Over the summer, I sat in on a Saturday discussion among mostly local women — all “pray-ers” — at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, about motherhood and faith. It had been convened by one of the Marian brothers there who was entranced by Pope Francis’ homily on the solemnity of Mary — New Year’s Day — this year. 

Brother John Luth, MIC, the convener, was particularly taken with these words from the sermon: “If our faith is not to be reduced merely to an idea or a doctrine, we must all have a mother’s heart, one which knows how to keep the tender love of God, and to feel the heartbeat of all around us.”

He took these to be “marching orders.” 

“The pope was clearly reminding us of the imperative importance of mothers — of motherhood,”
he wrote in his invitatory note to participants. 

“We know that a lack of maternal attention and care can result in a child’s failure to thrive. So, in our faith, culture, indeed, in our very world, the lack of that same maternal character in the very mix of the life of the family, parish, community, nation, and world, contributes to the current lack of vitality of life in all of these areas.”

“Clearly,” he continued, “if we are to respond appropriately to the needs of the whole Church, and each to one another, we must have the maternal characteristic Pope Francis identifies here.” 

The idea behind the discussion was to unpack — through the experience of mothers — just what a maternal heart is.

Of course, a lot is being said and picked apart about Francis these days. But some of that which doesn’t make headlines and hasn’t been the subject of commentary and debate, may just be what the Holy Spirit needs us to notice the most. 

What does it mean to be Marian? St. Teresa of Calcutta gets to it when she advises: “We need to find God and he cannot be found in the noise and restlessness. ... The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.”

In her book, “When Women Pray,” Kathleen Beckman talks about the importance of a Marian heart. “Women who are contemplatives in action are great gifts to the Church and to the world because we mirror Mary’s life,” she writes.

All of this is not to exclude men from the kind of Marian receptivity that models the spouse of the Holy Spirit. But God may have created women to give us a natural head start on the way, as complimentary people living together in family, community, and as the Church. 

Beckman writes that “Mary’s is the unique feminine heart that prays in perfect docility with the Holy Trinity. Her heart can be considered a school of prayer. In fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy (Luke 2: 34–35), seven swords of sorrow pierced her heart. Perhaps the pierced heart prays best.” 

The mothers gathered in Stockbridge all knew pain. They’ve suffered with their own children, watching mistakes and heartaches and addictions and falling and pulling away from God. So, they go to the Lord in his passion, seeking union and healing. 

As Beckman puts it: “When our hearts are pierced, we are opened up; we face our poverty, step out of our hiddenness, and come before God with a hole in our heart. The Divine Physician attends to the wounded heart with tenderness. … The pierced heart can be a portal of grace if we remain open to divine transformation.” 

She quotes Edith Stein, writing just before the rise of Hitler: “Perhaps the moment has almost come for the Catholic women to stand with Mary and with the Church under the cross. It would be a shame to let her answer the call alone.” 

It’s not hard to hear St. Pope John Paul II and both his “Totus Tuus” (“Totally Thine”) about consecration to Mary and his writings on the “feminine genius” in the background to all this. 

In the book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” he wrote that “true devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric, indeed, it is very profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, and the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption.” Describing Mary at the Foot of the Cross, he writes in the encyclical “Mater Redemptoris” (“Mother of the Redeemer”):

On that wood of the Cross her Son hangs in agony as one condemned. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows … he was despised, and we esteemed him not”: as one destroyed (cf. Is. 53:3- 5). How great, how heroic then is the obedience of faith shown by Mary in the face of God’s “unsearchable judgments”! How completely she “abandons herself to God” without reserve, offering the full assent of the intellect and the will” to him whose “ways are inscrutable” (cf. Rom. 11:33)! And how powerful too is the action of grace in her soul, how all-pervading is the influence of the Holy Spirit and of his light and power!

In her recent book, “The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis,” Carrie Gress puts the choice before us quite clearly: 

The Marian Option is something that every man and woman must choose and decide to emulate. We must decide when faced with the true reality of who Mary is whether we will embrace or reject her love. The saints have reported that Satan and all his fallen angels rejected God because of the role of Mary, as a human woman, was to play in salvation history. 

We must decide if we will go the way of Satan — and so many others who have trampled on her gifts — and reject her. Or we can allow her to love us; to give us peace, joy, and all the virtues; and most important, to bring us to her Son. 

Pope Francis venerates a Marian image outside the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome in 2016. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE FILE PHOTO/PAUL HARING)

In that January 1 homily Francis said, “If we want to go forward, we need to turn back: to begin anew from the crib, from the Mother who holds God in her arms.” 

To a woman, at that Marian discussion, the conversation kept coming back to the imperative of seeing Christ in others, holding them in your arms as Mary did Christ in presence and listening and love and wisdom. The Church has to convey something of that: That’s our Marian mission. As Gress puts it, it’s not so much an option as a necessity. 

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and a contributor to Angelus.

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