The Maternal Icon of Christ’s Love, 5th Sunday of Easter (C), May 9, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fifth Sunday of Easter, C
May 9, 2004
Acts 14:21-27; Rev 21:1-5; Jn 13:31-35

1) During my five years in Rome as a seminarian and a newly-ordained priest, I had the joy of leading thousands of pilgrims to some of the holiest places of our faith. When I would take them inside St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, they would notice the hundreds of beautiful, huge marble statues. Many of them depicted saints, but even more depicted the Christian virtues. The virtues were always shown as women — which should make the women here smile and the men scratch their heads! The virtue of justice, for example, was a woman with scales in her hand, giving to each his due; the virtue of faith, a woman with a crucifix; the virtue of contemplation, a woman with a bible looking up to heaven. I would generally quiz the pilgrims about what virtue they thought was being depicted, so that they might be able to “read” the message being conveyed just like Christians in previous centuries did so easily. Over the course of the two-hour visit, most would get good at making educated guesses. But I was always surprised by how many would fail, toward the end of the tour, to get one of the virtues depicted on the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. I thought it should have been the easiest of all. It was a woman with three young children, one in her arms and two around her legs. When I asked what this virtue was meant to depict, many would respond, “Patience!” Others would say, “kindness!” Some others would say, “courage.” But few would ever get it — even when I would give them the hint, “It begins with an L.” From the time of the Roman empire through the height of the Renaissance, almost everyone understood that a woman with her children was the universal depiction of the virtue of LOVE.

2) In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks to us explicitly about love. “I give you a new commandment — love one another as I have loved you.” This Sunday, as we celebrate Mother’s Day throughout our country, we have before us the example of Christ’s love shining through the love of our mothers, who have put this ever new commandment into action. Today is the day we thank our mothers for all their acts of love, big and small, over the years: their loving us into existence, their caring for us in the womb, their feeding us with their breasts and by their hands, their clothing us, their bathing us, their teaching us how to walk, their teaching us how to read, their teaching us how to love, their bringing us to be baptized, their teaching us how to pray, and so much more. Only God knows the hundreds of thousands of loving sacrifices they have made for us over the years. None of our mothers is perfect; some probably made some mistakes as they tried to raise us; but none of us would be here today without them. On this day, we have the opportunity to put into action what one modern saint called the “sweetest commandment of all” and unite that fourth commandment to the third by honoring our mothers, and by thanking them, and by thanking God for them.

3) The gift and beauty of motherhood has been part of God’s plan from the beginning. What a great mystery is woman’s participation in the ongoing creative work of God! God could have designed human reproduction in some other way than the way he did, but he wanted to involve his creatures, man and woman, in the greatest of his works: the creation of other human beings who are meant to live for ever as their children and as children of God. Woman’s participation in this great gift of bringing new life into existence is even more intimate than man’s. It is in her that a newly conceived life grows. She is the sanctuary of the image and likeness of God. The child is entirely dependent upon the mother and God trusts woman enough to entrust this greatest of all human gifts to her love. No wonder why Eve shouted for joy in the first recorded pregnancy in history with sentiments that have been echoed by moms throughout the generations, “I have given birth to a man with the help of the Lord!” (Gen 4:1).

4) But God’s plan for human motherhood was even more exalted than this. He wanted motherhood to share not just in creation but in redemption. In the fullness of time, the Father sent his beloved son, the world’s redeemer, to be “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). Jesus himself entered the world he created just as we do, as the tiniest little embryo in Mary’s (immaculate) womb. For nine months, God’s son was entirely dependent on his earthly mother, who carried him within her, whose blood nourished him, whose love prepared for him a welcome place. Mary’s motherhood not only participated in the work of redemption, but started it. Every motherhood is meant to carry on that process of redemption — both for the mother, in learning how to love unselfishly as Christ loves; and for the child, in learning from the analogy of maternal love something of God’s divine love. The Church, which is called to proclaim the fullness of the truth of the Gospel, must proclaim the good news about motherhood and value motherhood as much as God does.

