Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J. | From "The Motherhood of the Church" | IgnatiusInsight.comMotherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J. | From The Motherhood of the Church

The foregoing leads us to a specific and fundamental principle: the Church is our mother. We would not be Christians if we did not acknowledge in her this essential characteristic. Even after their secession, the Reformers of the sixteenth century explicitly acknowledged it. [1] Calvin attached such importance to it that some reproached him for setting up in that way a divine "quaternity". In our own century, Karl Barth has gone even farther; he considers that Calvin did not really understand the full significance of the thesis expressed in this image of maternity. Why, he asks, does the author of the Christian Institute begin to speak of the Church only in his fourth book, as one of those externa media vel adminicula--of the highest importance without doubt, but still "exterior"--by which God invites us to and keeps us within the community of Christ? [2] Our traditional liturgies have also sung of this Mother. Witness this verse of a hymn from the Church of Paris for the Feast of the Dedication:

...Christus enim, norma justitiae,
Matrem nostram desponsat hodie
Quam de lacu traxit miseriae,
Ecclesiam. [3]

But finally, what is this Church? Is it necessary to consider her only in her shepherds, in those who, following the first apostles, perpetuate with authority the Word and sacraments among us? In other words, is it solely a question of that Church which we call today the hierarchical Church? No, or at least not always, and never exclusively. The hymn we have just quoted shows very clearly that it is a question of all those, without distinction, whom Christ has drawn "out of the lake of misery". And in fact it is precisely that which the most ancient patristic tradition has already declared and which all Christian centuries have repeated arid which is again declared today by those who do not consider it beneath themselves to contemplate this mystery. The Woman who, in the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, gives birth and escapes the dragon is the entire people of God. The whole Church, the entire Christian community is mother. But she is not mother in the human way. "In carnal marriage", Saint Augustine explains to us, "the mother and child are distinct; in the Church, on the contrary, mother and child are one." [4]

That is a teaching we must analyze closely.

Considered as a "body" or as a "people", Body of Christ or People of God, the Church appears first of all as a totality. She is, if it can be put this way, the total consciousness or, better yet, the total being of believers. [5] Pastors and faithful are united in one same Church; together they, form a single People, a single Body. They are all together the flock of whom Christ is the Shepherd. This is obviously Saint Irenaeus' understanding when he says, in that doctrinal summary, the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching: "The Lord has given the Church more children than he gave the Synagogue of the ancients." [6] In fact, in that previously cited Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, of which he is perhaps the principal writer and which in any case arose from the same milieu, concerning the two martyrs Alexander and Blandine, we read the following lines, which not a few would find strange today, but which reproduce expressions derived from Saint Paul:
Alexander remained standing before the tribunal and, by signs, exhorted the others to confess the faith. . . ; he seemed to those who surrounded the tribunal to be experiencing the pains of childbirth .... As for Blandine, the last of all, like a noble mother who has exhorted her children and has sent them victorious on ahead of her to the king, she herself went through all the struggles of her children as well.
And after having completed this account, the Letter ends by saying that all the martyrs whose courage it has just celebrated "left behind them neither grief to their mother, nor dispute, nor hostility between their brothers, but joy, concord and charity". [7]

With Hippolytus, and even more with Origen, arises the great theme in Christian thought, resumed indefinitely ever since, of the structural analogy between the Church and the Christian soul. Origen condenses it in his concept of the anima ecclesiastica or of the vir ecclesiasticus. Saint Ambrose expresses it by saying that "it is in the saints that the Church is beautiful", [8] and Pascal is merely summarizing a long tradition when he writes to Mlle. de Roannez that "all that happens to the Church happens also to each Christian individually". [9] If, therefore, the Church is mother, each Christian also is or should be a mother. In his place, according to his own vocation, in union with all the others, he participates in the maternal function of the Church.

