A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Mary at the Heart of the Church

By Fr Patrick Brophy SM

During the month of June, the Church celebrates three important feast days on successive Sundays. They are the Feasts of the Body and Blood of Christ, of the Holy Trinity and of Pentecost. They’re all important to the Church; the People of God. 

The fifty days of Easter Time draw to a close with the celebration of Pentecost. The very name Pentecost comes from the Greek and refers to the Jewish festival of Shavuot or ‘Weeks’, a harvest festival celebrated fifty days after the Passover. This feast is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. In Exodus it is called the feast of first fruits of the wheat harvest. 

At Pentecost Jesus sends his Spirit on those gathered in the upper room. We see the extraordinary outpouring of gifts that the Spirit gives. These gifts, including the gift of languages, were so unusual, witnesses thought the disciples were drunk! But others from many lands could understand as the disciples, on fire with the Spirit, preached the Good News of Jesus Risen. Thousands became followers. At Pentecost, we celebrate the first fruits of a great harvest of souls.

This feast is considered the day the Church was born. Jesus, “while at table” with the disciples, tells them to stay in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Spirit. They are to receive his power.(Acts 1,8). They will receive Jesus’ Spirit and begin his mission. The cover of this issue shows the moment the Spirit appeared to Mary together with the disciples and other women “as tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them”. (Acts 2:3)

There are more classical depictions of the moment of Pentecost. Many are more attractive or artistic. This one is special to Marists. It is a mural on the wall of the small modern chapel at La Neylière in France. La Neylière is the house Fr Colin, the founder of the Society of Mary, retired to and spent the last years of his life. He is buried there. To understand why this depiction of Pentecost is important for Marists, we need to look to the founding of the Society. A seminarian, Jean-Claude Courveille, was first to promote a new congregation inspired by Mary, the mother of Jesus. He had a spiritual experience at the shrine of Our Lady at Le Puy. This experience set in train the events leading to the founding of the Society of Mary. 

At the seminary in Lyon, Courveille gathered a group of seminarians together and spoke of the private revelation he received from Mary at Le Puy: “I supported the Church at her birth; I shall do so again at the end of time.” After Fr Colin assumed the role of guiding the newborn society, he often spoke of this inspiring revelation. 

The first part of these words of Mary refer to Pentecost, the birth day of the Church. In recounting Courveille’s mystical experience Fr Colin speaks of “L’Eglise naissante”. This has the sense of ‘the Church in process of being born.’ Childbirth is completed in a relatively short time period. This phrase has the sense of an ongoing event rather than a completed event that simply happened sometime in the past. 

We pray this in the prayer Veni, Sancte Spiritus – Come Holy Spirit: 

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and kindle in them the fire of Thy love. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created. And Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.

The Latin translated as “created” has the sense of ‘recreate’ or ‘renew’. The Holy Spirit is creative, ever renewing us; the Church. Fr Colin’s intuition of Mary’s place in the Church dovetails quite closely with what the prayer expresses.

We see Mary at the heart of the community of the disciples of her Son, Jesus. At Pentecost they’ve been missioned by him to continue his work and are given power to do this. That is the central element of the mural at La Neylière. 

In the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke names the Apostles present and continues:

“With one heart, all these joined constantly in prayer, together with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14)

Mary is at the heart of the Church. At Pentecost, she supports the at-first fearful and timid apostles by her calming presence. She encourages them with words and in her actions and she lifts them up in prayer. Mary is mother of the Lord, and she becomes mother of the Church. Mary is rightly at its birth, in the centre. She remains there now. 

In the midst of the community, the Holy Spirit is alive and active now, creating the Church. Mary is there, supporting the Church as it is being born, as it is being created. All Marists, clerical and lay, are called to support the Church. This is the ordinary mission of us all.

And so, after the celebration of Pentecost we, the Church, begin Ordinary Time. It’s back to normal business. The Church is being born, the Church of the Resurrection. It is up to us to create it now.


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