We have all heard the phrase “motherland” referring to a person’s country of origin or their family’s country of origin, but have you ever heard the phrase “mother church?” Obviously, we have heard the Catholic Church referred to as a mother in the broad sense, however each baptized Catholic actually has a “mother church” of their own, within the broader scope of the church as a mother to us all. Where did the idea of a ‘mother church’ come from and when do we celebrate this fact?
Mother church and rebirth
Baptism is the Sacrament that is the “basis of the whole Christian life” (CCC 1213). It is at Baptism that a person is truly reborn in water and in the Spirit. This rebirth means a new life in Christ has begun; the newly Baptized is a new creation! Whenever there is a birth, there is a mother: this is a fact of life. In the case of Baptism, which does not involve a physical birth, but instead a spiritual one, there is also a mother present and giving birth: the church.
Here in the United States we would say that the parish church where a person was baptized is the mother church, though typically this church is simply called “the church of Baptism” or “church of record.” This makes a lot of practical sense. The church of a person’s baptism is actually responsible for keeping all the sacramental records for that person in order, even if they don’t live there any more. For example: if a person is baptized in a parish in Mytown, USA, but then moves to Yourtown, USA, and is confirmed and married there, the parish in Yourtown would notify the parish in Mytown of the Sacraments that were received and the parish in Mytown would keep a record. That is because the parish in Mytown, being the parish of Baptism, is the “mother church.”
The original Mother’s Day
Halfway through Lent it is not uncommon to see the priest wearing rose instead of the Lenten purple. This “mid-way Sunday” is called Laetare Sunday and it reminds us to have hope; that Easter is coming. In the Middle Ages this Sunday was also called “Mothering Sunday” and in some places in Europe it still is. On Mothering Sunday it became the custom to visit one’s mother church—one’s church of baptism. Out of this practice more local traditions grew. In the United Kingdom this day became a day to allow servants a day off to visit their own mother churches. It also became customary to honor one’s own mother. Mothering Sunday was the first Mother’s Day!
The Liturgical roots of Mothering Sunday
The custom of referring to one’s mother church is now mostly confined to the United Kingdom and some of the UK Commonwealth, however it’s roots can be found in the traditional Catholic Liturgy for Laetare Sunday. In this Liturgy the prayers refer to the motherhood of Jerusalem, and several references to mothers are made. It was from this Liturgy that the custom of visiting one’s mother church grew, along with more local customs, and eventually Mother’s Day. The Liturgy for this day also references Jerusalem several times, which is often represented as a garden of beautiful flowers. In the past, there would be a blessing of roses on this Sunday and this is why it is also customary to give flowers to one’s mother on Mother’s Day. Now, Mothering Sunday is mostly confined to the United Kingdom though the cultural celebration of a day to celebrate mothers and motherhood is widespread across many continents.
How to celebrate Mothering Sunday
Even though we celebrate Mother’s Day in May here in the United States, it can still be appropriate to celebrate Mothering Sunday. Here are some ways you can revive this tradition:
- visit the church of your baptism
- pray for the priest or deacon who baptized you
- send a card to, pray for, or visit your Godparents
- make a special donation to the church of your baptism
- give flowers to your mother
- celebrate the mothers in your life or in your family with a special meal
- place flowers in front of a statue of Our Lady in your parish
Would you add anything to this list? How will you celebrate Mothering Sunday on Laetare Sunday this year?
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