Thursday, 10 September 2009

Clare, our new contributor, reflects on Spiritual Motherhood

We are posting this feature to help those who may happen by this site and know little about the vocation of Spiritual Motherhood. In her sections "Spiritual Mothers and the Priesthood" and "The Spirituality of a Spiritual Mother", she offers insights which will be of interest to all our readers, and at the same time answers several frequently asked questions.

What is Spiritual Motherhood?

The idea of Spiritual Motherhood is not new to the Church. The very first spiritual mother was Our Lady, whom the early Christians called ‘mother Mary’. Her care has always gone far beyond the realm of physically caring for people. Jesus’ entrustment of St John to his own mother, made from the Cross, is perhaps where the first spiritual mother began her mission. It appears that her little home in Ephesus where she lived with St John (‘the disciple Jesus loved’) was regularly visited by the followers of Jesus who regarded her as their mother in the Lord. Since then, Mary’s maternal care has reached to all Christians (indeed all people who call on her) and as a result the role of motherhood has always had an honoured place in the Church.

Any woman of any age can be a spiritual mother, it is not necessary to be married and a physical mother oneself. Women have always been immersed in prayer for souls, whether those of their own children, like St Monica, or for others, like Our Lady. St John Bosco had a remarkable mother, Mamma Margaret, who nurtured first him, and then, as he developed his ministry, the urchin children who came to him for help. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, though a lifelong celibate, had the spiritual and physical care of many thousands of people as well as her own nuns.

In our time, when women assume new responsibilities and achieve prominent positions in society, the question is often asked: why can they not enter the priesthood? Two thousand years of tradition, based on the all-male attendance at the Last Supper, the first Eucharist, is not going to be changed and for some this seems unfair. Nevertheless, Christ was male, and each priest as ‘another Christ’ must reflect this, which women cannot do. When was the last time we saw an Icon of Christ as a female?

However, motherhood is integral to the feminine genius and unique to women.* To be a spiritual mother it is not necessary to have a strong natural maternal instinct or a love of domesticity. One does not have to be interested in bootees, sewing or the right way of making cup cakes – admirable though these things are. All that is needed is a deep love of God and the things of God, and a longing to bring other to him. In days gone by, people would call this a ‘thirst for souls’. The spiritual mother may know the identity of her spiritual child or children, or she may not. Either way, she prays and sacrifices with the same intention: the spiritual well-being and ultimate salvation of particular souls.

There is no special way of praying or making sacrifice. One can recite the rosary,visit the Blessed Sacrament, light a candle, give alms, and offer up various sufferings – there are many ways of practising Spiritual Motherhood, but the focus is ‘maternal’ in that it incorporates the moral, spiritual and physical well-being of the one being prayed for. This is akin to a mother’s three-fold duty: to care for her children’s physical needs, to instil in them a sense of right and wrong, discerning wisely the things of the world and finally, to teach them about God, prayer and our faith.


In anticipation of the Year of the Priest, which started in June 2009, the Congregation of the Clergy issued a 40-page booklet asking women, lay and religious, to consider becoming spiritual mothers of priests. The priesthood has been in a well-documented crisis since the Second Vatican Council – and some would say before that – and many have left the active ministry to pursue a different way of life. Vocations in the West are in free fall, although there are encouraging signs of an upturn in America and Ireland for instance, particulary according to various reports to the more traditional orders. The relatively few who have disgraced their calling by abusive behaviour of minors have tainted the image of the priesthood in the secular mind and made life much more difficult for the holy priests who are in the majority. No doubt about it; priests find their calling frequently undermined by a society that is increasingly alienated from the things of God. Priests have always needed the fervent prayers of women but the need is perhaps greatest in our own time. The initiative from the Congregation of the Clergy is a heart-felt plea to women believers to be generous in their prayers.

As reported extensively on Fr Mark Kirby's 'Vultus Christi' blog and on both of Jane's, the diocese of Tulsa responded by instigating a formal programme for Spiritual Mothers of Priests, assigning one priest of the diocese to each ‘mother’. Neither would know the identity of the other; all the priest knows is that he has a woman in the diocese praying for him, and all she has is a brief description of him, his ministry and its challenges . The bishop inaugurated the programme by personally enrolling all the Spiritual Mothers at a special Mass, presenting them with a certificate and a medal.

