October 14, 2009
My Mother, the Theologian
by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.
Going to the Seminary
In 1948, early September, I left my home in Detroit, Michigan, to enter the Franciscan High School Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had been thinking about this since I was in the fourth grade, four years earlier. Actually what I wanted to do took 13 long years. In those days, you had to have four years of high school Latin, along with Greek and German. In college, our philosophy courses (our college major) were taught with Latin textbooks and our tests and exams were also in Latin. The whole program for priesthood studies included four years of high school, one year of novitiate with investiture in the Franciscan friar’s brown robe, four years of college and, of course, another four years of theological training. To put it simply, we had lots of studies leading to and preparing us for ordination. I finally was ordained in 1961, 13 years after I had left Detroit.
But there was one thing I have always been convinced of. When it comes to theological dilemmas, mothers are sometimes the best theologians. From my earliest years, Mom seemed to have every answer to every catechism question I could ask, and could answer any moral dilemma a nine-year-old could come up with. I think that’s true of most all mothers. It’s probably something in their genes that kicks in when they have children: “Problem Solver and Family Expert in Religious Matters.” I may have had 13 years of priestly training, but Mom had something just as important: a mother’s wisdom.
The Pork Chop Dilemma
There two incidents that dramatically illustrate this. One time when I was nine years old, I was spending the weekend with my former next door buddy, David, whose family had moved to the other side of the city. After school on Friday, my mom drove me over to his house and would pick me up after church on Sunday. Now David’s family was Presbyterian and they were going to take me to Mass on Sunday morning on their way to their own Church for services.
Anyway, David and I came to the supper table Friday evening with ravenous appetites. And Miss Ad (as I called her) was serving up some fantastic breaded pork chops. She placed two beauties on my plate, added some scalloped potatoes, when she stopped suddenly and said, “Oh, Jimmy, I forgot. You’re Catholic. You can’t eat meat on Fridays.” Then I remembered, too.
Now the readers who have been around a while know what abstinence meant for Catholics in the 1940’s. Meat on Fridays was strictly forbidden, a prohibition was considered very serious by every Catholic. There was no way I was going to touch those pork chops, no matter how good they smelled! But Miss Ad suggested that she call my mom. She came back from the next room and said, “Jimmy, your mom wants to talk to you.” I went to the phone and said, “Hi, Mom.” My mom, the theologian, responded with just two words very emphatically. “You’re dispensed!” Holy smokes, I thought. I’m dispensed! You can’t be more dispensed than when your mother dispenses, because next to God, she has more power over me than the Pope.
Who needs a priest when your mom issues a dispensation? I have no doubts that God in heaven ratified her dispensation and warned that no one should contradict her. Those pork chops were, indeed, delicious.
“Who Is Saved?” Question
One other dramatic time is when Mom, Dad, my sister and I were eating supper one evening. I was 10 or 11 at the time and I thought I knew a bit about theology, too, given all my catechism classes. Out of the blue, my dad, who became Catholic a year before he married my mom, asked Mom this question: “Marnie, do you think my father and mother are in heaven?” Now this was a serious question. Before ecumenism and improved relations between Catholics and Protestants, the question of “who is saved” was one argued about vehemently by both groups.
I remember looking at Dad and then at Mom and wondering how my mother would answer. He was asking my mom, Catholic from birth, whether his Dutch Reformed folks were in heaven. This was a serious question, and as a 10-year-old, I knew her answer would be important. But, once again, Mom the Theologian answered in just two words: “Of course.” That settled the discussion and we went on eating, realizing again how fortunate we were to have our own theologian sitting around the family table—and one who could answer the stickiest question in so few words. Amazing!
Moms have been known for centuries as the family healers, kissing bruises and hurts of their children and bringing special healing that for some reason no one else has. I’m sure many of you reading this may recall similar instances when your mom somehow knew exactly the answer to a theological question. And she did not have to go to a big theology book for the answer, either!
Dear Friar Jack: You are a wonder! This is the best explanation (explication de texte) that I have yet read of this prayer, which St. Francis certainly lived. As you pointed out, our world has such a great need for this prayer today and all it stands for. We seemed mired in violence, and this prayer stands opposite this, promising a different world—a different vision—and one we must work for. Thank you! Annie
Dear Friar Jack: Thank you so much for the reflection on the Peace Prayer. It was very interesting to learn of its true origin. I appreciate your insights into the beginning sections of the prayer; it made me stop to reflect again on the meaning of each clause. For me, the last section of the prayer has always proven to be a guiding light. It continually reminds me of Jesus’ request that we die to ourselves and our own desires so that by loving and serving each other, we may live in his light. It is a difficult prayer to live, as it reminds us that we are called everyday, in many ways, to live the true message of Christianity. Blessings, Gloria
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