During my years as a Catholic, the Blessed Virgin Mary was usually off to the side. She was the mother of Jesus, of course, but she only got attention during Christmas (happy) and Easter (sad) and in the story at the wedding where she tugged on her son’s robe and asked him to do something about the wine situation. Like most women in the Catholic Church, she was a helper who got second billing.
I hadn’t been in a Catholic church for years. It was the late 90s, and I was in a long-distance relationship with a Texan. The last time I’d been in a Catholic church had probably been six years earlier while on an art tour in Venice, Italy. The last mass I’d been to was probably the one for my cousin’s wedding a year or two before the trip to Europe. It had been a long time.
My Texan was an activist and during one of my infrequent visits, he was participating in a reenactment of a massacre of Zapatistas in Oaxaca, Mexico. I knew about the reenactment before my visit, but my Texan hadn’t told me it would take place on the grounds of a Catholic church, so the location was a surprise. Even more surprising was when the reenactment turned into a precession that proceeded into the church.
Oh yeah, my Texan’s comrade said to me with a shrug, there’s a mass.
A mass? I wasn’t prepared for a mass.
The comrade thought we should go inside and join the mass. Not knowing what else to do, I followed him in.
The priest was already in front of the congregation when we walked in. Someone was already doing the day’s first reading from the missal. Instead of slipping into the back pew as I would have done left to my own devices, the comrade walked all the way up the aisle to the very first pew. I could have ducked into a pew anywhere along the way, but for some reason that must have made sense at the time, I followed him all the way to the front.
He grew up Catholic, I reasoned. He knows what he’s doing.
He hadn’t grown up Catholic, I found out later. Sure, he’d grown up in Central America, but contrary to my assumptions, that didn’t mean he came from a family of practicing Catholics.
In my Catholic family, we did not show up late to mass. If we stood to arrive even a few minutes after the ceremony started, our plans would change abruptly to include a later mass. Had my mother ever arrived late for mass and been forced to enter the church, she would have scurried into the first available pew. Nothing could have made her walk all the way to the front, flaunting her tardiness in front of God and everyone.
I remember a few other things about the mass that day in Texas in addition to bringing shame on my mother by advertising my late arrival. I remember the priest (an ostensibly white man with white hair) speaking a mixture of English and Spanish to the congregation of predominately Mexican descent. I remember my Texan’s Irish comrade chastising me and the comrade I followed in for sitting when everyone else knelt, and I remember the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In every (and I mean every) other Catholic church I’ve been in, Jesus on the cross was front and center. Maybe Mary was on one side or the other, but often enough, she was in some little alcove in the back. In this church, Mary was up front, in the middle, larger than life and looking serenely on us all. Jesus on the cross was relegated to a supporting role presiding over where the choir usually sat.
I was shocked and pleased. I wondered what it would mean to attend a church where the Mother stood peacefully over the congregation week after week, where folks didn’t have to stare at bloody Jesus for an hour every weekend. How different my Catholicism might have been had I belonged to a church where the feminine was in the forefront.
Even though I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for decades, I still have a soft spot for the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the Catholic representation of the Mother after all. She loves us and takes our petitions to Jesus. There are no stories of Mary being wrathful, only stories of her being loving and kind and concerned.
Recently, I made some art featuring the BVM. I guess I’m getting back to my roots. “Our Lady of the Tiny Box” was spoken for almost as soon as I posted a photo of it on Facebook, but “Our Lady,” a tribute to Our Lady of Guadalupe made from an Altoids tin, is still available for purchase for only $18, including shipping. With this little devotional, you can bring the peace of the Mother into your life.