The Mystical Heart: Mary's Place in the Church

Chapter 13 of Mother of God by Fr. Cyril Bernard Papali O.C.D.

Read the other chapters here.

And so was I established in Sion, and in the Holy City wherein I rested; and my power was in Jerusalem. And I took root in an honourable people;… and my abode is in the full assembly of Saints.” (Eccli. xxiv, 15-16)

There is a fundamental difference between the Catholic and the non-Catholic views of the Christian body called the Church, just as there is between the physiologist’s and the sculptor’s views of the human body. In the sculptor’s view, for whom the body is nothing more than dead shape, the one organ that does not come in at all is the heart; whereas in the physiologist’s view, for whom the body is a living organism, the one vital organ that makes itself felt in the smallest and remotest member is the heart. The same is true about the Blessed Virgin. Viewed from the outside Mary is nowhere in Christianity; felt from the inside she is everywhere in it. The heart of the Jewish nation was Jerusalem, the heart of Jerusalem was the Temple, and the heart of the Temple was the Ark. And all of these were types of Mary, who is the heart of the new Jerusalem and the new Temple, the Church. The metaphor of the heart is not one of those pious exaggerations that mean little, but the nearest approach to a reality that far exceeds it. For the Mystical Body of Christ is not a fiction of the imagination but a creation of God even more real than the physical body.

“Among the member of the Mystical Body,” wrote a noted theologian of modern times, “she holds a special place of her own, the first after the Head. In the divine organism of the whole Christ, Mary performs a function which is intimately bound up with the life of the entire body. She is its heart … More commonly, the role of Mary in the Mystical Body is (following St. Bernard) likened to that of the neck, which joins the head to the rest of the body. This comparison exemplifies fairly well the universal mediation of Mary between the Mystical Head and His members. However, the neck does not exemplify as effectively as the heart the idea of the all-important influence exercised by Mary, and of her power, second only to God, in the workings of the supernatural life. For the neck is no more than a connecting link. It plays no part in the initiating or influencing of life. The heart, on the contrary, is a reservoir of life, which first receives into itself the richness which it has then to distribute to the whole body.”[1]

Mary’s relations with the Church are many-sided and all-embracing. As Mother of Christ she is the source of the Church, as member of Christ, she is the Heart of the Church, as spouse of Christ she is the type and prototype of the Church. She is the one member of the Church that perfectly represents the Church, in whom the ideal of the Church has been fully realised and after whom the Church has been modelled. So that the Scriptures almost invariably identify the Church and the Blessed Virgin. Most of the figures relating to the Church apply directly to Mary and only through her to the Church. The most characteristic of them is the great sign of the Apocalypse: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”[2] As Scheeben observes, the features of the vision are evidently borrowed from Mary. She is not taken here merely as an ordinary example or even as a simple prototype of the Church, but as a prototype that is organically united to the Church and radically concerns and represents it, and also works in and through it. Accordingly the heavenly glory of the woman expressed in this great sign, must in the first place be traced to Mary who is prophesied by Isaias as the divine sign.[3] In her each single feature of the vision is of itself obvious, having almost no ground without the thought of her. There is another graphic description of the Church Triumphant which is at once a faithful picture of the Blessed Virgin: “And I John saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”[4] Cardinal Newman maintains that it is not in the style of the Sacred Scriptures to personify abstract things in any other way but through real persons who are treated as types.[5] St. Clement of Alexandria calls her the very Church: “O mystic marvel! One Father of all things, and One Word of all things, and the Holy Ghost, One and the same everywhere, and one only Mother Virgin. Dear to me it is to call her the Church.”[6] This expression must have been common at that time, for we find St. Archelaus referring to Mary as “the most chaste Virgin and immaculate Church.”

