Bishop: Mother of the Church, Our Mother

by Diocese of Des Moines | May 17, 2023

Bishop William Joensen

These days it seems devotion to the Blessed Mother is springing up around us like tulips and irises coming into bloom. The month of May is an especially verdant time for us to ponder, pray, and honor the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Beyond the designation of Mary’s month and the initial May crownings and processions such as the impressive scale of the one that took place at Dowling Catholic High School, there are the commemorations of Our Lady of Fatima (May 13), the celebrations of Mary, Mother of the Church (which this year falls on May 29, the day after Pentecost, where Pope Francis instituted the memorial on the Roman liturgical calendar) before concluding on May 31, the Feast of the Visitation.  Add to this Marian feasting table the secular designation of the Second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day, and we readily feel like we are being buoyed up both by our spiritual mother Mary and by the prayers, tenacious faith, and even the weakness of our own naturally God-given moms.

As I feel ever more at home in the Church of Des Moines, I likewise sense I am connecting with my Mom Marilyn’s roots. She grew up with her parents and her younger brother Ralph in Holy Trinity Parish before her Dad died suddenly when she was five years old.  Her widowed mother, Marie, was left to provide as a single parent for her kids; thus began a rapid procession of moves that passed through St. Augustin and Visitation Parishes before heading back to draw upon supportive presence from relatives in Waterloo, Iowa.  

Though material means were starkly limited, as Grandma worked long hours in her own “beauty shop,” my Mom’s and uncle’s lively faith was fostered by their attendance at Mass, their education at Our Lady of Victory Academy run by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs), and by the close knit bonds of extended family that transcended the “dirt poor” (my late Dad’s description) conditions in which they grew up. 

Later in life, after she was well on the way toward raising her five kids, someone once asked my Mom: “If you weren’t Catholic, what church would you belong to?”  Mom’s rejoinder: “Asking what religion I would join if I left the Catholic Church is like asking me which child I would give up.”  Some hypothetical prospects simply beggar the imagination, especially for those rich in faith.
When the death of her Son on the Cross must have come close to tapping out the reservoir of her undying faith, the Mother whose heart had been searingly pierced did not despair of the promises Jesus had made that he would rise again. Her son embraced mortal weakness; she certainly did the same. Yet I am given to wondering if the Risen Christ in his great mercy and filial affection for his Mother might have made a swift and unrecorded visit to her private chambers to console and anoint her with his tender Spirit prior to appearing in the locked upper room to generate the Pentecost event.  

Did she experience the luminous truth of the Resurrection but hold it in her heart until she and the apostles and others gathered with them could bask in the peace he breathed upon them and be stirred to compose a new rendition of her visitation Magnificat? Together, did they magnify the Lord with bursting souls at the marvelous news that death held no more sway, that fear would melt in the face of the Son who went to hell and back in order to call us to be united by the Spirit as the Church against whom the gates of the netherworld cannot prevail?  

The Blessed Virgin Mary is Mother of the Church because her stark material poverty is the prelude to her spiritual largesse; every grace she receives is placed at the disposal of the children whom she gladly gathers under her maternal mantle. Every human person, male and female alike, is a child of God, a child of Mary, who loves us and spares no expense or energy in her intercession and devoted attention to us.  She draws close to us so that we might never forsake trust that God is with us, that our knotty life can be unraveled, and that there is a designated place for us in the household of Christ’s Father’s house.

The late Holy Father Benedict XVI reflected on Mary’s role throughout her life as a beacon of hope and as the nucleus of a church community coming-to-be, thanks to her abiding presence and maternal solicitude for each of us.  In his message, “Saved by Hope,” the pontiff speaks directly to the Blessed Mother: “From the Cross you received a new mission. From the Cross you became a mother in a new way: the mother of all those who believe in your Son Jesus and wish to follow him. . . . At the foot of the Cross, on the strength of Jesus’ own word, you became the mother of believers.”  

The gentle pope continues, “The joy of the Resurrection touched your heart and united you in a new way to the disciples. . . . In this way you were in the midst of the community of believers, who in the days following the Ascension prayed with one voice for the gift of the Holy Spirit and then received that gift on the day of Pentecost.  The ‘Kingdom’ of Jesus was not as one might have imagined.  It began in that hour, and of this ‘Kingdom’ there will be no end.”

My Mom’s life situation has changed dramatically in the last couple months. She suffered her third and most serious stroke, and remains incapacitated on her right side, which has necessitated a move to a care facility in Ankeny as she undergoes therapy and receives the support my siblings and I cannot provide. In so many ways, she who was the stalwart caregiver, the mother who looks after and prays constantly for the spiritual and natural well-being of her children, is now on the receiving end of the humbling, human support that tends to her basic bodily needs. It is a transition that many of us have faced with our parents, or are experiencing ourselves. It is a transition that I witnessed up close in my three years as chaplain at the largest care facility in Iowa, where the daily and Sunday celebration of Eucharist was populated by adult children sitting close to their parents and accompanied by elderly priests themselves in various states of cognitive and physical decline. It was always a poignant, sacred affair; now it is ever more eminently personal.

For now, even though my brother David is remarkably, beautifully committed to visiting and accompanying her, Mom still sits for long stretches in her wheelchair in her room, pondering the staggering cross the stroke has introduced, the reconfiguration of her hope. She gazes occasionally upon the image of Mary that adorns her wall as she prays ever more simply, more childlike, the Rosary clutched in her left hand that still can grasp and function. She remains both mother and daughter of the Mother whose heart and soul will to help us say “yes” to whatever God proposes, whatever befalls us. No one suffers beyond the pale of Mary’s maternal attention, her solidarity with our felt poverty.  

The woman who is perpetually the lightning rod of the Spirit, the center of all communion, remains Mother of the Church for us. Though we know with certainty of faith and unswerving hope that our suffering will one day end, Mary draws us ever more intimately into the Kingdom that will never end, where the Church who once suffered becomes simply the Church who abides in joy, mutual presence, and a song to which we all know the lyrics as we together magnify the Lord.

Diocese of Des Moines

The Diocese of Des Moines, created in 1911, serves people over a 12,446 square mile area in the southwestern quadrant of Iowa, including 23 counties.