Mother of the Church

Author: Patrick McGuire

A little more than a year ago, I sat in a familiar pew awaiting the start of the funeral Mass for my mother, Rose Mary McNally McGuire. No doubt, this was one among the scores of pews here at Our Lady of Grace in Hoboken, New Jersey, that my mother, in her 92 years, and my father and my 12 brothers and sisters had prayed in.

My oldest brother, John, a deacon, was at the altar to assist at the Mass. My sister Rosemary sat two rows before me. With me, my other siblings and their children and grandchildren, we numbered nearly a hundred. And with the friends and cousins who had turned out to join us in celebrating my mother’s life, the congregation was large enough to fill the cavernous old church. Here were the people she touched.

Looking at this plentiful manifestation of her life, I remembered a passage in one of the only books, along with her pamphlet on the mysteries of the holy rosary, that my mother ever re-read: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. Cather’s male narrator, looking at Ántonia’s many children, thinks of her as the mother of a dynasty. Well, here was Rose’s dynasty: from her, through her children, all the way to her children’s grandchildren. I call it her dynasty not as a disparagement to my father, Hugh, who predeceased my mother by nearly 20 years, but as a signal that while both my parents are continued in each of their children, the part that comes from Rose—recognition that the heart, as Pascal put it, has reasons that Reason knows not: faith, sympathy, gentleness—accounts more for the largeness of this funeral assembly.

Certainly Rose would have disapproved of this distinction, for she was all deference to my father. But, as Cather’s narrator made plain, Ántonia’s greatness was in her humility. So, too, I thought at Rose’s funeral, my mother’s greatness was in a faith made possible only by humility. I felt something else also, a sense of loss not solely in the passing of Rose but in a recognition that happened suddenly. My family—these siblings and their children and so on—would never, could never, experience their Catholic faith as Rose had.

Two versions of Catholism
Rose and Hugh McGuire exemplified for their children two versions of Catholicism that perhaps were once part of a norm. My father, a graduate of Fordham University, was a lover of paradox and irony. He believed in the precepts of the Church but took delight in using those precepts for the sake of thorny, logical argumentation. He loved nuances as much as any scholastic philosopher of the Middle Ages. If the church taught X, doesn’t it follow that Y and Z were true as well?

In the late 1960s, when I was about 17, I remember him posing to me the following problem: If a congressman is on one side of an issue but knows that a large majority of his constituents are on the other side, which way should he vote on that issue? I argued that he should vote his conscience, because he was elected not as a puppet but as a thinking representative. My father then convincingly showed me that the representative owed it to his people to vote the way they preferred. Okay, I thought. Then on the next night my father re-posed the question: What if a congressman is a Roman Catholic and his constituents are pro-abortion? How should he vote then?

He lived by his logic. When one of my brothers planned to go to the wedding of a friend who was to marry a divorced woman, my father tried to argue him out of it. Attendance was tantamount to acceptance of a sinful union, and such acceptance would be scandalous. Hugh even vowed that he wouldn’t attend such a wedding if his own son were involved. My brother, to Dad’s complete mortification and disappointment, went anyway.

To my mother, all these questions meant absolutely nothing outside of their importance to her husband. In deference to him, she, too, would have boycotted my brother’s hypothetical wedding, though with sadness. I never heard my mother make a protracted logical argument. I never heard her argue at all.

Nevertheless, she and my father managed to share and communicate a common devotion to Catholicism. Their behavior certainly illustrated that devotion. My parents never swore or used any of those “Anglo-Saxonisms,” as they used to be called. We kids were taught more by example than by precept to use reverent tones when speaking of the pope or of the Blessed Mother; to bow our heads at the name of Jesus; never to use God’s name in vain; and never to act in any way that led to scandal. Gossip was decidedly frowned on as being “not very Christian.” Our parents taught us that we couldn’t visit the house of the Lord on Sundays in anything less than our best clothes.