St. Augustine believes that Christ has fashioned His Spouse the Church after the model of His Mother, and this similarity he finds most pronounced in the virginal maternity of the Church.[7] This is how Scheeben explains the mutual relations of Mary’s motherhood and that of the Church: “Mary co-operated in a more fundamental way in effecting and obtaining the rebirth of all mankind, whereas the Church is active only in applying the fruits of redemption to the individual soul. However, in so far as Mary is the head member or heart of the Church, her motherhood unites with that of the Church to form one motherhood in the same manner as Christ’s spiritual fatherhood also forms one fatherhood with that of God. But, even in that case, Mary’s motherhood remains the root and soul of that of the Church in such unity that the Church can have and exercise its motherhood only in so far as it contains and acts through Mary’s motherhood.

“In general, there exists between Mary’s motherhood and that of the Church so close, complete, and mutual a relation, rather so intrinsic a connection and likeness, that one can be known only in and with the other. The two are connected and resemble each other by the very fact that they depend on the Holy Ghost for the fecundity and life, and are thereby intended to communicate a holy and spiritual life. In both cases, moreover, the spiritual motherhood over the redeemed includes a motherhood over Christ Himself, and indeed owes its perfection to this factor. For, all other maternal functions of the Church centre round that by which she brings forth in her womb the Eucharistic Christ as the Head, the sacrifice, and the food of the members of His Mystical Body. But that very fact reveals very specially the more sublime and fundamental character of Mary’s motherhood in comparison with that of the Church, and at the same time the organic connection of the two, as a result of which the Church’s maternal activity is exerted because of and by virtue of Mary’s motherhood, while Mary carries on her maternal work in and through the Church.”[8]

Auguste Nicolas has explained this interrelation of Mary and the Church even more clearly: “If the Church is like Mary, Mary is the living form of the Church, and it is through her that God pours into the Church life and fecundity – that divine fecundity which after having brought forth the firstborn from Mary according to the flesh, brings forth her other children, members of this Firstborn, according to the spirit. The assimilation of the Church with Mary is in the same proportion as the assimilation of the members with the head. They are of one same Mother, as with Jesus Christ they are one body; whilst in this one single maternity Mary has the higher prerogative of bringing forth the Head, by whom and in whom is the bringing forth of the members. The Church is thus, so to say, the expansion of the maternity of Mary – it is the mystical womb of Mary, which gives birth to the mystical body of Christ.”[9]

And the Church has not been slow to recognise her organic unity with the Blessed Virgin and total dependence on her. The first three Oecumenical Councils of the Church (Nicea A.D. 325, Constantinople 381, and Ephesus 431) have followed a natural sequence in glorifying the Son of God, the Spirit of God and the Mother of God, the Trinity of the Hypostatic union. The moment the question about the Blessed Virgin was touched, it became clear that the whole doctrinal scheme of the Church was bound up with it. It was then that Ephrem, Patriarch of Antioch, wrote that “in order to make sure of Catholic faith one need only believe and confess that the Blessed Virgin is Mother of God”. Since then Mary has remained the touchstone of orthodoxy and the stumbling block of heresy. And the Church has not ceased to sing in the Divine Office: “Rejoice O Virgin Mary, thou alone hast crushed all heresies in the whole world.”[10]

