God the Son wishes to form himself, and, in a manner of speaking, become incarnate every day in His members through His dear Mother. –St. Louis Marie de Montfort
As the Mother of God, Mary’s “divine maternity” makes her God’s sublime gift to the Church, as expressed beautifully by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:
There can be no question of calling her a priest in the strict sense of the word since she has not received the priestly character and cannot offer Holy Mass nor give sacramental absolution. But … her divine maternity is a greater dignity than the priesthood of the ordained priest in the sense that it is more to give Our Savior his human nature than to make His body present in the Blessed Eucharist. Mary has given us the Priest of the sacrifice of the Cross, the Principal Priest of the sacrifice of the Mass and the Victim offered on the altar. (Mother of the Savior and Our Interior Life)
Because of her divine maternity, Mary’s heart beats with mercy for each priest without exception. Although some priests have no particular devotion to Mary, this does not preclude her devotion to them. Since Mary participated in the immolation of Jesus the High Priest, she understands everything about the priest and assists him in his own process of sanctification.
She is the perfect Mother of all Catholic priests because she is the Mother of the Eternal High Priest and she is the perfect Mother of all souls. Fr. Peter Cameron, O.P., explains:
Despite the excellence of our mothers, we persist nonetheless in looking for that ultimate maternal mirror in which we can discover ourselves to our deepest depths. Mary’s is the face we seek.” Why? Pope Benedict XVI explains the reason we need her help: “We can only love ourselves if we have first been loved by someone else. The life a mother gives to her child is not just physical life; she gives total life when she takes the child’s tears and turns them into smiles. It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes also acceptable.
We can understand now why “Mary’s is the face we seek” as the “ultimate maternal mirror” and how she helps us know that we are lovable; and this sets us free for love. In a distinct way Mary does this for priests.
The renowned Mariologist Fr. Emile Neubert, S.M., in his wonderful book Mary and the Priestly Ministry, helps us to understand Mary’s spiritual maternity, which stems from her “cooperation in the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the distribution of grace.” Note how Mary, in these three functions, becomes the Mother of priests:
1. The Incarnation sets special grounds for Mary’s motherhood of priests. Mary provided the material cause of Christ’s priesthood. Mary then carried all her Son’s future priests in her womb along with Him. She did not know them individually at that time, but she wished for them what Jesus wished for them at that time, and loved them with the same special love her Son had for them.
2. Our Mother Mary’s special role in the Redemption: If Mary, in the Incarnation, conceived us spiritually, as it were, then in the mystery of the Redemption she gave us birth. At the foot of the Cross, Christ confided Mary to John, who was a priest, and it is to priests, above all, that Christ gives His Mother because He has a greater love for them and they have a greater need of her.
3. Our Mother Mary’s special role in the distribution of grace: Mary has a special love for priests: if maternity consists essentially in giving and in nurturing life, can any human maternity be understood apart from such a love? Mary loves all the faithful with incomparable love. But she loves priests with an altogether unique love because she sees in the priest a greater resemblance to the image of her Son than in any other Christian of equal holiness.’
Fr. Neubert also gives us five reasons for Mary’s unique love for priests:
1. She sees in the priest a greater resemblance to the image of her Son than in any other Christian of equal holiness.
2. Jesus loves His priests with a distinctive love. Mary shares all the feeling of her Son.
3. It is thanks to priests, above all, that the work of Christ is carried out in the world.
4. In her union with her Son, she foresaw especially those who would continue His mission on earth.
5. She needs priests. It is especially through them that she can carry out her mission of giving Jesus to the world.
The Vocation of All Women: Spiritual Motherhood
Women can also participate in the spiritual motherhood of priests in union with Mary. St. Edith Stein (also known by her religious name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) movingly describes how this is possible:
The intrinsic value of woman consists essentially in exceptional receptivity for God’s work in the soul. For an understanding of our unique feminine nature, let us look to the pure love and spiritual maternity of Mary. This spiritual maternity is the core of a woman’s soul. Wherever a woman functions authentically in this spirit of maternal pure love, Mary collaborates with her. This holds true whether the woman is married or single, professional or domestic or both, a Religious in the world or in the convent. Through this love, a woman is God’s special weapon in His fight against evil. Her intrinsic value is that she is able to do so because she has a special susceptibility for the works of God in souls — her own and others. She relates to others in His spirit of love. (St. Edith Stein, Essays on Woman)
St. Edith Stein helps women understand the feminine heart, which is somewhat mysterious even to women. I have always marveled at the capacity of a woman’s heart to be engaged in the art of sacrificial love. Women have a God-given spiritual intuition ordered to the work of divine love. God created women to be life-bearers, and this is a distinct dignity. Whether the life we bear is spiritual or physical, or both, we are called to be bearers of the Word of God in emulation of Mary, the feminine ideal.
The Church recognizes the need for spiritual motherhood and acknowledges the unique dignity of the maternal-feminine heart. On December 8, 1965, at the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the Council Fathers said, “At this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do much to aid mankind in not falling.”
The word impregnated is not accidental. It indicates that women allow the Gospel to take hold of their hearts and take root in their minds so as to be able to give the gift they have received to others. This sounds like a tall order! But let us recall St. Edith Stein’s words: “Wherever a woman functions authentically in this spirit of maternal pure love, Mary collaborates with her.” We have God’s Mother to mother us in the art of spiritual motherhood.
Mary is always at the service of God and His people, especially His priests. The charism of spiritual maternity of priests is a vocation within a vocation that can be lived by people of all walks of life. Women of faith have greatly enriched the Church through lives dedicated to interceding for priests.
A perfect example of a heroine of spiritual motherhood is St. Monica (331-387), laywoman, wife, and mother. After his radical conversion of heart, St. Augustine praised his mother’s untiring intercession with words of ardent charity: “For love of me, she cried more tears than a mother would over the bodily death of her son. Nine years passed in which I wallowed in the slime of that deep pit and the darkness of falsehood. Yet that pious widow desisted not all the hours of her supplications, to bewail my case unto Thee where her prayers entered into Thy presence.” After his conversion, he said thankfully, “My holy mother never abandoned me. She brought me forth in her flesh that I might be born to this temporal light, and in her heart, that I might be born to life eternal. I have my mother to thank for what I have become and the way that I arrived there!”
Mary, priests and spiritual mothers form a tripod of grace for all souls, strengthening the Church in her mission of evangelizing humanity in the midst of a great spiritual battle for the salvation of souls. Let us implore the Lord for a new springtime of spiritual motherhood and fatherhood, and for a new priestly Pentecost. The Lord told Venerable Conchita Cabrera de Armida, “Priests on fire would fill up the whole universe with divine love.”
Author’s note: This contains excerpts from the new book, “Praying for Priests: A Mission for the New Evangelization” available from Sophia Institute Press.
- More on spiritual motherhood and fatherhood, Mary and Priests is available at www.foundationforpriests.org.