Posted by: Thomas Richard | January 13, 2015

Maternal Martyrdom

Pope Francis, in his Wednesday Audience of Jan.7, 2015, recently quoted Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in which the later martyred Archbishop used this poignant and revealing phrase, “maternal martyrdom.” The Pope reflected on the remarkable, beautiful generosity of self-gift that God put into the souls of women, which is so often seen in mothers. The Archbishop is quoted (indeed at the funeral of a priest killed by death squads):

We must all be ready to die for our faith, even if the Lord does not grant us this honor … to give one’s life does not only mean to be killed; to give one’s life, to have the spirit of martyrdom, is to give in duty, in silence, in prayer, in the honest fulfillment of one’s duty; in the silence of daily life; to give one’s life little by little. Yes, as a mother gives it who, without fear, with the simplicity of maternal martyrdom, conceives a child in her womb, brings him to life, nurses him, helps him grow and attends to him with affection. It is to give one’s life. It is martyrdom.

The Pope thanked and blessed the Church, and all mothers, and of course our mother Mary, for this simple and beautiful and life-long self-giving that demonstrates for us the Christian way.

All of us are called to such generosity, to such heroic self-giving. It may or it may not be to the point of shedding our blood, of giving the last breath of our bodies for others – we usually cannot know the kind of cross that the Lord has provided for us, personally. But we can know that we are called to live and to give for the life of the Church, with all that God entrusted to us for that very purpose.

It is in the context of this Wednesday Audience that I remember another phrase used by Pope Francis, a very troubling one, but one applicable to a Church that does not live her vocation as mother, but rather is self-serving, self-preoccupied, self-advancing. When she is evangelizing, bringing forth children, nurturing and feeding and caring for them, the Pope said,

… the Church becomes a mother church that produces children (and more) children, because we, the children of the Church, carry that. But when we do not, the Church is not the mother, but the babysitter that takes care of the baby — to put the baby to sleep. It is a Church dormant…

Church as Mother – or Church as Babysitter?

The Church today seems to be very much in “dormant” mode – asleep even as the world outside the sanctuary is burning down to the ground. The Church today seems – at the parish and diocesan levels – seems afraid to proclaim the Gospel, afraid to form adult disciples, afraid to teach the crucial moral doctrines that on paper we hold but in practice avoid, afraid to preach the Catholic Faith with the unction, fervor and conviction that might actually wake someone up in the congregation. The Church is afraid to be mother – afraid to be martyr. And so she does retreat to the easier but deadly path of compromise, and the people and the priests slip into sleep. She becomes a babysitter. (See previous post on this subject.)

And the result of generations of babysitting is inevitable: a church of babies in the Faith, and not men, not women, not mothers, not fathers in Christ – but babies in Christ. Those in such poorly-fed congregations that have kept their Faith, and grown in it, and grown to maturity in Christ have in many cases done it on their own, in spite of the formal works and offerings of the parish. The situation, as I have seen it, is dismal. Catholic adults are not being formed in an adult faith; they are being fed pablum, and preached pastoral lullabies. Meanwhile evil is advancing, and the Church slumbers and takes her ease.

St. Paul wrote of such spiritual immaturity in his own day, in the Church in Corinth. He wrote,

1 Cor 3:1 Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ.
2 I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now,
3 for you are still of the flesh.

The New American Bible footnotes comment on this sad characterization of the Christians of Corinth. The Bible editors wrote (I have omitted many verse numbers cited, for brevity):

(1) The natural [unspiritual] person is one whose existence, perceptions, and behavior are determined by purely natural principles, the psychē and the sarx (flesh, a biblical term that connotes creatureliness). Such persons are only infants; they remain on a purely human level.
(2) On the other hand, they are called to be animated by a higher principle, the pneuma, God’s spirit. They are to become spiritual and mature in their perceptions and behavior….
Jealousy, rivalry, and divisions in the community are symptoms of their arrested development; they reveal the immaturity both of their self-understanding and of the judgments about their apostles.

In Corinth, “jealousy, rivalry, and divisions in the community” revealed the “arrested development” of the church there. Our symptoms are different, but are of the same cause nevertheless:
– Common are complaints if the Mass should last more than an hour,
– Many make hasty exits out of Sunday Mass before the priest’s recessional and the closing hymn have hardly begun.
– Most who linger in the Sanctuary after Mass do so to chat in normal voice with friends, apparently unconscious of the occasional few who would remain in silent prayer with the Lord.
– Participants of adult Faith Formation opportunities (Scripture/Catechism studies) number around 2 to 3% of Sunday Mass participants.