Much of that sounds absurd; perhaps it is. But it had the intended effect of giving my brothers and sisters and me, I hope, a profound reverence. This reverence had nothing to do with doctrine, really—it was about behaving in a way which showed that God was a constant presence in our lives. We had crucifixes in every room of our three-story Hoboken rowhouse, holy water fonts at each doorway. Pictures of Pius XII and John XXIII adorned our living room. Statues of Mary and Joseph stood atop my parents’ bedroom dressers; other saints peopled each bedroom in the house. On the bulletin board in the dining room was our parish’s calendar. Fridays had the shadow of a fish, as if we needed reminding. These religious furnishings, I have no doubt, were all worked out by Rose. My father had an aversion to concerns for decor equal to my mother’s aversion to logical nitpicking.

However, I’m sure that one particular religious artifact was there at my father’s insistence. It was the Legion of Decency’s ratings for films, a specifically Roman Catholic precursor of Hollywood’s current system. It was tacked near the calendar on the dining room bulletin board. Any time someone intended to see a movie, the family consulted the ratings. These involved subtle categories within the two extremes: Morally unobjectionable and, the scariest, Condemned, which implied grave sinfulness on the part of the filmmaker and actors.

While my parents agreed with the precepts of the Church and were guided by Church teaching, Rose and Hugh conducted themselves as Catholics in very different ways. My father the logician used to sneak out to the smoking lounge at wakes when the priest came to lead mourners in the rosary. Rose the prayerful counted her beads daily, often sitting after dinner in her favorite stuffed chair in the living room to do so, while my father read the newspaper on the kitchen table, where many of us were finishing up our schoolwork.

Learning how to pray
The family was there together, but Rose was also someplace else. The beads glided noiselessly through her fingers and her eyes were closed. She opened them at the end of each decade to read the meditation of each mystery from a well-thumbed pamphlet that she held in her other hand. Then she closed her eyes again, and the beads passed through her fingers like train cars slowly through a tunnel.

A long time ago, when I was passing through a difficult patch in my life, she gave me her little rosary handbook. On other occasions, my mother gave each of us kids blessed rosaries. My father often extolled the virtues of prayer, but my mother (and the nuns at Our Lady of Grace School) taught us how. For me, my mother’s example of a quietly prayerful life made her the greater teacher.

Yet it is Rose’s life in Catholicism that I now see as something almost entirely lost in the Church today—lost in me and, more especially, in my children. I can give that life many names: humility, acceptance, blind faith. But none is adequate to describe the bearing of my mother when she returned from Communion. She walked back from the rail with her eyes averted to the floor (like Saint Aloysius), her mouth and jaw motionless. Her hands were prayerfully laced into each other. At her pew, she stepped in sideways and quickly knelt. Her frame was straight except where her neck bent so she could rest her face in her hands. She was entirely still, at peace apparently, serene. When she straightened up, she seemed stronger than her strong everyday self.

How different from the lack of quietude and serenity in so many Masses that I have since attended. Many communicants today greet friends in the aisles as they walk back to their seats, or they slog along, their hands at their sides, in the same stroll they might use at the mall.

This nonchalance is one of the many changes my parents witnessed. When they were born, cars were not common and air flight was in its infancy. They prayed through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. Later, the Cold War kept the world on the brink of annihilation, and they prayed some more. They learned to accept the telephone, radio, television and computers as changes that enhanced people’s lives. My parents witnessed race riots and antiwar demonstrations that seemed to unravel the very fabric of American culture. Through much of this turmoil, the Church was a steady rock.

That is, until the 1960s, when my parents were in their late 40s.

Changes in the Church were the perfect target of argumentation for my dad—and for many U.S. Catholics in the last 40 years. “Doesn’t the Church renounce its universality with the loss of a centuries-old Latin Mass that is exactly the same throughout the world? What does ‘universal’ mean?” I can almost hear my father’s irony. To Rose, the changes brought in by Vatican II were not substantial enough to alter her sense of the Church, though I’m sure she never argued the point. Masses in English? Not a bad idea. Lay input on parish matters? Not a bad idea. Calling the Holy Ghost the Holy Spirit? Not a bad idea. She never said these things in a group or in front of my father, but she said them to me. Nevertheless, she also never took Communion in her hand. She told me once that she preferred the idea of God, through the priest, feeding her like a child instead of the priest handing the host away like a dealer passing out cards.

