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Mary's Apostolate

Mary's Apostolate

The fact that all the faithful share in the common priesthood of Christ carries, as a necessary implication, that they can share in Christ's ministerial priesthood. This applies to both men and women, since both equally share in Christ's priesthood through baptism.

This principle applies in a special way to Mary. And although Mary never performed the eucharistic ministry, as Rome stresses repeatedly, Mary possessed to an eminent degree that integration with Christ's common priesthood which would have made her a natural ministerial priest.

This is brought out especially in St. Luke's Gospel.

St. Luke emphasizes the role of women in the Early Church. He obviously envisages an active role for women in the apostolate. In this context he presents Mary as an example.

Imparting the Holy Spirit

As soon as Mary heard of her own election to be the mother of the 'Son of God,' she also received a commission. She was told by Gabriel that Elizabeth had conceived (Lk 1, 35-36). Mary set out on her mission. Entering Zechariah's house, she greeted Elizabeth. 'When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby stirred in her womb. Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit' (Lk 1, 41).

Bringing the Holy Spirit was unmistakably an apostolic prerogative. When the deacon Philip preached in Samaria, he could baptise. He could not give the Spirit. Peter and John had to come from Jerusalem to impart the Holy Spirit by the imposition of hands (Acts 8, 14-17). The converts in Ephesus lacked the Holy Spirit until Paul came and imposed hands on them (Acts 19, 6). Sometimes it was enough for the apostle to enter a house and speak the word of the Lord: as when Peter entered Cornelius's house and preached about Jesus. 'Peter was still speaking when the Holy Spirit came upon all who were listening to the message' (Acts 10, 44). This was that baptism of the Holy Spirit that the Early Christians were so conscious of.

Jesus himself had said at his ascension, 'Wait for the promise made by my Father, about which you have heard me speak: John, as you know, baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit' (Acts 1, 4-5). It was the distinctive sign of Jesus' own ministry. In the words of John the Baptist, 'I baptise you with water... He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire' (Lk 3, 16).

Mary's ministry

Baptising with the Holy Spirit was the work of the apostles. Our Lady was sent to Elizabeth to give her future son this baptism. 'I tell you, when your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy' (Lk 1, 44). It fulfilled the prophecy made to Zechariah by the angel, 'Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son... From his very birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit' (Lk 1, 15). Of course Mary, too, had conceived and carried Jesus in her womb. But it was Mary's mediation, her coming, her voice, her person that brought this grace of the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth's response recognises this saving presence of Mary. 'Who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me?' (Lk 1, 43). Mary too reflects on her own role when she says:

'So tenderly has he looked upon his servant,
humble as she is,
For, from this day forth,
all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the Mighty One.' (Lk 1, 48-49)

Traditional Catholic belief has rightly dwelt on the exalted position of Mary as the Mother of Christ. It has stressed Mary's role in redemption, her share in the dispensation of grace. Has it thereby not acknowledged in Mary the heart of the priestly function? Vatican II states:

'She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ. She presented him to the Father in the Temple. She shared her Son's sufferings as he died on the cross. Thus, in a wholly singular way she co-operated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace.'

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 61.

Mary and the Eucharist

Was there ever a priest so near to Christ's sacrifice as Mary was? And as to her prophetic role:

'The Mother of God joyfully showed her first born son to the shepherds and the Magi... At the marriage feast of Cana, moved with pity, she brought about by her intercession the beginning of the miracles of Jesus as Messiah...'

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 57-58.

In fact, through her charismatic intercession at Cana Mary mediates in bringing about a eucharistic symbol: the changing of water into wine...

I know that Our Lady did not in fact exercise the priestly functions Christ enjoined on his apostles. She did not preside at the eucharistic table to break the bread. She did not travel round to preach, baptise and impose hands. In the social climate of those times, such functions were performed by men, not by women. As Christ accepted this social fact, so did Mary.

But is it not all the more remarkable that the evangelists, and especially Luke, dwell on Mary's prominent role and praise her more than any man? Did Luke with his vision of new things to come in the Church, not deliberately draw attention to Mary to give courage to women? When Mary sings the Magnificat, does she not do so also as a woman and in the name of all women? When she speaks of the arrogant of heart and mind, the imperial powers on their thrones, and the rich who will be sent away empty-handed, could there not be some reference to male arrogance, dominance and self-sufficiency? When she speaks of the marvellous way in which God lifts up the humble and satisfies the hungry, does she not also think of how a woman, looked down upon by men, is given a key position by God? Don't we have here an echo of the song of Deborah who foretold Barak that not he, but a woman, would have the glory of victory:

'Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen's mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head.' (Judg 5, 24-26).

Isn't Mary the 'woman' of whom it had been said:

'I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed' (Gen 3, 15)?


Mary's internal share in Christ's priesthood to such an eminent degree argues a fortiori to woman's capability of exercising external priestly functions. Luke's interest in the ministry of women makes his description of Our Lady's ministry a scriptural source of hope, reflection and expectation of great possibilities.

It seems theologically sound to say that Mary's personality and her role in redemption established once and for all the complete equality of women in God's eyes and, therefore, by right in the Church. This would naturally include, to my mind, the capability of acting in the name of Christ at the eucharist table or in the confessional.

From "Did Christ Rule out Women Priests?" by John Wijngaards, McCrimmon's, Great Wakering 1986, pgs. 84-87.

See also:

our whole section on the devotion to Mary as Priest!
Luke's portrait of Mary, Theology Digest, St.Louis Univ., Missouri. 36:1 (Spring, 1989) by Marie-Louise Gubler

John Wijngaards

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