Americans have been celebrating Mother’s Day officially on the second Sunday of May since 1914, when the untiring advocacy of a woman from West Virginia named Anna Jarvis finally persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to make the day a national commemoration.
Unfortunately, Jarvis — who never married and never had children — spent the last years of her life and everything in her bank account until her death in 1948 on trying, unsuccessfully, to wrest the day back from the mercantile interests who had commercialized the celebration. In one quote attributed to her, she was particularly disturbed by the rise of store-bought Mother’s Day cards: “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” she said. “And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”
A reminder to resist the commercialization of a day dedicated to celebrating and expressing gratitude to mothers is surely as salutary today as it was when Jarvis was alive.
In that struggle, though, Catholic Americans may have an advantage — the echoes of a cultural memory that give the celebration a deeper meaning and context. Catholics have been celebrating a sort of Mother’s Day at this time of year since the first few centuries of the Church. The fourth Sunday of Lent, or Laetare Sunday, traditionally was a time to celebrate “mother” Church — and naturally one’s own mother.
For Catholics, too, devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, adds another layer of significance to Mother’s Day that helps root it in something more substantial than Hallmark and Hersey’s. God, creator and lord of the universe, chose to put himself — tiny, needy and helpless — into the nurturing and watchful hands of a human mother. Since then, every act of mothering — both physical and spiritual — in every time and every corner of the world recollects Mary’s.
That’s important to remember, especially when the value of mothers and mothering is given short shrift, as it too frequently is in popular discourse and culture today. In some ways, that can take extreme expression, like it did in a recent book by Christine Overall, a Canadian philosophy professor, whose title asks: “Why Have Children?” Overall decides it is certainly immoral to have more than one child, but even questions whether extinction of the human race might not be that bad after all.
But while that bleak view of the value of motherhood might have created a momentary buzz within the halls of academia and a stir among sophisticates, it does not appear to resonate with most people’s ordinary experience. Consider the viral online popularity of a laundry detergent video ad that portrays the self-sacrificing dedication of moms with Olympic athletes — and closes: “Being a mom is the hardest job in the world. But it’s also the best.”
A similar sentiment of gratitude with a loftier vision was expressed by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 “Letter to Women.” The unique experience of pregnancy, he told mothers, “makes you become God’s own smile upon the newborn child, the one who guides your child’s first steps, who helps it to grow, and who is the anchor as the child makes its way along the journey of life.”
Take those reflections this year to your celebration of gratitude to all the mothers in your life, both spiritual and physical. And make sure you write your own card.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.