Even after coming home to the Catholic Church, many converts and reverts struggle with the lingering fear that the Church makes too much of Mary. This uneasiness is not always unfounded, considering the number of Catholics whose novena booklets are well worn while the binding of their Bible is barely cracked. Their emotional attachment to Mary is obvious; their commitment to Christ is less clear.
Church doctrine reveals that Catholic teaching unambiguously acknowledges Christ as central and primary. But the basic tenets of Marian belief are biblically sound and completely in accord with a Christ-centered faith. In fact, the Church exhorts us to a balanced Marian devotion, cautioning against "a rebellion against Mariology" on the one hand and the error of "driving it into a dangerous romanticism" on the other (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief, Ignatius Press, 32).
Still, the warning bells can be set off when we encounter what, to Protestant-trained ears, sound like extravagant assertions about Mary’s role. One troubling claim is that Mary is the "Mediatrix of all graces." This teaching says that all the graces we receive from God come through her. Making Mary integral to our reception of divine grace sits uncomfortably in the mind of many converts and reverts.
Is this true? Does the Church really teach that Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces and necessary to the salvation of every soul?
Church Teaching or Popular Piety?
If this is, indeed, Church teaching, it must be reconciled with Scripture, which says that "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5).
Church documents and papal writings speak clearly. The Second Vatican Council states that "the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adiutrix, and Mediatrix" (Lumen Gentium 62). The Council refers to Pope St. Pius X, who said that Mary is the "dispensatrix of all the gifts and is the ‘neck’ connecting the head of the mystical body to the members. But all power flows through the neck" (Ad Diem Illum 13).
Other popes and prominent saints have taught the same. In Octobri Mense Adventante, Pope Leo XIII wrote:
Nothing at all of that very great treasury of all grace that the Lord brought us—for "grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" [John 1:17]—nothing is imparted to us except through Mary, since God so wills.
In Inter Sodalicia, Pope Benedict XV told us:
Every kind of grace we receive from the treasury of the redemption is ministered as it were through the hands of the same sorrowful Virgin.
Pope Pius XI concurred in Ingravescentibus Malis:
We know that all things are imparted to us from God the greatest and best through the hands of the Mother of God.
This is only a sampling of consistent papal teaching: The Church does teach that Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces.
Branches of the Vine
The idea that Jesus alone can mediate grace actually contradicts Scripture: Ephesians 4:29 tells us that you and I are to "impart grace" to others by our words. As members of the body of Christ, we are called to "impart" (or mediate) grace in a variety of ways, including ministries of healing, teaching, and prayer.
The key to a correct understanding of 1 Timothy 2:5 is to see that the one mediator stands "between God and men." Only Jesus Christ can stand for us before God and gain our salvation and all grace. But what he has gained can be distributed from man to man among the members of his body. What he gives to me, I can, by his power, share with you, and vice versa. In fact, we experience this on a daily basis.
Jesus is the source of grace. As branches abiding in the Vine, we can distribute his grace. Because of his mediation before God on our behalf—because he has gained grace for us and entrusts us with that grace—we are able to impart grace to others.
In calling Mary the Mediatrix of all graces, the Church does not mean that she is a rival for Jesus’ unique place. Vatican II clarified the Church’s position on 1 Timothy 2:5–6:
The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ but rather shows its power. For all the saving influences of the Blessed Virgin on men originate not from some inner necessity but from the divine pleasure. They flow from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rest on his mediation, depend entirely on it, and draw all their power from it. In no way do they impede the immediate union of the faithful with Christ. Rather, they foster this union. (LG 60)
Christ makes it possible for Mary to mediate grace and desires her to do so because he has planned it that way.
Knowing, then, that the Church cannot teach error, we are able, by faith, to accept that Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces. But faith seeks understanding.
Mary as the New Eve
Scripture reveals that through our salvation, God was initiating a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), with Jesus as the New Adam (see 1 Cor. 15). The early Church Fathers, who received the teaching of the apostles, recognized Mary as the New Eve. The name Eve means "mother of all living" (Gen. 3:20). As Eve was mother of the living in the natural order, so Mary is the Mother of the living in the order of grace. Everyone who receives spiritual life receives it through her (LG 61).
Vatican II confirmed:
[Mary] was the new Eve, who put her absolute trust not in the ancient serpent but in God’s messenger. The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born of many brethren (cf. Rom. 8:29), namely, the faithful. In their birth and development she cooperates with a maternal love. (LG 63)
The teaching of Mary’s maternity of the faithful is strengthened in a passage in Revelation 12. After speaking of the woman who will give birth to "a male child, one who is to rule all the nationss," Scripture goes on to tell us that this mother has other children. "The rest of her offspring [are] those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" (Rev. 12:17). Mary is the Mother of everyone who belongs to Jesus. A mother "mediates" life to her children; Mary mediates spiritual life—grace—to every Christian.
Always a Mother
Many Protestants acknowledge that Mary is important, but they see her role as completed. She served her purpose when she gave birth to Jesus. But the Lord does not have such a utilitarian view of his Mother.
