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Mother Church

 In his Wednesday audiences, Pope Francis has been engaged in a catechesis on the Church. Yesterday he turned to the image of the Church as “Mother”: much used in the early Church, it still has its usefulness, the Pope suggests. As usual Francis had three points to make.

The Church is a mother, first, because she gives birth to us in faith and in baptism. In faith because it is from the Church that we receive the knowledge of God and of Christ, a point that he made personal in his letter yesterday to Scalfari: “Believe me, without the Church I would not have been able to encounter Christ.” Taking up the ancient symbol of the baptismal font as the womb of the Church, he speaks of baptism as “the moment in which we are given the life of God.” As usual, the Pope adds a challenge:

Let us ask ourselves: how do I see the Church? If I am grateful to my parents because they gave me life, am I grateful to the Church because she has generated me in the faith through Baptism? ... Do we love the Church as we love our own mother, knowing and also understanding her defects? All mothers have defects, we all have defects, but when there is talk of our mother’s defects we cover them, we love her so. And the Church also has her defects: do we love her as we do our mother; do we help to make her more beautiful, more authentic, more according to the Lord?” To urge his point about baptism, he asks the people to find out and to mark the date of their baptism.

Secondly, the Church is a mother by nourishing her children, instructing and correcting them, accompanying them as they grow, and doing all this by transmitting the Word of God and by the sacraments. Which poses the questions:

What relation do I have with the Church? Do I see her as a Mother that helps me grow as a Christian? Do I take part in the life of the Church, do I feel a part of her? Is my relation formal or vital?”

But where many a reflection on the Church as Mother would leave things there, with perhaps an injunction always to remember that “Mother knows best,” the Pope’s third point brings this Mother-language down to earth. He begins again with the early Church:

In the first centuries of the Church, a reality was very clear: while the Church is Mother of Christians, while she “makes” Christians, she is also “made” by them. The Church isn’t something different from ourselves, but is seen as the totality of believers, as the “we” of Christians: I, you, all of us are part of the Church. Saint Jerome wrote: “The Church of Christ is nothing other than the souls of those who believe in Christ” (Tract. Ps 86: PL 26, 1084). So, all of us, pastors and faithful, live the maternity of the Church. Sometimes I hear: “I believe in God but not in the Church … I have heard that the Church says … the priests say …” The priests are one thing, but the Church is not made up of priests only, all of us are the Church! And if you say that you believe in God and do not believe in the Church, you are saying that you don’t believe in yourself, and this is a contradiction. All of us are the Church: from the recently baptized baby to the Bishops, the Pope; we are all the Church and we are all equal in the eyes of God! We are all called to collaborate in the birth of faith of new Christians; we are all called to be educators in the faith, to proclaim the Gospel. Each one of us must ask him/herself: what do I do so that others can share the Christian faith? Am I fruitful in my faith or closed? When I say that I love a Church that isn’t shut up in her enclosure, but is able to go out, to move, even with some risks, to bring Christ to all, I think of all, of myself, of you, of every Christian. We all participate in the Church’s maternity, so that the light of Christ reaches the ends of the earth. Long live Holy Mother Church!

This whole brief catechesis has so many themes and points found in an essay by Yves Congar (a short version of which can be found here) that one wonders whether it was not one of the Pope’s sources for this talk–e.g., the quote from St. Jerome, the Church as the “we” of Christians, etc.  Other sources might have been cited. For example, for the Pope’s first two themes, St. Gregory the Great explains how Christ could refer to a believer as not only his sister or brother but also as his mother: “The answer is that one who is Christ’s brother or sister by believing becomes his mother by preaching. He gives birth to the Lord as it were when he imparts him to the heart of someone who hears him. And he becomes his mother when by his word love for the Lord is begotten in his neighbor’s mind.”

And for his third point, St. Augustine: “The Church is to herself both a mother and her children; for all of those of whom the Church consists, taken together, are called a mother, while those same individuals, taken singly, are called her children.” “We are called children of that mother,” he wrote in another place, “even though she consists of us.”

I don’t think enough attention is given to this dialectical relationship: the Church makes believers but is made up of believers; the children of the Church are mother Church; individual Christians enter a building of which they themselves are the living stones. Too much of our language and discourse about the Church is in the third person–as if it were something apart from ourselves. If, as Congar and now the Pope say, you can study the existential ecclesiology of the early centuries by studying what Christians were saying when they used the first-person-plural (“we,” “us”), then perhaps we ought to do the same: think and talk about the Church as involving ourselves. And in this catechesis, then, the question with which the Pope ends is quite pertinent: “How do we participate in the motherhood of the Church?”