I can remember the days when a Catholic sanctuary was held as sacred by the people! Talking, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle, was brief, in a whisper, and it had better be important! No more. Today, in most parishes I have known, Catholic sanctuaries are held in little special regard – even though Christ is “believed” (at least nominally) to be present, Body Blood Soul and Divinity, in the Tabernacle. Yes a quick genuflection or bow is observed, an even quicker sign-of-the-cross is done, but silence and prayer are optional, except when Mass is actually underway. Even during the Mass – sometimes even during the Consecration! – messages between pew-neighbors are not unusual.

A lack of reverence reveals a lack of consciousness of the Holy – a lack of depth, of maturity, in spirituality – an “arrested development” in the spiritual life, as the Bible footnote phrases it of the Church in Corinth. In spiritual terms, the children of the Church are malnourished; their growth and development have been stunted: their “fathers” in the Faith – their “mother” Church – have not done their duty to raise the children to adulthood in the faith and life of Christ. The children have been shuttled off to day-care centers and babysitters, the parents have been concerned for their own careers and ambitions; the children have been neglected, and their growth has been stunted. The children can hardly discern the sacred from the secular, the good from the evil, their holy vocation from mere fleshly “self-actualization.” This must stop. The world is starving for lack of true food, and Christ the Bread from Heaven waits for servants to distribute Him to the hungry.

It was a blessing to hear, recently on the news, a highly-placed call for a “revolution” in a major religion, a major correction needed because of a truly deadly movement in the faith that was destroying the message and meaning of that religion.

Egypt’s president opened the new year with a dramatic call for a “revolution” in Islam to reform interpretations of the faith entrenched for hundreds of years, which he said have made the Muslim world a source of “destruction” and pitted it against the rest of the world.

No doubt the influence of radical jihadist Islam on the religion – and on the world today – is very troubling. Egypt’s leader el-Sissi is calling for modernization among Moslems, for “contemporary reading for religious texts to deal with our contemporary reality,” in the words of another leader in the government. These are difficult times for Christians in the West, as well, but for different reasons. We also need a “revolution” of sorts, but not a turn toward the modern secular culture and contemporary popular approval, although such a turn has many proponents today in the West. Christianity needs Christ. The Church needs Christ. We need His life. We need His Truth.

The strange fact for Catholics is, the Catholic Church has Christ! He is not asleep in the boat – we are. He has not abandoned us – we are preoccupied elsewhere. He has not cut us off – we have turned aside to play with a false lover, an enemy of God and of our own souls. Take food now, Church, quickly! Take nourishment, you grow weaker and weaker! Tend to your families, tend to your own souls, help all whom you can that no more fall deeper into this affliction, this famine of the spirit, this bread that does not satisfy nor build up, nor give life. We need Christ! Seek Him, find Him. He is very close, waiting.


  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thanks so much for this blog entry! In posting these same words of saintly Archbishop Romero on “maternal martyrdom” for members of the Catholic Community Forum and Catholic Answers Forum, I received a reply referring to Isaiah 49:15:

    Can a woman forget her nursing child And have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.

    How true to remember, not only does God compare a mother’s love to His Love for us, but He also assures us: His Love surpasses even the maternal martyrdom of humanity. As baptized Catholics we have been given a share in His Divine Love, and commanded by Christ to love one another as He has loved us. How very important then to hear your concluding words:

    The strange fact for Catholics is, the Catholic Church has Christ! He is not asleep in the boat – we are. He has not abandoned us – we are preoccupied elsewhere. He has not cut us off – we have turned aside to play with a false lover, an enemy of God and of our own souls. Take food now, Church, quickly! Take nourishment, you grow weaker and weaker! Tend to your families, tend to your own souls, help all whom you can that no more fall deeper into this affliction, this famine of the spirit, this bread that does not satisfy nor build up, nor give life. We need Christ! Seek Him, find Him. He is very close, waiting.

    I would only add the phrase from the Gospel for Epiphany’s Feast, reminding us all that the wise found Christ “with His Mother”. By God’s Grace may we continually look to Mary as Mother and Model of the Church. Let us do as she did in her “Yes”, giving herself completely to carry Christ into the world.

  2. Hey Tom, I just read this entry, and I must say I have been wanting to hear these words since I came up here. I am not as eloquent as you and Deb are, but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate hearing this. I love and miss you both.

    • Hello Susan – thank you for your comment. The truth that deserves to be said, also needs to be heard in a heart made to receive it. I am happy to know that the blog is resounding in your heart. Blessings and love in Christ to you!

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