Our Mother’s Day reflection is offered by Sarah Gregory, the newest Bondings 2.0 regular contributor.
Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Ascension of the Lord. The readings from the lectionary will remind us all of our shared commission: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15) St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us of how we’re to live out that job description, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace; one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call[.]” (Ephesians 4:2-4).”
Today is also Mother’s Day in the U.S., so in many parishes we’ll take part in another common ritual: the bestowing of the flowers upon the mothers who are present. Truth? I’ve always felt really awkward during that brief recognition of a secular holiday during our religious observance. When my son was little, he’d often poke me on the arm to remind me to stand or head forward when all mothers were called to be recognized. Never wanting to deny the gift that he truly is in my life, I’d reluctantly head up and receive the offered flower. Sometimes the call would recognize mothers, godmothers, and others involved in the work of mothering the next generation, and a few more women would rise and receive a flower as well. The congregation applauded, we’d sit down with our flowers in hand, and the ritual would conclude for another year.
I always wondered, though, about the women who didn’t rise. Is the woman who delivers Eucharist to the hospital each Monday childless by choice? Our church lacks any theology of singleness other than being a consecrated virgin, a member of religious life, or a widow. The couple sitting in the middle of the sanctuary, he holding her hand as she looks down into her lap – have they been unsuccessfully trying to conceive? Have they lost a pregnancy? What of the woman who became pregnant and carried the pregnancy to term, but sent her baby into the world through adoption many years earlier? If she rises and receives a flower today, will she confuse or scandalize the community? The woman who lost her son to a drug overdose has enough trauma on the day already. Is she to stand as well? And what of the two women who arrive together, the single mom of a child accompanied by her friend – who may also be her wife, and also the child’s mother. If they both stand, will they be asked to not return the following week?
For all of the people who look forward to the annual flower ritual there are others who will intentionally take the day off and skip Mass to avoid those three minutes. I’m with them.
My own mother, whose memory is a blessing now ten years after her death, always told me that I think too much. She was probably right. (She usually was.) What I think about a lot these days, though, is Pope Francis’ call for the Church to be a field hospital for the wounded, and how each of us as part of the Body of Christ has a role to play in healing ourselves and mothering one another as we answer the call we received in today’s readings.
Field hospitals aren’t built according to any standard plans but are shaped by the battlefields where the wounded are found. Very few of them bestow flowers on those in their care. This Mother’s Day, I’m reminded of one of those field hospitals I encountered when I so needed that healing myself. It happened in a most unlikely place – the Catholic school my son attended as a young child, and especially its parish.
Being a queer mom at a Catholic school comes with many levels of complexity. While I’ve been out since approximately forever, I never could remember who knew what about our kid. His (gay) dad, sometimes accompanied by his partner, came to various school events. Most parents and all the teachers knew about our family, and they were pretty uniformly accepting. We weren’t the only nontraditional family at the school, not even the only LGBT one, and as the school had operated quasi-independently of the parish for a number of years, many children in attendance weren’t part of the parish community, and their families didn’t face the scrutiny of the masses at Mass.
Mass at the parish would be another issue entirely, or so I thought. For several weeks. We (OK, I) tested the waters with the 8am Saturday daily mass: short, sweet, and with a small congregation. A dad with three young ones was always there. I knew them, as well as the kids’ mom, who enjoyed a weekly Saturday morning of peace courtesy of the kids’ wonderful dad. I glanced anxiously in his direction for backup one morning when an older woman made a beeline for me after the liturgy one morning, a look of intense focus on her face. She came within a foot of me, looked directly in my eyes, and said “I’ve heard about you. I just want you to know that if Father or any of them” – she waved her hand in the direction of the other daily Mass goers, – “if even ONE of them says anything, you let me know. They’re all very conservative, even Father. But you belong here!”
You belong here.
I smiled at her and fought back tears. I had an ally. This doctor in the field hospital had my back.
A couple of Saturdays later, the stakes climbed. This time, it was an older gentleman, long retired. He was a graduate of the elementary school decades earlier and a pillar of the parish. I’d suspected that he was one of the parishioners with the “priests come, priests go, but I really run the place” perspectives about parish life. He walked over slowly but directly, a serious expression on his face. He told me that he’d watched me since my arrival with my son, and had heard about our family as well. He delivered a quiet warning: “You know that many people here are very conservative, and don’t approve of single parents, or of a lot of the other changes in the world today. You’ll encounter them, I’m sure. Don’t let them drive you away. Come to me if anything happens. I’ll see you next Saturday.”
“Come to me.” The words of a field nurse, spoken to one who needed to know that care would never be denied there.
Over the five years that we spent at that school and parish, many people went out of their way to assure us that despite what the broader Church might think, we would always be welcome there. If any of the conservative parishioners about whom I was warned had a problem with us, I never met a one. Our son played soccer, but if he wanted to join the Boy Scouts, the troop would be happy to have him. I didn’t have plans on a Tuesday night? Might I want to come and talk with the School Advisory Board about a strategic plan? This was a field hospital that not only healed my wounds, but helped prepare me to take up a position on the triage team as well. They reached out to me to assure me of my safety and welcome. What could I do to do the same for others who approached the door?
It’s a question we need to always ask ourselves and our communities. What do we all need to do in order to ensure that our customs and habits, well-meaning as they may be, aren’t inadvertently driving the wounded away from the care that they need? The secular world does Mothers’ Day so thoroughly already, as evidenced by the ads for brunch specials, daily email reminders from florists to order flowers to send to Mom, and chocolate displays in the stores. They’ve got it covered, and we can safely leave it in their hands. If I’m not recognized at Mass each year for being a mom, I’m quite OK with that. Indeed, if giving up flowers is too much to ask, let’s offer a flower to everyone who has ever known a mother or been mothered – that’d be a great start. All are welcome at our field hospital, and honored on that day, and every day.
My son is now an adult and away at college. If I said we were skipping Mass on Mother’s Day and explained why – that I’m just not comfortable with that ritual observance of something that’s so emotionally-fraught – he’d get it. He probably thinks too much, too – like mother, like son or something.
This year I have an excuse for skipping the ritual. While flowers are handed out in parishes across the country, I’ll be doing the work of being Mom – helping clean out a dorm room, pack up a car, and drive it back home. No fancy brunch, no flowers or chocolate, not even applause at Mass. Just being a mom with the kid, on our way home. I’ll keep the others who’ll be missing Mass intentionally in mind, and will take my shift at the field hospital on the road. I’ve read the commission for the week. We’ve got people to heal.
—Sarah Gregory, New Ways Ministry, May 13, 2018