Quitting Old Paths

The new memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church is May 21

This commentary was written by Father John Nepil, a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver currently studying in Rome.

Henri de Lubac once noted a correspondence between the Reformation’s criticism of Mary and those of the Church. And it is in some sense logical – you can’t have Mary without the Church, nor the Church without Mary. They exist in such an intimate and mutual relationship, that one cannot be fully understood without the other. And we see clearly enough in our present day what happens when they are separated: Mary, elevated in excess, loses her humanity and appears as a quasi-fourth-person of the Trinity; and the Church, reduced in excess, loses her divine foundation and appears as an exclusively male-run institution.

This is far from the vision of the early Church, where Mary and the Church were viewed together as a single reality — the New Eve. Jesus Christ, the New Adam and the true spiritual father of mankind, fittingly chose a New Eve to be his helpmate and the true spiritual mother of mankind. This New Eve has two forms: the personal form of Mary and the collective form of the Church. But Mary precedes, being the Church in seed-form before Pentecost. She alone was given the singular grace of her Immaculate Conception in order take on the unique role as the Mother of God. She stands at the foot of the Cross, as the Church but also more than the Church; for she personally participates in her Son’s redemption and his foundation of the Church. At Pentecost, Mary’s mediating maternity becomes the heart of the Church, permeating it with an all-encompassing Marian character. Mary is the Church’s mother, and in her, the Church is mother. For this reason, we can marvelously say — through Mary’s divine motherhood, the Church gives birth to Christ sacramentally in the Eucharist and spiritually in souls!

This beautiful vision of Mary and the Church was lost to modern man until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). There, the treatise of Mary was placed within that of the Church, restoring the ancient relationship (cf. Lume Gentium, Ch. 8). But with that came a tragic turn. After the council, Mary was dissolved into the Church, and Mariology went into a post-conciliar winter. The modern Catholic sentiment towards Mary changed – now we were “rid” of the shame of our bizarre medieval fixation. Now she was finally “one of us” – relatable, authentic, truly in the Church. But Pope Paul VI, with prophetic intuition, saw through this theological illusion and countered it by declaring that “the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Mother of the Church” (Paul VI, Address, 21 November 1965). If Mary is the Mother of Christ, and the Church is the Body of Christ, then Mary is the Mother of the Church. He knew, as did his successors, that the defense of Mary’s dignity is intimately tied to the preservation of the faith’s integrity.

On March 3, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had decreed a new liturgical memorial. Beginning this year, on the Monday after Pentecost (May 21 this year), the Church will universally celebrate Mary as the Mother of the Church. By this, the Church is not merely encouraging Marian piety, but inviting us to see more deeply the Marian character of the Church’s maternity.

St. Leo the Great formulated this 15 centuries ago on Christmas: the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body (Sermon 26, De Nativitate). Meditating on the unique Christian mystery of the Incarnation reveals the pattern of all divinization – re-birth in the order of grace. And birth always requires a mother. To celebrate liturgically Mary as the Mother of the Church is to weave into an organic unity the cross, the Eucharist and maternity. Only through them does one “quit the old paths of his original nature and pass into a new man” (St. Leo). And in our age of self-reliance and neo-pelagianism, perhaps we would do well to quit another old path, that of Marian minimalism, and pass into the newness of this feast, celebrating with joy and filial love, Mary, Mother of the Church.

COMING UP: Mary and the meaning of Mother’s Day

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I have celebrated eight Mother’s Days so far, being on the receiving end of not quite a decade of handmade cards and hinted-at gift suggestions from “the kids” (but perhaps purchased by daddy). I struggled early on with the fact that Mother’s Day, of all days and for all its charms, was not actually a day off for mother. That I was still needed for nursing, for disciplinary action, for snuggles and for diaper changes. I expect the first couple decades of motherhood to hold to a similar pattern. “Mommy, we made this for you. And we trashed the kitchen in so doing.”

The moment I started to enjoy my motherhood more deeply was the same moment I began to realize that it wasn’t actually about me. And it is a lesson I learn anew, over and over again. There is a battle that rages in my heart from the moment I wake up to someone’s early morning cries until the final stretch of bedtime chaos. I can loosely plan for little respites of relaxation and prayer with a cup of coffee or 20 minutes of stillness if all the nap times line up accordingly, but I cannot rely on it. In short: my days are not my own, and my time belongs to others.

In giving life, I have given my own life away.

Mary had a radically different experience of motherhood from the rest of us, at least on the surface. Only one baby, and what an exemplar model at that! A saintly husband who silently supported her decisions (she was perfect, after all), a child who never so much as rolled his eyes at her in sass, and God’s assurance that her domestic toils would merit an unfathomable heavenly reward.

Mary didn’t have to worry “am I doing this right?” or “will I mess him up?” And I bet she never felt like fleeing the house at Nazareth when Joseph came back from the wood shop at night.

And yet. I look at Mary’s history-altering fiat at the Annunciation and I see that her surrender was not death by a thousand diapers. Her consent to surrender immediate, it was immense, and it was ongoing. That fervent and fruitful yes at the very outset of her motherhood would encompass the remainder of her life on earth and chart the course for her role in eternity.

And in her surrender, she opened up the course of human events to a divine interruption such as the universe had never seen.

Mary’s heart was sufficiently open to receive the full power of the Holy Spirit’s love, a force so powerful that from her virgin womb, God the child would come forth nine months later. That’s the kind of love the world’s greatest mom is made of.

And her life with Jesus, however steeped in divinity, was not without heartache and toil. I think of the anxiety of the three days she and Joseph searched for tween Jesus, having lost sight of Him on a family road trip to Jerusalem; of the radical trust and courage it took to launch Him into His ministry at Cana, knowing full well the road to Jerusalem would dead end at Calvary. And of course, it is impossible to think of Mary without calling to mind an image of Michelangelo’s Pieta, a crushed and grieving mother holding the battered, lifeless body of her beloved Son.

In short, Mary saw it all. And that makes her the perfect model for us all, no matter how few or how numerous our children, and no matter how great or how hidden our crosses.

This Mother’s Day, let’s ask Mary to show us the radical power of surrender, and the beauty of a heart fully available to live one’s vocation.