My Three Mothers

When I was very young, there was a TV sitcom my family used to watch called “My Three Sons,” starring Fred MacMurray as a widower raising three boys. I don’t have any sons of course but in the month of May I like to think of how grateful I am for “My Three Mothers.” That’s because as Catholics all of us should be aware that the Church is Our Mother; that Mary is not only the Mother of Christ but the mother of each one of us as well; and we naturally honor our biological mother on this Mother’s Day.

The motherhood of Mary and the motherhood of the Church are in many ways inseparable, and for those blessed enough to have a good Catholic mom, that can’t be separated either, because she reflects and shares in the motherhood of both.

One of the unfortunate trends of the last few decades is that so many Catholics look upon the Church merely as an “institution” – not much different than they might look upon, say, a school board or village governance board. And while those boards are good and necessary, it would be a bit odd to have a sense of affection for such a board. On the other hand, we should have love and affection for the Church. In much the same way that we are grateful for our mothers for feeding us from their own body in our infancy; laboriously preparing food for us as we grew (and cleaning up after our messes); for tending to us countless times when we are sick; and for patiently teaching us everything from how to read to how to “play nice” with other children to how to love and explore the world around us, it is much the same way with the Church.

She is the one who “feeds us from her own body,” so to speak, in giving us the same Body and Blood of Christ that grew in the Blessed Virgin’s womb. She feeds us with the “milk” of the Precious Blood of Christ, pouring forth his wounded side. She teaches us what true charity and love of neighbor is; she reveals to us the very meaning of the world and everything created around us as it gives glory to Jesus Christ. She heals us patiently and self-sacrificially whenever we are ill and need the sacrament of the sick and in the confessional whenever our soul is weighed down by the burden of sin. In much the same way that a loving mother draws a little child into the embrace of her love (see the Madonna and child image adorning this column), when we enter into Communion with the Church through the initiating sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist, so does the Church draw us into her loving embrace.

For these reasons and more, it wasn’t so long ago that priests and bishops used to speak (unironically) of “Holy Mother the Church.” I hope we can return to that affectionate habit. I am convinced that one of the reasons for the declining number of priestly vocations is because we don’t look on the Church this way, grateful for her motherhood. One of my priest friends – who loves his priesthood and is an inspiration to me – likes to say, “If the priesthood were merely a job, it would be one of the worst jobs on the market. But if it is a vocation to love Mother Church, than it is one of the greatest privileges a man can imagine.” He’s right about that. If the Church were merely an institution, then who would want the long hours, relatively low pay, and frequent complaints that go with the territory. But priests don’t look it at that way. The Church is at the same time their mystical “bride” and the mother of us all.

Yes motherhood can be demanding and even draining (especially when the children are young) but much the same way those of you who are mothers don’t count the hours of how often you have to stay up with a sick child, make dinner for them, clean up after them and so on, a priest who loves the Church does not “count the cost.”

Part of the reason that we don’t always instinctively love the Church is that she is a true mother, but a mystical one. That is, we can’t “feel” her embrace the same way that a child can feel his Mother’s hug. That is where the Incarnation comes in (the fact that Jesus truly took on our human flesh and human nature at the Annunciation in the Virgin’s womb). We can easily imagine – in contemplating religious art, praying the Rosary and so on – how much Mary loved her Son, Jesus – because many of our mothers loved us in much the same way. (Mary’s love was far more perfect and complete because she was conceived without sin – but that’s a column for another day).

What we sometimes fail to remember is that Mary the Mother of God loves each one of us in nearly the same way that she loves Jesus Himself. That is because we are baptized as “sons in the Son” – that is, we truly become by divine adoption sons and daughters of God the Father, and children of Mary. We see this also in the mysteriously and hauntingly beautiful scene from St. John’s Gospel of Jesus entrusting Mary His Mother to the care of St. John. “Behold your mother!” “Behold your Son!”

Our Lord commands us to love the Virgin Mary as our own mother. This is not a burdensome command, since she constantly pours out her love and care on us from the depths of her immaculate heart.

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