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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When Balthazar Fischer (the chair of the post-conciliar commission on baptism, which produced the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) came to the United States in 1988, he said in an interview with The Chicago Catechumenate that those who worked on shaping these rites had given a lot of thought to the goal of reviving an understanding of Church as mater ecclesia, "mother church," through the reform of Christian Initiation.

His own expectation was that this revival would take several generations to accomplish. But after seeing and speaking with those people who had vigorously implemented the RCIA in the US, on his tour here, he was amazed to find that it was already happening. In his words, those communities "know they are the Church."

This observation of his confirms my own experience. A true grasp of the dynamics of the catechumenate and the restored rites of Christian Initiation of Adults is enormously fruitful for realizing a fuller, better understanding of Church. Conversely, if we don't "get it" about Baptism, chances are we won't "get it" about Mother Church at all. (There, Fischer's comment about it taking generations to accomplish is a comfort; we may see it better over time.)

To put it another way, we Catholics think, sometimes, that all can be accomplished through addressing the questions that are focused upon Sunday Eucharist. Without a robust initiation polity, however, one misses the launching pad for Eucharist, so to speak. How we baptize, and what we think we are doing when we baptize, are of critical importance. Aidan Kavanagh understood this and tried to convey it through his teaching and writing.

For this reason, I am so pleased that Pope Francis brought up baptism explicitly, and even encouraged the wonderful practice of finding out and marking the day of one's baptism. I would add: revisit the font, if you can! Baptism is something real. We need concrete reminders of it. Others were Mother Church to us in that event, not only the priest or deacon, but our godparents, our parents, and others as well. We might remember them too, as part of our heritage of faith!

"Mother" Church, acting through "her" agents in the adoption racket, was complicit for generations in concealing from adoptees their true baptismal records.  

Adoptees were not told the names their real mothers chose for them, which meant they did not know the names of their patron saints.

They cannot mark the day or visit the font.   

They were not told the names of their real godmothers, often nurses at maternity homes, who held them and spoke for them at the sacrament of baptism.  

Their records were falsified and kept from them.  The sacrament was shrouded in lies.  

Now, in many cases, in many dioceses, as parishes and maternity hospitals have closed, those baptismal records are lost.   

A simple way to "participate in the motherhood of the Church" would be to end the secrecy, open the sealed records, tell the truth.  A mother does not lie to her children and keep hidden from them the true facts of their origins, the true identity of their ancestors.  The pope could accomplish all that with a simple command.

Gerelyn, your complaint is a valid one. But you miss the point of the concept of church. Neither the pope nor any on this thread denies or approves of its faults. Despite many scoundrel who have led the Church, many have been brought to God through its portals. We cannot deny the good that has been done while working to make the Church better. As Dorothy Day wrote: "the church is a whore, but she is our mother."

Dorothy Day’s comment--“As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”–appeared in a column she wrote during the Vietnam War which you can find at:

(Can't stand Dorothy Day or that revolting quotation.)

(But I think her desire NOT to be canonized should be honored.)



Your anger colors a lot of your thinking. You should be half the person Dorothy Day was.

Do we love the Church as we love our own mother...? ... when there is talk of our mother’s defects we cover them...

This comes too close for comfort  to justifying the sexual abuse cover-ups. Did he really use the same word that is used for "cover-up"?


Mothers give birth to their children and then watch them grow up, cut the apron strings and move on.  Ultimately the mothers die and the children repeat the process.

But the mothers die nonetheless and in a good cases, live on in their children.  If the mother has been abusive then the children make a definite point of ensuring that their mothers do NOT live on in them nor their children.

Dorothy Day's  "though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother" is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't change what she is or has become.

I don't think that "mother church" is a good image for the RCC these days.  Repenting sinner would be more realistic.

In old family records, we realized not long ago that what we thought were records of dates of birth were actually records of dates of baptisms. Often the two were off by a couple of days. Baptism was considered more important than physical birth, I guess! That makes me think that even in the 19t century, people must have been well aware that baptism was “the moment in which we are given the life of God.”

Claire, that was the case in my mother's family as well. For almost all her adult life, my aunt Agnes thought she was born on St Agnes day. She was not. She was born the day before, but baptized on St Agnes day, hence her name. For a first-born child, you'd think her parents would have reported all this with better accuracy, but I think their spirituality entered in. What was more important, after all? To my grandparents it was undoubtedly baptism that was the more important event. It was the beginning of the life that mattered most of all, the life that would not end. It took an international investigation to turn up the biological facts; no one in the family remembered them. 

