On Mother’s Day, we traditionally honor women who have born children and/or raised them as physical mothers. That was the intent when Anna Jarvis began the campaign that led to the proclamation of Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914. Anna wanted to honor her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who had died in 1905.
However, what about women who aren’t physical mothers, but still nurture?
Sr. Nancy Usselmann, a Daughter of St. Paul and director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, noted in a recent column for the Catholic News Service: “Sometimes it becomes awkward in church on Mother’s Day when at the end of Mass the priest asks mothers to stand for a blessing. As a religious sister, I’ve been in the position of half-standing, half-sitting, unsure of what to do, even if ‘spiritual mothers’ are included in that prayer.”
Sr. Nancy shouldn’t have felt “awkward.” Yes, the church often refers to religious women as “spiritual mothers.” However, more recently, it has also recognized every woman’s call to spiritual motherhood.
In his 1988 encyclical, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” St. John Paul II wrote about motherhood “according to the Spirit.” He noted that “Spiritual motherhood takes on many different forms. … (and) always involves a special readiness to be poured out for the sake of those who come within one’s range of activity. In marriage this readiness, even though open to all, consists mainly in the love that parents give to their children. In virginity, this readiness is open to all people, who are embraced by the love of Christ the spouse.”
When you think of mothers, what comes to mind? How they carry a child to birth, then patiently work to help him or her develop and become ready for the world? How they feed and clothe, nursing illnesses and injuries? How they worry about a child, even when that child reaches age 45?
What common thread runs here? Love. For physical mothers, St. John Paul II said this is lived with “a special openness to the new person.” For single women, John Paul II said “spousal love — with its maternal potential hidden in the heart of the woman as a virginal bride — when joined to Christ, the redeemer of each and every person … (means) being open to each and every person.”
A spiritual mother sees Christ’s face in everyone, just as Mother (now St.) Teresa of Calcutta did. “I see Jesus in every human being,” she said. “I say to myself, ‘This is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him.’”
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, wrote in 2014: “If you don’t have children, for goodness sake don’t believe that you have to give up motherhood. Motherhood is not only biological maternity. It is spiritual maternity. There are hundreds of people all around who are desperately looking for a mother.”
Jessica (last name not given) on the Minnesota Catholic Conference website (mncatholic.org) explained her experience of spiritual motherhood: “I only really began to understand my call as ‘mother’ when I lived in Rwanda, Africa, and spent time holding and playing with orphan babies and children.”
How many women fit these descriptions of motherhood? You’ve probably met more than a few.
So this year, on Mother’s Day when parishes honor mothers — remember all women who have filled that role. Many undertake spiritual mothering in hidden, silent ways, but all answer God’s call to love, nurture and care for him present in others. And if there are roses at church — don’t be like the parish that Sr. Nancy attended: “As I leave church, they pass out roses to the women. One man didn’t want to give me a rose because that was only for mothers,” she said. “I just stared at him — somewhat pathetically — and he reluctantly gave me one.”
Shower roses on all mothers — even the ones you don’t see with a child or grandchild — you never know how they’ve recently helped someone who “needed a mother.”