As Catholics, we have a special knowledge of what having a mother means. Maternal love surrounds us, engulfs us, and consoles us in our churches, our homes and in our prayers. Our heavenly mother listens and speaks to us, and comforts us in many guises. She is present to us under many names, such as Mother of Mercy, Mother of Help, Mother of Divine Grace, and many more. Her splendid iconography is omnipresent like the crucifix, her love shining forth through the radiance of her face. Yet her loving presence is always gentle. We know that she is always our last resort.
However, as our heavenly mother, Mary is not only everyone’s mother. Knowing Mary, we also have a special knowledge of what being a mother means. Any mother can find a reflection of Mary’s love in the love she feels for her own children. In that sense, images of Mary with Christ remind us of the beauty of any mother’s love for her children. We perceive in depictions of her holding Christ a mother’s love, complete in giving, grace, and perseverance. The pieta reminds us that her love remained absolute to the most painful end. And which mother does not react emotionally to the sadness shown? The beauty of Mary’s love comes from purity and strength. She is the ultimate mother, with us throughout the struggles of time through her maternal presence and as a model of timeless maternal devotion.
While Mary gives unfailing sustenance, it is precisely her gentle omnipresence in our lives that can make us take her for granted. Yet while Mary never gives up on us, a down-playing of the maternal bond to facilitate the acceptance of abortion has lasting consequences on how mothers and their role are perceived in general. Sadly, our culture not only tolerates the tragedy of abortion, but, in doing so, inadvertently, devalues mothers. Maternal devotion cannot be exalted and respected as an absolute value when pregnancy is seen as an encumbrance or mere lifestyle choice.
Once we are truly aware of the importance of Mary’s maternal love in our own personal experience and within our faith community, we can truly appreciate the overall social importance of the maternal bond. It is this love in its purest form, which we must protect, nurture, and cherish. We must be committed to the important task of appreciating and protecting the maternal bond overall, seeing in every mother’s love for her children a bond that is complete and sacred. As Catholics, we must strive towards a society, which cherishes and respects such love as a reflection of Mary’s presence in the world.
Cardinal O’Malley, in his homily given at the January 21 Mass opening the National Prayer Vigil for Life in Washington, put women at the center of his powerful pro-life message. He likened women choosing abortion to the adulterous woman in the Gospel whom Christ saves from being stoned to death: “She feels overwhelmed, alone, afraid, confused.” He stressed that we “can save those babies only by saving the mothers.” Pregnant women often experience anxiety and loneliness for economic reasons. However, most women, rich or poor, feel anxious about taking on the role as mother. Embracing motherhood is an awesome task that can seem impossible to face in isolation. Sadly, we have arrived at a point where social support of a pregnancy is often withheld and motherhood, as a woman’s most affirming choice, is neither encouraged nor validated.
Once society defines a mother’s love as an arbitrary choice rather than an absolute personal and social value, a vicious and destructive cycle emerges. The unborn child is seen as a personal preference, not deserving of complete, unconditional love, which always starts with the mother. It is precisely the lack of recognition of maternal love, which leads many women to opt out of motherhood or terminate a pregnancy. Furthermore, even the care and safety of children born is compromised when their existence is not an absolute, but a random choice.
Pope Francis recently denounced the murder of a three-year-old boy by the Calabrian Mafia. The boy, strapped in the car seat, burned to death after the Mafia had “executed” his grandfather. “This ferocity against such a small child seems unprecedented in the annals of organized crime,” the Holy Father said. This is what happens when mothers retreat and their protection falters, when the power and dignity of mothers is diminished, when maternal love is no longer valued as the last resort of nurture and pure devotion in a world of cold competition. When mothers and their children are seen as one, a wall of protection surrounds both.
During my own first pregnancy, I came to resist the idea that I should be the only point of reference when it came to the protection of my child. When I was four months pregnant, I began seeing my Ob/Gyn regularly. Besides my husband, he was to be my other partner in making sure that my baby was well taken care of. I knew that he would take good care of me during the pregnancy, but began wondering whether he cared for my baby as much as for me. Was he performing abortions as well as delivering babies? Surely, that posed a great conflict. At some point I managed to distract an evasive answer from him. He informed me that abortion was legal in Massachusetts until the 20th week of pregnancy. He insisted that his charge was to take care of his “patients” first. Clearly, he saw my interests as separate from those of my child. In order to protect my child, I, therefore, needed to reinforce that my child and I were one even when talking to my doctor on whose expertise I depended.
The cardinal further emphasized that when experiencing “God’s loving mercy,” women would become “capable of showing mercy to their children.” It is, indeed, through Christ’s love that we are able to give to and love others in the most difficult circumstances. And, as the cardinal continues, “the pro-life movement has to be about saving mothers.” He points out that “we need to focus on the women to try to understand what they are suffering.” Along with fear due to poverty and abandonment, often comes a sense of loneliness in a world that seems to not want her child. Abortion is a terrible tragedy not only for the unborn, but for the woman as well. It deprives her not only of the greatest gift, which is a child, but of being able to bring to this world the gift of self through her maternal love.
Pregnancy can be a time of tremendous vulnerability for women. This feeling can be intensified when the connection between mother and child is handled with ambiguity. Like children already born, the baby in the womb is already there. The question can never be whether the woman “wants” the child. Instead, we must ask how we can help a woman find within her and nurture that unmatched strength and dignity, which is a mother’s love.
Like Mary, women as mothers give hope by personifying an unconditional and self-giving love. Just as our faith would be inconceivable without Mary, a society in which maternal dedication is downplayed or absent would be emotionally impoverished and hopeless, indeed. We need mothers not only as protectors of their children, but also as a concrete presence of a pure love in the world -- a love that is all giving. For women, the representation of Christ’s love shines through Mary, the ultimate mother, and her devotion to her son and, flowing through him, her tender love for us. By looking at her, mothers will see the beauty of their own love for their children and find courage for their important role. Concluding his apostolic exhortation, “The Gospel of Joy,” Pope Francis writes “whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.”
Motherhood is a woman’s greatest triumph, a moment of great clarity and purpose. There is no greater joy for a mother than cradling her baby. It is an image of beauty in its most human, yet purest form. It gives testament to the fact that all life, no matter how frail or small, is a sign of hope and deserves the utmost love. Simultaneously, it shows a woman at her strongest, as the unrelenting and uncompromising protector of the gift of life. That special bond between a mother and her child, like Mary’s love of her son, should be a cause of celebration and great joy. It signifies love and, therefore, hope in this world. It is part of the Good News that God intended for us.
If you are a mother, this is the point to get up and hug your child -- and thank the Lord and praise his mother.