5) The Christian witness to the beauty and dignity of motherhood is so necessary and urgent today, because too many in our culture look at motherhood as a curse rather than a gift, as “bad news” rather than good news. Two weekends ago, several hundred thousand women went to Washington, DC, for a rally dubbed a “March for Women’s Lives.” While the organizers said it was meant to promote several issues, the dominant issue of the march was abortion, which they referred by name and under several common euphemisms, such “choice,” “access,” “reproductive health,” and “family planning.” The featured speakers were a “who’s who” in the pro-abortion movement, from the heads of Planned Parenthood and NARAL, to Hillary Clinton, to various Hollywood activists, to one of the new standard bearers, Teresa Heinz Kerry. For woman to become fully alive, for woman to be free, they insisted, she needs to have the unfettered “right” to be able to choose to abort her child in the womb. The version of feminism they proclaim stresses that motherhood must be an OPTIONAL part of what it means to be a woman. But all of this is the antithesis of the Gospel and of any authentic feminism. God made the woman with a maternal meaning to her body. Every monthly cycle she experiences is part of this innate meaning. Even if a woman remains celibate, her whole existence remains maternal and is meant to welcome other people and their gifts and nourish them, helping them through love to grow, as so many women religious (and unmarried aunts) have done throughout the centuries, and as adoptive mothers have shown par excellence. To try to separate what it means to be a woman from this maternal significance is, in fact, not feminism at all, but an anti-feminism. Abortion is the culmination of this type of anti-feminism, when a mother — and a pregnant woman is ALREADY a mother — rather than welcoming, nourishing and protecting the child growing in her womb, allows the child to be killed. The culture of death, in effect, turns a woman from a mother into a murderer, and tries to convince the woman that this is good for her. If this corrupted reversal of maternal love is not the work of the devil, I don’t know what would ever qualify. The Church proclaims a culture of life and a culture of love, which allows women who have shared in the culture of death to receive God’s forgiveness and redemption and begin again, by helping to build up an authentically feminine and human culture of life. For this culture of life to grow, we need to bring our society back to a real appreciation of woman and woman’s gifts, and to proclaim that woman finds her real fulfillment in loving according to the maternal nature God gave her, in embracing her gift of maternity, not in running away from it.

6) Next Sunday (May 16) Pope John Paul II will lift up to the altars one of the greatest examples of the true beauty of motherhood, someone destined in my opinion to become a real icon of the culture of life. He will canonize Gianna Molla, a thoroughly modern Italian woman, whose life and whose death in 1962 at the tender age of 39 shows us what motherly love is all about. Gianna grew up in northern Italy and became a very kind and competent pediatrician. She had planned on dedicating her whole life to caring for sick children, but eventually, at 33, she fell in love with a good Christian business man named Pietro Molla, whom she married after a year’s courtship. They lived the life of an ordinary Christian couple, with its joys and struggles, combining their careers with their duties to their family. In the first five years of their marriage, God blessed them with three children. During the summer of 1961, they discovered that God had blessed them with a fourth. Two months into her pregnancy, however, Dr. Molla started to feel some abdominal pain. She went to see her brother who was an obstetrician and, with his colleagues, they did a battery of tests. The results were grim. Gianna had a huge malignant tumor growing in her uterus that was risking her life and the life of her child. One of her brother’s colleagues presented her the options. The first was to take out her uterus, which would obviously mean the death of her child, but her own life would be spared. The second option was to do a direct abortion of the child, then try to take out the tumor while saving the uterus, so that she might be able to have other children in the future. The third option was by far the riskiest: to try to excise the tumor alone, conscious that the post-surgical sutures very well could rupture the uterus later in the pregnancy and lead to the death both of mother and child. Without hesitation, Gianna resolutely chose the third option. While she was being prepared for surgery, she insisted with her surgeon to do whatever he needed to do to save the baby’s life, even at the loss of her own.

7) The surgery was as successful as it could be; they got the tumor and the child didn’t miscarry, but the risk to both of them remained. She went on with her life in joy, trusting in the Lord. She kept saying, “Whatever God wants.” She wrote to a friend: “I have prayed so much in these days. With faith and hope I have entrusted myself to the Lord… I trust in God, yes; but now it is up to me to fulfill my duty as a mother. I renew to the Lord the offer of my life. I am ready for everything, to save my baby.” On Good Friday, April 20, 1962, she entered the hospital to deliver her fourth child. She told the medical team that had assembled, many of whom knew and loved her as a colleague: “If you must choose between me and the baby, no hesitation: choose — and I demand it — the baby, save him!” A healthy little girl was delivered, whom she and Pietro named Giannina, “little Gianna.” Giannina was placed in her delighted mother’s arms. But very soon Gianna’s post-partum pains and temperature increased and she was diagnosed with septic peritonitis. The doctors did everything they could do — antibiotics, blood transfusions, injections — but nothing helped. Throughout her agony, she kept saying, “Jesus, I love you. Jesus I love you,” until she fell into a coma. A week later, she died.

