Spiritual Motherhood for Priests
"The vocation to be a spiritual mother for priests is hardly known, barely understood and consequently, rarely lived, although fundamental and vitally important" (Congregation for the Clergy, Spiritual Motherhood for Priests). In a world-wide call for continuous Eucharistic adoration and spiritual motherhood for priests, the Congregation for Clergy presents the Blessed Mother, Mary, as a model for us all. She was the first to live out this vocation in the Church, having received the divine call from her Son at the foot of the Cross as a testament, "Behold your son!" From her, therefore, we can learn what is meant by "spiritual motherhood for priests" in its very essence.
First of all, it is good to note that the call to spiritual parenthood is not limited to women. It is true that the heart of a woman on the natural level is more inclined to nurture and "give herself" for her child. One reason for this may be that the woman has the first and most intimate contact with the child as it develops in her womb. "The man—even with all his sharing in parenthood—always remains 'outside' the process of pregnancy and the baby's birth; in many ways he has to learn his own 'fatherhood' from the mother" (John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 18). On the spiritual level, too, parenting comes more naturally to the woman. For in general it is easier for women to focus their attention on the person, on human needs and concerns (cf. St. Teresa Benedicta [Edith Stein], Essays on Woman). "[M]otherhood in its personal-ethical sense expresses a very important creativity on the part of the woman, upon whom the very humanity of the new human being mainly depends. In this sense, too, the woman's motherhood presents a special call and a special challenge to the man and to his fatherhood" (Mulieris Dignitatem, 19). From the woman, the man is challenged to mature and to learn to give himself for the sake of the child as well.
Nevertheless, despite the natural proclivity of women to parenting, "spiritual motherhood", towards priests in particular, is a call for both men and women, for both are members of the Church, the "Bride" of Christ, and hence both are called to participate in her mission of saving souls. "Christ has entered this history and remains in it as the Bridegroom who 'has given Himself'…. According to this conception, all human beings—both women and men—are called through the Church, to be the 'Bride' of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. In this way 'being the bride', and thus the 'feminine' element, becomes a symbol of all that is 'human', according to the words of Paul: 'There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal 3:28)" ((Mulieris Dignitatem, 25). St. Paul himself describes his own apostolic labors in maternal terms. Writing to the Galatians he says, "My little children, with whom I am again in travail!" (Gal 4:19). Since, therefore, "parenthood—even though it belongs to both—is realized much more fully in the woman," (Mulieris Dignitatem, 18), we want better to understand its nature by examining here spiritual motherhood principally from a woman's vantage.
As a model of spiritual motherhood in all its forms—whether in raising children in the faith or in laboring for the salvation of souls or the sanctification of priests—the Church looks to Mary. When she received the mandate of Jesus as He died upon the Cross, "Behold your son," the Blessed Mother received us all, especially priests (directly represented by the Apostle St. John), into her heart as sons and daughters. "Mary's motherhood, which becomes man's inheritance, is a gift: a gift which Christ Himself makes personally to every individual" (John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 45).
Mary's motherhood of the Church "…flows from her divine motherhood" (Redemptoris Mater, 38). Just as she nourished and formed Jesus while on earth and participated in His saving mission, so now Mary cooperates in the spiritual birth and development of all the members of His Mystical Body: "She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ. She presented Him to the Father in the temple, and was united with Him by compassion as He died on the Cross. In this singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore, she is our mother in the order of grace" (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 61).
Though called to be a mother, Tradition has it that Mary had already consecrated her life to God in virginity before the Angel Gabriel presented her with the divine call. This vow of virginity was in no way incongruous with her call to divine motherhood. Indeed, it was her very virginal desire to give herself totally to God that enabled her to say "yes" to her sublime vocation. This lies at the heart of her "spousal love" making it possible for the Virgin to be with Child (cf. Redemptoris Mater, 39). Her free and willing consent—Fiat mihi!—to God's call to motherhood was a surrender of herself in obedience to the divine will. "The words 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord' express the fact that from the outset she accepted and understood her own motherhood as a total gift of self, a gift of her person to the service of the saving plans of the Most High" (ibid.). This total gift of self was not just an act of a moment; she lived and grew in her total surrender to God throughout her life up unto the Cross and beyond, thus living "her entire maternal sharing in the life of Jesus Christ, her Son, in a way that matched her vocation to virginity" (ibid.).
At the heart of Mary's divine maternity is therefore her virginity, her total consecration to God. She fully understood and embraced the quintessence of creaturehood: total receptivity to the Creator's initiative, for His glory and for the sake of union with Him. For the creature has nothing of itself, but only what it receives from God; and God, for His part, created the creature to receive (conceive!) Himself. Mary is therefore, herself the quintessence and embodiment of creaturehood precisely in this holy, virginal motherhood.
"Full of grace" at the moment of the Incarnation, Mary still grew in grace and holiness throughout her life. Through every trial, through every challenge to her faith, Mary grew in maturity and grace as she accompanied her Son's mission by her loving "yes" to the divine will in the obedience of faith, even at the foot of the Cross. "Embracing God's salvific will with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the Person and work of her Son" (Vat. II, Lumen Gentium, 56).
