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Mary and Holy Orders

Mary and Holy Orders

How could Mary be looked upon as a priest if women cannot receive Holy Orders?

Theologians and spiritual writers were well aware of the restrictions imposed on women. They perceived an obvious tension between Mary’s priestly functions and priestly status on the one hand, and her being a member of the “weaker sex” on the other.

The objection was even directly related to Mary in a text of the 4th century that would be repeated many times in the Middle Ages:

“If women had been appointed to act as priests on behalf of God, or to perform official liturgical acts in the Church , it must surely have come about that Mary herself, who received the privilege of carrying in her bosom the Sovereign King, the heavenly God, God’s Son, would in the New Testament have exercised the priestly office. But she did not judge such action to be right. She was not even entrusted with the bestowal of Baptism, since the Christ himself was baptized not by her but by John . . . . It was the Apostles who were entrusted with these ministries and they appointed their successors . . . Never has a woman been appointed amongst bishops and priests. But, someone will say, there were the four daughters of Philip, who prophesied. Yes, but they did not exercise the priestly office.” Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 79, § 3.

How did they try to resolve this contradiction? During the time of the Fathers of the Church, the question was not raised explicitly. The Fathers simply asserted Mary’s priestly dignity, leaving the tension unsolved.

The conflict was tackled more directly from the Middle Ages onwards. Theologians asked themselves how the prohibition for women to be ordained affected Our Lady. In general they came to the conclusion that, though Mary may not have received the sacrament of Holy Orders in the ordinary way, she somehow received the priestly grace and priestly power implied in the sacrament, in an equivalent manner. This was asserted most forcefully by St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church.

These are various formulations theologians came up with:

1. Mary received Holy Orders in an equivalent manner.

‘Mary possessed in very perfect fashion all the sacramental graces. She received all the sacraments that had been instituted in her time and generally received by all people. In this manner nothing of their effects and perfections was lost for her. And, according to Albert [=St. Albert the Great], she received all sacraments except for Holy Orders, but she received these Orders in an equivalent manner, for she possesses their dignity, power and ministry in the Church and has become the sovereign priest after Christ.’ Jan Mombaer (1501), Rosetum, title 24, section 5.

‘ In his “Mariale” Albert the Great asks the question: “Did the Virgin possess all the orders of the priesthood and episcopacy ? ” He answers that she did not in any way possess the [sacramental] character of these orders, but that she has only participated in its tasks and functions according to the most excellent and noble way so that -- and these are the words of Albert -- “She possessed the priesthood in a sovereign way,” that is: she possessed the highest degree of the priesthood.
We will speak in another place about the quality and the grandeur of Mary’s priesthood: and then it will be clear that Christ has, not only shared, but totally exhausted over Mary the fullness of his own priestly anointing.’Ferdinand Chirino de Salazar (1575 - 1646 AD), Canticum, vol. 2, pp. 95.

2. Mary was ordained a priest through an interior anointing, as distinct from the external anointing given to present-day priests at ordination. Therefore it was the Holy Spirit himself who ordained Mary.

‘The Blessed Virgin can be said to have been anointed not externally but interiorly, and thus ordained a spiritual, not a legal, priest.’ -- ‘The glorious Virgin, anointed not externally but interiorly, was ordained a priest, not according to the law, but according to the Spirit.’ -- ‘More than any other woman and differently, Mary was anointed with invisible oil. Otherwise, how could Christ have been born from a Virgin, unless the Virgin had been anointed with heavenly oil [=the oil of the Holy Spirit].’ Ippolito Marracci Sacerdotium Mysticum Marianum (ca.1647), passim.

“ In the first creation, woman was drawn from man. In the second, it will be man, the heavenly man, who will be drawn from the woman, but from a very extraordinary woman: that is a woman-highpriest. In order to be highpriest one needs to be ordained, one needs to produce a victim, to consecrate it, to offer it. One needs to teach and pray. One needs to communicate the priesthood. One needs to give birth to souls and to recreate them. Well, all these conditions are united in Mary. She has been anointed and ordained by the Holy Spirit himself . . . ” F. Maupied, Orateurs Sacrés, Paris 1866, vol. 86, p. 228.

3. It was Christ who anointed Mary making her a priest. Christ extended his own priesthood to her. He deputed her spiritually and communicated his own dignity to her.

