In his address to the bishops at the end of the third session of the Second Vatican Council (November 21, 1964), Pope Paul VI with a degree of formality proclaimed the most Blessed Mary to be Mother of the Church.
A month earlier, Cardinal Wyszynski, representing the Bishops of Poland, asked that the pope and the Council renew the consecration of the human race to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and that she be given the title of Mater Ecclesiae or its equivalent.
This proposal was discussed by the Doctrinal Commission but for pastoral and ecumenical reasons was rejected on a 19 to 8 vote. A more acceptable title was suggested, namely Mater fidelium (Mother of the faithful).
In the process of revising chapter 8 of Vatican II’s constitution Lumen gentium (the chapter on Mary), the Doctrinal Commission suggested that the text of #53 should add as a compromise that “The catholic church, taught by the holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and devotion as a most beloved mother.”
The Commission explained its reluctance to use the proposed description, saying, “The phrase mater ecclesiae is sometimes found in ecclesiastical writers, but very rarely, and it cannot be said to be traditional. Moreover, it is generally accompanied by such titles as ‘daughter’ and ‘sister’ of the Church. It is therefore evident that it is being used in a comparative sense. From the ecumenical point of view, the title can certainly not be recommended, although it can be admitted theologically. The Commission therefore deemed it sufficient to express the idea in equivalent terms.”
It was said that Pope Paul responded to the news with, “I’m a little sorry –but patience!”
Six weeks later, in his closing address, Pope Paul spoke to the assembled bishops about the Council’s steps toward aggiornamento, especially pointing to the Constitution on the Church and the decree on ecumenism. Council historian Xavier Rynne said Paul looked “glum and tense” as he entered the hall –the third session of the Council had been tension-filled and disappointing to the majority.
Rynne’s account then adds, “A final disappointment awaited the bishops and particularly the Protestant observer-delegates. Everyone knew that the Pope intended to confer the title ‘Mother of the Church’ on Mary, for he had announced that he would do so at an audience on Wednesday, and intimated earlier in the session that this was his intention.”
The Commission and the Council fathers had worked out and accepted (in Rynne’s words) a “carefully worded, balanced, ecumenically-inspired, collegially expressed” teaching that avoided using the term mater ecclesiae, but Pope Paul’s public use of the description seemed to many to be reversing a decision of the Council and a sacrificing of the interests of the majority to appease the minority. It was a challenge to ecumenism.
In subsequent years after the Council a votive Mass in honor of Blessed Mary Mother of the Church was inserted into the Roman Missal, use of the title was added to the Litany of Lorreto, and countries and dioceses which petitioned to have a Mother of the Church memorial Mass added to their particular calendars were permitted to do so.
Now, as of 2018, according to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Divine Cult and Discipline of the Sacraments, “Pope Francis has decreed that the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, should be inscribed in the Roman Calendar on the Monday after Pentecost and be now celebrated every year.”
Fourth century theologian St. Augustine in his Sanctae Virginitate came close to describing Mary as mother of the Church when he wrote that she is “clearly the mother of His members” (6). In the 19th century Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Adjutricem populi wrote that Mary is invoked “as Mother of the Church and the teacher and Queen of the Apostles.” Twentieth century theologian Hugo Rahner is credited with the discovery that the term Mater ecclesiae was applied to Mary by St. Ambrose in the 4th Century, and Rahner’s Mariology is said to have had a strong influence on Pope Paul VI.
Whether the insistence on this title and the addition of this obligatory memorial will have negative consequences on the Church’s ecumenical dialogue remain to be seen, but it is not likely that most Catholics will have adverse reaction to honoring Mary with this special title and celebration. It is a small step from calling Mary "our Blessed Mother" to calling her "Mother of the Church."
It is well-known that Pope Francis has a profound devotion to Mary. In his book on Pope Francis, Pray For Me, Robert Moynihan notes that there are an estimated two thousand titles for the Virgin Mary. Pope Francis’special attachment to Mary as "Untier of Knots," one of the least known titles, is “rapidly growing in importance.” Perhaps the papal insistence on honoring Mary as Mother of the Church is a preliminary step toward establishment of a memorial Mass honoring Mary as Untier of Knots.
We can hope (and pray) that the Mother of the Church will help set her Son’s followers free to live, to love, and to be the Church her Son intended.