Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455), “Madonna of Humility”, c. 1430
On Aug. 14, 2000, I lost my mother, Leona Beatrice McClain, to lung cancer. She was only 47 years old, but had been a smoker since she was 15. (To those reading this: please find a way to quit!) My mother had been diagnosed only a few months earlier and the cancer was already advanced when it was caught. Despite doctors’ treatments both in and outside of the United States, my mother succumbed to the dreaded ailment, leaving behind her husband, two sons, her siblings, extended family members, and a score of dear friends. I was 17 years old. This year will mark the point at which I will have been without my mother for more than half of my life.
My mother passed away only days before I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland. To say that her loss hurt me would be an understatement. My grades for my first semester suffered, and it is practically a miracle that I was able to recover my academic output during the second semester. However, more dire of a situation than my inadequate scholarly performance during the beginning of my college days was the state of my spiritual life. I never somehow stopped believing in God, because I cannot question his existence from a sheer logical standpoint. Nonetheless, away from my parents’ (now parent’s) immediate influence, I stopped going to Mass, and otherwise disregarded the sacramental life, really for the first couple of years of college.
It was not until I came into the presence of good, holy priests – especially the Archdiocese of Washington’s Fr. Bill Byrne, then the chaplain – and other Catholic peers at the University of Maryland’s Catholic Student Center, that my faith was reawakened and re-engaged. I eventually started going to Mass again, and took on a new devotion: praying the Rosary. A popular refrain heard around the Catholic Student Center was “Hail Maryland!” When my own mother, whose loving care for others, myself of course included, was no longer an earthly presence for me, I drew closer and closer to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I would be remiss to pretend that there were not plenty of times in my mother’s life when I took her for granted – after all, I lost her during a period of adolescent angst and plenty of my own soul-searching. Nonetheless, looking back at her selfless love for me led me to better fathom Mother Mary’s own rich love for her spiritual children, with her acquiescence before the Almighty most directly typified by her role as both “handmaid of the Lord” (see Luke 1:38) and Mother of God. With my memories of my own mother always a part of me, Mary, bearer of my Brother who is the Savior of the world, was my new Mother, and she has brought me toward her Son.
The theme of motherhood is laced within the various chapters of Amoris Laetitia, and we have plenty of opportunities to fathom Mary’s desire for our sanctification. For example, “The treasury of Mary’s heart also contains the experiences of every family, which she cherishes” (AL 30). Mary plays a unique maternal role within salvation history, and her profound love for her spiritual children is evident in her deep desire to encourage us to accept Christ’s offer of salvation. Further reflecting on the depth of Mary’s motherly concern for us, as a lay Dominican, I never shrink from the opportunity to make recourse to Aquinas’s Summa, and Pope Francis has given us a charmingly curious reminder about a mother’s love nestled within Amoris Laetitia: “Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that ‘it is more proper to charity to desire to love than to desire to be loved’; indeed, ‘mothers, who are those who love the most, seek to love more than to be loved’” (AL102, quoting the Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 27, art. 1, ad 2). Not long thereafter, Francis highlights Saint John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio by reminding us that “The Spirit which the Lord pours forth gives a new heart and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ loved us” (AL120; see FC 13).
Is the following not the setting within which the Lord came into the world, and what Mother Mary wishes for us? “The gift of a new child, entrusted by the Lord to a father and a mother, begins with acceptance, continues with lifelong protection, and has as its final goal the joy of eternal life” (AL 166). Eternal life entered the world through the sanctified womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Mother Mary wants to see us attain eternal life with her Son, recalling the hope “that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
As we remain inspired by the prime example – and powerful intercession – of Mother Mary, it is a given, or perhaps even trite, to declare that mothers are necessary. But it must be admitted and celebrated. I did not perceive my own late mother’s necessity until I did not have her around anymore. In the midst of Mothers’ Day and beyond, be sure to thank your mother. Husbands: thank your wives! We implore Mother Mary to strengthen and ennoble all current and future mothers, to wit: “With great affection I urge all future mothers: keep happy and let nothing rob you of the interior joy of motherhood. Your child deserves your happiness. Don’t let fears, worries, other people’s comments, or problems lessen your joy at being God’s means of bringing a new life to the world” (AL 171). Mother Mary, pray for us, including all of your fellow mothers!