Becoming a Spiritual Mother (At Any Age)
Last week, I finished up my second chasuble, for another good friend who was about to be ordained. As I was hanging it up to take a picture, I was struck by it's placement...right next to the beautiful little quote a best friend gave me after Gabriel died. (You can order one from Katrina here.)
Back when I was discerning my vocation, I remember bargaining with God. I felt the call to marriage, but I was afraid that it wouldn't be a holy enough vocation. (Which I laugh at now. I can't imagine any other vocation capable of reminding me of my weaknesses and need for God's grace the way this one does, while simultaneously giving me a daily glimpse of God's love for me.) I knelt before the tabernacle, praying, "Okay, God, you can call me to marriage...but can you give me a son? And can he be called to be a priest?" Of course, God's plan for Gabriel was very different than mine.
But my motherhood of Gabriel trained my heart in a way that it wouldn't have been otherwise. Typically, a mother has to say a sort of good-bye to her grown children, allowing them to fly from the nest. But I had to say good-bye to Gabriel after only a few weeks with him. I wasn't ready. And I haven't stopped loving him, not for one minute. I have prayed ceaselessly that he may receive the benefits of Baptism, even though he was only given a conditional baptism, and God has consoled me by answering many of the intentions I entrust to my little guy. I am fully convinced that he is part of God's plan, and that my little love is playing a role in the Church that I won't fully understand in this lifetime.
What Gabriel taught me was how to love deeply while also being willing to let go. He taught me that love is worth suffering. Walking away from his grave was and is one of the hardest things I have to do. I hate that his tiny little body is in a casket, buried deep in the ground. I hate that he isn't in my arms, or running around with his pack of sisters. But I'm willing to continue loving him, even though it's painful. I am willing to continue to mother him through my prayers, even if I don't get to enjoy the benefit of seeing him grow. He is a gift, and he has been more than worth the pain.
It was this love of Gabriel that prepared me for spiritual motherhood to priests and seminarians.
Because if I'm honest, being involved with the seminary the way our family is is both a source of joy and ongoing loss. I sometimes compare spiritual motherhood to a seminarian to mothering a child in utero. Not every one of them makes it to ordination. Many discern out of seminary before then. I still care for those guys and pray for them, and I know that God has a plan for them. (I have too many friends married to former seminarians to believe otherwise!) But the end of the year rounds of emails, sharing who is leaving the seminary, can be emotionally hard. Even if you can see God at work in their lives, it is hard to entrust them to God and know that they will no longer be a part of your life in the same way.
Ordination season is also at the end of the year. There is such tremendous joy, in knowing that a man has discerned the vocation to priesthood and will now be living it out. I can't begin to put into words the joy that is on the face of a new priest. It is a glimpse of heaven. I also can't begin to describe the joy of getting to be present at that ordination, and to witness the birth of a new baby priest. There is so much joy, and I can't believe that I get to experience it with them.
But it is also painful. It is so painful. This man, who you have known and come to love over the course of years, is flying the nest of the seminary. A priest belongs to everyone and no one. You can't cling to friendship with a priest, the way you would to friendship with a lay person. He belongs to all. And you have to let go. You just have to. But you also have to not stop loving him. Because baby priests need even more prayers than seminarians. Especially in our current culture, it is an incredibly difficult vocation, with guaranteed persecution in one form or another. That persecution will probably only get worse, as these young priests age.
Andrew has been teaching at the seminary for five years this fall. In the last half decade, I felt an ever growing call to spiritual motherhood. But I have also felt a strong call to share this vocation with others. A good friend of mine introduced me to spiritual motherhood of priests, and it's become clearly and clearer to me that this is a vocation that the Church needs...and it can only be filled by women. It is our opportunity to assist Mary, the Blessed Mother, in her great work for the Church.
After this most recent ordination, I quietly went over to my friend's family pew. He had asked me if I could cut the threads on the diaconate stole that I had sewn for him, so that it could be opened into a priest stole and worn for his first blessings. As I sat quietly trimming the threads, his mother caught my eye. She leaned over and asked, "Did you sew that for him?" I told her I did, and she reached out and gently cupped my cheek with her hand. She beamed, and said with deep feeling, "Thank you!"
I was praying with that moment later, and reflecting on the interactions I had seen between this new priest and his mother. At the end of a priest's first Mass, he presents his mother with the cloth that was used to wipe the Chrism oil from his newly ordained hands. Since Gabriel's death, that moment always gives me a pang in my heart. Gabriel will never do that. Mothers of priests have a special role in their son's life, and it is a special vocation. It also isn't my vocation (at least not that I know of...unless we are someday blessed with another son). But from that moment that my priest friend's mother showed me that gratitude and tenderness, I realized something. Her tenderness is the same tenderness that Mary shows to all spiritual mothers. Mary is the mother of the true priest, Christ. She is also a mother to all priests, in a way that I never can be. But she invites other women to join her in that work. If you are a woman reading this, she is inviting you.