Rita - from my grandmother came stories about how the mothers often, if not most of the time, did not even attend the baptisms because they were not considered by the church do be cleansed yet.  Thus, my grandmother's complaint that she could only sit in the back of the church while her children were baptized.  (talk about a stunted sexual theology impacting even baptism). 

Couple that with the overwhemingly need to baptize quickly for fear that an infant might die and not get to heaven.

Lots of things impacted notations in family bibles, family histories, records, etc.

My Mother did not attend the baptism of  any of her eleven children, even though in the case of the first two of us the parish church was a block away from where my parents were then living. Yes, she hadn't been "churched," and so it wasn't seemly to go out. But also, if I recall  correctly, new mothers didn't go out for two or three weeks after giving birth because they were "recovering."

So what was my Mother doing while her new child and a large gathering of family members were at the church at one or two on a Sunday afternoon? I'm sure she got in a few prayers, but mainly she was preparing the meal for the family's return from church. 

In 1960, Congregational theologian Paul S. Minear published a book entitled Images of the Church in the New Testament. He found ninety-six of them! The Fathers of the Church and medieval theologians found many more. In fact, there is hardly a female figure in the Bible, including the prostitutes, who was not viewed as a symbol of the Church. The point is that there are many, many images of the Church, and the many are needed precisely because no one of them exhaustively expresses all there is to say about the Church. So to propose that there are senses in which we ought to think of the Church as a mother is not to preclude that it may be thought or imaged in other ways, e.g., as a field, or a ship in stormy waters, or a sheepfold, or as a prostitute, a widow, a virgin, etc., etc. Only the prose-bound would think that we have to choose among them all.

One of my favorite images is the "elect lady" from the second letter of John. I think I got that from Paul Minear... but from one of his articles, not this book which you mentioned, Joe.

"The point is that there are many, many images of the Church, and the many are needed precisely because no one of them exhaustively expresses all there is to say about the Church."Right. Neither wholly pure nor wholly corrupt. Sinners working out salvation with fear and trembling. "Only in dying do we live." The Spring of Resurrection outdoes all the trials and tribulations.


Why is it that you can't stand Dorothy Day?

Adrian Nocent once wrote that the immersion font is a symbol of the community.

One often encounters the expression that the font is "the womb of the church" but Nocent's point is a good one, I think. A relatively large font, one in which an adult can be immersed, carries this community dimension of the sign further. Its very size is a symbol of the community that gives birth to the new Christian. Even in practical terms, immersion requires more people (carrying towels, helping the baptizans in and out of the font, and so on) than pouring a few drops of water does.

We are so enamored of efficiency. No mess, no fuss. But also, it means we need very few people for these "efficient" sacraments, and there is how the role of the community is downplayed.

This is a concrete example of how the renewal of initiation polity plays on the imaginative resources of the people, through the liturgy. One can't "get inside" a tiny font. It is a water vessel, but hardly a place of immersion, something one "enters" in order to be transformed, as one enters the Church.

Just as an aside (I am not a psychologist by any means) -- some of my Jungian-inclined friends have also commented to me on how quite a few churches have very big paschal candles, but tiny little fonts -- this suggests to them an overemphasis on the masculine and underemphasis on the feminine.

I think that this passage in the original post is very important and well-said:

I don’t think enough attention is given to this dialectical relationship: the Church makes believers but is made up of believers; the children of the Church are mother Church; individual Christians enter a building of which they themselves are the living stones. Too much of our language and discourse about the Church is in the third person–as if it were something apart from ourselves.

If my own experience is any indication (and it may not be), getting to this point involves a conversion in the perspective from which you view things. For me, that conversion was experienced in discovering and appropriating the meaning of baptism. Kavanagh once said it to me, when he was kindly reviewing my manuscript for a book on Christian initiation: "It's about identity. It's ALL about identity." 

The dialectic -- so needed, as Joe rightly points out -- is slowed to a standstill if one pole of that dialectic is missing.

One point I would like to see accented more is that the believers who "make up the Church" include those who are feasting in the heavenly Jerusalem. The Litany of the Saints in the baptismal rite is a small (insufficient?) reminder of this. We do need to do more justice to chapter seven of Lumen gentium.

getting to this point involves a conversion in the perspective from which you view things

As an aside, when last year I asked my catechism class: "What is the Church?", the ones who did have an answer were quick to reply: "The Church is all of us", but they don't see that it implies that they have a role to play in the Church.


Bob:  Yes, we could place more emphasis on the last words of the Preface: "And so with all the angels and saints...", a useful reminder that the communion enjoyed here on earth extends beyond time and space.  But I don't think I would call those in the heavenly Jerusalem "believers" any more.

Bob, could you say more about this in the context of this particular discussion? 

