Sister Rosemary marched into the fourth grade classroom while everyone was supposed to be reading. She had a rather large box under her arm and briskly instructed everybody to please keep their eyes on their work. Then she climbed up on the teacher’s desk.
Sister Rosemary was the principal of a Catholic parochial school in Chicago and one of her former students, Sonori Glinton, recounts the event in an episode of This American Life radio show, calling it one of the most vivid and formative moments of his life.
Sister Rosemary was a very short, serious little Irish nun. Standing on her toes, stretching herself as high as she could reach, she just barely managed what she’d come for: She removed the crucifix on the wall. Balancing precariously a second time, she replaced it with another. And this Jesus was black. She hopped down from the desk, picked up her box (it now held nineteen black Jesuses, and one white Jesus) and went to do the same thing in every other classroom at the school.
Glinton’s neighborhood had been part of a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, but in recent years, the demographic had changed. Now it was mostly black families who lived, worked, and worshiped there. Sister Rosemary could have switched the crosses on the weekend, Glinton remembers, but she chose to do it when the students were in class. Recounting the story, he remembers how formative it was:
“Here’s the funny thing. No sooner had she switched the crosses, that made the switch in my head. Just like that, Jesus was black. Didn’t ponder it. No rolling it over in my head. It made perfect sense to me.
When you’re a fourth grader, everything is bigger than you. Everyone is smarter than you, older. But when one day you realize that Jesus is just like you, Jesus is black, then everything short of Jesus seems possible.”
Glinton is right. When Jesus is like you, everything really is possible.
Perhaps Sister Rosemary had learned her lesson straight from God’s own mother, who appeared to Juan Diego—who would become the first Roman Catholic indigenous saint from the Americas in 1531. As a mestiza (a person of combined European and Indigenous American descent), Our Lady of Guadalupe reflected Juan Diego’s own ethnicity, and she eventually converted a whole continent.
What Sister Rosemary knew, and what the Holy Spirit constantly helps us understand, is that love is always radically, totally, personal. When St. Paul says that Jesus is “like us in all things but sin,” he means that quite literally. Jesus’ humanity is real. When Our Lady of Guadalupe calls St. Juan Diego her dearest son, and says “Am I not here, who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection?” she is not speaking figuratively — her motherhood is real.
Because the thing about motherhood, and about love, is that neither can exist alone. Nobody just loves. We love other people. Motherhood isn’t a trait you have in isolation, like being brown-eyed. No, if you’re a mother, it’s because you’re a mother to someone. Just because Our Lady is mother to the whole world doesn’t mean she is any less specifically, and directly, your own mother.
It was when St. Elizabeth Ann Seton started to understand the totally personal nature of this love, that the seeds of her Catholic conversion first began to grow.
In February 1804, still grieving her husband’s recent death, she opened a book to the Memorare prayer. Her own mother had died when she was three, but she writes that suddenly, “I felt I really had a Mother which you know my foolish heart often lamented to have lost in early days, and at that moment it seemed as if I had found more than her, even in tenderness and pity of a Mother–so I cried myself to sleep on her heart.”
The mother that St. Elizabeth Ann had found that day wasn’t just Jesus’ mother; she was Elizabeth Ann’s own mother. When she returned to New York, she wondered whether to teach her children the Hail Mary, but finally decided, “If anyone is in heaven his Mother must be there…So I beg her with the confidence and tenderness of her child to pity us, and guide us to the true faith.”
With a prayer like that, her conversion to the Catholic Church wasn’t far away.
Of all the writings she left behind, one page shows the Memorare, handwritten, with a new line added: “Love me, my Mother.”
St. Elizabeth Ann, who prayed every day before an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, had learned Our Lady’s lesson well — that Mary isn’t just the world’s mother — she’s yours and mine. Her motherhood of us is just as real and direct and personal as if she were only the mother of each of us, and nobody else’s. Her motherhood isn’t diluted because love cannot be diluted.
At Guadalupe, Mary’s personal relationship with the people of Mexico changed the world. After all, listen to what she says to St. Juan Diego about why she appeared: She desired a church to be built “so I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help, and protection, because I am your merciful mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants on this land and all the rest who love me, invoke and confide in me.” She wanted to “listen there to [the people’s] lamentations, and remedy all their miseries, afflictions and sorrows.”
Mary means what she says. How would our own lives change if we acted as though she was truly, totally, our own mother. What would it looks like if we accepted the love she offers?
The radically simple, totally revolutionary lesson that Sonari Glinton learned that day in fourth grade and Mother Seton came to know, is true. When you remember that Jesus and Mary are your real family, then truly, anything is possible.
ANNA O’NEIL likes cows, confession and the color yellow, not necessarily in that order. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, son, and daughter, and tries hard to remember that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”