Pope Benedict XVI humbly
prays to Our Lady in Fatima

The Marian dimension of the Church precedes the Petrine
Fr. Jordi Rivero

Just as the disciples did not understand who  Jesus was, today many Catholics do not understand what is the most fundamental reality of the Church. She is popularly known mainly by its hierarchical structure.

I hope to demonstrate, based mainly on the writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, that, while both the Marian and the Petrine dimensions of the Church are essential, the second is at the service of the first.  

 To explain the structure of the Church, Von Balthasar speaks of several principles. The best known is the "Petrine principle", which refers to its hierarchical structure with the apostolic role of Peter, the Apostles and their successors. Another is the Pauline principle which represents its missionary dimension and so on.

All the principles of the Church, however, are oriented towards the primary one which is the "Marian principle". It refers to the very reason why the Church exists: To correspond with love to God's infinite love. It is called "Marian" because Mary, with her total FIAT, is the prototype of such love response. To be "the prototype" means that Mary is the first finished model of what all Christians should become. Von Balthasar writes: "Before men were placed into office, the whole Church was present in Mary". Just as Mary lived intimately united to the Trinity, we too are called to respond to the action of the Holy Spirit so that Christ reigns in us and directs us to live in faithful love and obedience to the Father.

This Marian total surrender of love to God is the essence of holiness. All dimensions of the Church, all structures and institutions, including the hierarchy are totally ordered to foster this holiness in her members. Mary is the point of reference. Where the Marian principle is central there is an authentic presence of the Church.   

In the words of the Catechism:

In the Church this communion of men with God, in the "love [that] never ends," is the purpose which governs everything in her that is a sacramental means, tied to this passing world. "[The Church's] structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ's members. And holiness is measured according to the 'great mystery' in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom." Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church's mystery as "the bride without spot or wrinkle." (Eph 5:27). This is why the "Marian" dimension of the Church precedes the "Petrine."   CCC 773

The Catechism, above, cites John Paul II's 1988 apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women #27. The letter also teaches that all the baptized (priests and laity) are the Church, the bride of Christ. As brides they are also a royal priesthood because they offer themselves united to Christ in sacrificial love. The role of the priests and bishops is to serve the bride in achieving her sacrifice, remembering that they too are the bride:  

(Participation in Christ) expresses at the same time the "great mystery" described in the Letter to the Ephesians: the bride united to her Bridegroom; united, because she lives his life; united, because she shares in his threefold mission (tria munera Christi); united in such a manner as to respond with a "sincere gift" of self to the inexpressible gift of the love of the Bridegroom, the Redeemer of the world. This concerns everyone in the Church, women as well as men. It obviously concerns those who share in the a ministerial priesthood, which is characterized by service. In the context of the "great mystery" of Christ and of the Church, all are called to respond - as a bride - with the gift of their lives to the inexpressible gift of the love of Christ, who alone, as the Redeemer of the world, is the Church's Bridegroom. The "royal priesthood", which is universal, at the same time expresses the gift of the Bride.

This is of fundamental importance for understanding the Church in her own essence, so as to avoid applying to the Church - even in her dimension as an "institution" made up of human beings and forming part of history - criteria of understanding and judgment which do not pertain to her nature.

The Second Vatican Council, confirming the teaching of the whole of tradition, recalled that in the hierarchy of holiness it is precisely the "woman", Mary of Nazareth, who is the "figure" of the Church.

Cardinal Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy wrote in his letter to the bishops, Dec 8, 2007:

According to the constant content of Sacred Tradition, the mystery and reality of the Church cannot be reduced to the hierarchical structure, the liturgy, the sacraments, and juridical ordinances. In fact, the intimate nature of the Church and the origin of its sanctifying efficacy must be found first in a mystical union with Christ.

According to the doctrine and the very structure of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, such a union cannot be conceived separately from the Mother of the Word Incarnate - the one whom Jesus desired to be intimately united with Himself for the salvation of humanity.

The priest have the sacred and irreplaceable mission to make Jesus present in the Church. But they, like all the baptized, are dependant on the Lord's mercy and need to respond. That means that they can only be good priests if they are first good Christians who live the Marian dimension. Then they must exercise the ministry in humble service. Jesus told them: "If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.’" (Jn 13:15).

