Catholic Women’s Conference
Saturday, June 11, 2022
Proverbs 31:10-31; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Luke 1:39-35

Fifty years ago on May 21st, on a Sunday afternoon in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a typically large crowd of pilgrims had gathered in a corner of the great church not far from its main entrance to admire, among so many other works of art, Michelangelo’s famed sculpture, the Pieta.  We’re all familiar with it.  They marveled at the incredible craftsmanship and skill of the great Renaissance sculptor.  They were touched and stirred to their hearts, like so many of us have been, by the image itself:  Mary holding in her arms the lifeless body of her son, Jesus.  …  Perhaps you recall what happened next.

From the midst of the crowd gathered on that May afternoon – Pentecost Sunday of that year – a man leapt over the altar rail and began smashing the statue with a hammer, crying out during the attack that he was Jesus, raised from the dead.  By the time the attacker was subdued, he had struck the statue fifteen times, leaving some fifty large pieces of marble and over 150 fragments scattered about on the floor.  The virgin’s arm was broken, fingers were destroyed and her face was badly damaged.

News of the attack quickly spread throughout the world that the cherished statue was damaged beyond repair.  But Vatican art historians and conservationists weren’t ready to give up that quickly.  They collaborated with experts in the arts and sciences to repair the statue and to restore it to its original beauty.  Painstakingly, they labored for over a year until the day when the statue was finally put back on display in St. Peter’s Basilica, albeit now behind protective glass.

The restoration of the statue was done so meticulously that to the naked eye, no one could detect the areas of the statue that had been damaged – with one exception.   At the request of then Pope Paul VI, one scar on the back of the virgin’s veil remained as a reminder of the attack and the brokenness of our world.  Yet, the restored statue is also a powerful symbol of the beauty of God’s creation when men and women set aside differences and work together to restore lost beauty.

Beauty and goodness lost because of the brokenness of our world, yet miraculously restored through faith.  …  In so many respects, this story of the Pieta serves as a metaphor for our journey of faith, for the power of the risen Jesus alive in our world, and for the gift to our lives of the woman of faith whom we honor and celebrate this day:  Mary, the Mother of God – Mary, full of Grace.

Mary occupies a unique place in salvation history, doesn’t she?  She has been a focus for so many of us as we’ve attempted to journey through life as faithful disciples of her son.  Yet, what is it about Mary that not only gives her such status in our Church but makes her so appealing to so many of us?  The answer, I believe, is not found in her exalted place as Queen of Heaven.  Mary’s appeal to us is discovered in the scriptures – the Word of God – and emerges from the simple, ordinary, yet profound stories of her life.  Her appeal is born from her very beginning as one like us – saved by the mercy and love of God.

Let’s reflect on how this incredible woman – our Queen of Heaven – engages our lives.  I assure you that she will speak most poignantly not from her throne on high, but from the very same world that we seek to navigate with all of its struggles and challenges.

We begin with today’s gospel which is a joyful reminder of the blessings of human relationships and how God works mightily within them.  …  “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”  …  No different than the joy that you experience today as you gather with friends and family and fellow believers to reflect upon your faith, Mary hastened to her cousin Elizabeth in order to celebrate the marvelous ways in which God was working in both of their lives.  Their encounter surely affirms and supports our gathering today, doesn’t it?

But let’s not be afraid to step back a few verses in the infancy narratives of Saint Luke’s and Saint Matthew’s gospels where we discover the many ways in which Mary’s speaks to our experiences of life and gives us hope.

When we first meet Mary, she is the object of an ugly rumor, isn’t she?  She was pregnant before she lived with her husband.  That she was innocent and touched by the Holy Spirit simply wasn’t believed.  Even Joseph felt it would be best to divorce her quietly.  …  Isn’t Mary a source of comfort for all who have suffered from rumors and have had their reputations soiled?  Doesn’t she speak a message of encouragement to all those women who choose life for their unborn children even when they’re misunderstood in our self-consumed world?

During our initial encounter with Mary in the scriptures we are also confronted by her anxiety and fear.  When invited to become the Mother of God, Mary’s response is not unlike what we so often say when we’re confronted by a path for our lives that we didn’t choose much less understand.  …  “How can this be?”  …  Isn’t Mary like any of us who have ever wondered:  “What does God want from me?”

And when her son, newly born, was pursued by those who wanted to destroy him, isn’t Mary like any mother who worries about her child and wants to protect him or her from all those individuals who seek to kill spirits and potential and who trample souls and break hearts – from drug dealers, to child molesters, to the media which so often glamorizes false values.

Recall too that after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph fled with their son to Egypt – a foreign land – homeless and displaced.  They were refugees – like the millions of refugees and immigrants who wander our world in search of a better life for their children and are often, sadly, turned away.

In later years, when Jesus was a young man and appeared to have been lost in Jerusalem during the Passover feast, he told his parents who were frantically searching for him, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  And the scriptures tell us that Mary and Joseph “did not understand.”  …  How many of you don’t understand your children’s decisions or choices?  How many of us struggle at times to make sense of what others do – even with the best of intentions on their parts.

At some point, Mary became a widow and cried like so many of us who have lost someone we love in death.  …  She watched as her son left home to begin his ministry, even as she faced the fear and uncertainly of life alone.

Imagine how Mary felt as she heard rumors about her son but couldn’t even get near to him because of the crowds.  …  Imagine how she felt when her son was targeted by those who sought to destroy him because he challenged their self-righteousness while speaking to those who were open to God’s mercy.

Then the worst that any mother – anyone of us – could ever experience occurred.  She saw her son mocked and beaten and hung on a cross, while she was told to keep her distance.  …  Mary knows what every parent experiences who has ever seen her child experiencing some “crucifixion” or another and is told to keep away.  …  Like Mary, sometimes all we can do is pray and suffer in silence.

Finally, Mary cradled the dead and broken body of her only son in her arms and sobs uncontrollably.  …  To every parent who has ever lost a child, to every soul who has ever lost a spouse or parent or friend, if nothing else, Mary knows the agonizing path that so many have been compelled to walk.

Sisters and brothers, Mary has known all of life, as you and I experience it.  And we called her blessed – not because he reigns today as our Queen of Heaven – but because she walked our world and embraced it fully as a woman of faith and a disciple of her son, Jesus.  Never forget that Mary’s “yes” to participate in God’s plan of salvation didn’t guarantee her a perfect world, free from suffering and pain.  It did, however, enable her to see life in a particular way.

Pope Francis described Mary’s vision of life in these words:  “At the message of the angel, Mary did not hide her surprise.  Hers was the astonishment of realizing that God, to become man, had chosen her, a simple maid of Nazareth – not someone who lived in a palace amid power and riches, or one who had done extraordinary things, but simply someone who was open to God and put her trust in him, even without understanding everything: ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (Lk 1:38). That was her answer.  …  And God constantly surprises us, he bursts our categories, he wreaks havoc with our plans. And he tells us: trust me, do not be afraid, let yourself be surprised, leave yourself behind and follow me!”

The message of Mary – the message of our celebration today – and the message that God places within our hearts every time we invoke her memory and example – is a simple message of hope and trust.  …  Mary is faithfulness rewarded.  …  She now is where we hope to be when we come to the end of our journey of life.  …  And she reminds us that the same mercy and love of God that entrusted to her the gift of her son Jesus, will fill our lives and bring us to lasting peace.