Here's a Primer on a Brand New Feast Day

If you went to Catholic school, you likely were taught the difference between a lowercase church and the capitalized Church. A church is a building, but we are the Church - the Mystical Body of Christ.

Lesson About the Church
This past Ascension Thursday, May 10, I attended the children's Mass at my parish, Blessed Sacrament in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Our pastor, Fr. Robert A. Gentile, Jr., walked around during his homily and asked the students questions. "Why is this day special?" he quizzed them. Their teachers had prepared them well. "It's the Feast of the Ascension," said one student when called upon. "When Jesus rose to Heaven," explained another.

To teach them what the Ascension means for us, Fr. Gentile asked more questions. "What happens to the body when the head goes somewhere?" he asked. "The body follows," came the answer.

Jesus is the Head of the Church, Fr. Gentile explained, and we are His Body. Where the Head goes, the Body follows. So, we're meant to go to Heaven.

New Feast, Similar Lesson
Having aced this lesson, the students of Blessed Sacrament School should have an easy time welcoming a celebration that Pope Francis has added to the Roman Calendar on the Monday after Pentecost, starting this year on May 21.

It will be known as "Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church."

If Mary is the mother of Jesus - who is the Head of the Church - then she's also the Mother of the Body of Christ. That's us! The Church with a capital C.

The decree establishing the memorial was published March 3 in a letter from Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In it, Cardinal Sarah explained:

Indeed, the Mother standing beneath the cross (cf. Jn 19:25), accepted her Son's testament of love and welcomed all people in the person of the beloved disciple as sons and daughters to be reborn unto life eternal. She thus became the tender Mother of the Church which Christ begot on the cross handing on the Spirit. Christ, in turn, in the beloved disciple, chose all disciples as ministers of his love towards his Mother, entrusting her to them so that they might welcome her with filial affection.

The Cardinal said that Pope Francis added this memorial after carefully considering how the promotion of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary under this particular title might encourage growth in "the maternal sense of the Church" and in "genuine Marian piety." Cardinal Sarah further wrote:

This celebration will help us to remember that growth in the Christian life must be anchored to the Mystery of the Cross, to the oblation of Christ in the Eucharistic Banquet and to the Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the Redeemed, the Virgin who makes her offering to God.

Good Timing
Why would a feast for the "Mother of the Church" be appropriate on the day after Pentecost?

I bet those school children know that Pentecost recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit on those early followers of Christ who had been hiding in fear in the Upper Room. Once the Apostles received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they began to proclaim the Gospel in different tongues to the astonished Jews gathered from many nations. "Those who accepted [Peter's] message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day" (Acts 2:41).

It's no surprise, then, that Pentecost is also known as the "Birthday of the Church."

In the decree for the new memorial, Cardinal Sarah reminds us of Mother Mary's role:

As a caring guide to the emerging Church Mary had already begun her mission in the Upper Room, praying with the Apostles while awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14). In this sense, in the course of the centuries, Christian piety has honoured Mary with various titles, in many ways equivalent, such as Mother of Disciples, of the Faithful, of Believers, of all those who are reborn in Christ; and also as "Mother of the Church" as is used in the texts of spiritual authors as well as in the Magisterium of Popes Benedict xiv and Leo xiii.

Helping Us Be Better Christians
This new memorial is not a holy day of obligation, but, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, we rightly honor Mary with special devotion and liturgical feasts:

971 "All generations will call me blessed": "The Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship."515 The Church rightly honors "the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of 'Mother of God,' to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. . . . This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration."516 The liturgical feasts dedicated to the Mother of God and Marian prayer, such as the rosary, an "epitome of the whole Gospel," express this devotion to the Virgin Mary.517

The Catechism also tells us in summary:

974 The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she already shares in the glory of her Son's Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of his Body.

975 "We believe that the Holy Mother of God, the new Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in heaven to exercise her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ" (Paul VI, CPG § 15).

Like that earlier lesson about the Ascension, Mary's Assumption reminds us of our heavenly goal. Mother Mary is already in Heaven where she exercises "her maternal role" to help us - the Church - to get there, too.

A feast day to honor Mary as Mother of the Church is a capital idea.


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