Nearly 50 years ago, Blessed John XIII issued an encyclical letter entitled Mater et Magistra, or “Mother and Teacher,” on Christianity and social progress. The words “Mother” and “Teacher” were aptly used by the Holy Father to describe the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ.
Certainly the Church is our Teacher, and the Church’s teaching mission is clearly seen in the word “Magisterium,” or teaching office of the Church, which shares the same Latin root as Magistra. Not surprisingly, then, Catholics United for the Faith’s motto for the past 40 years has been to “support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.”
The Church is truly a Teacher, but especially today we need to recognize and love the Church as our Mother, as our true home in the family of God. Too often the Church is seen as merely a sinful, impersonal, human institution or as some outside force that imposes arbitrary rules on its members. Yes, “its members.” The Church is considered an “it,” an unlovable bureaucracy ruled by corrupt men.
The deeper truth is that she’s our Mother. She’s a she, not an it. She is the Bride of Christ, and surely Christ would never forsake, let alone “spiritually divorce,” His beloved.
One of my favorite verses is 1 John 3:1, which affirms that through Baptism we really and truly become children of God and heirs of heaven. In other words, when we’re initiated into the Church we become part of the family and thus ”related” not only to God but also to all those who are alive in Christ, the “firstborn of many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). With St. Cyprian we believe that God is our Father and that the Church is our Mother (see Catechism, no. 181).
It’s very important that we love the Church as our Mother, and not as some extraneous and ultimately optional force in our lives. Now more than ever, especially given the various scandals and problems that have afflicted the Church in this country in recent years, we need to affirm–to proclaim from the rooftops–our love for the Church. This love should lead us to gratitude and joy, as well as a zeal to welcome all we meet into this supernatural family.
Just as the contemporary crisis of fatherhood makes it difficult for us to relate to God as Father, the assaults on motherhood and the relentless imposition of the radical feminist agenda make it difficult at times to relate to Church as Mother. Restoring a greater awareness of the Church as Mother can only foster a greater respect for all motherhood. It would also promote greater solidarity among the human family and thus a greater respect for all human life. Why? Because through the Church–in other words, through the life of grace–all human persons are called to a family relationship as brothers and sisters in the Lord, a relationship that’s even deeper than flesh-and-blood relationships.
There are many concrete things we can do to grow in our love for the Church. But I just want to suggest that we start by calling to mind more frequently that the Church is our Mother. Let’s refer to her using feminine pronouns. When we hear someone talking about the Church, let’s consider that they’re talking about our Mother, and not some business or political entity. Let’s consciously strive to think of other Catholics–indeed, other Christians–as our brothers and sisters. And let’s consider at all times that even with her human shortcomings and warts, the Church is our Mother, our family, as well as the means of salvation for the whole world.
As we work on these areas, we will grow in our faith, in our prayer, in our love of others, and our ability to discern spiritual realities in our daily life. And yes, we will come to a deeper love for our Mother, the Church.