Ten years, six months, and one day after Pope John XXIII announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council, I was born into this world. For those unfamiliar with the concept, simply speaking, a council is called in the Roman Catholic Church to gather religious leaders so they might settle doctrinal issues. In 1959, there had not been such an assembly in nearly 100 years. However, Pope John XXIII believed it was right to convene a council because he thought it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air to the Church.
As a result of the Vatican II, which concluded in 1965, there was a big shift in the day-to-day spiritual experience of your average Catholic. Maybe one of the most significant results of the council was henceforth, Mass was to be celebrated in the primary language spoken in one’s country. And instead of having his back to the congregation, the priest now faced them during the celebration of Eucharist. The regular people in the pew were now being included in the celebration in more ways, communicating their participation as a vital component of the Mass, and of the Church as a whole.
Being born to two cradle Catholics just 4 years after the implementation of Vatican II, my Catholicism was certainly formed by the changes it brought and my parents’ complete and welcome acceptance of them. There are many theologians and faithful Catholics who argue the years after the implementation of the Council were disastrous and led to problems experienced later in the Church. Yet in my memories, it was quite exciting to witness my parents embrace their faith in a whole new way, so different from their upbringing in the Church of the 1930’s and 1940’s. They became involved in ministries of the Church and their participation filled them with a joy I found quite captivating. From an early age, I wanted what they had in terms of the love and fulfillment they found in their Roman Catholic faith, post-Vatican II. As understood by the pendulum effect, surely some of the richness of the pre-Vatican II Church was lost to me being born in the time I was. Yet on the other side of the coin, as I grew older, there was a realization I was given the gift of an entirely different kind of richness exactly because I was born in the time I was.
My beloved grandmother, nicknamed “Mamoo”, had a deep love for Mary, the Mother of Jesus. There was a story told in our family about a time when post-surgery her heart stopped and she had a near death experience. She saw her own body lying beneath her with the doctors working to revive her and from a distance she witnessed the Blessed Mother, emanating bright light, warmth, and love, nearing closer to her. Before they could meet, she was back in her own body and alive. I was only eight years old when she died, but I never forgot the story. I didn’t really feel close to the Blessed Mother but wished one day I might know her like Mamoo did. In the swing of the pendulum, there wasn’t a significant emphasis placed on Mary and the prayer of the Rosary in my childhood faith development. I don’t think this was a conscious decision by my parents, but a result of the excitement of embracing other aspects of their faith dormant until unleashed by Vatican II.
One of the most exciting and inspirational aspects of faith my parents embraced during those years was developing their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Upon their return from a marriage retreat, I witnessed firsthand what is described in the Bible in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 5, verse 12: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” Clearly my father was a new man. As he described it, he encountered Jesus in a deeply vulnerable way and felt unconditionally loved by God, instead of just intellectually knowing he was. The old dad had passed away and he began living in a way that filled our home with love, acceptance, and encouragement. I sensed the Holy Spirit was hanging around our house now and I liked it. I liked it a lot. They joined with others in our local parish who had encountered God in this personal way and they gathered weekly to pray and support one another. These people became extended family and in their presence, I always sensed the closeness of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. To be around them felt as if I was basking in the warm sunshine of the early days of summer, but the rays consisted of unconditional acceptance and love which I allowed to penetrate my being. This was the richness given to me by the Church of Vatican II. It was the gift which led me to a small Catholic university in Ohio where I could study Theology in the hopes of using my life in service to God and continuing the renewal in the Roman Catholic Church.
Upon arriving on campus in 1989, I was surrounded by peers who like me, had encountered the Holy Spirit in their lives and were on fire for their faith. Yet there were others who seemed very alien to me. The center of their faith in Jesus Christ was very much intertwined with their love for his Mother, Mary. In recent years there had been apparitions of the Blessed Mother happening in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. As a result, a great renewal in praying the Rosary and increased devotion to Mary was occurring, probably the biggest surge since the onset of Vatican II, and I found it difficult to embrace. This really bothered me. I wanted a relationship with the mother of Jesus. It seemed to me that it should be natural to love the woman who loved Jesus into being and throughout his life, until the end. Who else knew him better? If I got to know her, I could know him better. And so I tried. After getting reacquainted with the prayer of the Rosary, I joined in its recitation weekly with a group of woman. It is a prayer which invites one to contemplate several important moments in the life of Jesus while reciting the Hail Mary. Faithfully, I did this; week after week, Hail Mary after Hail Mary, but still she felt strangely distant to me. One semester I was required to complete a course in Mariology, taught by one of the world’s most highly regarded Mariologists. I should have finished that course inspired ever more by Mary’s role in the life of Jesus, and fully cured of my lukewarm feeling, but I didn’t. To me, she seemed too perfect to be relatable.
For many years I hid this secret as I was ashamed to admit that I really didn’t have a devotion to Mary, and preferred almost any other type of prayer over the Rosary. Convinced that to share this struggle would certainly draw judgment from fellow students, I remained silent. Of course, I continued to revere her externally, such as placing flowers at her statue on my wedding day, and saying the right prayers and singing the right songs on the feast days which celebrate her. Internally, however, she seemed so far away from my heart. To mentally obsess about what was wrong with me, the Catholic from birth, the Theology major, and later the Church worker who didn’t have a relationship or even a warm affinity for the Mother of Jesus served only to worsen the divide. Eventually, I decided to shift my focus off what I was not, and instead tried to appreciate who God had made me be, imperfections and all. I simply let go of my fixation upon my non-relationship with the Blessed Mother.
