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Mater Ecclesia: An Ecclesiology for the 21st Century | Donald Calloway, M.I.C.

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In 1974 the renowned theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, concerned about the fading image of the Church as Mother, wrote:
We must ask ourselves: Is the image of "our Mother the Church" (that has become alien to us, and that we prefer to replace with the more popular expression "People of God") anything more than an analogy which was once appropriate, on the basis of prevailing cultural conditions, and which is no longer appropriate since it no longer corresponds to our changed ways of thinking and feeling? [1]
In asking this question, von Balthasar brought up a very interesting point concerning a classical image of the Church. While it is true that the Church holds to no one particular self-expression, that is, ecclesiology, it does appear that on some levels the image of the Church as Mother has been slowly declining. Does this historical shift in ecclesiological expression, a result of doctrinal development, do away with the maternal analogy all together? I do not believe it does, and neither did von Balthasar. Rather, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church is currently seeking to inculcate in the hearts of its faithful other ecclesiological expressions, such as People of God, Communio and Pilgrim People. These are good and beneficial expressions. However, they do not rule out or contradict the dominant ecclesiological expressions of the past, for example, the Pauline image of the Church as the Body of Christ--an image that has also suffered interest in many circles. Furthermore, while keeping in mind the manifold ways in which the Church expresses itself, I believe that the recovery of the classical formulation of Church as Mater Ecclesia will have enormous theological importance for the 21st century. The heart of the importance lies in four ways in which we understand the role of motherhood, namely, childbearing, teaching, protecting and correcting.

Foundation in divine revelation
First of all, if we go to the fount of all theological inquiry, namely, Sacred Scripture, we note that the image of the church as Mother is part of the sacred deposit of faith. One of the best references in the New Testament is found in St. Paul's letter to the Galatians. It reads, "Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother" (Gal. 4: 25-26). In this passage, St. Paul uses allegory to personify the Church as our heavenly Mother. It is apparent that this Mother, the Church, has her essence in heaven. She is the new creation through which all the faithful come to the Father. Thus, in a certain sense, the Church is understood analogously as a womb. For, as Yves Congar noted, "She [the Church] is now no longer simply the body of Christ but also the means for that Body to grow and thrive; she is the Mother and, so to say, the womb of Christians." [2]

In acknowledging the maternity of the Church St. Paul is not depreciating the other expressions of ecclesial life but is unfolding another image of the mystery we call Church. After all, it was St. Paul himself who wrote of such manifold ecclesiologies as Body of Christ, Temple, Bridal Spouse, Communion and Family of God. [3] Moreover, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, "In Scripture, we find a host of interrelated images and figures through which Revelation speaks of the inexhaustible mystery of the Church." [4] It must be stressed that all of these ecclesiologies complement each other because they have as their source of unity the one Spirit of God. Although different, they all seek to highlight some aspect of God's saving plan. Therefore, what are the roles of the Church when it is understood to be a mother? Once again, we look to St. Paul.

St. Paul compares himself to a mother when he states that, "as a mother feeds and takes care of her child, such was our tenderness towards you . . . that we would have wished to hand over to you, along with the Gospel of God, our own life" (1 Thes. 2:7-8). Likewise, in his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul expresses his longing for the formation of Christ in them in maternal imagery. He states: "My children, you for whom I continue to experience the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!" (Gal. 4:19). From these two Pauline scripture references we can see four explicit roles of motherhood. These roles are childbearing, teaching, protecting and correcting. It is precisely these aspects that can be useful in ecclesiological self-expression today.

The maternal role of childbearing
What is motherhood? Dr. Mark Miravalle gives a concise definition of motherhood when he states: "Motherhood is the act of a woman giving to her offspring the same type of nature that she herself has." [5] Yet, what does it mean if we apply this definition to the Church? Since it is true that the Church exists in order to lead all mankind back to the Father, the Church takes on the childbearing role of motherhood because it is through her that we receive "adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:5) and become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). For, as Lumen Gentium states, "The Father, in accordance with the utterly gratuitous and mysterious designs of his wisdom and goodness, created the whole universe, and chose to raise up men to share in his own divine life." [6]

Furthermore, this view of the Church as Mother, primarily brings about this spiritual birth in us through the celebration of the sacraments. Recognizing this mystery, Henri de Lubac noted that, "[T]he motherhood of the Church is a frequent theme in the instruction for baptism." [7] This intimate union between the ecclesiological expression of the Church as Mother and the role of the sacraments is of vital importance in our day. In an age when so few fully enter into the sacramental life of the Church, an image of the Church as our mother could bring about a renewal in the appreciation of the richness of the sacraments. The Church, as our mother, forever celebrates the sacred mysterious of Christ's life, death and resurrection. She is the mother who never grows old but forever rejoices in the Truth and the maturing of her children in grace and virtue.

Mother as teacher
The teaching role is a natural consequence of motherhood. Not only does a mother share with the child her nature, she also teaches the child how to do those things that will lead it to happiness. This is summed up beautifully in the Catechism when it states that "from the Church he [the Christian] learns the example of holiness." [8]

Primarily in her role as spiritual mother the Church seeks to advance her children in knowledge, love and service of God. In their quest for spiritual maturity the children of the Church have recourse to the sacred deposit of faith. This wealth of spiritual riches

includes such things as Sacred Scripture and the lives of the saints. Through such means as these, just as a natural mother transmits what she knows to her children in order that they may grow, so the Church, transmits to us the knowledge she possesses, namely, that which brings us to our true end, the vision of God.

