Mothers and the heart of God

With Mother’s Day just around the corner, I would like to give thanks for mothers—to pay tribute to the many ways they teach us about God and enrich our Church and society with their unique gifts.

The primary way that God is revealed to us in the Sacred Scriptures is as “Father” and this is especially true in the Gospels, where Jesus seeks the will of the Father, and is the very “face of the Father.”

Yet we also know that God created Eve and that she reflects his image and likeness, just in different ways than Adam does. Mary, the Church teaches, is the New Eve, who by her obedience opened human history to the gift of our salvation through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

Speaking about his experience of women’s gifts, Pope Francis said in his message for the 2015 International Women’s Day that they “transmit to us the ability to understand the world with different eyes, to understand things with hearts that are more creative, more patient, more tender.”

I hope that this has been your experience with your own mother, but even if you have had a less than ideal relationship with your mother, she is the one who brought you into the world, and you can rely on the fact that from the cross Jesus made Mary the spiritual mother of every believer by giving her to John, the beloved disciple.

There are also many female saints who can serve as models of motherhood. On April 29 we celebrated the feast of St. Catherine of Siena. She made such great contributions to the Church’s teaching on prayer that she was named a doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. In addition to her theological gifts, St. Catherine’s life testifies to how she had the kind of feminine heart that Pope Francis praised.

St. Catherine is a shining example of the natural openness women have to spiritual realities. For her, Christ was like a spouse with whom she was in an intimate, faithful relationship. In fact, her biographer Father Raymond di Capua recounts how she had a vision in which the Blessed Mother appeared to her with Jesus. Our Lady took Catherine’s finger and presented it to Christ who placed a beautiful ring on her finger and said, “I, your Creator and Savior, espouse you in the faith, that you will keep ever pure until you celebrate your eternal nuptials with me in Heaven.” The ring was visible to Catherine but not to anyone else. Every Christian is called to an intimacy with each person of the Holy Trinity, just as St. Catherine was.

St. Catherine also dedicated herself to mending broken relationships. In 1375, for example, she convinced the leaders of several Italian towns not to join a revolt against Pope Gregory XI, who was then based in Avignon, France. Later, when Pope Urban VI was chosen as the next pontiff, she was able to establish peace between the revolutionaries and the Holy See, despite threats to her life.

Like the Blessed Mother who encouraged Jesus to perform his first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, St. Catherine also employed her creativity to advance the kingdom of God. In 1378 the Western Church was split in two when the cardinals in Avignon elected Clement VII as pope, while the cardinals in Rome legitimately elected Pope Urban VI. St. Catherine wrote letters to the princes and leaders of Europe to convince them to support Urban VI, while at the same time writing the Holy Father to warn him to control his temper and not be arrogant. Amazingly, he responded by inviting her to Rome to advise him.

Mothers, whether they are biological or spiritual, do so much to bring God’s tender mercy, creativity and peace into the world. My own mother was a quiet, strong woman who had a unique relationship with the Lord that was apparent in her deep love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She passed that love on to me. As a child and especially as an adult, I would see her in quiet prayer with the Lord. Even at the time of her prolonged death from cancer, there was a quiet peace about her that her deep faith sustained.

In today’s world, mothers need support from fathers, children, friends and family. As we celebrate the great gift that they are, I ask everyone to pray for mothers, living and deceased, show them your love and seek to imitate their gifts, which reflect a part of God’s heart to us. May God bless all mothers and fill them with his peace!

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.