The first and most perfect disciple

A mosaic of Mary as Mother of the Church is seen above St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in this April 13, 2011, file photo. Pope Francis has instituted a new Marian feast honoring Mary as mother of the church. It will be celebrated every year on the Monday after Pentecost.
CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis recently established that a new universal feast dedicated to Mary as the Mother of the Church be celebrated on the Monday after Pentecost, a day known as Whit Monday after the British tradition of calling Pentecost “Whit [White] Sunday.” This weekday represents the liturgical transition from the extended Easter season to Ordinary Time.

Like so many other titles for the Blessed Mother — the Seat of Wisdom, the Star of the Sea, the Tower of David, the Ark of the Covenant — this new honorific will draw Christians’ minds to a particular role which Mary plays in our lives of faith and help us to contemplate anew the mysteries of salvation history, which are always fundamentally and essentially Christocentric.

The title was an important one for Popes Paul VI, who asked in 1964 that all Christians invoke Mary under it during the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II, who named a monastery within the Vatican walls for it in 1990. Today Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lives there.

It is clear that Mary is the first and most perfect disciple, the patroness of the community of those who profess faith in her Divine Son. But she is also in every true spiritual and biological sense a mother. It is fortuitous for us then that the U.S. celebration of Mother’s Day (other countries celebrate that day at different points on the calendar) and this first year of the memorial will fall in close proximity to one another.

I recently heard a prominent theologian say that she has over the course of her lifetime watched the Holy Spirit gently move the mantle of theological expertise in the academy from the broad if overtaxed shoulders of priests and bishops to lay it upon those of capable lay men and women, many of whom are themselves mothers and fathers. This is not meant to demean the unique and necessary role of the ordained in the Catholic tradition. But one need look no further than theology departments and houses of formation around the world to confirm that this is true. The Roman collars which once dominated those settings are increasingly replaced by people with wedding bands and child-rearing responsibilities. What impact this will have on the church’s thinking and theological orientation in future generations remains to be seen. But Mary’s maternal and ecclesial qualities will undoubtedly play an influential role in such development, as they have in private and public devotional practices of the faithful for millennia.

The eighth chapter of “Lumen Gentium” cites Saint Augustine in naming Mary as “the mother of the members of Christ” and asserts that the “Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother.” Augustine’s teacher Ambrose, who once held the same seat as Bishop of Milan as 20th century theological luminaries Montini and Martini, saw her as a type (a sort of living pre-figuring symbol) of the church itself, as both of them conceive and give birth to faith. The second part of Elizabeth’s salutation to Mary brings this connection to light and is in some sense addressed to all of us as her heirs: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb … Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Lk 1:42; 45).

As we honor Mary as the mother of our community the church, and of the whole human race, let us also emulate her faith in the fidelity of the Lord, who always keeps his Word.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.