with our scientific and technical skills we ourselves can manage our happiness. No, we are not the makers of our own happiness. We live and we are saved out of grace.

What is true regarding every one of us, is true also for the whole community of believers, for the Church. The Church is not only a socially constructed body, not merely the result of human willingness to live, to work and to be together. If the Church were to have survived only from her human potentialities, she would have collapsed long ago. No, the Church exists and lives because she, represented by Mary, is the kecharismene, the favoured, the elected, convoked, blessed and filled with grace by the Lord. As Church we are God’s people and his temple.
Therefore, we cannot “make”, organise or manipulate the unity of the Church. The full unity for which we look and pray is – as is all salvation history – God’s work, God’s gift and God’s grace. The very heart and core of ecumenism is therefore spiritual ecumenism, which makes ours the prayer of our Lord on the eve of his passion: “That all may be one.”

The great master of spiritual ecumenism, the French Abbé Paul Couturier, formulated the goal of the ecumenical movement not as a unity understood as our project but a unity when, where and how God wants it to be. Ecumenism is not a matter of our projects. It is God’s project. We are not the masters of this process. But we know that whoever prays in the name of Christ can be sure that their prayer will be granted. To make ours the prayer of Christ for the unity of his disciples holds the promise that unity will come – when, where and how God’s sovereign providence has disposed.


This brings me to the next point. Mary – as we said – is a sign and a witness of God’s Yes to our world, to every one of us and to the Church. But now we must complete this first thesis with a second one. Mary answered to God’s Yes with her Yes. “Here I am; I am the servant, the handmaid of the Lord.” So as the Mother of God she became the entrance of God in our world. She donated Jesus Christ to us and to all mankind. But motherhood does not end with giving birth to a child; a mother remains a mother forever. So Our Lady accompanied with her motherhood the whole existence of her son till the end of his earthly life. With sorrow she searched for him when as a twelve year–old he seemed to be lost, and she followed him till the cross. She stood under the cross suffering with him and adding her suffering to his own, becoming the mother of sorrows. She stood not only physically under the cross, for with her stood the Yes she spoke in the beginning. She remained faithful to her vocation and her mission.
Also under this aspect Mary is an example, a model, a type of our discipleship. God wants our Yes in response to his Yes; Gods wants us to be – inspired, sustained and empowered by his grace – co-workers and co-operators in his salvific work. Or as Saint Augustine put it: “He who has created us without us, does not redeem us without us.”

Every one of us has his or her personal vocation and mission, his or her personal charisma, everybody has his or her place. These are not always and normally are not great, generally noticed, powerful, spectacular vocations and missions. Mary does not stand for the mighty, the haughty and the rich; she stands for the little ones, the powerless, the poor, the meek, the humble. She is tender with the sick and the disabled, tender also with the sinners. All these are children of God. So every one of us has his or her task, his or her momentum in the world and in the Church for the realisation of God’s plan of salvation.

Each of us has also the mission to work for the realisation of Christ’s last will, the unity of his disciples. There are many ways to cooperate, more than we normally think: by prayer as we have already said, by suffering, by a life of purity and holiness, by dialogue of life and love, by interest and respect for the faith of other Christians, by solidarity also with the internal problems of other Christian communities, as brothers and sisters in Christ we should help each other; then we can cooperate by giving witness of our Catholic faith and by patiently and with love explaining our position, when others have difficulty in understanding it; so we can learn from one other, what Pope John Paul II called an exchange not only of ideas but of gifts. In all of this we should not forget: unity can be brought about by love and by truth. Both are intimately linked. Truth without love can be harsh and repelling; but love without truth becomes dishonest; so we should tell the truth in love, i.e., not with arrogance but with respect, sensitivity and patience.

Finally we can and we should give witness together on what we have in common, which is much more than what divides us. Our modern world needs our common witness. And when we speak in common our voice will be much more convincing. So wherever possible we should speak with one voice and should work together for the coming of God’s reign in our world.


Let me now come to a last point, and perhaps the most important point. We started with the annunciation, the beginning of our Lady’s mission. Now we turn to the end of Jesus’ earthly life: Mary under the cross. From the cross Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, and spoke the famous words: “Mother, here is your son”, and to the disciple: “Here is your mother”.