The birth control earthquake
Her children were not so agreeable, but Rose stood firm. For us, an earthquake came in 1968 with Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, a restatement of the church’s traditional view that forbade birth control except by natural means, and those means were not to be used without serious reason. This document precipitated a rift among Catholics in the United States and in the McGuire household. Many applauded that view while others had begun to question it.

This encyclical was the first occasion I knew of in which Catholics were publicly criticizing the pope. I mentioned this to Rose, and she would have none of the discussion. This mother of 13 had already been tested in that moral arena. My father, of course, showed me his reasons to believe Paul’s critics misguided. Like my mother, I didn’t take sides or argue about it. I had felt the quake but was unable to assess the damage not only to the Church—after all, criticizing the Church was scandalous—but to myself. Yet I could not be as agreeable as my mother. Truly, during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, I was torn between two fears: The Church was in an upheaval that would demand the necessary repression of rebellion (heresy), or the Church’s teachings weren’t true.

My mother harbored neither of these fears.

Where did Mom’s agreeableness come from? One answer, of course, is in my mother’s sense of what a wife and mother are. They are nurturers, plain and simple. They don’t ask questions; they don’t argue about answers; they go about their lives. Such an attitude is hardly palatable today, and I’m not nostalgic enough to want it to be. But that attitude is a window into Rose’s faith, which I do view somewhat nostalgically.

I have not enjoyed the Catholic contentiousness of the past 40 years. I know few Catholics today so accepting of Church doctrine as my mother. Even so-called conservative Catholics reject Church teachings when such teachings seem liberal. Flip the coin, the same is true of so-called liberal Catholics, who cringed for nearly 30 years of pronouncements from John Paul II. Rose would have had none of it.

Her agreeableness may also be explained as a gift, which is how the nuns of Our Lady of Grace explained faith: It is a gift from God. I don’t deny it, but I will add that faith may live and increase only with daily nurturing, a conscious habit. I see in Rose’s life a constant exercise of faith in the face of her difficult life.

Rose’s father was an alcoholic who sometimes didn’t make it home after work. It was Rose as a little girl, rather than her two sisters or her mother, who canvassed the taverns with the question, “Is my father still here?” Then she would walk him home and get him to bed. She would return from school some days to find that her family’s apartment had been disassembled and moved to another place because rent hadn’t been paid. Yet her memories of my grandfather were positive. She told me once how she loved to watch him shave in the morning and then wax his handlebar moustache.

Her sisters made fun of her, for her faith and for her elegant habit of wearing white gloves to Mass on Sundays. Often she was the only one in her family who went. Since their mother had converted to Catholicism to marry, the McNally’s didn’t quite take the faith too seriously. But she did. It is fair to say that her two sisters and her mother lived lives as difficult as Rose’s, but without the patience and serenity.

She also endured hardships as an adult and mother, wearing, for example, what my sister Rosemary says was the same winter coat for 20 years. She would arise early and walk to 6 a.m. Mass every day. Neither rain nor snow deterred her. Then she would return in time to see the kids up, have breakfast ready and lunch prepared.

She was also selfless to others. When in her mid-50s, Rose joined a group of parishioners who aided a family whose baby was suffering a nerve disorder. The child’s mobility was in question, and doctors had prescribed something called patterning. Five people were needed to move the child’s limbs and head in a set series of exercises that took about an hour to perform. Rose joined the group and performed these exercises for well over a year, three times a day, seven days a week. This and other acts of charity gave her a quiet presence in the community.

An unanswered novena
She was the opposite of Job: she never questioned authority; she never thought God owed her an explanation. She told me once that she had made a 54-day rosary novena to Our Lady (27 days of request, and 27 days of thanks) but had added a special penance to the novena. In the hope of receiving her request, she would give up, for five years, one of her favorite pastimes: reading, which she did serenely and religiously every evening. She never told me what her request was, but she did say that it wasn’t granted. Nevertheless, she spent the five years sacrificing her chief solitary pleasure. I asked her if she was angry with God or Our Lady.