There is nothing more remarkable than the place Mary occupies in the worship of the Church. The central act of worship is the Holy Sacrifice and the part Mary bore in it from Nazareth to Calvary has already been seen. The Church never loses sight of her during the mystical duplication of Calvary on our Altars, but makes frequent mention of her during the whole service and concludes it all with the Angelic Salutation repeated thrice and the Salve Regina. But in the rest of the Church Liturgy Mary has not merely an important place, she is the dominant note. The Liturgical year is closely studded with her feasts – nearly a score of them for the universal Church and many more for particular places and peoples – each of which reflects like the facets of a diamond the brilliance of her heavenly glory. In them the Church gives full vent to her feelings about her queen and mother. She picks out the best scriptural blossoms to lay at Mary’s feet; she chooses the brightest tints from that pallet of the Holy Ghost to depict Mary’s features; she falls into an ecstasy of delight when she contemplates the Queen of all creation. Here are a few specimens: “Who is she, beautiful like a dove, like a rose planted beside streams of water?” “Thou art become beautiful and sweet in thy delights, o holy Mother of God;” “Thy vesture is white as snow, and thy face like the sun;” “The daughters of Sion saw her fully bedecked with roses  and declared her most blessed;” “Thou the glory of Jerusalem, thou the joy of Israel, thou the honour of our people;” “Draw us O Immaculate Virgin, we shall run in the fragrance of thy perfumes;” “O admirable transaction! the Creator of the human kind, taking an animate body, has deigned to be born of the Virgin; “The bush which Moses saw, we acknowledge to be thy inviolate virginity, O Mother of God, pray for us;” “O powerful Virgin, like the tower of David; a thousand bucklers hang in it, and every armour of the valiant;” “O blessed Mother, inviolate Virgin, glorious Queen of the World, let all who celebrate thy solemnity experience thy help;” “Holy Mary, succour the miserable, help the weak, comfort the sorrowful, pray for the people, intervene for the clergy, intercede for the devout female sex; let all who celebrate thy holy festivity experience thy help;”. These and similar sentiments resound throughout the Office of Her feast days. But the Divine Office for the rest of the days is not without Mary’s praise. Every one of the seven canonical hours opens with a Hail Mary, and the day concludes with some antiphon and prayer in honour of Mary. There is no Vespers without her great song the Magnificat coming in. Saturday throughout the year is Mary’s day and if no other feast intervenes the Office for the day is a Marian Office. And every night the liturgical day is wound up with the exclamation of the woman in the Gospel, “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that gave Thee suck”.

But it is when we turn to popular devotion that the instinct of the children of God becomes manifest. All know that the greatest prayer is the Lord’s Prayer and esteem it accordingly; but the one prayer which all tongues repeat ten times as often as any other, the most favourite prayer of all from the Pope to the most ignorant peasant, the prayer eagerly lisped in childhood and still murmured in the declining years, is the “Hail Mary”. The words of the Archangel which sounded the first note of joy in a woe-begotten world has echoed and re-echoed in the Church till it has become the undying melody of her heart. It keeps up her perennial youth and her defiant optimism. Saturday alone could not satisfy the devotion of Mary’s children. Soon May became a month-long festivity of Mary. And other months are following suit; October is already a Rosary month, August is slowly taking its place among Marian months as one dedicated to her Immaculate Heart.

Religious Orders and Congregations founded in Mary’s name, and Confraternities and devotions established in her honour are already innumerable and are continually on the increase. There are Associations and Sodalities suited to every age and condition of the faithful and in the registers of many of these the Popes themselves head the list. These associations are to Christian life what leaves are to a tree. All the leaves on a tree are not necessary for its life, but a number of them are. St. Alphonsus warns every Catholic to belong to some Confraternity of Our Lady to ensure his salvation. This is what he says about the subject: “Some persons disapprove of confraternities, saying that they give rise to contention, and that many persons join them for human ends. But as the Church and the sacraments are not condemned because there are many who abuse them, neither should we condemn the confraternities. The sovereign pontiffs, instead of condemning them, have approved and highly commended them, and enriched them with indulgences. St. Francis de Sales earnestly exhorts laymen to enter into the confraternities. What did not St. Charles Borromeo do to establish and multiply these sodalities? And in his synods he distinctly intimates to confessors that they should endeavour to induce their penitents to join them. And with reason, for these confraternities, especially those of Our Lady, are like so many arks of Noah, in which the poor people of the world may find refuge from the deluge of temptations and sins which inundate them in it. We will learn in the course of our missions the utility of these confraternities.

“Speaking exactly, there are found more sins in a man who does not belong to the confraternities than in twenty who frequent them. The confraternity may be said to be the tower of David: “The tower of David, a thousand bucklers hang upon it, all the armour of valiant men.” And this is the cause of the good obtained from the confraternities, namely, that their members acquire in them many defences against hell; and they make use in them of many means to preserve themselves in divine grace which it is very difficult for persons in the world, who are not in confraternities, to practise.”[11]

Among the countless devotions in honour of Our Lady, approved by the Church, there are two that stand out as exceptionally privileged and universal. They are the Scapular and the Rosary. While most others have sprung up in the Church, these two have come down from heaven. They are Our Lady’s special gifts to her children and, therefore, cherished by the Church more than any other. The Canon Law makes special mention of them, not indeed imposing them on Catholics under any penalty, but taking them for granted as evidently indispensable for Catholics. The Scapular has come to be the unmistakable mark of a Catholic, even in the eyes of the pagan world, and the Rosary the common prayer of all the faithful, - the Divine Office of the laity. The one is an armour, the other a weapon. Both were conferred on the Church at times of peril, and whenever she feels herself in danger she instinctively holds fast to them.

