Augustine never wrote a separate work on the topic of Mary. There was no separate feast day for her in the church in North Africa of Augustine’s time. Christmas, however, was considered not just a celebration of the birth of Christ, but also a feast day of Mary, hence she was celebrated in conjunction with Christ.
Because some of the martyrs had died not too many generations previously, the cult of martyrs was strong in the devotional life of the Christians of North Africa, and this was possibly another reason that the cult of Mary was left relatively undeveloped there. The main themes of Mariology in Augustine emerge in De santa virginitate (“On holy virginity”). There he explains that, like the church itself, Mary is both virgin and mother, both physically and spiritually. Above: You Tube (1 min 47 secs) of the shrine to Our Lady of Childbirth at the Church of St Augustine, Rome. AL223
Since Jesus insisted that “whoever does the Will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (Matt. 12.50), Augustine says that Mary was more blessed in accepting faith in Christ than in conceiving the flesh of Christ (De santa virginitate 3.3). Augustine regarded Mary not so much as above all Christians, but in the centre of the Christian assembly as the most perfect of all Christians. Augustine said that for her own salvation, it was more important that Mary have God in her heart than the Son of God in her womb.
Augustine’s interest in Mary’s maternity was Christ-centred; it underscored both the full humanity and full divinity of Christ. He never used for Mary the title of "Mother of God", but rather "mother of the Lord", or "mother of the Saviour." Augustine’s relative restraint in this is partly explained by the fact that he died in the year 430, which was just before the Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be the Mother of God, after which proclamation Marian devotion advanced to new levels.
Because of his very strong views about the totus Christus (metaphorically, the “whole Christ” that comprised of Christ as the head and the church as the body), he often spoke of Mary in that context. Mary is in some sense inferior to the church in that she is only a part of the church.
He preached, “Mary is holy, Mary is blessed, but the church is something much better than the Virgin Mary. Why? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy member, a quite exceptional member, the supremely wonderful member, but nevertheless a member of the whole body." (Sermon 72a.7)
The way that Augustine regarded Mary is additionally significant for what it shows about his anthropology. It elevates the dignity of women. He preached, “The male sex is honoured in the flesh of Christ; the female sex is honoured in the mother of Christ.” (Sermon 190.2) Because Augustine strongly advocated Christ as the unique mediator between God and humanity, he never made Mary a source to whom to channel intercessory prayer, i.e., any prayer with contents like the “Hail Mary.”
By Augustine’s time such prayers had already been the practice in nearby Egypt for almost two centuries, and he would have been aware of them. Rather, Augustine recommended Mary as a perfect example of the Christian life. When he wrote of “our mother”, Augustine was referring to the Church, and not to Mary. There is nothing in Augustine’s writings which reveals any thoughts by him about whether Mary physically experienced death, or about her assumption.
Augustine’s focus on Mary was Christ-centred and Scripture-based, and without the subsequent rococo interpretations given to the allegorical woman in the Book of Revelations. There was not in Augustine anything like the “high Mariology” that came to exist in many parts of the Catholic Church from the Middle Ages until the Second Vatican Council almost fifty years ago.
In today’s Catholic Church Augustine’s appreciation of Mary fits remarkably well. Just as happened at the Second Vatican Council, Augustine situated Mary within the context of her role in the history of salvation. In fact, the documents of Vatican II, especially Lumen Gentium with its chapter about Mary, is very close to what Augustine taught about Mary.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery on the Augustinian Shrine at Genazzano to Mary the Mother of Good Counsel, click here.