“God knows best,” she said, and smiled and touched my cheek with her workman’s hands. The sparkle in her eye let me infer that she might have been praying to avoid another pregnancy; the gesture made me even imagine that I might have been the request unfulfilled.

Some years ago I was talking to Rose on the phone in one of our weekly visits. Though I lived some 800 miles from the house I grew up in, we still shared our news regularly. On this occasion, Mom was telling me that one of my unmarried nieces had announced recently that she was pregnant. This was one of several such pregnancies among my mother’s grandchildren over the years. Usually these events were hush-hush: never discussed until a new child had suddenly joined the family.

This pregnancy, however, inspired a completely different response: “She should have used a condom—she was committing a mortal sin anyway!”

I was a bit shocked. I had never heard my mother use the word “condom” before. It was only after the conversation was over that the real shock hit me: the practicality of what she said was entirely out of keeping with my mother’s moral sensibility. It was the sort of heightened logical thinking my father might have enunciated. She was saying, in short, that one mortal sin (premarital sex) was damning enough that further mortal sins (artificial birth control) really didn’t matter much, and, therefore, my niece might have made her earthly life a little easier by preventing this unwanted pregnancy.

What it means, I now see, is that Rose’s lifelong reticence to argue or criticize was a conscious choice. Her husband didn’t need opinions; he had enough of his own. We children didn’t need opinions; we had our dad’s. I see it all now in retrospect. On Sunday mornings, even after most of us kids had moved out, we came home for breakfast after Mass. My father would have picked up sweet rolls and hard rolls, orange juice, eggs, sausages and bacon. While we all sat around the large yellow table that had been custom-built years earlier so that 15 people could eat dinner together, we did as we had always done at table: debated issues of the day (the war in Vietnam, Nixon’s firing of Hesburgh from the Civil Rights Commission, Reagan’s stance on abortion). Our mother, however, was yards away from the hubbub, busy cooking bacon and eggs and brewing coffee and tea, like a short order cook in a greasy spoon. When she finally sat with us, the conversation didn’t change, nor did she participate.

Even when she needed to be forceful, her methods were quiet. When my second wife was about join the family, there was some tension among my brothers and sisters. Few of them knew that I was in the process of getting an annulment through the Church. All they knew was that my first marriage was over—to their shock and disappointment—and that I intended to remarry—to their greater shock and disappointment. All my siblings and their spouses and children were gathering for Easter Sunday, as we did each year, at a restaurant. Rose told my soon-to-be wife, “Here, Anna, sit beside me, and that way everyone who comes in will have to say hello.”

I still reel when I think of her using “condom” in that one telephone conversation years ago. Many of my siblings still doubt my memory of it. After all, this was the woman who, in the late 1930s, had read Gone with the Wind enclosed in a homemade book cover so no one would know that she was reading such a scandalous novel. This was the woman who had walked out on the first production of A Streetcar Named Desire (with Marlon Brando) because its characters were so earthy.

That kind of behavior signals the loss I felt at her funeral. I can’t imagine my children walking out on a movie because they are offended. My children frown on promiscuity but think that sexual expressions of affection do not need the state- or Church-approved rites of marriage. They confess that the participants must be willing to accept the outcomes of their acts, but love, as they might put it, overrides doctrine.

Generational differences
My children are different from my parents in a host of other ways. The girls sometimes wear form-fitting clothes that would have embarrassed Rose; the boys attend Mass with holes in their jeans. They listen to lyrics that shock me with their brutality and vulgarity. My children, in other words, lead modern American lives. They and their cousins seem no different from the grown children of the many non-Catholics I know. That means, I think, that my kids’ family roots are allowed to grow strong, but their religious roots are provisional and portable. As grade schoolers, they never learned from their teachers about Lenten sacrifices and mite boxes. When I tell them how we fasted, even as children, through Lent and before Communion, they are shocked.

American social norms have made other inroads with me and my family that show how different Rose’s life was from ours. My mother was married once. I have been married twice; the first marriage was annulled by the Archdiocese of Newark, and the second marriage thrives as it nears its 30th anniversary. My second wedding involved a non-Catholic, which was not shocking in my day but would have been when my parents wed. Three of my siblings have had similar histories. Some of my nephews have broken marriages, but not all of them have thought that getting annulments through the Church could be healing.

