Mary, the Mother of God
It is often the teaching on Mary that confounds and creates obstacles for our non-Catholic brethren. As Catholics we believe Mary plays a special part in the salvific mission of Christ because of her privileged role as mother of the redeemer. It is important to note that when we speak of Mary as “mother of God” we do not mean she is the origin of God’s divinity. However, because Mary was the chosen vessel by which God revealed himself in human form through the incarnation of Christ, and because Christ is also fully divine (Second Person of the Trinity) Mary is therefore mother of the whole person of Christ, whose natures are fully human and divine.
In the third century, the early Church Fathers began referring to Mary in the Greek as the theotokos or “God-bearer.” At the same time, the archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, falsely claimed that Mary only gave birth to the human nature of Christ, which would only mean that the two natures of Christ (human and divine) were completely divided and functioned separately thus negating the very purpose for the Incarnation. Nestorius’ heretical position was later refuted by St. Cyril of Alexandria who used the term hypostatic to describe the union of the human and divine natures in Christ:
We must follow these words and teachings, keeping in mind what ‘having been made flesh’ means …. We say … that the Word, by having united to himself hypostatically flesh animated by a rational soul, inexplicably and incomprehensibly became man.Saint Cyril of Alexandria. St. Cyril of Alexandria: Letters. Trans. John McEnerney. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1987. Print.
Since human and divine natures reside fully in the person of Jesus Christ, it would be theologically proper to refer to Mary as “mother of God,” which was solemnly defined at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.
The Communion of Saints
The other more common misconception held by non-Catholics about what Catholics believe is the church’s teaching on the communion of Saints.
The communion of Saints is simply the union of the blessed in heaven with the faithful on earth and the holy souls in purgatory. We are all united in Christ’s Mystical Body with Christ as our head. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:27) and also affirms that “he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church…” (Col. 1:18).
The mystical members of Christ’s body are composed in three stages: the Church Triumphant in heaven, the Church Militant on earth and the Church Suffering in purgatory. The saintly men and women of heaven reflect the radiance of God’s glory to the degree in which they grew in virtue in their earthly life. The holy people on earth are referred to as “militant” because they strive daily to know, love and serve God amidst the battle with temptations from the world, the flesh and the devil. Lastly, the poor souls of Purgatory willingly suffer their purification for the guilt of venial sins committed in their earthly life and make atonement for the temporal punishments that remain as a result of those sins.
These threefold levels of Christ’s Mystical Body is intricately connected in a single communion, as we profess the same faith and doctrine, obey the same authority and kingship of Christ and spiritually assist one another with our prayers. The Church Triumphant is able to assist the souls on earth and in purgatory with their prayers as their prayers rise like incense before God’s presence (cf. Revelation 8:4). The earthly members of the Church Militant give honor to the saintly men and women who have gone before us and we can aid the suffering souls in purgatory by our prayers, fasting, good works, alms and indulgences we may earn on their behalf. Finally, the Church Suffering, in return, can pray for the sanctification of the faithful on earth as well.
To learn more about the Communion of Saints, click here.