I’m not a “cradle Catholic” like my partner. I grew up Pentecostal and went to a Baptist college for my undergrad. Coming to Rome as an adult was a huge deal for me, particularly because of the Mary stuff.
As a Protestant, Mary doesn’t feature prominently in your daily life. But in Catholicism, she’s more or less inescapable. Catholics believe she actually is an inextricable part of the whole plan of salvation. If I was going to “get my Catholic paperwork,” so to speak, I needed to come to terms with Our Lady.
I was speaking with my friend, Marlene, about my trouble with praying to Mary, and she reminded me of the Gospel account of Jesus’ first miracle. As the story goes, Jesus is at a wedding, and they’ve just run out of wine. Mary has a motherly premonition that maybe her son might be able to help. So she asks him to work his magic, but he doesn’t feel like it, so he denies her request. But Mary presses on, and ultimately convinces him to turn water into wine.
She was our Madonna long before, well, Madonna.
How did Mary persuade her son to comply? A smile? A more severe look, the kind all mothers reserve for those moments when they really mean it? “If we could but catch a single glimpse of her face,” writes theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, “when she looks at her son with a glance that tells him, ‘They have no wine.’”
What’s interesting about this story, says my friend Marlene, is that Mary was able to talk Jesus into doing something he didn’t want to do. The story of Jesus begins with consent, Mary’s fiat, her yes to the angel Gabriel. The story of Jesus’ ministry begins with his consent to his imploring mother. That’s why I now pray to Mary: Because sometimes I feel as if my requests are falling on deaf ears, and I need Mary to give her boy a motherly nudge, or at the very least, a “you ignore his prayers for one more minute and I’m gonna” look.
Yet it isn’t only Mary’s nudge that attracts me—it’s her embrace. When I was preparing to convert to Catholicism, my priest asked me to think about my relationship with Mary. That was easy for a gay man: Mary is the mother who welcomes me with open arms. I was lucky to have parents who did welcome me with open arms, but even in spite of their unconditional love for me, there were times when we butted heads over the gay thing. And though those times were few and tame, there are still many places today—churches, even, say, bakeries—where gay people feel suffocated by a quiet, persistent bigotry. In those moments, I have learned to bring my sadness to Mary.
“Her lap contains all the suffering of the whole of humanity,” writes Schillebeeckx, and she “casts her mother’s cloak of mercy” over all of those who come to her.
Though I didn’t realize it at first, I have slowly come to see Mary as the patron saint of gay men. She was our Madonna long before, well, Madonna. She is the one who wants us, now, as we are. Of course, I believe God and Jesus want us, too, but gay men have always been partial to their mothers.
There’s something radical in the suggestion that Mary is our mother. In theological terms, Mary is Dei Genetrix, Mother of God. To say, then, that Mary is mother to gay men is to say that gay men are literally the brothers—or sisters, if you prefer—of Christ. It is also to announce our rightful place in the Church because Mary is its mother, too.
Of course, many in the Church have not always wanted to claim gay men as their own. They speak as if God’s mind is made up on homosexuality, that the issue isn’t open to further debate, that we are not welcome at the table that Jesus has prepared, that they have commandeered.
That rejection hurts. And I take that pain to Mary, whose lap is open. I ask her to ponder my heartbreak in her own heart. I ask her to do what she’s good at: to convince her children to change their minds. I have faith in her nudge. I believe, as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, that she “mothers each new grace that does now reach our race.”
The New Testament’s portrayal of Mary is sparse, but I, like many theologians, choose to imagine that Mary and Jesus’ off-the-page relationship was very intimate. As the wedding story shows, she, like most mothers, wielded an enormous influence on her son. How much of his theology was learned at her knee? How much of his love for God was kindled by her as she sat by his bedside, lulling him to sleep with stories from the Hebrew Scriptures?
If only we had access to those private moments, or to any future moments they might share.
“If only,” says Schillebeeckx, “we could spend but one single moment listening to Mary’s wordless conversation about us with Jesus.”
Perhaps we’d hear an echo of our prayers. “Blessed,” she might say, “are all the fruit of my womb.”