Becoming a mother at the age of 31 instantly proved to be the biggest source of both joy and suffering in my life. And the same reality continues to this day, 16 years later. No amount of advance preparation could ever have readied me sufficiently for its plethora of challenges; good and bad. Its daily scenarios bring me to my knees and humble me more than I ever imagined I would be or could be. And it has been on those exact days, the ones when I find myself so very close to the dirt of the earth, bowed low, crying out for guidance and wisdom and strength, I sense the distance between her and I narrowing.
One of the great paradoxes I didn’t understand as a younger person is the experience of suffering and brokenness is the great leveler of humanity. And all mothers suffer. This suffering looks and feels different at all the stages of our child’s growth and development, but it never ends; not ever. Therefore, there is a capacity for women to deeply bond with one another, especially when we are vulnerable enough to admit we don’t have it figured out and it is as hard as rocks and some days we don’t even know how we are going to make it through with our sanity intact. It was through this lens I began reading the stories of Mary in the Scriptures anew. No longer seeing her as perfect and unrelatable, instead, I began to see in account after account how time after time she suffered in her role as mother.
In the scriptural account of the Annunciation, when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, it describes her as being greatly troubled. In response to the news of conception, she was terrified. She was young and unmarried and no amount of advance preparation could have ever readied her for the plethora of challenges ahead. She was a source of scandal in her community and it took the intervention of another angel to convince her betrothed to marry her. In the impending moments before the birth of her child, she again found herself in challenging circumstances. Travel via donkey while 9 months pregnant is arguably less than ideal. Giving birth in a stable seems downright cruel. Days later, upon presenting Jesus in the temple, an old man took her baby into his arms and said that this child was destined for the fall and rise of many and she, a sword would pierce. Shortly thereafter, she had to flee the country of her birth and become an immigrant in a strange land to escape the plot to kill her newborn.
When he was just a child, she lost him for days in the city. When found, with seeming unconcern for his mother’s suffering, he explained he was about doing his Father’s business. Tradition tells us that while he was still young, she became a widow. The responsibility of raising a son was now hers alone. At the wedding of Cana, when out of concern for her friends who were hosting the celebration, she asks him for help his first response is almost a rebuke: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”
As she sees him fulfilling his life’s mission during the years of his public ministry and positive news about him is spreading, her nearest relatives and neighbors still doubt the validity of the good news and question how it could be so. The carpenter is doing these things? How could this be the same Jesus they knew? Later stories are communicated to Mary of many who are rejecting her son, including the leaders of their very own Jewish faith. Frightening accounts are shared with her of some who want to throw him off a cliff. Then she hears the tragedy of her cousin Elizabeth’s son John, who was jailed and beheaded for supporting Jesus. As his ministry culminates, she witnesses Jesus be unjustly judged and sentenced to death. At the very end, still, by his side, she walks with him the way of the cross to his crucifixion. At his feet she stays, watching the flesh of her flesh, bloody and bruised and suffocating until he breathed his last breath. I am struck by how much sadness, heartbreak, and suffering she had to endure; more than any one woman should ever have to bear. Yet in the history of salvation, it is she who is identified as one full of grace; first by the angel Gabriel and later by generations upon generations of people. Even those who are not of a Catholic or Christian tradition honor her as such.
The advent of adolescence in our household came swiftly and without much warning. It seems as if overnight the winds shifted, turned bitterly cold and took much of the sweetness and warmth away from our parent-child relationship. Its intermittent moments of unexpected intensity are only exasperated by the fact that we haven’t done this before and our daughter is our only child. There are days when the foundation we worked so long to build feels as if it is going to crumble right beneath our feet and others when the walls might fall down and crush us. One such moment happened in recent days. I had read the signs and knew a perfect storm was brewing. I gave my daughter warnings so as to avert the potential tempest. She was given ample time to correct and make amends for some poor choices, but none were made. Time was up. Out of love and concern, I allowed her to experience the consequences of choices she made. In that moment, everything blew up.
The sheer force of her response rendered me feeling breathless, utterly rejected, unloved and mocked, by the flesh of my flesh, the one for whom I would die without hesitation because it is in my nature because I am her mother. False accusations and angry words were hurled at me, both to my face and behind my back on her social media accounts. And for whatever reason, this time it hurt more deeply than ever before. It was raw and very difficult to hold. I wanted to lash back; I wanted to make the pain stop, but to do so would only perpetuate the cycle and make everything worse. In desperation, I cried out to God. And in that moment, she who is full of grace drew nearer than ever before.
Mary reminded me of her heart; though pierced by a sword, it was able to burn bright with the fire of love. It could hold the pain and the love together without rejecting the other. Her heart, she reminded me, was broken over and over throughout her journey as a mother. Yet it was precisely in the breaking that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace grew with each new fissure. Recalling the traditional religious image of the Immaculate Heart, which before had no positive effect on me, it seemed as if she was extending it to me. For the first time, I saw its softness, its warmth, its healing grace overflowing to hold, comfort and heal me. I begged her to ask her Son to give me the strength in this moment to bear the pain and love together in the small space of my broken heart. Slowly, a peace came over me, the temptation to retaliate lost its power and I could breathe through the agony, just as I did when I was in labor with this same child.
She who once was distant has now drawn near. In the depth of our new bond and in the warmth of her presence I sense it is precisely in the breaking of my heart that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace is growing with each new fissure.
United with you, we will be one with God.
United with you, we will be open to the will of God.
United with you, we too will feel the mystery of Christ, alive within us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.
-excerpt from Prayer to the Mother of God, Mary by Reverend Edward Hays