The priesthood of Mary

 — Dec. 4, 19994 déc. 1999

Christian love for Mary has included down the centuries, among popes, theologians and people, a conviction that she is a model priest. The tradition has risked being lost to sight because of the controversy over women’s ordination. It is here explored in depth by the director of the Housetop centre for communications in London.

With our short ecclesiastical memories, we have almost forgotten that in the run-up to its dogmatic definition in 1854, Mary’s Immaculate Conception was often justified on the grounds of her being a priest. Tradition frequently applied the words found in Hebrews 7:26 to her: “It is fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” The Benedictine prior Jacques Biroat wrote in 1666 that “Paul’s reasoning” in Hebrews 7:26 “is relevant to Christ’s mother. She shares in the priesthood of her son and is the origin of our reconciliation to God. Therefore, she had to be entirely innocent and separate from sinners. She had to be preserved from original sin.” Mary was immaculately conceived because she had to be a priest without stain. Mary has captured the Catholic imagination more than any other person except Jesus. Generation after generation has seen in her the highest reflection of saintliness and love. Catholics have been fond of Mary because she is Jesus’ own mother. They also respected her as his closest associate in redemption, as his first “priest.”

A pastoral worker in the Netherlands recently drew my attention to a sixth-century mosaic depicting Mary wearing a chasuble and stole. She had come across its description while researching on the theme of Mary visiting Elizabeth. During the summer she and her husband planned their holiday around it: it took them to the ancient parish church of Parenzo in Croatia and, indeed, the coloured mosaic behind the altar showed Mary in priestly garments blessing a pregnant Elizabeth. For reasons that will become clear, she, as most Catholics today, had not been aware of the link between Mary and the priesthood. Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-57), the founder of the famous seminary of St Sulpice in Paris, could have told her differently: “The Blessed Virgin’s greeting had the effect, on St John in Elizabeth’s womb, of the sacramental words of baptism, sanctifying him and imparting the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. . . Thus the Blessed Virgin, as bishop in the Church, confirmed the son of the high priest Zechariah, making him holy and, through the imposition of her power, imprinting the Holy Spirit on him.”

All Christian believers share in Christ’s priesthood, but the priestly role ascribed to Mary went well beyond the common priesthood of the faithful. Ferdinand Chirino de Salazar SJ (1575-1646) echoed centuries of tradition when he wrote: “Christ, ‘the anointed’, poured out the abundance of his anointing on Mary, making her a saint, a queen and a priest forever. Mary obtained a priesthood more eminent and excelling than that possessed by anyone else. For in unison with priests who are performing the sacred mysteries and together with Christ and in the same mystical way as he does, she always offers the eucharistic sacrifice, just as, at one with him, she offered the sacrifice on Calvary.” Tradition focused on Mary as a sacrificial priest, a belief that had started in the early Church.

The Fathers of the Church pointed out that Mary belonged to a priestly family, as her relationship to Elizabeth shows. She was “Aaron’s staff which has budded forth as a guarantee of the eternal priesthood” (St Methodius). According to legends Mary had spent her childhood in the Holy of Holies, where only the high priests could enter, and then once a year. “Who has ever seen or heard anything the like, that a woman was introduced into the intimacy of the Holy of Holies, a place inaccessible even to men?” (St Germanus of Constantinople). The Fathers loved calling Mary “the sanctuary,” “the ark of the covenant,” “the golden thurible” and “the altar of incense,” implying her priestly dignity. “Hail young woman, sacrificial priest, worldwide propitiation for mortals, by whom from the East to the West the name of God is glorified among all nations and who in every place offers a sacrifice of incense to his name, as the holy Malachi says” (Theodore the Studite).

Mary’s priesthood was worked out in much more detail during the Middle Ages. Points of departure were the scriptural texts in which she was seen to have performed sacrificial functions. At the presentation in the Temple, for instance, Mary functioned as “an ordained virgin who offered Jesus for our reconciliation as a victim agreeable to God,” in the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Ubertino of Casale (1259-1330) added that there was no other priest. Only she could offer Jesus, and she was, after Jesus, the greatest of all priests.

It became a common theme. “When the sacred Virgin arrived at the altar, she knelt down, inflamed by the Holy Spirit more than the seraphim are, and holding her son in her arms, she offered him as a gift and acceptable sacrifice to God, praying in this way: ‘Accept, almighty Father, the oblation which I offer for the whole world. Accept now from the arms of your handmaid this holy morning sacrifice which will be offered to you again, later, from the arms of the cross as the evening sacrifice” (St Thomas of Villanova, 1486-1555).

Many theologians commented on the fact that Mary stood under the cross, in the posture of a sacrificing priest. Among them we find St Antoninus of Florence, a Doctor of the Church (13891459). “Mary is the ‘queen who stands at God’s right hand in gold apparel’ (Ps 45,14). She is also the righteous priestess because she did not spare her own son, but stood by the cross, not as blessed Ambrose says, just to witness the sufferings and death of her son, but to further the salvation of the human race, committed as she was to offering the Son of God for the salvation of the world.” As Fr. F.W. Faber put it in 1857: “Mary was the minister of the Incarnation. She had as little the right to come down from Calvary as a priest would have to leave the altar while the sacrifice of Mass is going on.”

