The closest vote at the Second Vatican Council was over whether to discuss the Virgin Mary in a separate document or to include that discussion as part of its document on the Church.
The council fathers – wisely, in my opinion – opted to include their treatise on Mary as the final chapter of Lumen Gentium (The Constitution on the Church).
That decision, however, was not without problems. The not-so-succinct title of the chapter – The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church – points to the problem. The chapter tries to provide an overview of the vast realm of Marian theology and devotion.
Nevertheless, it does give a broad framework for discussing the Virgin Mary. Years later, some of the blanks in that framework were filled in by Pope Paul VI's encyclical Marialus Cultus and Blessed John Paul II's encyclical Redemptoris Mater.
Lumen Gentium pins down the essential paradox in paragraph 53. Mary, on one hand, is a person "far surpassing all creatures, both in heaven and on earth." On the other hand, "she is at the same time also united to all those who are to be saved." Mary stands apart from humanity; she also is in complete solidarity with the human race.
Mary prayed with the disciples for the coming of the Spirit upon the Church.
The document studiously avoids adopting titles for Mary such as "coredemptrix" or "mediatrix of all graces" which many Marian devotees have championed, but which the council fathers believed would cause confusion and raise barriers with other Christian churches which rightly teach that Christ is the sole redeemer and the only mediator.
In the context of the time, it can be said that Lumen Gentium brought Mary down to earth. It did not in any way denigrate or diminish her role, but it placed a new emphasis on Mary as a member of the Church and as a model for Christian living.
Mary is not to be adored, the document states, but she is to be imitated. She "received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world" (53).
Her faith was total. Not only did she agree, at the request of the angel, to be the mother of the messiah, but she also participated extensively in Jesus' life and ministry even though its full meaning was unclear to her.
Mary represents a challenge to my own faith. While I always want to know where God is taking me, she accepts the obscurity of God's plan and "kept all these things to be pondered in her heart" (57). She is perfectly open to God's will even when she does not know what that will is.
But Mary is more than a model of perfect faith; she is also, in her faith, charity and perfect union with Christ, a model of the Church itself. As the mother of Jesus, she generates and forms the faithful to follow her Son. If you want to know the essence of the Church, look not to its hierarchical structure, but rather to Mary.
This can be seen in the fact that the Church is herself a mother. "By preaching and Baptism, she brings forth daughters and sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life" (64). The Church is also a virgin in that it keeps the faith pure and in its entirety.
The Church's motherhood can also be seen in that by seeking Christ and his glory, it becomes increasingly like Jesus' mother (65).
Mary who now dwells bodily in heaven, the council fathers teach, "is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come" (68). We are God's pilgrim people; Mary is the sign that our hope is not in vain.
Lumen Gentium also briefly deals with Marian devotion. It urges the faithful to refrain from "all false exaggeration" of Mary's role as well as from summarily dismissing her special dignity of the Mother of God.
True devotion avoids sentimental affection as well as "a certain vain credulity." Rather, it consists in a filial devotion to the Mother of God and to an imitation of her virtues (67).
Lumen Gentium's discussion of Mary was a fitting place to conclude its discussion of the nature of the Church. By focusing on the Mother of God, it personifies the fact that the Church is more a communion than it is an institution. The Church is only secondarily a hierarchy; in its heart, it is a mother.