Homily of Archbishop Michael Neary for Ad Limina visit to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome

23 Jan 2017

Council of Ephesus

This Basilica was one of the first Churches built to honour the Virgin Mary.  It was erected in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Ephesus in 431.  It is significant that the great heresies that threatened the mystery of the faith in the early fourth and fifth centuries had all to do with Christ and indirectly with his Mother.  The question of the precise nature of the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Christ had to be faced.  Nestorius Patriarch of Constantinople disliked certain terms such as “God the Son was crucified for us” and “ the Blessed Virgin is the Mother of God”.  For him divinity had to keep its distance from human nature. The Council of Ephesus condemned the heresy of Nestorius and taught that God truly took on our human nature and that Christ is one divine person in two natures. Mary is Theotokos, God-bearer.  In good Catholic theology devotion to our Lady has always been orientated towards Christ.  The Theotokos doctrine has kept Mariology Christocentric in the Church.

Here in Rome on our Ad Limina visit as successors of the apostles and meeting with the successor of Saint Peter we are very conscious of the Petrine dimension of the Church.  We rejoice in this as something vital for continuity, vitality and authenticity.  Many Christians outside the Roman communion sense the need, especially in an increasingly globalised world, for a visible, personal focus of Christian unity and guarantee of the tradition.

The Various Principles of the Church: Petrine, Pauline, Marian

To explain the structures of the Church the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of several principles, the best known being the ‘Petrine Principle’.  This refers to the hierarchical structure of the Church with its apostolic role of Peter, the apostles and their successors.  Another is the Pauline principle, which represents its missionary dimension.  All the other principles of the Church however are oriented towards the primary one which is the Marian principle, which reflects the very reason why the Church exists.  The Marian profile or dimension is necessary if we are to appreciate the full picture of the church. Hence the significance of our visit to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major.

The Interrelationship of Marian and Petrine

The interplay of the Petrine and the Marian dimensions of the Church is expressed in the miracle at Cana (John2: 1 -12).  Here Mary finds herself, together with Jesus and the disciples and so with Peter.  When Jesus is on the cross he gives the disciple John into the maternal care of his mother.  Here the maternal care towards her son manifests its ecclesial dimension as it is extended to the whole Church.  John, representing the community of disciples is called to accept Mary and the Church as a mother.  The fruitful functioning of the Petrine dimension of the Church presupposes the Church living out the Marian dimension.

Saint John Paul II addressing the Roman Curia in December of 1987 spoke of the link between the Marian and the Petrine as profound and complementary.  Pope Benedict acknowledged that the Petrine principle of the Church needs to be viewed in the light of the other principle, the Marian one which he acknowledged is even more fundamental (Homily on the Feast of the Annunciation 2006).  The Marian principle refers to the Church as she is endeavouring to bring about discipleship in all its facets.  The Petrine principle refers to the Church’s institutional structure and order as well as her role as teacher.  These twin profiles are seen as complementary by the last three Popes, the Marian dimension being the more fundamental.  The Petrine dimension is intended to serve and assist the faithful as they seek to live out their faith as disciples of Jesus Christ.

The Feminine and Masculine Dimensions of the Church

In an interview in March 2014, Pope Francis echoing Hans Urs von Balathasar, saw the Marian principle pointing us to the feminine nature of the Church whereas the Petrine pointed us to the masculine dimension.  These dimensions are not in competition, rather the more the Marian dimension is brought into prominence the more the nature of the Petrine as an essential service and protection of the Marian holiness is brought into view.

The first Vatican Council had concentrated largely on the Petrine dimension of the Church. To reduce the Church to the mere masculine is to lose what is authentically ecclesial about the nature of the Church. Viewing the Church as a mere organisational or institutional entity not only impoverishes her from within but also severely diminishes her authentic religious appeal and misleads women who are seeking a legitimate and fruitful role. At the Second Vatican Council the placing of the Chapter on Mary (Chapter 8) within the Church in Lumen Gentium draws attention to the Marian profile of the Church and its maternal nature. The neglect of the Church’s feminine nature has resulted in unnecessary alienation in some quarters. It is essential that we rediscover the feminine and Marian dimension of the Church.   Von Balthasar insists that the Church exists in a woman before any man was called to be an apostle.  In Mary, the Church had already physical existence before it was organised in Peter.  So Mary has primacy in a way that no Pope, Primate or Prelate could ever have.

Saint Augustine’s reflection on his own primary identity as a Christian and secondarily as a bishop helps to illustrate the relationship between the Marian and the Petrine principles:  “I am terrified by what I am for you, but I am comforted by what I am with you.  For you, I am a bishop, with you, I am a Christian”.

In our own day as we endeavour to respond positively and constructively to genuine voices calling for a greater recognition of women and the feminine in the Church, surely we have something to learn from the way in which the Marian and the Petrine dimensions interrelate and in-fact the Petrine as seen as supportive of and giving expression to the Marian.


Notes to Editors

  • Archbishop Neary is Archbishop of Tuam.
  • This Mass was concelebrated by Archbishop Neary and the Bishops of Ireland on 21 January 2017, as part of their Ad Limina visit to Rome.

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