“Christ the Lord has passed on to Mary much better and much more abundantly than in any other soul or even in the entire Church, the signification of his name. He who is called ‘Christ’, that is, “anointed”, because he was a saint, because he was king, because he was priest, because he was master and prophet, poured out the abundance of his ointment on Mary, and so made her a saint, a queen, a priest, and a governess for ever.”
“ Since the Virgin fulfilled the functions of every priesthood both ancient and new we can rightly say that, in this regard, the ointment implied in the name of Christ [‘Christ’ means ‘anointed’] has been entirely used up and poured out on her. ”
. . . “The most blessed Virgin fulfilled the function of priest because, manifesting a will completely in conformity to the will of her Son, she offered him and sacrificed him on the altar of the cross, exactly as he sacrificed himself . . . just as she offers every day with the priests the body of her Son in the non-bloody sacrifice of the most holy Eucharist.”
“The sacred anointing of divinity established Christ as sovereign priest and bishop. And also the Virgin, who was impregnated by this unction to a degree more excelling and eminent than other souls, obtained a priesthood that is more excelling and more eminent.Ferdinand Chirino de Salazar (1575 - 1646 AD), Canticum, vol. 2, pp. 92, 94-95.

“In truth it is the Son of God himself who is the priest and the sacrificer just as he is himself the victim, but together with Mary. He shared with her his character of being a priest and of being a victim which he communicated to her through an extension of his own priesthood, through the anointing of his grace and even through the imprint of the priestly character, not in a formal sense, but more eminently than the priestly character possessed by all other priests, so that she could cooperate with him in a more noble and excellent way for the reconciliation of sinners.” Auguste Nicolas, La Vierge Marie d’après l‘Évangile, Paris 1858, p. 295.

“How would Christ not communicate the two dignities [=royal and episcopal] to Mary since he was the Son and she his Mother? . . . If because Christ was a king- a title he had not received from his mother, he communicated his royal dignity to her, with how much more reason would he communicate the dignity of the episcopacy to her since he was the great Bishop a title he had received from his mother? [=through her priestly descent]” Antonio Vieira (1608-1697), Sermon on the Rosary, ib. p. 78-80a.

4. Though Mary was not ordained sacramentally, yet she possessed the substance of the priesthood to the highest degree. The eminence of the priesthood resided in Mary.

“Her superior quality and her gender did not allow God to call the Blessed Virgin to a mystery which only men could offer externally and to which only men could be deputed by the Church. Although she was a woman, the Blessed Virgin carried all the invisible grace of the apostles and priests in herself. She had already been anointed with the fulness of grace. She had already publicly fulfilled the function of a priest in Jerusalem when she offered him in human form and not as sacrament, and when she offered him later on Calvary, since the sacrifice needed to reflect her own property. And if she was absent at the last supper and did not offer the mystery under the sacramental signs as the apostles and priests according to the order of Melchisedech do, she offered it interiorly through the universal spirit and fulness of grace with which Jesus Christ had filled her.” Jean-Jacques Olier (1608 - 1657), Recueil, manuscript in Saint Sulpice, Paris, Rue du Regard, p. 230.

“ . . . . As mother of Jesus Mary possesses a right and a sovereignty over the apostles, not by authority of jurisdiction which would not agree with the condition of her sex, but by eminence of spirit and grace. That is why after the Ascension she was not the chief carrier of authority, but rather the heart of the mystical body . . . Priests possess two powers, one over Jesus’ physical body when they render it present on the altar through the sacred words, the other over his mystical body . . . The first power is a shadow of Mary’s motherhood, the other of her sovereign power.” F. Bourgoing, Vérités et excellences de Jésus Christ, Paris 1636, vol. 2, Méditation 19, § 3, pp. 183-184.

“Whatever there is of dignity in the dignity of a bishop, I do not refuse to give to the Mother. Because of her sex and her modesty I am not attributing to her whatever masculine there is in this office; I only withhold from her whatever is pure worry and obstacle to contemplation, and I can concede her with liberality and generosity every grandeur, even the highest grandeur which the effort of the human spirit could imagine. . . . If it so clearly belongs to the honour of the Bishop to make the Body of Christ with solemn words and if the Bishop pleads with God for the sinner, will the Virgin who was the most predestined to do this, be deprived of the title although she abundantly achieves the substance of that office?’ Jacques le Vasseur (1610), Diva Virgo, ch. 22, pp. 171, 176.

. ‘Let us now pay attention to the title of our discourse which says “that the virgin has possessed the dignity of the priesthood without its [sacramental] character .... ” The most knowledgeable Raymond Jordan said that all privileges and all dignities of the Church can be found in Mary to the extent they are compatible. That is why I say that the dignity of being a priest is in her without its [sacramental] character.Christopher of Avendaño (1628), Marial de las Fiestas, French edition, p. 209.

