A homily for Mother's Day by Fr. Owen Lee, CSB (1930-2019)
The Church does not provide special readings for Mother’s Day, regarding it as a secular, not a religious, observance, dating back only as far as the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. But we do have a reading this morning appropriate to Mother’s Day. From St. John: “Love... is from God... God is love”. And we have the words of Jesus “Abide in my love... I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
It’s good to have those words on this day. My mother was in love with my father. Really in love. That was clear to everyone up and down the length of the street where we lived. I was in awe of it when I was a boy. And I don't, any more, think it unnatural or morbid, unseemly or improper to keep in my heart some feeling of awe for the moment when, in an act of love, my father and my mother became for me what Gerald Vann calls "ministers of God's omnipotence - human love and divine creation acting together." I regard that moment as one I should hold in awe, just as I remember with awe the times I said their funeral masses, more than twenty years apart.
Thanking God for the gift of my life - celebrating life - is something I do with the others at our table every Wednesday night as we tink our wine glasses. But remembering with wonder and respect the love that was immediate to my coming to life - the moment of love felt by my parents, the moment of love to which I owe my existence - not even the most daring of poets has written, in any language I know, about that. And I didn't think it fitting for my own prayers, until I read Gerald Vann, and thought of my mother and my father as sharing at that moment in God’s continuing creation.
My mother and my father were, like yours, like all human beings, unique, each of them with an individual personality unlike that of anyone else who has ever lived, each of them with a kind of infinity about them. So I want, on this Mother’s Day, to remember the loving person in whose womb I was sheltered, who brought me forth in suffering and nourished me at her breast, who raised five boys, taught us our prayers, and how to tell right from wrong, and how to play fair. Who washed our clothes, spread the table, helped us with our homework, and stood by us when we were in trouble. Who forgave us when we disappointed her and thanked us when we did well. Who loved us.
My mother grew up on a farm, and she only had, at most, an eighth-grade education, and much of that was in German. But she had a German’s great respect for learning, and all her life she kept learning. She was wise, certainly, about human nature. She laughed a lot, and was fun to be with. She said of my father, when she was standing at his coffin, “He made me laugh.” Not a bad reason for choosing a companion through life. My father was a crazy Irishman who looked like Jimmy Cagney, and was full of the devil until he had five boys to raise, during the Depression. That was when he really needed my mother.
With this morning’s beautiful readings about love, I am reminded of another thing Fr. Vann said, when one summer he preached a memorable retreat for us at Assumption: "The love we have is like our material possessions and our natural gifts: they are all given to us so we can help others. Love is meant to lead us to the helping of humanity. If you are faithful to the love you have, you will bear God's blessing and holiness to the world. Thou shalt love: that is the essence of Christian morality." It is in the context of loving that Jesus, in the gospel this morning, sends his apostles out to the world: "Love one another. Abide in my love. I have appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last."
Fruit that will last. Our best efforts are nothing if they are not done with love. They will not last without love. We have to love the church we represent to the world, love the grace we are the instruments of dispensing, love what we preach, love what we teach - in order for our work to bear fruit. Yes, Sophocles or St. Thomas or Shakespeare can speak to a student from the pages of their books -- but how much more can they mean, to today's eager but often rootless students, if the one who has the privilege of teaching those writings loves them. And similarly, the sacraments have their effect, as we used to say, ex opere operato, from the ritual itself -- but how much more can they mean if those who come to the sacraments in need receive them from someone who radiates the love of Jesus, and grace comes ex opere operantis, from the priest, as well.
My mother taught me that I was put into this world “to know, to love, and to serve.” Our Basilian apostolate required of us that we know (in order to teach), and the new Pope has put a new emphasis on serve. But of the three the most important, Jesus tells us, as parable follows parable, as maxim follows maxim, is to love. Loving is the way we save our souls, justify our existences.
Modern social science and psychology say it in their own ways: altruistic people live longer than self-centered ones; love is an antidote to criminal and suicidal tendencies and neuroses; love is the most effective educational force; a minimum of love is essential for the continuing existence of any social order. The social sciences reached those conclusions without the help of today’s gospel. All the same, today’s gospel says, they are right.
In honor of my mother’s love I'd like to close with a quotation that I’ve used here before - from a priest, a teacher, a scientist who knew the arts as well, who came in his work to understand that we on earth haven't yet fully realized our human potential in doing God's work. It’s from an essay on chastity. He was speaking to those of us who are vowed to a special, empowering kind of love: "Someday," said Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, "when we have mastered the ether, the winds, the tides, and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."
May the blessings of this day on which we celebrate love be yours.