It is first of all in himself that, through the action of this Church, the Christian gives birth and growth to the Word of God which he has received, from which he lives and which he makes bear fruit.
The mouth of the Father has begotten a pure Word; this Word appears a second time, born of the saints. Constantly producing saints, it is also itself reproduced by its saints. [10]
Here originate the innumerable variations on the birth and growth of the Word of God in the soul that have multiplied ever since. While derived directly from Scripture, the patristic teaching on the motherhood of the Church was occasioned rather by the paschal catecheses that provided the framework for baptismal ceremonies. This new, more subtle theme is found more in the celebration of Christmas feasts. The Western Middle Ages saw, in the three Masses said at Christmas, a symbol of the three births of the Word: the first being the eternal birth in the bosom of the Father; the second, his historical birth from the womb of the Virgin as a result of his Incarnation; and the third, fruit of the second, his spiritual birth in the womb of the Christian soul. [11] Each of these three births is produced, in its way, in silence and in secret.

"The soul which has received the seed of the Word", says Origen, "forms this received Word within her until she herself gives birth to the spirit of the fear of God." [12] Saint Bernard, who drew great inspiration from Origen, also celebrates the birth of the Word in the soul, and the Cistercian school has followed his example. "Faithful soul", says Guerric d'lgny, preaching on the Annunciation, "open your breast very wide, expand your affection, fear to be confined in your heart! Con- ceive the one whom no creature can contain." [13] This is not, however, merely a theme of one particular school. It is encountered again everywhere. The Christian soul, affirms Rupert of Deutz, "truly becomes mother of the Word of God." [14] The Rhineland mystics, Tauler and many others, hold forth on the subject at length. [15] BŽrulle sees in the mystery of the Incarnation, without prejudice to its historical reality, "a permanent mystery and not a momentary action." [16] And Saint Francis de Sales says the same thing in another way: "It is the good Jesus to whom we must give birth and produce within ourselves." [17] This simple language is that of John XXIII in his Christmas message in 1962: "O Eternal Word of the Father, son of God and son of Mary, renew once again in the secrecy of souls the wonderful marvel of your birth! " [18]

Such a doctrine is profound. It is the common possession of both Eastern and Western spirituality. Even in our own time, the Russian Orthodox Leo Zander writes: "If the Church is and remains I the body of Christ, perpetuated by the Spirit, we, her members, are all called to conceive the Lord who is born in our soul so that we might participate in the divine life." We have there, vividly expressed, the very essence of Christian mysticism; and contrary to what might first appear to be the case, this doctrine, while interiorizing the mystery, does not in itself lead to any individualistic distortion. Still, however justified, in ecclesiology itself, this application of spiritual maternity to the soul of every Christian may be, it is undoubtedly more important and in any case more immediately consistent with patristic thought to consider this maternity as that of the entire Church, which all the faithful living the life of Christ participate in spreading. That is to say, therefore, a maternity of all, indivisibly, with respect to each one, and of each one with respect to all. The more each one, on his part, is an adult in Christ--which means, as we have seen, the more intimately he is bound to his Church--the more he exercises this maternity. [19]

Clement of Alexandria understood it in this way when, after having spoken of the "perfect" ones in Christ who are all the more "little children", he went on to reunite them all in "a single virgin become mother--whom I love to call the Church.". [20] This was also Newman's understanding of it when, recounting in his Apologia the impression produced in him by the assiduous reading of the Fathers, he said: in this Church of the Fathers "I recognized my spiritual Mother . . . . The renunciations of her ascetics, the patience of her martyrs, the irresistable determination of her bishops, the joyous impetus of her forward progress, exalted and confounded me at the same time." [21] We could add that it is still understood in this way even today by those Russian believers who, without being associated with any official hierarchy, edit the little mimeographed journal entitled the Message of Salvation: "Inestimable Mother", they say in fact, "unforgettable Mother, radiant and all beautiful, Mother of sorrows, born on the Cross, you who give birth on the Cross, Mother of innumerable children, how sweet it is to meet you!" [22]


1 See the texts of Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Du Plessis-Mornay quoted in de Lubac, La foi chrŽtienne, 231-34.

