In 1980, at a gathering of university students in Rome, a young man pointed out something to Pope John Paul II: among the 162 statues in St. Peter’s square, there was no image of the Blessed Mother. The pope responded with characteristic boldness: “Well then, let’s finish the square!” By the end of 1981, the mosaic image “Mater Ecclesiae” (Mother of the Church) had been installed in a place that could be seen from every part of St. Peter’s square.
In 2018, Pope Francis decreed that the Church would celebrate the feast of Mary as Mother of the Church every year on the day after Pentecost. We celebrate that feast this week (June 1).
Why do we call Mary “Mother of the Church”?
First, at the Nativity, Mary gave birth to Christ. Since the Church is “the body of Christ,” the Nativity gives us the first sense in which she is Mother of the Church. We might say that the Church begins in her womb.
Second, at the foot of the Cross, when Jesus saw Mary and John, He said something both curious and important: “Woman, behold your son.” Why did Jesus call her “woman”? It seems rather impersonal!
But in the Gospel of John, every time someone is given a title rather than a name (woman, the Samaritan woman, the disciple whom Jesus loved, the man born blind, etc.) it means that they’re not only a particular individual but also a symbol. What symbolic value does the title “woman” carry at the foot of the Cross?
It’s a reference to the first woman — Eve — who, as Genesis notes, became “the mother of all the living.” Jesus is naming Mary as the new Eve, the mother of all who have new life in Him. As Jesus is the king who reigns from the Cross, Mary is the new Eve who becomes the mother of the Church — all who believe in Him — at the foot of the Cross.
Third, we can ask: what was Mary doing at Pentecost? The answer is simple: she was interceding for the apostles. The Holy Spirit had already overshadowed her at the Annunciation; as a result, the life of Christ had come to exist inside of her physically. Now she was praying that the same thing would happen spiritually for the apostles. And it did!
Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Church. It’s fitting that Mary was there. She was present as a physical mother at the Nativity. Now she’s present as a spiritual mother at Pentecost.
That’s why the Church gives us three readings for the feast day: the Genesis reading about Adam and Eve, the reading from Acts about Pentecost, and the reading about Mary at the foot of the Cross. Those readings show us the biblical pattern for understanding Mary as Mother of the Church. What God gave to Eve, He deepened in Mary. What God gave to Mary at the Nativity, He deepened at the Cross and Pentecost.
But Mary’s role as Mother of the Church is not only a truth about the past. Mary continues to intercede for each of us: that Jesus might live in us, and we might live in Him as members of His body. She nurtured the physical life of Christ in her womb; now she nurtures our spiritual life in Christ through her prayer. That makes her a spiritual mother to each of us.
As we celebrate the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, let’s relish her role — in salvation history, and in our own lives!