By Bishop Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
Not so long ago, a friend of mine, a mother of four, commented on the dangers of attending Mass on Mother’s Day: “One runs the risk of having some Barry Fitzergald type of priest waxing on interminably about his sainted mother from County Mayo.”
Well, my friends, be at ease. My sainted mother hails from the Trentino region of Italy, not County Mayo. Although I continue to grow in an ever deepening admiration for the wonderful life she has led and gratitude for her generous love for me and my sister, I will not spend these precious moments extolling her virtue.
Instead, as my mother would have it, I ask you to focus your attention on Jesus. While the presence of so many mothers and their families among us today reminds me of the need to celebrate motherhood, we are here primarily to enter more deeply into the mystery of Jesus Christ. It is his story which we have gathered to hear. It is his meal which we share.
But celebrating Mother’s Day and gathering to celebrate the risen Lord are not at odds. Mother’s Day provides us with an occasion to celebrate what some have observed as the maternal dimension of the mystery of the Lord. We recall that some of our predecessors in the faith, Julian of Norwich and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, for example, found it helpful in prayer to liken Jesus to a mother. We also remember the trend among our medieval ancestors to use the image of the mother pelican, piercing her own breast to feed her young with her life’s blood, in depicting the mystery of the Eucharist.
One of my favorite gospel passages presents Jesus, lamenting the future of Jerusalem (Matt 24:37): “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone those sent to you. How many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings…”
This particular image appeals to me, who, as a pastor of the archdiocese longs to gather under our wings those who feel alienated from the Church.
The portion of John’s Gospel, assigned by the Church for the seventh Sunday of Easter, serves as a window which enables us to gaze into the prayer life of Jesus. He is about to depart from this world and enter into the glory of his Father. In a manner reminiscent of a mother praying for a child as she or he is about to enter a world beyond her immediate control, Jesus intercedes for his disciples. He asks the Father to protect the family he has gather and to keep them one. He summarizes his ministry among them. He has kept careful watch. He has entrusted to them the Father’s word. Now, he is sending them out into the world, consecrated in truth.
The first reading provides us with an insight into the experience of the fledgling early Christian community as it ventured out into the world after Jesus’ ascension. The Acts of the Apostles shares with us stories of power, as the first Christians began to carry out the Church’s mission. These stories stir up feelings similar to those associated with listening to the stories of young people starting college or beginning their careers. One can feel the power, the enthusiasm, the thrill. One can also sense the fear, the uncertainty, the worry.
It must have been exciting for the disciples to begin the process of calling forth new leadership. Yet, Peter may well have spent a few anxious moments before assuming his role as leader and standing up among the 120 disciples, calling the church to order.
Today’s post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost liturgy captures something of the mystery of the disciples’ connection with, and separation from, Jesus. It is the mystery of his presence within his absence. It is the mystery of the Holy Spirit. Reflecting on this mystery, St. John writes in today’s second reading:
No one has ever seen God
Yet, if we love one another
God dwells in us
and his love is brought to perfection in us.
The way we know we remain in him and he in us
is that he has given us his Spirit.
We share in the mystery of connection with, and separation from, the Lord. We share in the mystery of his presence within his absence. Here, again, reference to motherhood may assist us in our contemplation of this essential mystery of our faith. I say “essential” because the Church’s whole life – its preaching, its sacraments, its ministry, and its structures – have their foundation in the Lord’s presence within his absence
In my own experience, I have found my mother strangely present to me even when she is physically absent. When confronted with a painful decision, I can hear her voice speaking within the depths of my conscience. When feeling overwhelmed by a particular task, I can envision her assuming the difficult responsibility of taking care of two small children after the death of my father. When I become too busy to pray, I can see her quietly saying her prayers, and I remember to keep my priorities straight.
The example falls short in helping us savor the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence in his absence. But it may help in our celebration of Jesus, who now lives at the right hand of the Father, but is also here, among us, and will one day return to bring us the fullness of the kingdom.
I began with a promise not to spend this Mother’s Day homily extolling my own mother. However, I cannot talk about Jesus on Mother’s Day without making some reference to the woman who has been so instrumental in bringing me to him. Many of you have gathered here today with the woman who has played the same role in your lives. Others gather here in spiritual communion with their mothers, who may live across the miles or who have gone home to God’s kingdom in heaven. And we also recall the woman who played such an important role in Jesus’ life – his mother, Mary, whom we all honor and called blessed among women.
My own mother loved to set before us a table filled with an abundance of good food. The Lord, like a good mother, invites you to this table of the Eucharist, where we taste the abundance of his love. At special meals, there are always toasts for honored guests. Ladies, as we come to this Table of the Lord, in the name of the Church, I salute you. Thank you and bless you for your motherly love. And now, to all, in the Spirit of Jesus, I say, “Come to the Table of the Lord Jesus who, in the consecrated Bread and Cup, shares with us his Body and Blood as a memorial of his death and resurrection and as a pledge of future glory.”
This article is excerpted from The Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Volume 1 (Liturgical Press, 2000) edited by Alphonse P. Spilly, C.PP.S.