Today, for the first time, the Church celebrates the obligatory memoria of Mary, Mother of the Church. The reason given for instituting this new feast is stated in the decree of 11 February, 2018:
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.
The title is not a new one. Indeed, when in 1964 Pope Paul VI formally declared Mary ‘Mother of the Church’ at the end of the third session of the Second Vatican Council, he had a range of patristic usages to draw on, including, importantly, St Ambrose. But today’s feast does introduce a new element into the liturgy and therefore into the Church’s understanding of herself.
As yet, we have no definitively approved propers for use on this day (always the best clue as to how a feast is to be understood) so perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on what the decree says of it. The pope wishes to encourage ‘the growth of the maternal sense of the Church’. Some of us are old enough to remember when everyone spoke of the Church as ‘she’. The phrase ‘Mother Church’ tended to be used almost exclusively by those who wished to ‘correct’ another: it was rather a top-down kind of phrase, which may be why it has tended to fall into disuse. That leaves us pondering what is meant by ‘the maternal sense of the Church’ and how it fits the lives and experience of ordinary people. For some, alas, it will lead to hoots of derision: their experience of the Church is of an unnatural mother at best. For others, there will be the slightly uncomfortable feeling that all this talk is of idealised maternity and reflects a very masculine and priestly preoccupation with perfect womanhood. For the majority, however, I would hope that it offers a way of understanding the Church less as a source of endless regulations and restrictions and more as a source of warmth, nourishment and encouragement.
Our Lady’s presence with the other disciples at Pentecost, her strength in standing by the Cross, the long years of coping with all that family life in first-century Palestine demanded of her, these are not trifles and they grant us an insight into the nature of the Church that is indeed precious. We talk a little too glibly about authority in the service of others to realise that sometimes people have no choices, no ability to decide either for themselves or others. ‘Authority’ is not the only model for the Church and her structures. When Mary said her uncompromising fiat at the Annunciation, she was accepting God into her life in a way no other person has ever done; and that, surely, is the perfect model for the Church — to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ completely, utterly; to be filled with the Spirit; to spend oneself in the service of God and others. That is very far from the saccharine tradition of some Marian devotion and very far from some interpretations of what the Church is. May all of us learn from Mary what it means to be members of the Church!