A New Feast: Mary, Mother of the Church

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!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Righteousness and Self-Righteousness

There is nothing worse than the self-made man or woman who worships his or her creator. (Think about it.) Not far behind come those who mistake self-righteousness for the real thing: the righteousness given by God. The self-righteous (and we can all be self-righteous at times) are cruelly self-deceived — deaf, blind and inclined to be hard on others. They make magnificent assumptions about themselves and others. The fact that I was born into this particular family, went to that school or am a member of such and such a Church means that I am sure of success in this life and salvation in the next. I am, so to say, untouchable; and if I deign to notice you, it will be merely to compare and contrast my superior status with your inferiority. And to all that, Isaiah says the equivalent of ‘poppycock’.

The truth is, we none of us have anything that was not given, and given on trust. But for the gifts and graces we have received to bear fruit, we need a teacher. We have to learn how to be honest, kind, generous to those less fortunate. We do not necessarily know by instinct the right thing to do in any and every situation. We have to apply principles, tests, work things out for ourselves, make mistakes, start afresh, fail; and often we learn more from ‘the bread of suffering and the water of distress’ (Isaiah 30.20) than we do from being at ease and enjoying a life of plenty.

The teacher of whom Isaiah speaks we recognize in Jesus. We think of him as a great healer, a miracle-worker, compassion personified. We sometimes forget that he could be severe and challenging, too. One of my own private heresies is that on the day of judgement we shall look into the eyes of Christ and see mirrored there what he sees in us. Let us pray that, before that moment comes, we shall have learned to become like him. Then will our moonlight shine seven times brighter than the sun. (Isaiah 30.26)

Note:
Today is the feast of St Ambrose. You can read more about him here or do a search in the sidebar for previous posts about him.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In Praise of Ambrose

St Ambrose of Milan
St Ambrose of Milan

I have to admit to being very fond of St Ambrose. Ever since I first sat down to read his Explanatio Psalmorum, a very discursive work, I’ve been enchanted. His story is familiar to most people. (The summary in Wikipedia is more accurate than most but it doesn’t convey the charm of the man.) Here was a great administrator who was also a theologian, but not as good a theologian as he was administrator — enough to endear him to those of us who know we’re better at admin than we are at thinking theologically; a man who was chosen as bishop before he was even baptized — so not a career cleric in any sense of the term, despite his vivid sense of the importance of the episcopal office and the sacredness of the prebyterate; a man who was noted for his charity and courtesy, so that even Arian opponents respected him. Yes, Ambrose does tend to get a little enthusiastic in his exaltation of virginity, but he stood up to the emperor at a time when no one else would and was strong and clear in his ethical teaching. He loved books and allegedly amazed Augustine by reading silently. His view of liturgy was wide and generous, making him fast on Saturdays when in Rome but not when in Milan. Hymn-lovers know him best for some of his musical gems, including Aeterne rerum Conditor. His feast-day is a reminder to all of us of some of the qualities we need to cultivate, not least his courage. When he was asked to cede his church to the Arians, he stood firm:

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.

O si sic omnes.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail