A Motherless Child is Not an Orphan. (Also, Mary’s Birthday.)

Last week, Pope Francis tweeted:

This strikes me as confused either in anthropology, ecclesiology, or mariology.

First, anthropology: if a person without a mother is an orphan, then apparently fathers are not actually parents? But this would be inconsistent with the traditional church teaching on marriage, and the right of every child to both a mother and a father. (Either that, or it opens the door to lesbian marriages but not gay marriages.)(ok, that was too snarky)

Second, ecclesiology: Or did he mean to imply that a Christian who does not feel that Mary is his mother cannot have God as his father? Well, the traditional patristic teaching is that no one can have God as his father who does not have the church as his mother. (Thus the traditional term utero ecclesiae, meaning “the womb of the church,” for the baptismal font.)

Third, mariology: It’s often said that Mary is a “type” of the church: that is, that she represents or personifies the church, in scripture and tradition. Some theologians suggest an extreme form of this understanding, in which every doctrine about Mary (notably her preservation from original sin) is interpreted to really be about the Church, and not about Mary the human being at all. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Pope Francis meant; but that’s the only way I could imagine reconciling the problem raised by the previous point.

No, I’m pretty sure this is a mis-statement produced by the patriarchal paradigm in which fathers are not actively involved in their children’s lives at all: they are relegated to the role of provider and perhaps occasional disciplinarian. Certainly nothing resembling “full and active participation” in parenting.

(True story: when I challenged my Catholic mother on her statement that children need a father in order to have an understanding of God, she backed down, admitting she didn’t really believe that, but that she didn’t think that fathers were important to children at all, and figured she had to come up with something.)

Only in such a patriarchal paradigm could one say “orphan” to describe a “motherless child.” (Yes, it’s twitter; but there were still 53 characters left. There would have been room to say “motherless child.”)

Now, the question of whether every Christian who does not feel that Mary is his or her mother is a motherless child raises other difficulties on the ecumenical front: but at least it’s more internally consistent to Catholic thought! 😉

And in other news, today, September 8, is the liturgical feast on which both Eastern and Western Christians celebrate the birth (aka nativity) of Mary. Liturgical feasts don’t always signify a particular calendar date, and in this case it does not: we don’t actually know when Mary was born. But, obviously, she was born, and her birth has a unique relationship to our salvation, and so today we honor her birth. Happy birthday, Mary!

To celebrate this feast, I invite you to watch and listen to this video. The audio is a beautiful choral setting of the Ave Maria, by Tomás Luis de Victoria. The video shows a beautiful series of Marian art, beginning with a series of pieces illustrating Mary’s early life according to tradition; followed by pieces illustrating her life during Jesus’ life and death, according to scripture (though sadly omitting her presence at Pentecost); followed by pieces again inspired by tradition, showing her in heaven; and concluding with pieces illustrating various Marian apparitions.

I particularly like the pieces that show Mary as a child, often with her mother, which seemed particularly apt for this feast. We so rarely see those images! Readers who have questions about what particular images signify, especially non-Catholic readers, feel free to ask: give me a time-stamp and I’ll try to answer.

Watch, listen, enjoy; and if you are Christian, whether Catholic or not, say a prayer of thanksgiving for the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

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