In an ad limina visit with German bishops, Pope John Paul II, addressing the need for effective transmission of the faith, stated that, "The Mater is also Magister; she has the authority to bring up and teach her children, and so lead them to salvation. Mother Church gives birth to her sons and daughters; she nurtures and educates them." [9] This is a very crucial role of the Church in our day when so many try to change the teaching of the Church and/or put forth erroneous teaching which brings about disunity. There is the need to emphasize that no one should seek to usurp the right of Mother Church in her teaching role. This teaching role is in the Pope and the official Magisterium of the Church, and not in individual theologians and/or thinkers. Her authority reigns supreme over her children, and any effort to teach in a way that is contrary to that which is hers by right of motherhood is not of the Spirit of God.

Mother as protector
Likewise, there is the role of a mother to protect her children. This role also flows from her motherhood. It is known by nature that a mother will protect her children from dangers even to the point of giving her life. Therefore, if this is purely on the natural level, how much more can we expect to be protected and defended by Mother Church as we daily live in a pluralistic, materialistic and hedonistic generation such as ours. As a protectress of her children Mother Church defends them against the mortal enemies of sin, the spirit of the world and the devil. In the Book of Revelation we recognize as one interpretation of the "woman clothed with the sun" (Rev. 12:2) as being a personification of the Church as Mother. Furthermore, we note how she defends and protects her child, and her offspring, from the "ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev. 12:9). Through this hermeneutic we see that Mother Church stands as our strong defender against the "accuser of our brothers . . . who accuses them [us] day and night before God" (Rev.12:10). Thus, she stands before God as a loving intercessor that pleads for the life of her children.

This ecclesiology of the Church as protector shows us that we are weak and in constant need of succor and aid. In this age of radical individualism we are constantly in danger from all sides. Yet, we have the assurance from the savior that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it [the Church]" (Matt. 16:18). Undoubtedly, the spiritual battle rages on in our day, but with the assurance that Mother Church is watching over us and giving us the grace and strength that we need we can conquer and hold fast to the hope of salvation and be united within the household of God. A mother always unites, and without the stability of motherhood any child is in constant danger of death.

Mother as corrector
One of the most challenging roles that the Church as a mother has to face today is her role as a corrector. Children rarely like to be corrected, but a good and loving mother never turns away from disciplining her children. This process is very painful for the mother, but it is a necessary one if the children are to grow and mature. The Church as our most loving mother only seeks our good by her firm disciplinary action.

On the other hand, when the Church is not viewed as a mother but primarily as an institution her correction can seem harsh and strict. One can get caught up in the rationalistic and critical spirit of our age and begin to focus on the individual members of the Church and lose sight of the reality of the true mission of the Church, to give glory to God and save souls. When we see and understand that the Church is our Mother, and truly believe this in our heart, then we can accept her discipline because we know by faith that she is sustained by the promise of God, a God who cannot deceive. It is no wonder then that with bold language Sirach proclaimed, "whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure"(Sir. 3:4) and "whoever angers his mother is cursed by the Lord" (Sir. 3:16). These are indeed strong words, words that are in another time and another context but, nonetheless, they are just as applicable to our time as they were to Sirach's, and, one could say, even more applicable to the eternal reality of the motherhood of the Church. Those who fight against and anger their mother are sooner or later going to find themselves outside the household.

Although many other ecclesiologies are in vogue today, the image of the Church as mother can never fade away. This image will be vital in restoring in the eyes of the world the familial nature of God's kingdom. In many ways the 21st century has a hostile understanding of the Church and, thus, feels threatened by many of her teachings. For many, the church is not a loving mother but an oppressive institution that dictates doctrines that are received as not up-to-date and sensible. Unfortunately, many of these people know no better because they were catechized with the understanding that "we are the Church" and that if we don't like something we can change it. This is sad because had they been instructed in the maternal nature of the church many of them would see her doctrine not as oppressive but as life giving. Therefore, in every area of the Church, but especially in the catechesis of the young, an understanding of the Church as our mother is important for the 21st century. This ecclesiology is universal because, no matter what culture, all people are familiar with motherhood in some form or another. It is not bound to culture, social milieu or an epoch of time. Rather, the motherhood of the Church is everlasting!

This article originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review (HPR). Learn more about HPR or subscribe to HPR today.


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, trans. Andrée Emery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp.186-7.

[2] Yves Congar, The Mystery of the Church. (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1965), p. 70.

[3] E.g., see Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 3:9

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church. (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1994), #753.

[5] Mark Miravalle, Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion. (Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1993), p. 36.

[6] Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents: Lumen Gentium ed. Austin Flannery. (New York: Costello Pub. Co., 1986), para. 2.

[7] Henri de Lubac, S.J., The Motherhood of the Church, trans. Sr. Sergia Englund, O.C.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), p. 52.

[8] CCC, #2030

[9] Pope John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano: "Ad Limina Apostolorum"--German Bishop's Conference.

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Brother Donald Calloway, M.I.C., a convert to Catholicism, is a member of the Congregation of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. He earned a B.A. in philosophy and theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and earned his S.T.B. at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in Washington, D.C. He was ordained to the priesthood in May 2003. He currently serves as House Superior and Director of Vocation for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Steubenville, OH.

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