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The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life

"Chapter V: All Grace Through Her Hands"


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SINCE Mary shared with her divine Son in atoning for us and in meriting1 the inexhaustible treasury of grace for us, she now shares with Him in the distribution of all graces. As Pope Pius XII observed in a sermon delivered before his election as Pope, "The unity of the divine plan demands" that "Mary should cooperate equally in the two phases of the same work."2

This doctrine that Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces is very old. It is implicitly contained in the New Eve concept, for the first Eve, according to God's original plan, was to have been, with Adam, the means of the transmission of sanctifying grace to all their descendants. But fairly clear, explicit statements of this doctrine appear much earlier than they did on the matter of Mary's role in the sacrifice of Calvary. Thus, for example, in a prayer which is almost certainly by St. Ephraem, the fourth-century Syrian Doctor of the Church, we note mat Mary is called "dispensatrix of all goods."3 Or again, Theodotus of Ancyra, one of the most prominent of the Fathers at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431), called Mary "dispensatrix of good things."4 Basil of Seleucia (+ c. A.D. 458) addressed Mary as the "Mediatrix of God and men."5 It would be easy to add ocher quotations from the patristic period.

The first writer to dwell clearly and at length on this doctrine, however, was the great Cistercian Doctor of the Church, St. Bernard (+ A.D. 1153), who speaks of the universal mediation in many places. He does so at great length in his famous sermon "On the Aqueduct,"6 but it will be sufficient for our purpose to quote one short but clear passage from another work of St. Bernard. In a sermon on the Vigil of Christmas, the Saint said: "God wished us to have nothing that would not pass through the hands of Mary."7 Another great theologian of the universal mediation of Mary is St. Bernardine of Siena (+ A.D. 1444). Pope Leo XIII made his own the doctrine of St. Bernardine: speaking of the fact that in the Rosary we first say the Our Father, and then the Hail Mary, Pope Leo XIII wrote:

... after invoking Him with excellent prayers, our voice of supplication Burns from the throne of His Majesty to Mary, precisely in accord with this rule of conciliation and deprecation which has been expressed thus by St. Bernardine of Siena: "Every grace which is communicated to this world has a threefold course. For, in accord with excellent order, it is dispensed from God to Christ, from Christ to the Virgin, from the Virgin to us.8

Saint Pius X likewise prized the teaching of St. Bernard and St. Bernardine, and in his great encyclical, the Ad diem illum, he said:

... Mary, as St. Bernard fittingly remarks, is the "channel," or even the neck through which the body is joined to the head, and likewise through which the head exerts its power and strength on the body. "For she is the neck of our Head, by which all spiritual gifts are communicated to His Mystical Body" [St. Bernardine].9

A very forceful passage is found in another encyclical of Pope Leo XIII:

And therefore no less correctly can one affirm that absolutely nothing of that great treasury of all grace which the Lord brought us (for "grace and truth came by Jesus Christ")- nothing of it is given to us except through Mary, for such is the will of God: so that just as no one can go to the Most High Father except through the Son, in much the same way (ita fere) no one can come to Christ except through His Mother.10

It would be a simple matter to multiply passages stating the same truth from the saints of the past and the Popes of our own era. Although some few theologians11 dispute the immediate co-operation of Mary in the objective redemption, yet there is no dispute over the fact that Mary is Mediatrix of all graces. In fact, the unanimity of theologians on this matter has been officially noted in the decree of the Congregation of Rites by which Pope Pius XII approved two miracles for the canonization of St. Louis de Montfort. After speaking of the doctrine that "God wished us to have all through Mary," the text of the decree continues: "All theologians now agree in holding this most tender and salutary doctrine."12

As we have noted, there is no dispute over the fact that Mary is Mediatrix of all graces. But it is one thing to agree that the doctrine is true that in some way Mary serves as Mediatrix of all graces but quite another to explain in precisely what way. The expressions commonly used to state this doctrine are largely metaphorical. It is said that all graces come through the hands of Mary, or that Mary is the channel, or is in the position of the neck in the Mystical Body. The problem is to find what literal truth is contained in these figures of speech.