8 ) Jesus said in the Gospel, “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” Dr. Gianna Molla showed in human, very modern terms, what that love really means. When it came to saving her life or saving her child’s, she chose her child’s. She was willing to sacrifice everything — her career, her family, her very life — for the sake of the gift growing within her. In a love letter to her after her death, her husband Pietro summarized what this type of self-giving love meant:

“You made your sacrifice for the sake of love, because of your sense of maternal responsibility, because of the supreme respect you had for the child in your womb… as a gift from God. … You loved our three precious children no less than you loved the baby in your womb. For all those months you prayed to the Lord, to Our Lady, and to your own mother that the right and guarantee to life for the baby in your womb might not require the sacrifice of your life, and that you would be spared for the sake of our children and our family. At the same time, if the Lord’s will were different, if it were not possible to save both lives, you explicitly asked me to make sure the child’s life be saved. With your decision, you offered the holocaust of your life. And you offered it with the anguish of a wife and a mother who must leave behind her children and family and everything dear that God had given you. … You knew that your maternal obligation to raise, educate and form our children was no less serious than the duty to safeguard their coming into the world after their conception. You knew very well that no one could equal your maternal love in raising, educating and forming our children, but in your humility, you trusted that the Lord would make up for the absence of your visible presence. … You accepted the Lord’s will, knowing that I, even in my distress, shared your faith and love.”

9) The soon-to-be-Saint Gianna Molla said out of love to her child, “This is my body, given for you.” Her life and her death show us the real meaning of womanhood and the real meaning of motherhood. Each is meant to be a pathway of sanctity. A saint is someone who loves as Christ calls us to love, as Christ himself loves us. Woman is made to love according to her femininity, according to her maternal meaning, and motherhood is the way established by God by which most women carry out to walk that pathway of love, that pathway of sanctity. In the mutual love of her husband, with God’s help in the sacrament of marriage, woman learns to give of her self for others, especially for her children. In loving them, she grows in the love of God (cf. Mt 25:31-46). This path of holiness is not always easy, but love gives meaning to all the sacrifices.

10) On this mother’s day, as we look forward with the Church universal to the canonization of Gianna Molla, we can finish by reflecting on the words Pope John Paul II used ten years ago last month when he beatified Gianna along with another married woman, Elizabeth Mora, who, in remaining faithful throughout a very difficult marriage, reared her children as Christians and converted her husband. He lifted them up as models for all women, each of whom is called to be a saint. He also said they are witnesses to the many hidden acts of love done every day by mothers like them throughout the globe, including so many of our own, and so many here in this Church right now:

“Taking these two women as models of Christian perfection, we would like to pay homage to all brave mothers who dedicate themselves to their own family without reserve, who suffer in giving birth to their children and who are ready to make any effort, to face any sacrifice, in order to pass on to them the best of themselves. … Motherhood can be a source of joy but it can also become a cause of suffering, and sometimes of great disappointment. Today we would like to venerate not only these two exceptional women, but also those who spare no effort in raising their children.

“These heroic mothers do not always find support in their surroundings. On the contrary, the cultural models frequently promoted and broadcast by the media do not encourage motherhood. In the name of progress and modernity the values of fidelity, chastity, sacrifice — in which a host of Christian wives and mothers have distinguished and continue to distinguish themselves — are presented as obsolete. As a result, a woman who is determined to be consistent with her principles often feels deeply alone, alone in her love which she cannot betray, and to which she must remain faithful. Her guiding principle is Christ, who has revealed the love which the Father bestows on us. A woman who believes in Christ finds a powerful support precisely in this love. It is a love that enables her to claim that all she does for a child — conceived, born, adolescent or adult — she does at the same time for a child of God.

“We thank you, heroic mothers, for your invincible love! We thank you for your intrepid trust in God and in his love. Today, in the paschal mystery, Christ is restoring to you the gift you gave him.”

11) Today, in that same paschal mystery, we make the Holy Father’s words of gratitude our own. We praise all those mothers who have made Christ their guiding principle and passed on to us His love mingled with their own. As Christ gives us his body and blood in this Mass as the supreme sign of His love and calls us to love in the same way, we ask him to reward each of our mothers who have done so with the greatest gift of all — the gift of Himself, in this life and in the next.

(For more on Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla, see: A Woman’s Life, by Giuliana Pelucchi, Daughters of St. Paul, 2002).