Pope Francis

The fruitful spring of Lent emerges from the womb

By 
  • February 7, 2016

Pope Francis had barely begun this year’s Lenten message when the talk turned to women’s wombs.

“In the prophetic tradition, mercy is strictly related — even on the etymological level — to the maternal womb (rahamim) and to a generous, faithful and compassionate goodness (hesed) shown within marriage and family relationships,” he writes in his 2016 Message for Lent released Jan. 26.

While it’s an image that may shock some, it wouldn’t be the first time this Pope has employed rhetorical shock therapy. The womb is also an image that makes sense both in terms of Pope Francis’ overarching themes and deep Christian tradition extending back to desert fathers and mothers and beyond.

“It’s a protective space, a safe space, the seat of compassion and mercy,” said Doris Kieser, a theologian at Edmonton’s St. Joseph College. “He’s using this imagery, I would suggest, as a counter-image to non-merciful, non-compassionate responses to the world which one might think he’s ascribing to males or to masculine imagery of one sort or another.”

But Kieser believes we need to understand what the Pope writes about wombs and about Mary in terms that go a little deeper than “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Rather than reinforcing old stereotypes about the roles of men and women (brave, strong, tough versus nurturing, protective, soft), Francis is trying to reconnect all of us with human nature and remind us of the human connection to the natural world, she said.

“There’s no denying that wombs are definitely female,” said Kieser. “One might also say that men still have a strong propensity toward compassion and mercy, one would hope.”

“Is it part of women’s nature to be more like that?” asks Moira McQueen, a University of St. Michael’s College theologian who also sits on the Vatican’s International Theological Commission offering theological advice to the Holy See.

Even before Pope Francis has finished his thought about the deep connection between the maternal womb and mercy, he’s talking about marriage and family — drawing men into the equation.

But it’s also an image that connects us with nature and with the journey to spring. The word “Lent” means spring. Spiritually and practically, the rebirth of spring is the whole point of Lent, said McQueen.

“Jesus emerging from the womb in a different way,” is how McQueen describes the critical moment when Jesus walks out of the tomb and speaks to Mary Magdalene in the garden. “When we talk about the darkness of the womb, it’s a preparation time… You have to deal with the passion and death before you get to the Resurrection. So (Lent) is maybe the winter before the spring. The connection with nature is profound.”

The great accomplishment in three years of Francis’ papacy is Laudato Si’, last year’s encyclical calling on all people to reconnect with nature and care for the planet as our common home.

“I don’t think there’s any way we can see Laudato Si’ as disconnected from a year of mercy,” said Kieser. “I also don’t think we could see a year of mercy disconnected from a call to justice for the poor. All of these things are so obviously connected. He’s doing that because I suspect he wants to pack a punch.”

Francis is aware of the moment in history which the Church is living through right now, said Kieser. His awareness shows when he speaks about war, refugees, the degradation of poverty and the excesses of wealth, the environment and globalization.

“Francis knows what he is doing. He’s an intelligent man and he certainly has a road map for his papacy. He’s in a hurry. He doesn’t expect himself to be around for too long. I see him making very conscious choices about where he wants to direct his energies.”

The Pope isn’t writing coded messages that only academic theologians can understand, said McQueen. He’s using language and images that resonate in every life.

“Even if you’re uneducated theologically, you can take your cue from nature,” she said. “Because that cycle is there the whole time. The weather, the drabness, the barrenness — all those things — and then that fruitful spring emerges from that womb. They knit together very well.”

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