In 1251 when Carmel, one of the strongest spiritual buttresses of the Church, was threatened with imminent danger from all sides, and St. Simon Stock was praying fervently to Our Lady for the endangered Carmel, the Queen of Heaven appeared to him and presented him with the Scapular. It was to be the badge of her children and the surest pledge of her maternal protection. It had the form of a yoke and the function of a pair of wings. Since then Carmel has not ceased to fly higher and higher in spirituality, and the Church to benefit from it. That vision of Our Lady was immediately followed by a miraculous reversal of attitude towards Carmel. In 1252 King Henry III issued letters of royal protection to the Order; the Sovereign Pontiff ordered all the Archbishops and Bishops to treat with great consideration “his beloved Brothers, the Hermits of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel”. Even ecclesiastical censures were  inflicted on all who dared to molest them any longer. Our Lady’s armour had amply proved its efficacy. But the Scapular soon outgrew even Carmel. It is believed that the Blessed Virgin appeared to Pope John XXII, and revealed further privileges attached to the Scapular, notably the grace of deliverance from Purgatory on the first Saturday after death. This privilege is alluded to in the Bulls of the said John XXII, Alexander V, Clement VII, and in many other Papal documents. No wonder it soon became one of the most universally used sacramentals which the Church herself has taken in hand to propagate. “Let all of you have a common language and a common armour,” said Pope Benedict XV addressing the Seminarians of Rome, “the language, the sentences of the Gospel; the common armour, the Scapular of the Virgin of Carmel, which you all ought to wear and which enjoys the singular privilege of protection even after death.” And the Holy Father Pius XII, in an audience granted to the Director of the American Scapular Apostolate on August 3, 1946, said: “I desire that every Catholic should wear the Scapular.” The Church would not have any one live without this shield of protection or die without this pledge of salvation. She feels satisfied only when she has launched a soul into eternity on these unfailing wings.

The other great Marian devotion, the Rosary, was revealed about the same time. The Albigensian heresy was devastating whole regions of Christendom, and every known weapon had failed against it. Then one day, the Queen of Heaven appeared to St. Dominic, who had already by that time organised a spiritual militia, and instructed him in the use of the heavenly weapon of the Rosary. And it won the battle. Since then, it has been the invincible weapon of the Church. It won the battle of Lepanto in 1571, and broke the back of Islam. Again in 1716, it drove back the Crescent in the battle of Vienna and stopped the deluge from the East that was threatening to engulf all Christendom. The Sovereign Pontiffs have never tired of exhorting the faithful to recite the Rosary. Pope Leo XIII alone wrote no less than twelve Encyclicals and Letters Apostolic about it. Here are the words of Pope Pius X. “Of all prayers, the Rosary is the most beautiful and the richest in graces; of all, it is the one which is most pleasing to Mary the Virgin most Holy. Therefore, love the Rosary and recite it every day with devotion. This is the testament which I leave unto you so that you may remember me by it.” Before him Pius IX had said the same: “Say the beads in common every evening in your homes; father, mother, sons and daughters – all should unite in this simple and beautiful prayer, enriched with so many indulgences. Take this advice, my children, as my last words, and treasure them as precious mementos.” Now that the Church is committed to another death struggle with atheistic communism and modern paganism, we find the Rosary continually in her hands. But it is not a thing for the battle alone, it is an anchor cast upwards binding our souls to heaven. It is the best mooring for the soul. The beads are a Catholic’s most cherished treasure. In the midst of danger the very possession of it inspires confidence and hope. When lonely and sad, the touch of the beads and the slow sequence of the Aves are the sweetest balm to the soul, as everyone who has tried it knows.

