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.