All theologians admit a certain fundamental truth in this matter: Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces at least through her intercession, through the fact that she asks for all graces for us by her prayers.13 Some theologians, however, would go farther, and add a statement that Mary actually serves as a physical instrument, through which grace literally passes. We might make the difference clear by a comparison. Suppose that the son of a poor man goes to the queen of his land, and asks her to help him obtain from the king a considerable sum of money needed to provide medical help for his father. The queen intercedes with the king, and obtains the grant of the needed sum. In sending the money to the poor man, the king might hand it to the queen, and she in turn could pass it on to the poor man. Or the king might merely send a servant to the poor man, so that the money would not actually pass through the hands of the queen.

If the queen merely obtains the favor, but does not actually handle it on its way to the poor man, she is acting only by way of intercession. But if she also handles the money after the king has granted it, she serves as a physical instrument in its transmission. Similarly, if Mary not only obtains graces by her intercession, but also as it were "handles" them on their way from her Divine Son to us, she is a physical instrument of grace. If grace literally and physically passes through Mary, then the texts alluding to her as the "channel" or the "neck" of the Mystical Body have a much fuller and richer sense.14

It does not seem possible at the present time to be sure whether or not Mary, in addition to her intercession, also serves as a physical instrument. We can, however, bring forth two considerations which, though inconclusive, do favor the idea of physical instrumentality.

First of all, a similar problem exists when we think of the sacraments, since the Council of Trent said that the sacraments contain the grace that they signify. In attempting to explain this statement of the Council, theologians employ theories that are precisely parallel to those we have just examined in regard to Mary's influence in distributing grace. In the case of the sacraments, we have the weighty authority of St. Thomas favoring the idea that the sacraments serve as physical instruments.15 Of course, the fact that St. Thomas favors that theory for the sacraments does not prove he would favor such a theory when applied to Mary's influence; since the two problems are parallel, however, it does at least show that it is not impossible that Mary could have such a role. The Thomists are even willing to say that a priest giving absolution is a physical instrument of grace, and surely Mary is no less closely united to God than is the priest who absolves!

The second consideration favoring the idea of Mary as a physical instrument is the fact that this view seems to accord better with the papal texts and with the words of the saints of the past on this subject. Especially does this view fit well with the passage cited above in which Pope Leo XIII quotes St. Bernardine of Siena as saying:

Every grace ... has a threefold course. For, in accord with excellent order, it is dispensed from God to Christ, from Christ to the Virgin, and from the Virgin to us.

Of course it is possible, though somewhat difficult, to understand this text as meaning mere intercession; but the text has a more natural and full meaning if we suppose that grace, after originating in the Divine Nature, and passing through the Sacred Humanity of Christ, next passes physically through Mary's instrumentality. In spite of these considerations, however, we must openly admit that in the present state of the evidence it seems to be impossible to prove which of these theories is correct. One thing we do know: Whatever be the manner, Mary certainly is the Mediatrix of all graces.

A question is sometimes asked about what place the sacraments occupy, in view of the fact that Mary is Mediatrix of all graces. Since the sacraments really contain and produce grace, as the Council of Trent says, where is there room for Mary? The answer is obvious. Whatever grace is dispensed through the sacraments (1) has been earned by both Christ and Mary, as we have seen, and (2) its application has been obtained through Mary's power of intercession. These facts alone are sufficient to answer the question, but, in addition, we may note that Mary also leads us to frequent the sacraments, and obtains for us the disposition to profit from them. Whether or not we may go still further depends on which view is true about Mary's influence in the dispensation of all graces. If we think her role is mere intercession, we cannot go further. But if she is a physical instrument of grace, we can trace the course of grace thus: Grace begins in the Divine Nature, passes through the Sacred Humanity of Christ ( a physical instrument), passes through Mary (also a physical instrument), and finally passes through the sacrament ( also a physical instrument). So we have here another argument for the view that Mary serves as a physical instrument of grace.