Specifically, how does one avoid the pitfall of putting the Church at a distance by accenting those who are feasting in the heavenly Jerusalem? I'm not against this, but I don't think it gets at the problem of the church as "them." The problematic is not between heaven and earth, as I understood it.

In other words, if we emphasize the heavenly communion the church could still be "them" couldn't it -- the canonized saints, the martyrs, who are the real Church, which doesn't include us (at least not yet).



Rite of Baptism, Presentation of Lighted Candle:

Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. He/She is to walk always as a child of the light. May N. keep the flame of faith alive in his/her heart. When the Lord comes, may N. go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.


I'm not seeking to reinstate the "they" (at least in the sense you are reacting against), but to enrich the "we." After all the title of chapter seven of Lumen gentium is "The eschatological character of the pilgrim church and its union with the heavenly church." I would stress "eschatological" and "union." The believers' "we" is identified by their membership in the eschatological community whose head is Christ; and their union, as Joe affirms in his comment, "extends beyond time and space."

I think some of that "eschatological" character and that time-transcending communion is hinted at in the injunction that John Page provides – but how well is it appreciated by us? How rich is our catechesis in this regard?

When Communism was big in Italy a prominent Communist was asked why he baptized his children since Communism was atheistic. He replied: "I may be a Communist but I am not crazy." By and large this is the practise of many Catholics. People are then called lapsed Catholics who never made a commitment or covenant to begin with. RCIA does give full expression to what Baptism is all about. But very few examine the practice of Infant Baptism. People are conscious of the danger of the child not going to heaven without Baptism. Aside from the apparel and party, very little is celebrated about the other more substantial aspects of the rite.  Is Infant Baptsim really justified?

Have others been able to click on the link? In my case it took me to gmail yesterday, and again today.

Claire:  I hope I've fixed the link.

Yes, it works now, thanks.

Jim Pauwels:

Did you happen to notice that one of the other contributors to the booklet in which Congar's article on "Mother Church" appeared was a certain Carolus Fr. Pauwels, O.P.?  His essay is entitled "The Church as Sign of the Future." The only information is his address which is given as: "Nijmegen - Rome." I did find this website with a long article on him, in Dutch, which identifies him as a Dutch Dominican, 1903-1965.  If my faulty grasp of Dutch is not incorrect, he occupied the first chair devoted to ecumenism at any Roman university.  Here are two sites, both in Dutch, with more information about him:

A possible relative?

Gerelyn's comment reminded how much I have enjoyed reading over the years the compelling and thoughtful prose of the fair-minded and talented Patrick Jordan, former managing editor of Commonweal.

I can always stand to read (or re-read) his work:

I believe it was Roberto Benigni, when receiving the Academy Award for his performance in the movie "Life is Beautiful" thanked his parents for "the gift of poverty".  I believe it is reasonable to assume from that remark his childhood was both remarkable and unremarkable.  Nonetheless he felt loved.  Perhaps that's what the Church does for us in its imperfect way.  After all, it has a rather challenging task.  To be us and no us at the same moment.

Anyone who has done extensive genealogical research, as I have for the last 6 years, particularly on (which I will grant is the most extensive and likely most accurate of the sites) has learned to take dates with a grain of salt.  Key dates really need to be verified to the extent possible in more than one source.

One very often has to live with a sense of ambiguity about so many things one is researching.

More about the Mother Church today, and this time I don't care much for it.


From the report Pope Francis seems to have been wandering all over the place. Here's a post I sent in from Augustine on the Church as widow:

For St. Augusting here -- and the Pope today-- "widow" seems to mean "poor, single mother".  Hmmm.  That's a real stretch.  Also it wouldn't be theologically sound to say the Church has "lost" her husband (Jesus).  He died, yes, but He is risen.  The metaphor doesn't work.

Not their best sermons.

Ann:  Why is it a stretch to think of a widow as a "poor, single mother'? Because not all widows are poor, or mothers?  When the Bible in many places asks for special care for widows and orphans, it is thnking of the poor and defenceless. 

Obviously not all aspects of widowhood apply to the Church, but is that to say that none of them do? Are there no aspects of our Christian condition that resemble widowhood?  If the Church--we--can be compared to a bride, a mother, a virgin, why not also to a widow? 

Well, I found Augustine's bit rather boring. The image of a widow does not speak to me, and except for the first sentence or two, he's mostly paraphrasing a gospel reading. 

The pope's homily seemed, yes, all over the place. He said at one point that those were just random thoughts suggested to him by the reading, and that's exactly how it sounded. One might see it as giving us a peek of his stream-of-consciousness musings.

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