St. Augustine's reflection on his own primary identity as a Christian and secondarily as a bishop helps illustrate the relationship between the marian and petrine principles:

Where I’m terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you. For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian.  The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation.  Finally, as if in the open sea, I am being tossed about by the stormy activity involved in that one; but as I recall by whose blood I have been redeemed, I enter a safe harbor in the tranquil recollection of this one; and thus while toiling away at my own proper office, I take my rest in the marvelous benefit conferred on all of us in common.

So I hope the fact that I have been bought together with you gives me more pleasure than my having been placed at your head…   Please give me your help by both your prayers and your obedience.  In this way I will find pleasure not so much in being in charge of you as in being of use to you."  -St Augustine, Sermon 340.

A contemporary example of Agustine's teaching on this matter is found in a letter of Cardinal Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, to all the bishops: "Let us entrust ourselves confidently to the prayer of the whole of Holy Mother Church, to the motherhood of the People, whose pastors we are but to whom are entrusted our custody and holiness; let us ask for this fundamental support.

Benedict XVI confirms that the precedence of the Marian principle is the teaching of the II Vatican Council:

The Second Vatican Council had to pronounce on the institutional components of the Church: on the bishops and on the Pontiff, on the priests, lay people and religious, in their communion and in their relations; it had to describe the Church journeying on, "clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification ..." ("Lumen Gentium," No. 8). This "Petrine" aspect of the Church, however, is included in that "Marian" aspect. In Mary, the Immaculate, we find the essence of the Church without distortion. We ourselves must learn from her to become "ecclesial souls," as the Fathers said, so that we too may be able, in accordance with St. Paul's words, to present ourselves "blameless" in the sight of the Lord, as he wanted us from the very beginning (cf. Colossians 1:21; Ephesians 1:4).  -Homily, 12-8-05

The Marian and Petrine principles should not be seen in rivalry (which is what happens due to sin). Both are constitutive aspects of the one Church. "This link between the two profiles of the Church, the Marian and the Petrine, is therefore profound and complementary. This is so even though the Marian profile is anterior not only in the design of God but also in time, as well as being supreme and pre-eminent, richer in personal and communitarian implications for individual ecclesial vocations." -John Paul II, Address to the Roman Curia, Dec 22, 1987 n.2 >>>  1

 In the nascent Church Peter recognized Mary as the mother given to all in the Church by Christ at the cross; a certain inspiration and powerful intercessor and counselor; the first and most perfect model of faith and love. Mary, in her part, recognized and honored Peter and the Apostles as the ones who received from Christ the grace of ordination to make Him present in the sacraments, to teach and govern the Church. Since the beginning Peter was recognized as the principle of unity and the presider in charity. The faithful should recognize both principles as coming from Christ. If we forget the Petrine dimension we fall into error and division; if we forget the Marian dimension we abandon love.

The greatest gift of God to the Church is her spousal union with Christ the groom. This union, which is the essence of Christian identity, is already fulfilled in the union of Christ and Mary. 

Mary is the first member of the Church to respond in faith and the only one to do so perfectly (without sin). Yet she is always close to us. We are assured that all in her is of the Holy Spirit which is also given to us (cf. Rom 5:5) so that we too, with her and the whole Church, can be the Bride of Christ. The more we are united with Mary the more we are the bride, filled with the Holy Spirit, united with Christ. Thus we fulfill our vocation. 

 The (II Vat) Council intended to tell us this: Mary is so interwoven in the great mystery of the Church that she and the Church are inseparable, just as she and Christ are inseparable. Mary mirrors the Church, anticipates the Church in her person, and in all the turbulence that affects the suffering, struggling Church she always remains the Star of salvation. In her lies the true center in which we trust, even if its peripheries very often weigh on our soul. -Benedict XVI,  12-8-05

The mystery present in Mary is only comprehensible by grace. It is divine love dwelling in the soul as it responds to God. The depth of this union of the God and the soul in love is revealed by St. John's Gospel, in Jesus' prayer to His Father:

The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world." All other loves, if they are authentic, are a participation of this infinite love all transforming love of God. -Jn 17:22-25

How was St. John able to understand this love? Origen (Father of the Church) teaches that it is a grace which St. John received, like Mary, with all his heart. In St. John we see that the hierarchy and indeed all men are also called to holiness by entering into an intimate love relationship with Christ. St. John understood much because he loved much. There is no other way.

