By Thomas Dompkowski, The Catholic University of America
In 1981, a mosaic was installed overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope St. John Paul II dedicated it to Mary under her title Mater Ecclesiae, or “Mother of the Church”. He blessed the mosaic on December 8th of that year, and hoped that “all who come to St. Peter’s Square may raise their eyes to Mary, to greet her with filial trust and prayer”. It is this raising of our eyes to Mary that I would like to reflect upon with you today.
It is no secret that our beloved Church is in pain right now. A survey from Gallup, NM earlier this year found that about one-third of American Catholics are considering leaving the Church as a result of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and less than stellar responses of the crisis from the Vatican and US Bishops. Another survey from Gallup found that four in ten Catholics attend mass weekly. But the most frightening statistic was just released this week. A poll from Pew Research Center revealed that only one-third of American Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament. If that doesn’t give you some cause for concern about the state of our Church, I don’t know what will.
How can we fix all these horrid problems? How can we bring people back to the Church? Well, I can tell one way we don’t do it: by being Pharisees instead of being a parent like the Blessed Mother. What do I mean? I’m glad you asked.
A few weeks ago, I noticed a discussion about a pretty innocuous moral question in one of the Catholic group chats I am a part of. When one young lady expressed a view that wasn’t totally in line with Church teaching, some individuals in the group chat came down on her, hard. They told her how she was wrong and that she should stop believing that stuff, to a point that she felt so attacked that she left the group. That right there is what I’m talking about when I say some Catholics act like Pharisees. Instead of respecting her as a person, they humiliated her. Instead of leading with love, they led with the rules.
Someone may object and say that those people in the group who “brought the book down” on that woman were practicing charity because they were correcting her lifestyle and wanted the best for her. I will sustain that objection. I do not doubt that these individuals had nothing but the health of this young woman’s soul at heart. But there is one BIG asterisk on my sustaining of that objection: they forgot about prudence and the proper exercise of charity.
A prudent person in this situation would see that this woman does not believe what the Church teaches and would recognize that telling her she’s flat out wrong would not be the most effective way to bring her to the truth. Instead, the prudent person decides to reach out to her separately, asking her why she believes this, actively listening to her and respecting her as a daughter of God, giving her some materials about the Church’s teaching, as well as telling her that he will always be there to help her and answer any questions she may have as she reads into the information. You would be right in saying that they wanted to correct this woman and bring her to the Church’s teaching on the subject. But they didn’t have to be such jerks about it.
A prudent person, then, is also charitable. St. Thomas Aquinas defines charity or love as willing the good of the other. To love someone is to desire the good for the other person. Bishop Barron likes to add that to love is to “will the good of the other as other”. This “as other” is very important because it acknowledges that the person you love is, indeed, not you, and is not just ethereal common humanity that you cannot picture in your mind’s eye. Loving someone else is considering all that that “someone else” has been through up to this point. It recognizes the inestimable worth of another person. It realizes that “yes, they may be wrong, but I want to help them realize, with a gentle touch, that they can fix it, that they can love what is right and just”.
You’ve heard it all the time at weddings as the second reading, but St. Paul’s definition of love is very applicable here: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Put your name into where it says ‘love’. If it doesn’t sound right to you, then you probably did not act out of love. If you were rude in your correction of someone else, you weren’t loving. If you did not bear the wrong done well, you weren’t loving. If you weren’t patient, you weren’t loving.
As St. Paul mentioned, love does not accept the faults and sins of others; it seeks what is truly best for the other. But love also knows that the faults and sins cannot be overcome with harsh judgment, finger-wagging, and moral grandstanding. Love takes time. When you are prudent you acknowledge that you may not move her from her opinion on the first encounter or may never bring her to the truth, but you nonetheless strive to listen to her, help her, and give her all she needs to change her opinion for herself. In charity, you acknowledge the personhood of the other, that they have reasons for their opinions, and, though they may be wrong, you respect them as people and seek to tell them the truth without intention to dehumanize her. St. Edith Stein said, “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. Do not accept anything as love which lacks the truth”. Speak the truth to someone, but remember that they are someone.
So where does being a parent fit in? Parents, ideally, do not correct their children by yelling at them and belittling them in their opinions. Rather, they help their children to gently understand where they have gone wrong. They do not tolerate the wrong, but they also don’t make their children cry either. They admonish the sinner AND bear wrongs patiently. The soon-to-be-beatified Fulton Sheen said in his book Three to Get Married, “The spirit of love in parents is at once desire, pity, tenderness, bearing all things, suffering all things for the children” (p. 62). Parents desire the best for their children and know that correction will not happen overnight. It will take weeks, months, even years to not only correct the wrong but teach them how to do it right. Just as God the Father offers forgiveness to us in the confessional, no matter how many times we confess “that sin” over and over again, so parents offer forgiveness to their children every time they spill food, don’t answer their phones, or admonish someone else over the internet.
And where does Mary fit into all this? She is the exemplary mother. She is the mother of God Himself. It may be stating the obvious or the title of this article, but Mary as the Mater Ecclesiae, loves the Church with this parental love. She sees her children doing wrong and wants to help them, but she does it with patience, tenderness, and the gentle way of a true mother. She takes us by the hand and leads us along the pathway of love to her Son. She has walked the way of love before us and now shows us how to do so ourselves. All we need to do is ask ourselves, in a spin on the popular phrase, What Would Mary Do?
When someone does something wrong, tell them, but tell them as she would tell them: with a soft touch and a gentle voice. When you see injustice in the world and it angers you, ask Mary, the Mirror of Justice, to use that passion to change the world for the better. When you see someone who is crying, sit beside them and comfort them as Mary comforted her Son as He walked along the road to Calvary. When you feel overwhelmed by the pressures of life, ask Mary, the Star of the Sea, to guide you back to God. When you feel lost and alone, ask Mary, Our Lady of Hope, to be with you and to wrap you in her mantle of motherly love. When you want to cry, ask Mary, the Mother of Sorrows, to weep with you and comfort you. When you feel that God is distant from you, ask Mary, who stood at the foot of the cross, to bring you closer to Christ. Whenever you ask things of Mary, remember that not only is she your loving Mother, but you are her beloved son or daughter who is so precious in her eyes. Saint Louis de Montfort, the architect of the Marian consecration, said of our Blessed Lady, “If you put all the love of all the mothers in the world into one heart, it still would not equal the love of the Heart of Mary for her children”.
Every gift of love St. Paul mentions is seen in our Blessed Lady: Mary is patient, Mary is kind. She is not jealous, she is not pompous, she is not inflated, she is not rude, she seeks her own interests because her only interests are found in glorifying God and loving her children, she is not quick-tempered, she does not brood over injury, she does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. She bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Mary never fails.
St. Mother Teresa said of the Blessed Mother, “If you ever feel distressed during your day, call upon our Lady. Just say this simple prayer: ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.’ This prayer has never failed me”.
We look up to the example of parental love that our Blessed Mother shows us, just as we look up to her mosaic in St. Peter’s Square. May the Blessed Mother always be a mother to us and may she give us the strength to persevere in loving others the way she does: with gentleness and patience.
Edited by Christopher Centrella