Mary had a little lamb…”
Many of us grew up reciting this nursery rhyme. Some of us may also know that it was the first recording that Thomas Edison made on his new phonograph invention in 1877. We may not have thought about how the nursery rhyme came to be, but it only dates to 19th century Boston and a little girl tricked into disrupting school with her pet lamb.
A much older tradition is that the Fourth Sunday of Easter is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” This is because the Gospel reading for that Sunday comes from John and is Jesus’ lesson about himself as the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11-18).
The Good Shepherd is one of the oldest titles given to Jesus. Images of the Good Shepherd, usually a beardless, young man — since youth symbolized immortality in ancient world art — date back to as early as fourth-century Roman catacombs artwork. The beloved Psalm 23 also brings to mind images of God as a shepherd who leads us to safety. And, of course, we know Jesus as “the Lamb of God.”
So, it is not hard to imagine Jesus as a shepherd.
Mary at Capistrano
However, it might seem less familiar to think of Mary, his mother, as the Good Shepherdess. Yet, in Spain and many places in the Americas that were colonized by Spain, devotion to the Divina Pastora (the Divine Shepherdess) is well known. In fact, there is a painting of Mary as Divina Pastora Mission San Juan Capistrano in California, thanks to St. Junipero Serra.
This image of Mary as a shepherdess is credited to a vision of a Spanish Capuchin friar named Fray Isidore who lived in Seville in the early 1700s. (Sometimes, he is confused with St. Isidore of Seville when referring to this devotion, but St. Isidore of Seville lived in the seventh century, long before this devotion surfaced.)
Fray Isidore reported having a vision of Mary dressed as a shepherdess and later had an image painted of her as he had seen her. Various images in similar style were later painted and sculpted, but the basics are thus:
Mary is attired in a shepherdess’ dress, wearing a blue mantle and carrying a shepherd’s crook. She wears a large straw hat (sometimes like a sombrero) and has at least one sheep or a lamb with her. Various other images include the child Jesus, sometimes also dressed as a shepherd, roses, the rosary, a crown for Mary and more sheep — and sometimes a wolf. Often there is a lamb trying to get into her lap.
The Franciscans and Capuchin friars spread the devotion of Divina Pastora along with their missionary activities, as did other missionaries.
There is a national shrine of La Virgen Divina Pastora in Gapan City, Philippines. The image in the shrine dates to the late 18th century when a woman, Doña Juana Valmonte, dreamt of Mary. After speaking to her priests, she learned of Fray Isidore’s vision and sent to Spain for an image of the Divina Pastora. The statue was kept at the Church of the Three Kings in Gapan City, but remained the property of the Valmonte family until 1986, when the shrine inside the church became the National Shrine of La Virgen Divina Pastora.
In Venezuela, one of the most popular devotions in the country deals with Mary as the Divine Shepherdess. Each Jan. 14, a massive procession follows that statue of the Virgin Mary as Divina Pastora from the village of Santa Rosa to the Catedral de la Divina Pastora de Tucupita in Barquisimeto. Devotion to this image of Mary dates to 1736.
Mary as Divina Pastora is also the patron of the Venezuelan National Militia.
Mary’s French sheep
In France, an older but similar devotion to Mary as a shepherdess can be found in the Diocese of Amiens. A legend that has been traced back to the 11th century relates to the discovery of a statue now known as Notre Dame de Brebières. It is a play on words, since the town’s name — “Brebières” — is similar to a French word for sheep: brebis, and another French word — berger — meaning “shepherd.”
It may seem odd to envision Mary as a young shepherdess in the fields and, yet, she is the mother of the Lamb of God. Certainly, she protected her son, driving away anything that tried to harm him when he was a child. This is why a variation of this title for Mary has her called “the Mother of the Good Shepherd.” (A feast of this title can be celebrated on Sept. 3.)
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is also World Day of Prayer for Vocations, the day the pope ordains new priests. Last year, on that Sunday, Pope Francis spoke about the Good Shepherd at his midday Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) address. He reminded people that the Good Shepherd was “a leader who, in order to command, gives his life and does not ask others to sacrifice theirs. One can trust in a leader like this, as the sheep who heed their shepherd’s voice … guided by the voice of the one whom they feel as a friendly presence, strong and mild at once, who calls, protects, consoles and soothes. This is how Christ is for us.”
Protecting, consoling and soothing. A shepherd does this for his sheep. A mother does this for her children. Perhaps Jesus learned this from his own mother. So, perhaps, it is not so unusual to call Mary “the Good Shepherdess.”
Sources: salveregina.info; udayton.edu;roman-catholic-saints.com; paternosters.blogspot.com; angelusnews.com; zenit.com; philamuseum.org; monvalmonte.com; radiantheartmedia.com; and hermanojuancito.blogspot.com