In the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council, there were two general trends in the Church’s teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Throughout the 20th century, the magisterium and especially the popes had extolled the virtues, the privileges and the intercessory power of Mary, culminating in the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady being proclaimed in 1950.

Following this general trend, there were a good number of bishops and theologians who saw Vatican II as an opportunity to further this movement and perhaps to define a new dogma regarding Mary’s role in mediating between Christ and humanity.

The other trend was a developing openness to the call for unity among Christian believers. Increasing cooperation with Protestants in biblical studies and developing dialogue across denominational boundaries, especially in Germany, led to a hope among many bishops and theologians for a breakthrough, or at least a consolidation in these ecumenical endeavours. When it came to Mary, this meant a robust opposition to any hint of devotional exaggeration, with a clear application of biblical norms and a strict subordination of Mariology to Christology.

At Vatican II, these opposing trends became apparent in a procedural vote about how to situate a document on Mary. Should there be a standalone document on the Blessed Virgin Mary, highlighting her virtues, privileges and intercessory power among other things, or should the text on Mary be incorporated into the document on the Church, to highlight Mary’s place within the community of believers? The vote was extremely close, with 1114 for incorporating Mary within the document on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and 1074 for a standalone document.

With the closeness of the vote, much work went into crafting the chapter of Lumen Gentium on the Blessed Virgin Mary (Chapter 8), with careful attention given to Mary’s place in the mystery of Christ and to her place in the mystery of the Church. The result was a document of deep inspiration that was approved with more than 2000 votes by the council fathers—an almost unanimous result.

Vatican II affirmed the time-honoured recognition of Mary as Mother of God. This teaching, cemented at the Council of Ephesus in 431, employed Mariology to affirm a key Christological teaching championed by Cyril of Alexandria: that Jesus Christ was a single concrete person with two natures (divine and human) coming together in the ‘hypostatic union’—the idea that Jesus was at once both fully divine (with all the characteristics of God) and fully human (with all the characteristics of a human being).

This mystery of the hypostatic union comes into being at the annunciation, so wonderfully depicted by artists down through the ages. One example, shown here, is from an Old Dutch master paying close attention to the biblical text.

Master of the Brunswick Diptych The Annunciation
The Annunciation, in the Brunswick Diptych, by an anonymous Dutch artist.

In this painting, Mary is approached by the Archangel Gabriel, with a white lily between them—a symbol of chastity. Mary is depicted as having been reading the Scriptures, with the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, coming to her head, for she who was to conceive the Word of God in her womb first conceived the Word of God in her mind and heart. However, she does not turn to face the angel, for faith comes from hearing, as St Paul reminds us, not from seeing.

Along with its emphasis on the closeness of Mary to Christ, perhaps the most significant aspect of Vatican II's teaching on Mary concerned her closeness to us in the Church. At the Annunciation, she becomes the quintessential obedient believer when she says, ‘Let it be done to me according to your word.’ At this moment, the total Christ—both head and body—becomes manifest on earth.

St Augustine uses the concept of the total Christ to explain how Christ and his body, the Church, are joined in charity by the Holy Spirit. However, at the annunciation, the body consists of just one member, Mary, and she stands as the archetype (the perfect example) of the Church. Distinct from the hierarchical structures of the Church, Mary stands out as the beginning of those who will come into communion with Christ—the beginning of the communion of the Church. This Marian dimension of the Church discovered in communion highlights the importance of our relationships in the Church, for it is in this context that the risen Lord Jesus becomes present (Matthew 18:20).

However, Mary comes to us not just as a static archetype of the Church and an exemplary model for believers; she is also a dynamic, living person, actively cooperating with the Holy Spirit and interceding for the Church as mother. This title ‘Mother of the Church’, founded on Jesus’ entrustment from the cross and proclaimed by Pope St Paul VI at Vatican II, encourages us to entrust ourselves to her loving care.

Following the encouragement of Pope St John Paul II, we can be confident in entrusting ourselves to Mary, for all that comes into her hands she gives to God.

This is an adapted version of a talk Fr Simon Wayte MGL gave for Catholic Theological College’s online formation program, Engaging Your Faith.