The disciple whom Jesus loved is in the fourth Gospel the representative of all disciples. He stands for us all. So Jesus, when he left this world, did not want to leave us as orphans. He left us his mother as mother of us all. He made her in a certain and correctly understood sense mother of the Church. And as normally every mother is the centre of unity in a family, so also our Lady was made mother of the unity of the Church.

First – as the Second Vatican Council with reference to a saying of Saint Ambrose told us – she is typos, type of Church unity. She – the first of all disciples of Christ – represents what the Church is or should be: the faithful undivided Yes to God’s Yes in a life of purity and holiness, a life of prayer and love. She tells us what to do. At the wedding of Cana-in-Galilee she told the servants: “Do whatever He tells you!” She does not point to herself, she points to Jesus!

For what other reasons have there been and still are for the divisions in the Church, than that we have not and still do not live as Jesus tells us, than that our love and our faith have been weakened. There are growing rifts also today, because many do not listen to what Jesus and the Holy Scriptures tell us, but what in modern and post-modern culture seems to be pleasant. Always when worldly thinking and measures of this world make inroads into the Church, then the unity of the Church is at risk. Mary guides us not to what pleases everybody, but she guides us sometimes also under the cross. So there is no other means to retrace our way back to full unity than to be, as Mary was, i.e., steadfast followers of her Son. We will find Church unity by unity with Him; and to the degree we are united with Him, we will be united also among ourselves. Therefore, let us choose Mary as example, as model and type of our life and of Church life, then we will make steps forward on our ecumenical pilgrimage.

Second, Mary is mother of the Church and of Church unity, because she is our restless intercessor to her Son. To her we can trust our prayers. I know that this is a difficult point for our Protestant and also for many Anglican brothers and sisters. They have problems with the intercession of the saints and also with the intercession of the queen of all saints. They fear that by our prayers to Mary and the saints the unique role and place of Christ as the only and very head of the Church and the only source of all grace could be put into question.

The Second Vatican Council highlighted that our veneration for Our Lady and our trust in her does not diminish or undermine but wants to underline Christ as unique head and the only source of grace. And Mary does not want to be anything apart or without Christ; she is his first disciple and God’s humble handmaid. But as any mother would intercede for her children, and any mother after her death would not cease to intercede in heaven and from heaven, so also Mary accompanies the Church in its pilgrimage and its journey on an often stormy sea with her motherly care. And I am convinced she accompanies the Church also on her way and pilgrimage toward full communion. In her, our mother we can trust. She stands with us under the cross and feels with us all the suffering of our divisions; she guides us from Good Friday to Easter and to Easter new life and light. She is the mother of hope.


We started by saying that Mary is for us a witness of grace and hope. So let me say as a conclusion some words on hope. Mary is the woman of blessed hope. In good hope she carried the child in her womb through the mountains to her cousin Elizabeth; under the cross she did not despair; she did not run away as the male disciples except John did; steadfast she stood under the cross, because she believed that nothing is impossible for God. So she with the other women was among the apostles and disciples after the ascension of the Lord praying for the coming of the promised Spirit. She remained till the end the woman of hope for the final coming of the kingdom of God. She knew: not the powers of evil, of injustice, hatred and falsehood, God only will speak the last word and then justice will prevail over injustice, love prevail over hatred and truth prevail over all falsehood.

Such hope, founded not in superficial optimism but in God’s fidelity is what we need on our ecumenical pilgrimage. We cannot run away and give up when difficulties arise and immediate success is not at hand. In ecumenism as well as in all Church life we have to pass often the tunnel of darkness in order to come to Easter light. So we need Mary’s hope. Hope we need also in our world today. Hope today has become in short supply. There is a lack of perspective and we walk often in the fog and in the mist. But without hope, nobody, no people and the Church neither can live; without hope there is no enthusiasm, no courage for the great goals and great aspirations.

Let us therefore look to Our Lady, the woman of blessed hope, let us learn from her, let us pray to her, let us follow her, because she points and guides to Jesus her son as the light of the world, the way, the truth and the life. She is the dawn and the morning star, announcing the rising sun. She is accompanying us, helping us, guiding us, encouraging us to what Jesus prayed for and left us as his testament: that all be one.