Mary Help of Christians has been the official patroness of Australia since 1844 and her feast day is celebrated on 24 May. How might we make sense of Mary’s place in the Church? What do we mean when we talk about Mary as the Mother of the Church? And in what way can we call her, "Help of Christians"?

Mary as Archetype according to Hans Urs von Balthasar

One of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century was the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), a man highly respected by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He was part of the great theological movement known as the ressourcement movement: the call to go back to the sources of Scripture and the Church Fathers in order to understand the Christian faith with greater clarity in the modern world. There is much we would not have unless people such as von Balthasar (and the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac) had not dedicated their time to the translation of the Church Fathers from their ancient languages for a wider audience.

Drawing upon this wealth of the church’s tradition, von Balthasar thought that one of the ways in which we can understand the church was through the archetypes (or models) presented to us through Scripture. The apostle Peter, for instance, represents the structure and hierarchy of the church without which the church could not possibly survive through history. The apostle Paul is another model, representing the missionary impulse of the church. The most important model, however, because she comes before these men, is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. She is the ultimate archetype of the church.

Why is her archetype most important? Because in order for us to be able to encounter and receive the Divine Love in the person of Christ, von Balthasar says, there had to be have been an original reception of that Love by someone. That original moment was Mary’s fiat, or yes, to the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:38). Every yes that we make to the Divine Love is 'under the protective mantle' of the yes already uttered 'once and for all' by Mary.[1] Without that original fiat, God’s love could never have been 'poured out into the darkness of non-love' that was sin.[2]

As Pope Benedict XVI noted, part of the scandal of the Christian understanding of God is that 'he made himself in a sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable "yes" of a human being'[3]. Through this original yes, von Balthasar says, Mary becomes the 'heart of the Church' and the mother to all of Christ’s disciples.[4]

Brethren of Jesus

These themes are reflected in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, documents that very clearly follow this ressourcement path of seeing the faith through the eyes of Scripture and the Church Fathers. In fact, Lumen Gentium affirms this idea of Mary becoming a mother through her consent to the angel Gabriel’s message. Quoting the Church Father St Irenaeus, the Council agrees: 'The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience' and so Mary became 'Mother of the living' also (LG §56). However, we might ask: how exactly does Mary become a mother to us as well? Why is she not simply the Mother of God? After all, as von Balthasar says, the motherhood of Mary is not simply spiritual or metaphorical for us, it is 'real, tangible, a matter of factual experience'[5].

According to Lumen Gentium, and quoting St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in being Christ’s disciples we are not disciples only but brethren of Jesus: adopted siblings through grace (LG §2). In Paul’s language, Jesus is 'the eldest of many brothers' (Romans 8:30). As a result of this adoption, Mary takes on the role of mother to Jesus’ brethren 'until they are led into the happiness of their true home' (LG §62). It is quite a simple and beautiful answer.

Readiness to serve

As an encouragement to other Christian communities who do not see Mary as having any special role in the spiritual life, the question Pope John Paul II asks is this: once we see Mary as the archetype and model of the Church’s faith, are we not just a short step away from seeing her as the mother of all Christians who not only precedes us but intercedes for us? (Redemptoris Mater, §30).

Von Balthasar says that through this intercession, Mary helps Christians to pursue their highest priority: 'The highest priority belongs, without exception, to our readiness to serve the divine love, a readiness that has no other end in itself, and that appears senseless to a world caught up in so many urgent and reasonable occupations.'[6]

[1] Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible. Ebook edition. Loc. 684. ^ Back to top

[2] Ibid. 684 ^ Back to top

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), 36. ^ Back to top

[4] Op Cit. Love Alone. Loc. 684 ^ Back to top

[5] Von Balthasar, Mary: God’s Yes to Man (1988), 173. ^ Back to top

[6] Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible (1969), 88. ^ Back to top