What Kind of a Family is the Church?

What Kind of a Family is the Church? June 3, 2023

I was cooking Adrienne’s lunch when I saw the notification on my phone.

It was my Aunt Beth, the aunt with no respect for boundaries that I told you about last year.

\I have her blocked nearly everywhere, but I forgot Instagram. I barely even post on Instagram, it’s just on my phone along with Facebook for some reason. I haven’t checked it in months. The last time my aunt talked to me it was to crash my Disqus comment section to call me an idiot and tell me to “get a life,” for the crime of disliking The Little Mermaid. I mercifully hadn’t heard from her since, because she is always like that. I thought she’d given up trying to harass me.

My heart started racing, pounding in my ears. I felt the dizziness come on, and sat down. It took quite a while to compose myself. This always happens when my mother’s side of the family contacts me. Seeing the name gives me a panic attack. They don’t have a concept that words can hurt. It’s just not there. They think they can knock back a few beers and start name-calling, and that person is at fault for disliking it and trying to get away.

I blocked her without reading the message, and took Instagram off my phone, and I breathed for awhile. Then I went out to water the garden.

My longtime readers know that I do my best prayer and thinking in the garden.

I thought a lot just then.

Somewhere along the line I thought about the terrible panic attacks I’ve been having at Mass. I haven’t successfully been to Mass since my meltdown Divine Mercy Sunday, and I’m not sure how to change that.  I can’t even stand to listen to Mass on television. If someone brought me Communion at home, I wouldn’t answer the door. It hurts too much. It makes my heart race and I get dizzy. Even when I try to imagine going to  Mass in the abstract, that happens.

The Church and the family feel the same way to me. They hurt.

I started thinking again about the problem of “Mother Church.”

Let’s suppose that the Catholic Church really is a mother, and we’re all brothers and sisters under her motherhood. What kind of a mother is she? What kind of a family are we?

That’s not a metaphor Christ used in the Gospels. He called Himself the Mother Hen, but the Church isn’t described as a mother. When Christ describes the Church He’s about to found, it’s more in terms of hired hands deserting the flock or stewards getting drunk and beating the servants. He seemed to be thinking ahead to exactly what we would go through, and said so. The syrupy descriptions of the Catholic Church as “Mother Church”  all came later.

But if the Church IS a mother… what does a good relationship with a mother look like? What does a good relationship with a family look like?

I didn’t have one. I don’t know that I’ve seen one. But what do I think a good relationship with a family looks like?

I suppose it begins with a mother who loves her child for who she is, who sets reasonable boundaries for behavior with appropriate consequences but understands that all children make mistakes. I suppose she rejoices in her child’s strengths and helps find accommodations for her weaknesses, like I did when Adrienne got her diagnosis only much better. I suppose she applies the best information she can to help her child grow up, and when she realizes she’s made a mistake she repents and tries a different way. I suppose that, if her child is much different than her, a mother might have a hard time with that, but she’d learn to love the child for who she is instead of not living up to who she thought they’d be.

Is that what the Church does?

I suppose that, eventually, a healthy child raised under these circumstances grows up to be an adult. Not a big kid but an adult. An adult is an independent person in many ways but still needs help. She loves her mother. She is the person that she is and knows the things that she knows, partly because of that mother. She goes to that mother for wisdom and to learn about where she came from. She takes what her mother says under advisement. And then she makes her own choices.

Is that what the Church expects us to do?

If her mother hasn’t been a very good mother, that person will have to have firmer boundaries about the choices her mother influences.

If she’s been a particularly abusive mother and won’t take any boundaries but keeps on trying to hurt her, she might have to go no contact, at least for awhile. That’s a terrible thing. Nobody wants to be no contact with family. It’s a state that’s more painful than I can describe. But sometimes you have to. It saved my life.

What kind of mother has the Catholic Church been to me?

Can she be another kind?

Can I be a grownup who goes to her for wisdom and to understand where I came from, and makes my own choices?

Or is she another kind of mother?

What are we to each other? Are we happy siblings under a great mother? Are we codependent children of a narcissistic mother, scapegoating each other?  Or are we grownups making the best choices we can?

What do you say to someone who’s been so tormented by the Church, that she has no desire to go back?

Or could it be that the Church is something else entirely, and we’re just wrong to call her “Mother Church?”

I don’t have answers for any of this. It’s just what I’ve been mulling around.




Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.



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