As the first disciple of her Son, Mary constantly listened for and pondered the Word of God in her heart. When a woman in the crowd once cried out, "Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts that fed You," Jesus corrected her saying, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it" (Lk 11:28). In this way He points to a deeper dimension of motherhood, a spiritual motherhood proper to the Kingdom of God. "He wishes to divert attention from motherhood understood only as a fleshly bond, in order to direct it towards those mysterious bonds of the spirit which develop from hearing and keeping God's word" (Redemptoris Mater, 20). "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (cf. Lk. 8:20-21).
Through this constant fidelity to grace, to fulfilling God's word at every moment, and to the redemptive mission of her Son, her maternal heart underwent a continual transformation, being increasingly enlarged according to the measure of God's Kingdom. She became "ever more imbued with 'burning charity' towards all those to whom Christ's mission was directed. Through this 'burning charity,' which sought to achieve, in union with Christ, the restoration of 'supernatural life to souls,' Mary entered, in a way all her own, into the one mediation 'between God and men' which is the mediation of the man Christ Jesus" (Redemptoris Mater, 39).
Simeon had foretold that her own heart a sword would pierce, opening it for the divine measure of love, the love of the New Covenant in Christ. "This 'new motherhood of Mary,' generated by faith, is the fruit of the 'new' love which came to definitive maturity in her at the foot of the Cross, through her sharing in the redemptive love of her Son" (Redemptoris Mater, 23). Flowing from her divine maternity and "born from the heart of the Paschal Mystery", Mary's spiritual motherhood of Christ is extended to the Church and all humanity, as she "implores the gift of the Spirit, who raises up the new children of God, redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ" (Redemptoris Mater, 44).
And so we see that Mary's spiritual maternity towards all men grew and developed as she grew in ever greater union with her Son and His redemptive love for all. So, too, the more we grow in our union with Christ and in maturity of faith, the more we will share in His love and learn from Him to live for others. Pope Benedict XVI, in his latest encyclical on hope, shows that being a Christian and hoping for personal salvation necessarily involves also this new dimension of love, a "love for all": "Christ died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for Him who for their sake died" (cf. 2 Cor 5:15). "'To live for Him' means allowing oneself to be drawn into His being for others" (Spe Salvi, 28).
The more united we become with Jesus, then, the more He will imbue us with His burning love for souls, "I thirst!" But "only through communion with Him does it become possible truly to be there for others, for the whole" (ibid.). The more we grow in the spiritual life and are united with Him in a communion of life, therefore, the more will He give us the capacity to satisfy His thirst—working with grace to offer the daily sacrifice of our lives for others. "Being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into His 'being for all'; it makes it our own way of being" (ibid.).
Spiritual motherhood, or parenting in general, is therefore not a merely biological reality. It is inseparably bound together with our growth in holiness and spiritual maturity. "[U]nderstood in the light of the Gospel…it expresses a profound 'listening to the word of the living God' and a readiness to 'safeguard' this Word, which is 'the word of eternal life' (cf. Jn 6:68).… A dimension of the New Covenant in Christ's Blood enters into human parenthood, making it a reality and a task for 'new creatures' (cf. 2 Cor 5: 17)" (Mulieris Dignitatem, 19)
Mary exercises her spiritual motherhood through her role as mediatrix and intercessor. She sees the needs of men and brings them "within the radius of Christ's messianic mission and salvific power" (Redemptoris Mater, 21). In this sense, she takes on the role of mediatrix—always subordinate, of course, to the one Mediator between God and men, the God-man Jesus Christ. "Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself 'in the middle,' that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother" (ibid.). The efficacy of her mediation comes from her holiness, her union with Christ through obedience, faith, hope and charity. And out of the fecundity of this union—she in Jesus and Jesus in her—they confer all the graces their children need to grow up to "the full stature of Christ" (cf. Eph 4:13). So great and efficacious is Mary in this union that she also mediates to priests not only their own personal grace, but that of their ministry as well.
Today, the Church calls us also to unite ourselves with Mary and to offer our prayers and sufferings especially for priests. Like her and with her help, we are called to become spiritual mothers of these souls so precious in the eyes of God. Our Lord said to Venerable Conchita of Mexico (1862–1937), "I want to come again into this world. …in My priests. I want to renew the world by revealing Myself through the priests. I want to give My Church a powerful impulse in which I will pour out the Holy Spirit over My priests like a new Pentecost." St. Therese of Lisieux also said to her sister, Celine, "Let us live for souls, let us be apostles, let us save especially the souls of priests. …Let us pray, let us suffer for them, and, on the last day, Jesus will be grateful" (LT 94).
With Mary, let us all—both men and women—learn to live this spiritual motherhood for priests. The closer we grow to the Heart of Jesus, the more we will read there His thirst for priests. We are not to rely on our own strength, but listening to the word of God, we want to surrender ourselves to His will in every trial and stand before Him in the name of priests, interceding and pleading for their sanctification and salvation. We want to "pray to the Lord of the harvest, that He send laborers into His field", that young men have the courage to open their hearts for the call of Jesus, "Be not afraid! …I will make of you fishers of men!" And "on the last day, Jesus will be grateful!"
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