A slightly different lay initiative has taken place in the English diocese of Arundel and Brighton, whereby volunteers can choose to pray for a specific priest of the diocesethroughout the Year of the Priest. This has been outstandingly successful and each priest of A & B diocese now has someone especially praying for him. Not all of the volunteers are spiritual mothers in the fullest sense of the term, but we pray that many of them may come to embrace the vocation permanently in the course of the year. Whatever happens, the A&B initiative is a genuine example of ‘collaborative ministry’ where separate charisms in the church work together for the wellbeing of the whole.

IS THERE A PARTICULAR SPIRITUALITY CONNECTED WITH SPIRITUAL MOTHERHOOD? Surely praying for people one does not know isn’t anything out of the ordinary? Why give this a title at all, and not just consider it part of intercession?

The booklet issued by the Congregation for the Clergy and signed by Cardinal Hummes has as its title “Eucharistic Adoration and Reparation for the Sanctification of Priests and Spiritual Maternity”. This title hints at an answer to this. Firstly, prayer is centred on the Eucharist with the hope that enough women will respond to form a perpetual adoration for the priesthood and for new vocations. Our priests need this support to renew them in spirit and sustain them in their calling.

Finally, there is also a need to make reparation for the sins of priests and the scandal that this has caused.“We intend in a very particular way to entrust all priests to Mary, the Mother of the High and Eternal Priest, bringing about in the Church a movement of prayer, placing 24 hour continuous Eucharistic adoration at the centre, so that a prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, praise, petition and reparation, will be offered to God, incessantly and from every corner of the earth with the primary intention of holy vocations to the priestly state and, at the same time, spiritually uniting with a certain spiritual maternity – at the level of the Mystical Body – all those who have already been called to the ministerial priesthood…

The second aspect of the spirituality is its Marian dimension. Interestingly, one of the visions of St John Bosco showed that the Church would survive turbulent times of heresy and apostacy through the twin pillars of Our Lady and the Eucharist. The booklet entrusts all priests to Mary. Needless to say, each spiritual mother should also seek Mary’s intercession.

Otherwise, there is no hard and fast way of being a Spiritual Mother – each response is personal and made from a heart attentive to the Holy Spirit. There can be no genuine motherhood without compassion, fidelity and generosity; like everyone else, priests are human with human failings, each spiritual mother understands that, but with her loving and silent support, they will be given strength and grace. It’s said that for every demon who attacks a lay person, a thousand attack a priest – the Spiritual Mother is locked in spiritual combat against the lord of this world, and her work is urgent and vital. The phrase ‘spiritual motherhood’ may conjure up a rather gooey feeling of cosiness and warmth, but this image does a disservice to the truth; the spiritual mother is a prayer warrior, and to take an image from the animal kingdom, you don’t mess with the mother of cubs!

There are no bright lights or fanfares associated with this way of praying, but this is nothing new. Scripture and the history of the Church are full of examples of humble women at prayer. For example, the prophetess Anna, who waited for years to see the infant Messiah, thought nothing of praying for hours at a time in the temple and it’s likely that most people going about their business there simply ignored her. Spiritual motherhood isn’t something you take up for a brief season, as St Monica, or Anna understood, it is a longterm commitment and as such lends itself well to the contemplative spirit, which is why enclosed nuns as well as housewives embrace this devotion. From the earliest days of the church, women were praying and becoming contemplative, such as Mary the sister of Martha, and Our Lady herself who ‘pondered these things in her heart’. The order of widows in the early church was principally dedicated to prayer and it was understood that the more active missionary efforts depended on such prayer.

This way of praying, especially if for an unknown person (or several), is essentially hidden. Most of the time we will not know the effects of our prayer until the next life. It is indeed an ‘investment for the future’ with results we can only hope for. It relies on a spirit of complete trust in God so that the wording on the Divine Mercy icon is made real for us too – Jesus I trust in You.

Submitted by Clare

Jane adds: Next week we propose to address the question of Consecration to the vocation of a spiritual mother within the Church. Cardinal Hummes mentions it but there do not seem to be any rules in place and we feel the matter is in need of clarification.

*There is of course another way of looking at the gender issue in spiritual motherhood and this will be looked at in the future. For the time being we are concentrating on what we think Cardinal Hummes meant by 'consecrated feminine souls'.

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