5. Mary shared in Jesus’s own priestly character.

“Mary shares . . . in Jesus’ character as priest and victim which her son communicates to her. Her hands are the altar. Her submission fulfils the task of the priest and her heart is the victim of sacrifice and love.” Hubert Lebon, Marie, mére admirable, Paris 1861, p. 98.

“Mary is priestess by character. In other priests, the character is added on; in Mary, on the other hand, the character is inherent, intrinsic. In other priests it exists on its own; in Mary, on the other hand, it is joint, that is to say: it is there in a better way . . . The reason of the superiority of Mary’s priesthood consists in the hypostatic union [=the union of the divine and human in Christ] to which Mary belongs through her divine motherhood. In fact, just as Jesus Christ is a priest not by a character that was externally added to him, but in virtue of the hypostatic union through which his human nature was assumed, so the Virgin who belongs to the hypostatic order, shares in the priesthood in the manner in which the priesthood is found in Jesus Christ, not like that which is communicated to other priests.” Gaetano GuidaIl sacerdozio di Maria, 1873, p. 31.

6. In Mary the obstacle of her sex was overcome.

“ Since the obstacle of her sex has thus been clearly overcome by the authority of the saints, by the example of scripture and the power of reason . . . , we may now pass from a discussion of legality to the facts: let us see in the Queen of the Rosary or in the Rosary of the Virgin, the title, power, and exercise of her episcopal dignity . . . The blessed Virgin was not only a bishop in the proper sense of the term, but specifically: 1.  A bishop through the meaning of the word. 2.  A bishop through the tokens of her dignity. 3.  A bishop through the power of the keys. Antonio Vieira (1608-1697), Sermon on the Rosary, ib. p. 81.

7. Mary’s priesthood was obscured by her closeness to Christ.

“ No creature has ever shared in the priesthood of Jesus Christ as this queen of the apostles and of the clergy . . . . The reason why one hardly ever speaks of her priesthood is that she is always so close to the great High Priest, in whose presence all shared priesthood disappears and vanishes as a star before the sun.
If Mary’s priesthood disappears and loses its name in face of the eternal priesthood, it is not a real loss. It comes from a fusion of heart and mind in the one unique sacrifice.”
Philpin de Rivière, Union de Marie au fidèle, Paris 1861, pp. 265, 301.

8. Mary’s priesthood was contained in her motherhood.

“ Women are excluded from this dignity of the priesthood, and Mary herself, because of her sex, cannot receive it. If one can give her the name of priest, it is not because she has been ordained by the apostles, it is because the priestly dignity is contained in an eminent manner in her dignity as mother of God. Her divine motherhood gave her the right to fulfil certain functions of the priesthood. And she fulfilled them in actual fact, for example when she presented Jesus in the Temple and especially when she offered him on Calvary for our salvation. She certainly possessed the grace which makes priests, but without the power to offer the body and blood of her Son of her adorable Son on the altar.” J.B. Petitalot, La Vierge Marie d‘après la theologie, Paris 1876, pp. 60-61.

9. Mary has been the only woman priest.

“ Mary is priestess for she represented in the work of Redemption of her sex -- though in full dependence on the universal representation by Christ. But the priesthood of Mary is limited to her person. There is no other woman to succeed her and carry on her special task . . . It is therefore the male priest who, in his ordination, has received Mary’s share. But he has received it in favour of women evidently, rather than for his own advantage. In a word, this link affects the priesthood so that the priest, the representative and minister of Christ, is also similarly and at the same time minister of Mary, instrument of Mary for her sex. So, the dignity and meaning of the priesthood stands in a new light from a mariological perspective.” H. Oswald, Dogmatische Mariologie, Paderborn 1850, p. 198.


Though theologians and spiritual writers, because of the cultural and theological perceptions of their time, did not see that the ban against the ordination of women itself is questionable, they did keep reaffirming Mary’s priestly status.

Implicitly, and at times explicitly, they are thereby stating that Mary’s sex is not an obstacle to her being a priest. But if one woman can be a priest, so can all. Sex or gender by itself is not a sufficient reason to exclude women from ordination.

The Vatican has opposed the ordination of women from the beginning. It is obviously for this reason that the Holy Office under Pope Benedict forbade images of Mary in priestly vestments and later, under Pope Pius XI, forbade the devotion to Mary Priest itself.

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