[2] Dogmatique, vol. 4,. t. 2, fasc. 3 (Geneva, 1971), 2. Never, Barth goes on, here in agreement with Emil Brunner; "would an apostle have dreamed of considering the community as a mere 'external means' serving the salvation of individual Christians."

[3] ... Now Christ, the model of what all may be, Has taken Church, our mother, for his bride, Unlocked the prison of her misery-- His love is she. (trans. A. Swain, S.J.)

[4] In psalm. 127, 12 (PL, 37:1684).

[5] Cf. Hans Urs von Baithasar, ThŽologie de l'histoire, 2d ed., trans. R. Givord (Fayard, 1970), 125, 136.

[6] Demonstration, c. 94 (L.-M. Froidevaux, SC, 62:161).

[7] In Eusebius, Hist. eccles., 1., c. I, n. 49 and 55: c. 2, n. 7 (G. Bardy, SC, 41:18, 20-21, 25).

[8] De mysteriis, c. 7, 11. 39: "...In his formosa est Ecciesia" (B. Botte, SC, 25 his [1961], 176).

[9] Cf. dc Lubac, ExŽgse mŽdiŽvale, 2:558-71. "The heart of every Christian", Newman will say, "should represent the Catholic Church in miniature, for the single Spirit makes the entire Church and each of her members a temple." "Con- nection between Personal and Public Improvement", in: Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day, new ed. (1879), 132.

[10] Hippolytus, In Daniel, 1. I, c. 10 (Bardy and Lefvre, SC, 14:88).

[11] It is to the degree that this characteristic of the dependence of the third birth with respect to the second is forgotten that an extra-Christian mysticism or gnosis will develop

[12] Origen, In Levit., hom. 12, c. 7 (Baehrens, 466). Cf. 1 Jn 3:9.

[13] Sermo II in Annuntiationem (SC, 166, Morson, Costello, Deseille [19701, 41).

[14] Rupert, In Isaiam, 1. 2, c. 91 (PL, 167:1362 AB).

[15] Von Balthasar, De l'intŽgration, 259: "The supernatural fruitfulness of the soul arises entirely from the 'germ of God' . . . . But once the Word has been received, the cooperation of the soul is the indispensable condition of its growth. This explains the interweaving motifs of maternity and sonship, closely related to that of the believing soul, something which German mysticism has grasped very distinctly since Eckhart, but which Origen had already clearly seen."

[16] Opuscules de piŽtŽ, 55, 2 (ed. Rotureau, Aubier [1943], 205).

[17] Letter of January 24, 1608.

[18] Cf. de Lubac, ExŽgse mŽdiŽvale, 4 (1964), 506-13. Jean DaniŽlou, Le mystre de l'existence (1968), 67-68.

[19] Henri de Lubac, Histoire et esprit (Aubier, 1950), 61-63.

[20] Paedagogus, I. I, c. 6, 42 (SC, 70, Marrou and Harl [1960], 186); cf. 25 and 32-34 (156 and 168-72). In the sixth Stromaton, c. 16, 146, Clement, referring to Exodus 20:12, will see the mother whom he must honor rather as "divine gnosis and wisdom".

[21] Apologia pro vita sua, trans. Michelin-Delimoges (Bloud and Gay, 1939), 62.

[22] Cf. AndrŽ Martin, Les croyants en URSS (Fayard, 1970), 166. Lumen Gentium, c. 8, n. 6.

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Henri de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991) was a French Jesuit and one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. De Lubac was ordained a priest on August 22, 1927, pursued further studies in Rome until 1929, and then became a faculty member at Catholic Faculties of Theology of Lyons, where he taught history of religions until 1961. His pupils included Jean Daniélou and Hans Urs von Balthasar. De Lubac was created cardinal deacon by Pope John Paul II on February 2, 1983 and received the red biretta and the deaconry of S. Maria in Domnica, February 2, 1983. He died on September 4, 1991, Paris and is buried in a tomb of the Society of Jesus at the Vaugirard cemetery in Paris. For more about his life and a listing of his books published by Ignatius Press, visit his author page.

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