From time to time, the Church decides on a new entry into the Roman Calendar to be celebrated by the faithful. This was the case in recent times with the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church, celebrated this year on June 6th.
In February of 2018, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship issued a decree stating: “Having attentively considered how greatly the promotion of this devotion might encourage the growth of the maternal sense of the Church in the pastors, religious and faithful, as well as a growth of genuine Marian piety, Pope Francis has decreed that the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, should be inscribed in the Roman Calendar on the Monday after Pentecost and be now celebrated every year.”
While this Memorial is a relatively new celebration of Our Lady, its roots extend far back in the history of the Church; for example, to the 5th century, in the teachings of Saint Augustine and Saint Pope Leo the Great.
Far more currently, Saint Pope Paul VI addressed this title in 1964, as the Third Session of the Second Vatican Council concluded: “… we proclaim the Most Blessed Mary Mother of the Church, that is to say of all the people of God, of the faithful as well as of the pastors, who call her the most loving Mother. And we wish that the Mother of God should be still more honored and invoked by the entire Christian people by this most sweet title.”
In his homily celebrating Mass in Rome on the first occasion of this Memorial (May 21, 2018), Pope Francis stated: “The Church is feminine; she is a mother,” demonstrating qualities of motherliness and tenderness such as those shown by Our Lady toward her Son, Jesus. Mary has continued to put these same qualities into practice as Mother of the entire Church.
To guide our reflection on this title, we turn to the Preface prayer of the Mass to be celebrated on the Memorial. Addressed to the “Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,” four relevant sections follow.
1~ “Receiving your Word in her Immaculate Heart, [Mary] was found worthy to conceive Him in her virgin’s womb and, giving birth to the Creator, she nurtured the beginnings of the Church.”
The 2018 Decree paraphrases Saint Leo the Great: “The birth of the Head is also the birth of the body, thus indicating that Mary is at once Mother of Christ, the Son of God, and mother of the members of his Mystical Body, which is the Church.”
2~ “Standing beside the Cross, she received the testament of divine love and took to herself as sons and daughters all those who by the Death of Christ are born to heavenly life.”
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother’” (Jn 19:26 – 27). Thus, Jesus’ lasting testament to us, from the Cross, was His Mother; and He willed us, the members of His Mystical Body, to her as her sons and daughters. The Decree states, “[Mary] thus became the tender Mother of the Church which Christ begot on the cross handing on the Spirit.” Mary’s mission was inexorably connected to the Redemption accomplished by her Son.
3~ “As the Apostles awaited the Spirit you had promised, she joined her supplication to the prayers of the disciples and so became the pattern of the Church at prayer.”
Sacred Scripture places Mary in the upper room with the eleven Apostles, united with them in prayer as they anticipate the arrival of the promised Paraclete (Acts 1:13 – 14). That Pentecost has come to be known as the birthday of the Church; thus, the timing of the Memorial title as being celebrated on the day after Pentecost Sunday. As she had been at the birth of her Son, Our Lady was fully present also at the birth of His Church.
4~ “Raised to the glory of heaven, she accompanies your pilgrim Church with a mother’s love and watches in kindness over the Church’s homeward steps, until the Lord’s Day shall come in glorious splendor.”
From her place in heaven, where she resides, body and soul, Our Lady remains united to the members of her Son’s Church – caring for us, interceding for us, watching over us with maternal love – until we reach our goal of heavenly glory.
Nurturing Jesus, standing beside His Cross, at prayer with His Apostles, caring for His followers from her heavenly home -- meditating on each of these spiritual dimensions of Mary, Mother of the Church, it becomes clear that they share one overarching theme. The theological virtue of charity is manifested with great maternal tenderness in each. Perhaps this is the most important takeaway from our reflection today: striving to emulate our Mother’s all-encompassing love in every aspect of our own lives as members of Jesus’ Church.
We close with the prayer designated for the Liturgy of the Hours for the Memorial, and also as the Collect of the Mass on that date:
O God, Father of mercies, whose Only Begotten Son, as he hung upon the Cross, chose the Blessed Virgin Mary, his Mother, to be our Mother also, grant, we pray, that with her loving help your Church may be more fruitful day by day and, exulting in the holiness of her children, may draw to her embrace all the families of the peoples. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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