Another question sometimes asked about Mary's distribution of all graces is this: How can Mary, being a creature, know the needs of all men? The answer again is quite simple. St. Thomas gives the principle: "No blessed intellect fails to know ... all the things that pertain to itself."16 That is, anyone who enjoys the beatific vision sees God Himself. God is the abyss of all knowledge, and all things are contained in that vision. Each one who beholds that vision by the light of glory sees all the things that concern him. Hence we may say that although Mary is a creature, yet, in the vision of the divine essence, she sees all that pertains to her. But she has been constituted Mother of all men-hence, obviously, the needs of all do pertain to her, and therefore she sees the needs of all of us. The fact that there are so many for whom she must care is not a problem-though many, the number is not infinite, and so does not exceed the capacity of a finite mind enlightened by so enormous a degree of the light of glory in the vision of the divine essence.

This is a consoling doctrine to think upon, for it makes clear to us that it is no mere figure of speech to say that Mary is out Mother. The function of a mother is to give life to a child, and then to take care of it. Mary has literally given life to us: supernatural life, which she, though only through and subordinate to her Son, earned for us, and which she dispenses constantly to us, since she is enabled, by the vision of the essence of God, to know all our needs. Hence we see another sense in which Mary is the New Eve: she is in an especially true sense the "mother of all the living."17

Let us cite one more passage from Pope Pius XII, one that shows us forcefully that we must make no exceptions to Mary's influence. At the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we do not merely find Mary with the Apostles, but in addition,

She it was who, by her most mighty prayers, obtained that the Spirit of the Divine Redeemer, already given on the Cross, should be bestowed on the new-born Church on the day of Pentecost, in the company of miraculous gifts.18


1 Note in Context:
Note that the term merit has a different sense when we speak of the merits of Christ and Mary on Calvary from what it has when any one of us merits. The merit of Calvary filled up a great reservoir of grace once and for all. Nothing is ever added to that treasury. When anyone merits now, he does not earn that new grace be added to the treasury, but that something be withdrawn from the treasury and distributed.
2 Note in Context:
For the complete text, see Appendix III, B, 6.
3 Note in Context:
St. Ephraem died in A.D. 373. The text is quoted from Druwé, "La Médiation universelle de Marie," Du Manoir, Maria, I, 543.
4 Note in Context:
Ibid., p. 544.
5 Note in Context:
6 Note in Context:
PL 183:437-48.
7 Note in Context:
PL 183:100.
8 Note in Context:
September 8 1894, ASS 27:179.
9 Note in Context:
February 2, 1904, ASS 36:454.
10 Note in Context:
September 22, 1891, ASS 24:195-96.
11 Note in Context:
See note 16 on clap. III and Appendix III, esp. C.
12 Note in Context:
January 11, 1942, AAS 34:44. At times one meets with a statement expressing doubt on this doctrine, in an out-of-date work, or by some writer who is either careless, or who, not being a professional theologian, is not acquainted with recent theological developments. As the decree just quoted implies, all professional theologians agree that the papal texts are so categorical and dear that the matter is inescapable.
13 Note in Context:
In addition, we may note that even if Mary had no role in the actual distribution of graces, her share in earning all graces would justify the tide of Mediatrix of all graces.
14 Note in Context:
According to the first theory, Mary is merely the moral cause of the distribution of grace; in the second theory, she is a physical-instrumental cause. There is a third theory in which she is an intentional-dispositive cause, that is, she produces in us, before we receive grace, a special sort of disposition, or rather, a designation or title that in a certain way calls for grace. Not many theologians favor the third theory.
15 Note in Context:
ST, III, q.62, a.4.
16 Note in Context:
Ibid., q.10, a.2.
17 Note in Context:
Gen. 3:20.
18 Note in Context:
Mystici Corporis (June 29, 1943), AAS 35:248.

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