Similarly, my mother lived in the same house for the last 50 years of her life. She was a lifelong parishioner of Our Lady of Grace, where she and my father were married. I have belonged to three parishes in the 20 years of my residence in Wisconsin; four in the East previous to that. One of the Wisconsin parishes I left because of my displeasure with the pastor. My wife and I and our children have shared four residences. My children who do attend Sunday services do so at parishes they are not registered in. They feel no need to be officially part of their Catholic community. In their short lives, they have lived all over the United States and in parts of Europe. For Rose, a small city in New Jersey, a small house and a small parish, was her world.

My mother’s life was medieval in its narrowness: not simply that she was poorly traveled but that she accepted without question the authority of my father and of the Church and pope. She stayed at home to nurture the lives of her family; she loved and prayed and shined in the light that God gave her. We may look askance on that narrowness, but my mother’s life was deeply felt, and her faith in God and the Church and, yes, in Our Lady, too, gave my mother a rootedness that is impossible today, socially and religiously.

The Catholicism practiced by my mother, I can see, is substantially different from that practiced by me and by my children. My children do not hear the pronouncements of the pope or of the U.S. bishops with the same seriousness that I do. And I certainly am not as fastidious in my allegiance to Roman Catholic tradition as my parents were. My parents, for example, would never have left their beloved parish, as I did in Wisconsin, because of a priest’s attitude.

But my children have a greater understanding of things that Rose, for all her kindness, never understood. When my mother watched the race riots as they appeared on TV in the mid-1960s, her response was to dismiss the movements as “Communist-inspired.” So, too, the anti-Vietnam-war protests: “Communist-inspired.” Anything labeled Communist to pre-Vatican II U.S. Catholics was a bete noire, more suspect to them than even American Protestantism.

To my children, the questioning of authority, even Church authority, is accepted as a search for justice. The scandals of priests and their enabling bishops haven’t helped matters. Similarly, my parents would never have invited an openly homosexual couple to dinner; they might even have eschewed friendship with such a couple. I sometimes wonder if Rose would have enjoyed Willa Cather’s fiction if she had known Cather was believed to be a lesbian. Not my children. In fact, when one of my nephews “came out” not long after Rose’s death, no one in the family blinked an eye.

At her funeral Mass, it was appropriate that I had remembered Cather’s book. While the bookshelves of my childhood home contained encyclopedias and dictionaries and biographies of famous Americans, as well as The Best Loved Poems of the American People and Joyce Kilmer’s Anthology of Catholic Poets, these were not my mother’s fare. She mostly read books from the public library, whose personnel knew her preferences for vulgarity-free novels.

The only book on those shelves at home that reflected my mother’s reading was the mid-1940s edition of Cather’s most famous novel. It was a well-used hardcover, its tan-colored spine worn on one side so that it flapped when you removed it from the shelf. I have it in Wisconsin now; it was one of my mother’s gifts to me when I moved from New Jersey 20 years ago.

A few months after the funeral, I reached up to the shelf where My Ántonia stood so I could look at the passage I had recalled. I discovered that I had remembered it incorrectly. Cather makes no mention of dynasties. Her narrator says something far more suggestive of Rose than I had thought. Ántonia, he says, “was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”

I stood outside Our Lady of Grace after the Mass. I held in my pocket the handkerchief I had dried my eyes with during the singing of “Ave Maria.” Our Lady of Grace physically hadn’t changed; the red bricks and stained glass still stood where they have for more than 125 years. On this day they seemed a monument to a lost world. Rose’s quiet life of work in the home, her unwavering allegiance to family and church—in short, her quiet, uncritical love—these were no more a part of my family, nor of my church. No one I knew lived as she had.

Maybe we can’t conduct our lives as she had her own, but I wish the serenity and humility of her life were more a part of mine.

Patrick McGuire is a member of the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside; his wife, Anna Antaramian, is a theater director in Chicago.