Jesus did not "use" Mary to come into the world. She really is his Mother. And she remains his Mother. As she gave birth to the "head" of the body of Christ, so she gives birth to the members of the body of Christ. She is the Mother of the whole Christ. Whenever and wherever he is brought forth into the world, Mary is there [JC1]. In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s words:
[Mary] gave him [Jesus] to the Church and the world, and this not just at one single moment in history but at every moment of the history of the Church and the world. (Mary for Today, Ignatius, 41)
The Church agrees:
This maternity will last without interruption until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. For, taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside this saving role but by her manifold acts of intercession continues to win for us the grace of eternal salvation. (LG 62)
Mary also remains forever the spouse of the Holy Spirit, and their union continues to be fruitful, producing Jesus in souls. St. Louis de Montfort explains:
God the Holy Spirit . . . became fruitful through Mary whom he espoused. It was with her, in her, and of her that he produced his masterpiece, the God-made-man, and that he produces every day until the end of the world in the members of the adorable Head. For this reason the more he finds Mary—his dear and inseparable spouse—in a soul, the more powerful and effective he becomes in producing Jesus Christ in that soul. (True Devotion, 20)
De Montfort also gave us this profound gem: "Jesus is always and everywhere the fruit of Mary" (True Devotion, 44). Wherever Jesus comes, he comes through Mary. In the pointed words of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, "No Mary, no Jesus."
Model of the Church
The light on the teaching of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces grows brighter as we see how it mirrors the design of the Church. Authentic Catholic doctrine teaches that Mary is the model of the Church. We see in her the fulfillment of what the Church, in all its members, is called to be. "As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a model of the Church" (LG 63). "In the most Holy Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle" (LG 65, cf. Eph. 5:27[JC2]). Von Balthasar calls her "the original image and cell" of the Church (Mary for Today, 14).
The parallel between Mary and the Church overcomes the two primary difficulties converts are likely to have with the doctrine of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces: It explains how all grace can come through Mary and how her position as Mediatrix strengthens rather than weakens our relationship with Christ.
The Church Fathers have repeatedly affirmed that there is no salvation outside the Church, that "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his body" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 846). "All grace" comes through the Church. So are Christians who don’t belong to the Catholic Church cut off from grace?
The Church clarifies, saying that those who know the Catholic Church "was founded as necessary by God through Christ" and "refuse either to enter it or to remain in it" cannot be saved (LG 14). But those of good will who, through no fault of their own, do not know this truth may achieve eternal salvation in ways known to God himself (CCC 847–848). God’s grace can reach those outside the Catholic Church, but—whether they know it or not—that grace comes to them through the Church. For example, the Bible, which Protestants rightly treasure, came "through" the Catholic Church.
Similarly with Mary. St. Louis de Monfort writes:
God the Father gathered . . . all his grace together and called it Mary. . . . The great God has a treasury or storehouse full of riches in which he has enclosed all that is beautiful, resplendent, rare, and precious, even his own Son. This great treasury is none other than Mary. (True Devotion, 23)
Jesus dwells in fullness in and through Mary, his chosen Holy Place, just as he dwells in fullness in and through his Holy Church. All grace flows through Mary, as it does through the Church. That truth is not altered if we don’t know or accept Mary’s role. By way of practical evidence, it is not unusual for converts—including myself—to affirm their belief that Mary was helping them long before they acknowledged her presence.
The Church parallel also applies to the question of whether Mary as Mediatrix diminishes our relationship with Christ. The Church is not a hindrance to our relationship with Christ. In fact, our love for the Church deepens our relationship with him. Receiving grace through the Church does not divert our attention from Jesus. When we receive the grace of forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation or the Eucharist through the ministry of the priest, even while our hearts are grateful for the Church, they are taken up with Christ.
So, too, does Mary facilitate our union with Christ. In fact, we receive grace through Mary even if we are not thinking about her.
Tell Us Plainly
One nagging question remains: Why doesn’t Scripture tell us Mary’s role plainly? The Pharisees once asked Jesus, "If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." In fact, Scripture has a lot to say about Mary.
"The woman," the mother of the Redeemer, is seen from Genesis (3:15) to Revelation (11, 12). Prominent Old Testament women such as Hannah, Judith, and Esther prefigure Mary and give insight into her place in salvation. We see her in the queen mother interceding with the Davidic king for the people (1 Kgs. 2:19–20) and again as intercessor in Cana (John 2). Finally, she is the Mother of the Son of God! John Henry Cardinal Newman said, "Men sometimes wonder that we call her Mother of life, of mercy, of salvation; what are these titles compared to the one name, Mother of God?" (Mary: The Second Eve, TAN, 20).[JC3]
Converts must be reminded not to slip into a sola scriptura mindset. God does not speak only through the written word but through the Church, and the Church has told us plainly of the importance of Mary.
Mary is a "garden enclosed," God’s "Holy of Holies," which is not to be put on display but revealed to those who come with respect and love. If we approach with sincerity, we will learn the truth of the words of Jewish convert Alphonse Ratisbonne, who had an unexpected encounter with Mary:
I could not give an idea in words of the mercy and liberality I felt to be expressed in those hands. It was not only rays of light that I saw escaping thence. Words fail to give an idea of the ineffable gifts that flow from those hands of our Mother! (Janice T. Connell, Meetings with Mary, Ballantine Books, 69)