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New feast of Mary will follow Pentecost

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This detail of the cover of the May 2013 issue of “Columbia Magazine” shows the faces in the newly-restored image of “Mary, Mother of the Church” at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (printed with permission of the Knights of Columbus, New Haven, Conn.). See the end of the article for the full cover.

By Gail Finke

This story originally appeared in our May 2018 print edition.

Catholics around the world will celebrate a new universal feast day this month, when the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church debuts May 21.

Previously celebrated in Poland, Argentina, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the feast has been optional for the rest of the world since 1975. 

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome announced the feast in February, noting that idea of Mary as “Mother of the Church” is at least as old as the early 400s, when it’s first found in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Leo the Great. 

“This celebration,” the decree reads, “will help us to remember that growth in the Christian life must be anchored to the Mystery of the Cross, to the oblation of Christ in the Eucharistic Banquet and to the Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the Redeemed, the Virgin who makes her offering to God.”

While the new feast doesn’t officially extend the 50-day Easter Season, which ends on Pentecost (May 20 this year), it will seem a lot like it: Priests will wear white vestments, as they did for the previous eight weeks, and the feast will have its own special readings at Mass.

Dr. Gloria Falcao Dodd, director of academic programs at the International Marian Research Institute in Dayton, said the feast and title are associated with a 600-year-old image of Mary and the baby Jesus. 

Painted by an unknown artist on a marble column at St. Peter’s Basilica, it was known as the Madonna of the Column until 1964. Since then it has gone by “Mater Ecclesiae,” the title Pope Paul VI proclaimed for Mary at the closing Mass of the third session of the Second Vatican Council. 

“We are the Body of Christ,” Dodd explained, quoting the Apostle Paul. “The way to interpret that painting is that Mary is holding Christ, and we are the Body of Christ, so Mary is holding the church.”

The fresco deteriorated badly over the centuries, and in 2012 the Knights of Columbus paid to have it restored. In 1982, St. Pope John Paul II, who credited the Virgin Mary for saving his life when he was shot the year before, commissioned a mosaic based on the image. It’s now on an exterior wall of the papal apartments, visible to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. 

For the story of the original image of “Mary, Mother of the Church,” and photos of its restoration, click here for the cover story for the May 2013 issue of “Columbia,” the magazine of the Knights of Columbus.

The cover of the May 2013 issue of “Columbia Magazine” shows the faces in the newly-restored image of “Mary, Mother of the Church” at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (printed with permission of the Knights of Columbus – see link above for before and after photos and the story of the renovation.
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