By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
This year, on May 21, we celebrated a new feast, the “Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church.” About three months ago, Pope Francis decreed that this feast, which since its creation in 1975 had been only a votive mass, should be celebrated by the whole Church every year on the Monday after Pentecost.
When the Vatican published the decision to establish this new feast, it cited Pope Francis’ desire to “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” (the decision was announced by Cardinal Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship). Anyone following Francis knows how dear to him is the idea of a maternal Church and spirituality. The last several paragraphs of his first and programmatic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, are all about Mary as “the Mother of the Church which evangelizes” (§284).
So, what is it about Mary and motherhood that has captured his imagination? Why is she, as he says, an “icon of womanhood” (§285)? Following the details about her life reported in the Gospel, Francis admires her for her practicality, endurance, contemplative character, attentiveness and fidelity, as well as how, “As a true mother, she walks at our side, she shares our struggles and she constantly surrounds us with God’s love” (§286). He proposes her “style” of evangelization to the whole Church. I think he synthesizes the attraction of her motherhood most notably when he says, “Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong…” (§288).
Pope Francis holds up Mary for her “revolutionary” motherhood. She challenges our world by showing that true strength is tender, and true tenderness is strong. For Mary, and for her children in the Church, staunch fidelity to Christ involves compassionate solidarity with us poor, weak and sinful pilgrims. But her compassion provokes powerful changes — “revolutions” — in our lives. For everyday she firmly calls her children, in a language they can hear, to grow in holiness and to join her in her mission.
Like a beautiful mother who knows how best to appeal to each of her children, the Church, following Mary, must look at everyone personally in order to be able to inspire authentically, teach effectively, and correct without dispiriting. The Church must follow Mary as she follows her Son, Jesus, who does not “break” the already “bruised reed” but rather works patiently “until he brings justice to victory” (Mt 12:20; Is 42:3). In the same way, Mary is tough and long-suffering, patiently working for justice. She stands for no compromises against her Son. She did not abandon him even at the cross, when association with him had become dangerous (as Peter’s denials demonstrate). And yet, neither did she abandon those who had abandoned him. She remained with the apostles, joining them at Pentecost and thereafter.
This is the “style” of life and evangelization Pope Francis asks from us. Whenever we see compassion deprived of love for truth (and therefore deprived of true love), or strength used to justify indifference, we should look to Mary for a revolution. For in her, by the gift of God, we see that it really is possible to love truly and tenderly. She shows we can suffer nobly, strongly working for justice without settling for any unfaithful compromises that pitifully ask Christ to “come down” from his cross (cf. Mk 15:29-30; Mt 27:39-42). And she shows that strength and fidelity are not brittle but flexible, always capable of lowering themselves to reach and raise the weak. She shows it is possible to love like a mother.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.