The greater and more perfect expressions concerning Jesus are reserved for the one who leaned on Jesus' breast. For none of the other Gospels manifested his divinity as fully as John... We might dare say then that the gospels are the firstfruits of all Scripture, but that the firstfruits of the gospels is that according to John whose meaning no one can understand who has not leaned on Jesus breast nor received Mary from Jesus' to be his mother also.   -Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John 1:21–23. 

The priest is called to be another St. John, a beloved disciple. Mary is the gate through which the disciple enters the cross. He is to stand faithfully at the Cross and receive Mary whom Jesus gives as a Mother and also as the type of the Church, the bride. The priest needs to receive the marian principle from Mary and respond by entering into the heart of Mary to be molded by the Holy Spirit in her love, her virtues and attitudes. This marian nurturing of his heart is necessary for him to become another Christ and minister in the rhythm of divine love to the bride, the Church. He is to give his life for her. 

The marian principle and the cross
According to St. Paul, the union of Jesus and His bride is the fruit of the love by which He gave Himself for her on the Cross. If we are members of the Church-bride, we too must embrace the cross in order to correspond to Him. We do so by offering our lives as a "living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Rm 12:1). We too must be crucified with the Groom: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God" (Gal 2:20). St. Paul, as bishop, is Jesus the groom, but first he is a member of the Church-bride who receives his very life and driving force from the crucified love of Christ "who loved me and gave himself for me".  His heart, like Mary's, carries the suffering of the Lord. Every Christian is called to offer his life, his suffering, the suffering of others, uniting them to Jesus at the cross because "all are called to respond - as a bride - with the gift of their lives to the inexpressible gift of the love of Christ" (J.P. II, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women n. 27).

The precedence of the Marian principle is the precedence of a love response that moves all that is authentically of the Church to union with Christ, the groom. This is the love of the cross. The Holy Father reminded the new cardinals at their installation mass of this love which they are called to live by as bridegrooms of the Church:

"The ring which I confer upon you today, proper to the cardinalatial dignity, is intended to confirm and strengthen that commitment, arising once more from a nuptial gift, a reminder to you that first and foremost you are intimately united with Christ so as to accomplish your mission as bridegrooms of the Church. May your acceptance of the ring be for you a renewal of your "yes", your "here I am", addressed both to the Lord Jesus who chose you and constituted you, and to his holy Church, which you are called to serve with the love of a spouse. So the two dimensions of the Church, Marian and Petrine, come together in the supreme value of charity, which constitutes the fulfillment of each. As St Paul says, charity is the "greatest" charism, the "most excellent way" (I Cor 12: 31; 13: 13). - Benedict XVI, March 25, 2006

Additional references

John Paul II
The Marian dimension of the Church is antecedent to that of the Petrine, without being in any way divided from it or being less complementary. Mary Immaculate precedes all others, including obviously Peter himself and the Apostles. This is so, not only because Peter and the Apostles, being born of the human race under the burden of sin, form part of the Church which is `holy formed out of sinners,’ but also because their triple function has no other purpose except to form the Church in line with ideal of sanctity already programmed and prefigured in Mary. A contemporary theologian has rightly stated that Mary is `Queen of the Apostles without any pretensions to apostolic powers: she has other and greater powers’ (H. U. von Balthasar, Neue Klarstellungen).’" -- Address to the Cardinal and Prelates of the Roman Curia (December 22, 1987); L’Osservatore Romano, December 23, 1987; footnote 55 of John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem.

Pope Francis
 The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others”. Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered “hierarchical”, it must be remembered that “it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members”. Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.”
— Encyclical ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, 2013, cf. 104

"The Council (Vatican II) does not consider the laity as though they were members of a second tier, at the service of the hierarchy and merely carrying out their orders issued from high up but instead as Christ’s disciples who are called to animate every place and human activity in the world according to the spirit of the Gospel. www.news.va

Love Crucified