I am no one special. I am an ordinary Catholic woman. But I have been given an extraordinary opportunity, to glimpse into the hearts of so many seminarians and priests and to be able to call them friends. Oh, friends...I wish you knew them. They are ordinary men with an extraordinary love for Christ and His Church. Their "yes" to their vocation strengthens me in my own vocation.
And you can be a spiritual mother to them, too, no matter how old or young you are.
Last year, my oldest daughter's best seminarian friend was ordained a priest. It was hard for her to say good-bye to him. We've seen him since then, but his home diocese is pretty far from ours, and so we weren't sure when we would see him again. In her sadness, I encouraged her to adopt him as her spiritual son. And she did, much to his delight.
Our first ordination of this season was a diaconate ordination near our diocese. My oldest daughter's "spiritual son" was going to be one of the concelebrants, and she eagerly watched for him in the opening procession. They both were so happy to see each other. Not to be outdone by her big sister, my middle daughter decided that she wanted a spiritual son, too. One of her favorite seminarians was getting ordained a transitional deacon at this Mass, and after hearing her sister's delight over her spiritual son, my middle daughter declared, "Well, Michael is my spiritual son!" Then, she decided she couldn't stop there. Two more of our seminarian friends were also getting ordained to the transitional diaconate at this Mass, and I asked her if Dominic and the other Michael were her spiritual sons, too. "Yes!" she declared. "They are my spiritual sons, too!"
The conversation continued, and this dear little girl went on to declare that, in fact, all of the men up there getting ordained (even the ones she didn't know) were her spiritual sons.
"They are all my spiritual sons. All the priests and seminarians in the whole world!" I asked her how many spiritual sons she had. "I have a thousand spiritual sons!!!" Also included is our pastor (who is much beloved by her), our auxiliary bishop (who baptized her and who she refers to as "her guy" as a result), the rector of the seminary, her favorite priest from Omaha, and many, many others.
She and her sister inspire me. Of course, with their patron saints, I shouldn't be surprised.
Our oldest is named for St. Therese of Lisieux, who had a deep love for priests, and was a devoted spiritual mother to them. Our second daughter is named after Mary, who is the Mother of Priests. I am not in the least surprised that these loving girls of mine (both who are very possessive of their patron saints) would want to take up this mantle of spiritual motherhood.
But, you may wonder, what does spiritual motherhood look like if you aren't in close contact with priests and seminarians? What does it look like for a grown woman vs. a little girl?
In some cases, it looks like friendship. Every church has at least one priest associated with them, so every Catholic woman knows at least one priest. Can you and your family befriend him? Have him over for dinner? Send him a card on Father's Day? Smile at him and greet him every Sunday after Mass? Do it.
But whether you have priest friends or not, spiritual motherhood is much more than that. It is about prayer and sacrifice.
This is possible for even little ones. My oldest hates practicing violin, so this Lent she offered that up for her spiritual son. Whenever my second daughter is frustrated by something out of her control, or bored, and tired of waiting, I try to encourage her, "You can offer that for your spiritual sons." (It doesn't always work, because she's five years old, but it's still planting a seed. It is so much easier to offer up suffering or sacrifices for someone you love than it is to do it in the abstract.) And I try to do the same. On my roughest days, whenever I have to do something I'd rather not or am battling depression or anxiety, I remind myself, "It's ok. This is your sacrifice." I was especially encouraged by my friend's first Mass, when he invited us to unite all of our sacrifices with the one he was offering on the altar.
So pick a priest or two (even if it isn't someone you know personally...sometimes I intentionally choose to pray for a priest who I disagree with!). And hold him in your heart and your prayers. Offer up daily little sacrifices of love for him. It won't make the suffering or sacrifices you face not painful, but it will imbue even little moments of sacrifice with love.
Our priests need this. They need our love and prayers so badly. And they each need an army of little spiritual mothers who tuck them deeply into their hearts and prayers.
And, of course, if the priest or seminarian you've adopted as a spiritual son is your friend, let him know that you are praying for him. It is such an encouragement to them.
I don't know what the short term solutions are for the Church, but I do know this - there is an army of men laying down their lives for Christ and his Church. They aren't conquering by clericalism and pride and power. They are conquering with countless quiet, unknown sacrifices and prayers offered for the sake of love for God and His people. They grow in number by the year. And they will save the Church, with the help of our love and prayers. There is hope, so much hope, for the Church.