What to give the woman who has everything?
We can imagine Pope Francis kneeling at his prie-dieu thinking just this: what present can I give Mary on the 160th anniversary of the Lourdes apparitions and, more importantly, the 50th anniversary of her Schœnstatt shrine in Australia?
He’s not much of a shopper, so what do you think he decided? He hit upon a gift that the Church has given Mary many times before: a new feast day. From this year onwards Whit Monday, the day after Pentecost, will be set aside to celebrate the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church. It’s a rather lovely present!
The Holy Father hoped this new memorial would remind us “that growth in the Christian life must be anchored” to the oblation of Christ in the Eucharist and Cross, and to the offering of the Virgin to God as Mother of the Redeemer and of the Redeemed. But where did he get this title from and why connect it with today’s feast of Pentecost?
The title Mater Ecclesiae – Mother of the Church – goes back to the New Testament. As Our Lord hung dying upon the cross, He said to His beloved mother Mary, “Woman, this is your son” and to His beloved disciple John, “This is your mother” (Jn 19:25).
As Mary was a widow with no other children, Jesus was intent upon making provision for her care after He had gone. But He was equally intent upon making provision for His Church and so He gave Mary a new mission. Spiritual authors from Sts Ambrose and Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Dominican Archbishop of Florence St Antoninus in the fifteenth century, and the Redemptorist founder St Alphonsus Ligouri in the eighteenth century, referred to Our Lady as ‘Mother of the Church’.
So did Popes St Leo the Great, Leo XIII, John XXIII, St John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Byzantine Liturgy honours her in parallel ways.
The Second Vatican Council chose, instead of issuing a distinct document on Mary, to present its teaching on the Blessed Virgin as the climax of its document on the Church. The Council called her ‘the image and beginning of the Church as perfected in heaven’, the exemplar for the Church of being a loving mother to all, and the model for every Christian of discipleship and virtue, contemplation and obedience.
It was Bld Paul VI, at the conclusion of the Third Session of that great Council, who formally declared that “the Mother of God should be further honoured and invoked by the entire Christian people by this tenderest of titles… Mother of the Church”. In 1975 a votive Mass in honour of Beata Maria Ecclesiæ Mater was introduced, in 1980 the title added to the Litany of Loreto, and in 1992 it was included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
So the title has a long pedigree even if the feast is very recent. But what’s it got to do with Pentecost? Well, after Jesus entrusted the Church to His mother’s maternal care as He was dying the cross, Mary largely dropped out of the New Testament picture. There’s no record of the two meeting after the Resurrection, though Jesus surely showed His Risen self to her first of all. We’re not told how she held the Church together when the apostles were frightened and ashamed after Holy Thursday. Nor have we information on the long years for her between her Son’s ascension and her own assumption. But she does appear once more explicitly, and that is accompanying the apostles in prayer in the Cenacle as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
A second reason for associating the Mother of the Church with Pentecost is that today is traditionally the birthday of the Church. As Mary conceived the Son of God bodily by the power of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation, so she and the apostles conceived His body the Church by the power of that same Spirt at Pentecost. So when the title ‘Mother of the Church’ was included in the Catechism, it was in the section devoted to “I believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Catholic Church”.
Hearing the story of Pentecost (Acts 2 :1-11) each year, we can easily get caught up in the extraordinary goings on: the violent wind, the tongues of flame, the apostles then speaking in tongues, Peter’s address to the crowd, 3,000 baptisms on the Church’s very first day! Amidst so much noisy activity we can fail to notice Mary, quietly present, deeply contemplating, powerfully interceding, perfectly modelling, gently mentoring the early Church.
The Church as a whole, and each of us members, need that Marian dimension of quietly pondering all God has done and is doing in us (Cf. Lk 2:19; 2:51). We must listen and think before we speak. Before rushing out to evangelise or otherwise change the world, we must patiently await the Holy Spirit, so that He is what inspires all our actions, and not just our own vain imaginings.
So the Woman of Pentecost, the Mother of the Church, teaches people like myself who like to talk, to shut up sometimes and listen. She also teaches us all that words are not enough, that people need the witness of holy lives from us. Though Mary could and sometimes did speak, we mostly see her quietly contemplating or else quietly acting, as when she went to her cousin Elizabeth’s aid, took her Son aside to intercede at Cana, followed Him on His mission so she could cook and care for Him, stood by Him to the end at the cross.
Mary, through her quiet presence, teaches us that before we talk faith and morals we should appropriate them deeply into our own mind and character; and after we talk faith and morals, we must walk that talk, putting the ideals into action, especially in that life of raising up the lowly of which she sang in her Magnificat.
Fifty years ago, we were given a space in which to do such quiet pondering before acting: a shrine in Mulgoa. When this shrine was completed, the founder of the Schœnstatt Movement, Fr Joseph Kentenich, wrote to the community to offer his congratulations, prayers and counsel. In that letter he spoke of the dedication of the movement to Mary as Mother Thrice Admirable and of her role as model for this community.
The name ‘Thrice Admirable’ is often taken to refer to her threefold role as Mother of God, Mother of Jesus, and Mother of all the Redeemed – which is why Pope Francis might have had the birthday celebration of our shrine in mind when he decided to link the two feasts of Pentecost and Mother of the Church!
Ecce Mater tua – Behold your Mother (Jn 19:27)! At shrines and centres throughout the world, members of the Schœnstatt movement behold their mother in her Thrice-Admirable image, pledge a Covenant of Love to her, and ask her to guide them in sharing her task in the Church. They invite her image into their homes so that their homes might become hers. Now the whole Church joins you in honouring her as Mother of all redeemed, Mother of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
From now on, we’re all Schœnstatters, at least once a year, on Whit Monday when we honour her as Mother of the Church!
So today as we celebrate the birth of the Church and the birth of this shrine, let us pay special attention to Mary our Mother, and commit ourselves heart and soul to God as she did at the Annunciation, at the Crucifixion, and again at Pentecost. Let us beg her intercession at this crucial moment for our church and our nation: for our Church, in the shadow of the Royal Commission, as it faces many challenges and readies itself for a Plenary Council; for our nation, as the State of New South Wales considers further ‘protecting’ abortion from all protest, other states consider legalising euthanasia for the sick and elderly, and the whole nation considers the recent report on protecting religious freedom here.
We need her intercession, modelling and mentoring now more than ever.
Thanks be to God for you all on this Golden Jubilee! A very happy birthday to the sisters, fathers and lay members and friends of Schœnstatt in Australia: Ad multos annos!
This is the homily given by Archbishop Fisher OP for the Mass for Pentecost Sunday and the Golden Jubilee of the national shrine of Mary, Mother Thrice Admirable, Queen and Victress of Schoenstatt, at Mt Schoenstatt Shrine, Mulgoa, 20 May 2018.