Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and Mother’s Day — all in the month of May dedicated to Our Lady. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on the Motherhood of Mary and her role in Christ’s saving work. The Mary question lies at the heart of evangelization to protestants, which was also true in my conversion story.
Mary as the Essential Challenge in Conversion
This past Easter Vigil marks my family’s 19th anniversary of our conversion and return home to Holy Mother Church. The greatest challenge in my conversion was understanding Mary’s role in salvation. Like so many protestants, I was stuck in a kind of compartmentalization — a blindness that divides rather than sees wholey — that our reverence and prayers to Mary do not take from the Lord. It took me a couple of years after I converted to really “get it” about Mary.
When I stood at the altar that Easter Vigil and said, “I proclaim all that the Catholic Church teaches as truth according to Scripture,” I gulped a little. I was not yet convicted of all the Marian doctrines of the Church. I wrestled in that nano-second with doubt: Was I standing here entering Christ’s Church as a hypocrite or was this an act of faith? In truth, I was still so blind. Yet, in short stead, Mary’s role became crystal clear to me. My enlightenment was not simply the product of intellectual study; it was not my efforts that clarified my understanding. Instead, something happened over time to shed the scales from my eyes.
I cannot point to a cataclysmic moment of awareness — just subtle shifts. A priest once spoke on the scene at the Cross when Jesus turns to Mary and St. John, and gives each to the other as mother and son. The priest suggested that this is the moment when the Church is generated: Mary is the waiting Church, that home with the doors open ready to receive, and John is the Evangelist — the outward reach of the Church. As I reflected on the term Holy Mother Church, I gradually came to realize Mary’s fullness in the Body of Christ. I realized that Mary as the vessel of God remains one with Christ’s Church — the vessel of graces. As we align our hearts and prayers with Mary, she contributes to animating our souls which rest in the Body of Christ.
One other experience wedded me to Our Lady. My fourth daughter was very sickly as a baby, and I spent an entire year in hospitals with her. Prior to this, I could never “get it” about devotion to the Rosary. The prayers seemed stiff, formal and too robotic at first. But then, spending endless days and nights in hospital rooms, I truly “got it” about the Rosary. I can’t explain the “it” which I got; I just experienced “it.” Ever since, I can never get through a day without praying the Rosary.
Because I have five children, each has her own decade. And because I offer each decade in birth order, each child has come to align with her decades in the Joyful, Sorrowful, Luminous and Glorious mysteries. It’s as though each child needs the prayers that align with each decade. As I drive into the school where I teach each day, I prayerfully visualize my handing each of my daughter’s to Mary’s motherhood as I embrace the girls God’s entrusts me to teach each day. I know that I cannot be present to my own daughters as I care for my students, and I trust Mary to be their always present mother. I have a very challenging eldest daughter, who is very difficult for me to mother effectively, and priests have encouraged me to entrust that daughter to Mary’s mothering. Ultimately, Mary is our true Mother; I’m just a a flawed temporal proxy.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd
I tell this long personal story to give witness to a few complexities in evangelization. Protestants have a profound sense of Jesus as the Shepherd. He leads the sheep through the gate. He calls to His sheep by name, and the sheep know His voice. His sheep follow their shepherd. He lays down his life for the sheep, not letting one lost lamb go unnoticed.
The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd includes a sheep wrapped around his shoulders. This was a practice shepherds used to protect a lamb that kept running away to danger. The shepherd broke the young lambs leg, had to carry that lamb for about six weeks til the leg healed, and then the lamb forever stayed close to the shepherd because of the close bond they developed over those six weeks.
Oh, how many moments of brokenness can we point to, when we cling to Jesus to carry us through. Through each of life’s trials, we join ourselves closer to the Shepherd who guides our lives, who finds us when we stray, who allows breaks to happen in our lives, and who carries us through.
The Gospel for Good Shepherd Sunday (John 10:1-10) also hints of Mary:
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When I read references to “the gate,” I think of Mary. Mary as the God-bearer (the Theotokos to our Orthodox brothers and sisters) who leads us to the Shepherd. Mary is the gate through which we pass, the gatekeeper who opens our way to the Shepherd.
The Five Marian Dogmas
1. The Motherhood of Mary, recognized by both Catholics and Orthodox, was affirmed at two important councils: Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451:
…begotten from the Father before the ages as regards his godhead, and in the last days, the same, because of us and because of our salvation begotten from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, as regards his manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten…
2. Mary’s Perpetual Virginity was promulgated in Baptismal prayers as early as the 3rd century, but was officially proclaimed in the Lateran Council of 649. The Council stated that Mary was conceived “without any detriment to her virginity, which remained inviolate even after his birth.”
3. Mary’s Immaculate Conception was long-assumed in the Church, but was officially proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX: “that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege from Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was kept free of every stain of original sin.”
4. Mary’s Assumption, again affirmed for centuries, was officially declared a doctrine of the Church in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, stating: “Mary, Immaculate Mother of God ever Virgin, after finishing the course of her life on earth, was taken up in body and soul to heavenly glory.”
5. Mary as Mediatrix of All Graces was confirmed by the Church in the Second Vatican Council in 1965:
….. [I]n suffering with Him as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope, and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls. As a result she is our Mother in the order of grace….[B]y her manifold intercession, she continues to win the gifts of eternal salvation for us. By her motherly love, she takes care of the brothers of her Son who are still in pilgrimage and in dangers and difficulties, until they be led through to the happy fatherland. For this reason, the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adiutrix, and Mediatrix. This however it to be so understood that it takes nothing away, or adds nothing to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator. For no creature can ever be put on the same level with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer….”
I’m particularly moved by this passage: [S]he takes care of the brothers of her Son who are still in pilgrimage and in dangers and difficulties, until they be led through to the happy fatherland. Doesn’t that remind you of the images of gate and gatekeeper in today’s Gospel reading for Good Shepherd Sunday?
Mary in the Work of Evangelization
Mary’s great “yes” to God through the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation places her as the essential first step in the Incarnation, and she remains essential to Christ’s redeeming work. Not only is she the Queen of Heaven and of all the Saints and not only does she distribute the graces to us, but she keeps appearing in our midst.
While the Church recognizes Nine approved Marian Apparitions, there are over 300 apparitions of Our Lady that are pending full investigation by the Church. This web page through a professor at the University of Dallas explains the Church’s careful procedures and criteria for investigating apparitions, and includes a full list of all Marian apparitions noted to date, those approved, those still under investigation and those that have been renounced.
Regardless of the details, the many Marian apparitions, the references to Mary’s role in redemption throughout the New Testament, and the countless prayers answered confirm that Mary’s work in redemption remains vigorous, ongoing and essential.
As you reach out to our protestant brothers and sisters in evangelizing efforts, remember that facts, intellectual arguments, discussions of doctrine and Scripture only go so far. My experience aligns with teachings of the early Church fathers who encouraged evangelists to not delay reception in the Church for those who seek Baptism because so many more graces come when you enter through that gate.
Happy Mother’s Day to the Mother of us All — Queen of Heaven, pray for us!