mothers in Rome?

At his General Audience this week, Pope Francis lauded mothers and the work of mothering–not that this is anything new or unusual. The Pope frequently recalls his own mother, refers to the Church as our Mother, and reminds us to call on Mary, our Mother.

But it has long bothered me that the praise of mothers and motherhood doesn’t carry with it an open ear to the wisdom that work often produces in those who have been trained by it. So it was nice to hear that worry reflected in Pope Francis’s words: “the mother is rarely listened to or helped in daily life, rarely considered central to society in her role.” Not only that, but “in Christian communities the mother is not always held in the right regard, she is barely heard.” And yet, in Pope Francis’s words, “human and spiritual formation” comes from mothers. Not, of course, that fathers and grandparents and others do not contribute, or that every mother does this unfailingly. (Heavens no!) Here Pope Francis echoes the Council’s teaching on the family. For example, Gaudium et Spes 52 describes the parents’ vital role in the spiritual formation of children, and Lumen Gentium 35 says explicitly that, in Christian households, “husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children.”

Because I am a mother, I suppose, I take these themes in the Church’s teaching in LG, GS and elsewhere very much to heart. Although I do a lot of ‘other’ things–teaching and writing in various contexts–I find the growing edge of my spiritual life in the daily work of being a mother. Mostly it’s the building up of patience and humility that I need. The practice of love requires both, and doing the “petty and unsexy” things (to quote David Foster Wallace) for my children has been the way forward for me in the familial school for the Lord’s service. Certainly there are countless other ways to develop the necessary disposition for Christ-like love; this just happens to be mine.

And being a mother–especially a mother of a child with Down Syndrome–has shaped my theology and my whole way of thinking about the world. Pope Francis says, “mothers are the strongest antidote to the spread of self-centered individualism…mothers…’divide’ themselves, from the moment they bear a child.” I’m not sure I would have put it quite that way before, and I am a little embarrassed at the way Pope Francis praises mothers. I’m not all that good at it, not that self-sacrificing. Still, I know what he means here, and I have heard other mothers say similar things. I used to say, when my older children were still babies, that it was as though my center of gravity was somewhere outside myself. Now, my eldest is 13 and my youngest is 3, and I realize that I haven’t given up my body for a finite period of time. No, long after the carrying and bearing and nursing are done, my body still somehow belongs to them as well. I don’t understand this, and I don’t doubt that some mothers would disagree. (And I expect that fathers experience something similar and yet distinct, and that parents who adopt experience the process of dividing in a different way, but no less intensely.)

This is not to say, of course, that mothers are somehow superior. (Good grief, no!) But I would argue (yes, argue, and I don’t do that unless I really think it’s necessary) that mothers have a particular contribution to make to the upbringing of the Church. It is no accident that we consider the Church our Mother, and that we look to the Mother of our Lord as example, guide and help. That this is all so, and that the Church has not found a place for the wisdom of the mothers within her is a little disturbing. Like the society that takes advantage of “the readiness of mothers to make sacrifices for their children,” the Church has praised mothers “from a symbolic point of view.” Maybe this persists because mothers don’t make sacrifices for their children in order to be praised or heard beyond the bounds of the family. It would be silly to expect that, and constantly disappointing. The children themselves don’t listen–unless mine are the exception!

Mothers do need the Church. Pope Francis is right about that. But does the Church not also need mothers? Does the Church have nothing to learn from the mothers who have kept the faith, and who have raised their children to do likewise? This to me is an amazing achievement. Moreover, it is one of the key things St Paul asks of bishops in Titus 1:6. Bishops (or “elders”–St Paul uses both terms in the passage) should be “blameless,” have been married only once, their children should be believers, and they should not be accused of debauchery or rebellious. Bishops nowadays usually don’t raise children in the typical manner. So the criterion isn’t employed.

But maybe St Paul was on to something here. Maybe there is something about raising children (and this for mothers and fathers alike) that shapes us, that makes us fit for leadership in the Church in a particular way. It would be wonderful to see the Church take advantage of that wisdom and experience in the way that St Paul recommended. Lay people have something to contribute to caring for the body of Christ. I don’t know much about the hierarchy, not really. But I do know it’s not impossible for laypeople to become cardinals. What better way to take seriously the wisdom of those who have served the Church by raising their own families than by recognizing them as equals in care-giving in the body of Christ?

Of course, maybe by then the mothers (and fathers) would rather settle down to a quiet life. I don’t know. I am not there yet. It’s just a thought.

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