It is not possible here to give more than a taste of the rich and continuous tradition that venerated Mary’s priesthood. Extensive documentation on more than 100 representative theologians, bishops and spiritual writers spanning 16 centuries has now been translated into English and made available on the Internet ( They range from Epiphanius II: “I call the Virgin both priest and altar, she, the ‘tablebearer’ who has given the Christ, the heavenly bread for the forgiveness of sins” (eighth century) to Pope Pius IX who wrote: “From his virginal conception to his cruel death, Mary united herself so closely to the sacrifice of her divine Son that she has been called the ‘Virgin Priest’ by the Fathers of the Church” (1873). But if Mary was so constantly and confidently acclaimed a priest, what about the complication of her being a woman? It was a problem of which tradition was well aware.

In the Greco-Roman culture that dominated the thinking of the Fathers no less than that of medieval theologians, it was inconceivable for a woman to be entrusted with the leadership roles implied in the priesthood. Women were considered inferior to men both intellectually and emotionally. As “incomplete human beings” they could not hold any public office. Consequently they were deemed incapable of wielding sacred power or of representing Christ who, as a man, had been a complete human being. Because of their monthly periods women were also “a ritual risk,” best kept out of the sanctuary for fear of defilement. Theological rationalisations were added for good measure: Christ had not chosen a woman among the apostolic team; God kept women in submission in punishment for their share in original sin; Paul had forbidden women to teach, and so on. How did this apply to Mary?

During the first 10 centuries the tradition of Mary’s priestly status grew without being explicitly confronted with the ban against women, though the tension was there. In the fourth century, Epiphanius of Salamis had pointed out that if Mary had been a priest, Jesus would have been baptised by her and not by John the Baptist. It did not stop tradition extolling Mary’s priestly dignity. But the contradiction was tackled head-on only by legal-minded medieval scholars.

It was St Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church (c. 1200-1280), who formulated the classic solution. Mary has not received the sacramental character of holy orders, he tells us, but she possesses the substance of the sacrament in abundance. In any hierarchy, superiors possess all powers and dignities of their inferiors. Since Mary occupies the highest level in the Church, she possesses eminently whatever dignities and powers priests, bishops and even popes possess.

Did St Albert the Great not realise that this has consequences for an exclusion of women from ordination merely based on their sex? I believe he did. It is significant that he carefully listed the standard objections against the ordination of women, but then, in deviation from his practice regarding all other questions, omitted to pronounce his own judgement on them. Entrapped though he was in the cultural and theological prejudices of his time, did he grasp that in Mary the ban against women might have been decisively broken?

Other theologians followed St Albert’s thinking in a myriad of ways. In ordinary priests the sacramental character is external, in Mary it lies inherent. It was the Holy Spirit himself who anointed her at the moment of her conception. Mary shared in the priestly anointing Jesus had received, who was, after all, the “anointed” par excellence. Just as Jesus was never formally ordained, although he is the high priest for ever, so Mary is the greatest priest after him without sacramental ordination.

The devotion to Mary Priest obviously struggled to make a point sometimes stated explicitly: “In Mary the obstacle of her sex has been overcome by the authority of the saints, by the example of Scripture and the power of reason” (Antonio Vieira SJ, 16081697). Do we not have here the voice of latent tradition: an awareness in the heart of Christian belief, strong in spite of surrounding prejudices, that the priesthood should not be refused to women because of their sex, since, if any is a priest, Mary is?

The acceptance of women priests that seems implied in the recognition of Mary as Priest may well exemplify the ancient concept of the “Gospel in the heart,” the “sense of the faithful.” Yves Congar describes it as “living tradition, living because it resides in minds that consciously or unconsciously live by it, in a history which comprises activity, problems, doubts, opposition, new contributions and questions that need answering.” Cardinal Newman reminds us that “the absence of dogmatic statements is no proof of the absence of impressions or implicit judgements, in the mind of the Church. Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls.”

Discussion of Mary’s priesthood came to an abrupt end at the beginning of this century. While Leo XIII in 1904 had still accepted, with approval, a painting of Mary in priestly vestments, the Holy Office forbade in 1913 the practice of portraying Mary as a priest. In 1907 St Pius X had still attached a 300-day indulgence to the prayer: “Mary, Virgin Priest, pray for us,” but in 1926 the Holy Office declared that the devotion to Mary Priest “is not approved and may not be promoted.” Is it a coincidence that just at that time the campaign for women’s ordination began to stir in other Christian Churches?

In our attic of forgotten treasures lies also the ancient conviction that Mary, priest without stain, supports priests in their ministry. Priests used to recommend themselves to her care, and to formulate, before each Mass, the intention of offering the Eucharist through Mary’s immaculate and priestly hands. St Ignatius of Loyola had a vision in which he saw the Blessed Virgin assisting him especially at the moment of consecration. Priests hailed Mary as their “model,” “the first priest after Christ.” Tradition’s comment is, perhaps, best expressed in a fifteenth-century French painting that shows Mary standing at the altar and wearing priestly vestments, about to distribute Holy Communion. The Pope kneels before her. Should we see any significance in a frowning angel painted next to the Holy Father, holding his precious tiara?

Posted: Dec. 4, 1999 • Permanent link:
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