Stockbridge, Mass. — “I will not lose my children at any cost. . . . That’s my mother’s heart.”
The earthy mother of a gaggle of adult children was talking about the hard realities of watching a child walk away from a family’s values, including its faith. She was speaking at a Saturday-morning convening of mothers at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy, run by the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. Around the table were women who pray, as Brother John Luth, one of the Marians, who had the idea for discussion, explained his rationale for invitees. He had been taken by a sentence from Pope Francis in a homily in January: “If our faith is not to be reduced merely to an idea or a doctrine, all of us need a mother’s heart, one which knows how to keep the tender love of God and to feel the heartbeat of all around us.” A mother’s heart. Tender love. Feel the heartbeat.
This was more than mere poetic flourishes (though he thought they were that, too). They were marching orders, as far as he was concerned. And mothers can show the way. And no surprise: The women came prepared with the hard-earned wisdom of experience, from years of doing the most important job in the world.
These women were not discussing headlines and world events. And yet, they were, in their way. In the background of the timeless discussion about motherhood and faith were the unfolding details of the torture that Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., allegedly inflicted on priests and seminarians and a man named James (whom the New York Times and my former colleague Rod Dreher interviewed). James was the first child McCarrick baptized after he became a priest, and James fears he doesn’t even know at what young age his physical, psychological, and, of course, spiritual trauma began. That the Stockbridge roundtable and the national headlines coincided — on Saturday, the pope accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals — was not by human design but had the feeling of Providence.
It was also on the eve of the week marking the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. Though it most famously has to do with artificial contraception and its consequences (and prophetically so), it is about human life and love and purpose — our design. Even a half-century later, the words still map out an alternative for anyone looking to begin again with a countercultural lifestyle. Pain could have been spared had men of the cloth more resoundingly taught and lived according to Church teaching, including Humanae Vitae.
In that January homily from Pope Francis that Brother John was so enchanted with, Francis also said:
The gift of the Mother, the gift of every mother and every woman, is most precious for the Church. . . . While a man often abstracts, affirms and imposes ideas, a woman, a mother, knows how to “keep,” to put things together in her heart, to give life.
On the same day the year before — January 1, a holy day of obligation for Catholics, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God — Francis said his St. Peter’s Basilica Mass for the day:
Mothers are the strongest antidote to our individualistic and egotistic tendencies, to our lack of openness and our indifference. A society without mothers would not only be a cold society, but a society that has lost its heart, lost the “feel of home.”
And haven’t we? Isn’t that at the heart of a lot of the anger in the world, about everything? And how everything gets political in the most unhelpful and exacerbating ways?
Pope Francis often talks about weeping with those who suffer. He’s offering an invitation to solidarity, a key principle of Catholic social teaching. When we read some of the news stories about abuse at the hands of a cardinal — with so many questions lingering about who knew what and when — it can seem like the worst of times. But what Brother Luth understands is that the Church is more than its bishops, priests, and consecrated men and women. We sometimes seem to forget this. This is a moment to remember it. In the anger and disgust so many of us feel about McCarrick and about whatever else may soon come to light, mothers will insist on responses that are not merely bureaucratic. (Attorney and canon lawyer Marjorie Murphy Campbell gave voice to this last week in writing and on EWTN.) It’s the witness of a mother’s life, after all.
Truth, justice, courage, and healing are all necessary. As is seeing Mother Church more fully. We have focused too much on miters.
Pope Francis has also talked about a revolution of tenderness. While it’s not the stuff of breaking news, it might just be an understanding, both mystical and practical, of the aching needs in the ruins of an ecclesiastical culture that succumbed to some of the worst of the world. It’s a reality — and part of the reason Pope Benedict stepped aside, believing the Holy Spirit had someone else to help with urgent reform, and knowing that essential reforms are needed not only to overhaul institutional structures. They must change hearts.
Truth, justice, courage, and healing are all necessary. As is seeing Mother Church more fully. We have focused too much on miters. (This is a point that New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan has often made: “In the public square, . . . the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.”) The Church is mothers, too. As the filth of scandal is revealed, it is mothers’ love and faith and leadership that will be instrumental in a purified proclamation of Christ, as the faith of sons and daughters of the Church — including many of her good, holy, long-suffering priests — is saved through encountering God and His love and mercy, thanks in no small part to the graces flowing from motherly perseverance.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.