But it is not merely the spiritual life of the Church that has been moulded by Mary; her whole external form has been coloured by her. Mary is the main spring of Christian culture and the inspiration of all its fine arts. We have only to look at those soaring prayers in stone – the exquisite Basilicas reared to the honour of the Queen of Heaven, at those miracles of paint and marble in which the world’s greatest artists have tried to capture an inkling of her heavenly beauty, at those garlands of prayer and song woven round her name, to realise how much all that is good in our civilisation owes to Mary. Michelet defined the Middle Ages as “an act of faith in the Virgin translated into stone”. Ozanam gazed at the great Cathedrals and exclaimed: “O Notre Dame of Burgos! You are also Notre Dame of Pisa, and of Milan, Notre Dame of Cologne, and of Paris, of Amiens, and of Chartres, Queen of all the large Catholic cities; yes, truly, you are beautiful and gracious: Pulchra es et decora, since the mere thought of you has made grace and beauty descend into the works of men.” Raphael’s tender devotion to the Mother of God and his life-long dreams of her divine beauty materialised in his Madonna which was the final flowering of the artistic genius of the Italian race and the climax of the painter’s art. Finished between 1515 and 1519, it remains to this day one of the greatest marvels of canvas and paint the world has ever seen. Generation after generation of admirers have gazed at the surpassing beauty of that celestial face, felt their hearts melt and dilate heavenward, shed tears and come away transformed. One can hardly look at Murillo’s Madonna without feeling drawn to follow her to the better world.

But above all, the elevation and refinement of manners peculiar to Christian culture are the unmistakable marks of her all-pervading influence. She has literally transformed the face of the earth. Cruel barbarians yielded to her influence and were gradually tamed and softened into peace-loving citizens. In her presence womanhood received a sacrosanct character which has made the modern home and society possible. She has left the impress of her features on every thing of beauty in our culture, so much so, that the unbeliever William H. Lecky was compelled by sheer weight of evidence to make this admission: “The world is governed by its ideals, and seldom or never has there been one which has exercised a more salutary influence than the medieval conception of the Virgin. For the first time woman was elevated to her right position, and the sanctity of weakness was recognised, as well as the sanctity of sorrow. No longer the slave or toy of man, no longer associated only with ideas of degradation and of sensuality, woman rose, in the person of the Virgin Mother, into a new sphere, and became the object of a reverential homage, of which antiquity had no conception…A new type of character was called into being; a new kind of admiration was fostered. Into a harsh and ignorant and benighted age this ideal type infused a conception of gentleness and purity, unknown to the proudest civilisation of the past. In the pages of living tenderness, which many a monkish writer has left in honour of his celestial patron; in the millions who, in many lands and many ages, have sought to mould their character into her image; in those holy maidens who for love of Mary have separated themselves from all the glories and pleasures of the world, to seek in fastings and vigils and humble charity to render themselves worthy of her benediction; in the new sense of honour, in the chivalrous respect, in the softening of manners, in the refinement of tastes displayed in all the walks of society; in these and in many other ways we detect its influence. All that was best in Europe clustered around it, and it is the origin of many of the purest elements of our civilisation.”[12] It was with good reason, therefore, that Petitalot wrote: “Mary exercises over the human race a moral influence which we cannot better determine than by comparing it to those physical forces of attraction, affinity and cohesion, which in the order of nature unite together bodies and parts of which they are composed… We believe we have shown that Mary took part in all the great movements which constitute the life of societies and their real civilisation.”



[1] Mura: Le Corps Mystique du Christ

[2] Apoc. xii, 1

[3] Is. vii, 14

[4] Apoc. xxi, 2.

[5] A letter to Pusey, London, 1866.

[6] Pedagogus, lib.i, cap. 6

[7] Srmo 195, n. 2; De Sancta Virginit, cap. ii.

[8] Mariology, Vol. II, Ch. xii.

[9] La Vierge Marie.

[10] Glories of Mary, Various Practices of Devotion.

[11] Glories of Mary, Various Practices of Devotion.

[12] History of Rationalism, Vol. I, p. 225.