God as Father and Mother — Part III

Here is part III. Once again, I really had to rush to get this up today, the anniversary of Papa Luciani’s death. I would definitely like to have had more time to develop my discussion of the passages from his writings, since there is so much that can be said about them.

The roots of the maternal image of God in Luciani’s life

Albino Luciani’s father, Giovanni, was a skilled bricklayer. But there was very seldom work in his native village of Canale D’Agordo. He had sought work as a migrant laborer for the first time when he was eleven years old. He spent much time in Germany, where he picked up socialist ideas. Although he was often away from home working at seasonal jobs in France and Germany, he was a caring father to Albino and his brothers and sisters. He had named his oldest son Albino after a friend who had been killed falling from a scaffolding at work; he had dreamed perhaps that this son would be someone who would do something about the plight of the workers who had so few protections.

Instead, his son wanted to become a priest, and asked to enter the seminary at the age of ten.

In the letter he wrote giving permission for Albino to enter the seminary, Giovanni also gave him a kind of commission: “I hope that once you have become a priest you will stand on the side of the poor and the workers, for Christ himself was on their side.” (1) Albino carried that letter in his wallet for the rest of his life. He did indeed strive to better the situation of the workers from his earliest days as a priest. Often in later years, he would talk to the workers in Venice about his father’s struggles.

Giovanni Luciani had been a widower with two daughters when he married Bortola Tancon, who herself had been a young working woman; she had had to go far afield, even to Switzerland to find jobs, and ended up working in the kitchen of a hospital run by an order of sisters in Venice, where she met Giovanni. An energetic woman, very devout, and a devoted wife and mother, she brought her husband back to the Church. She passed on her faith to her children through teaching them their prayers, and the basics of their faith. Albino recalled her as “my first catechism teacher.” (2)

One of Albino’s principal memories of his mother was a story that Bortola liked to tell her son again and again in later years, though he was probably too young to remember much of it when it happened. During one of the long winters of hardship during World War I, when Albino was three or four years old, he became ill with pneumonia; a younger brother, Federico, had already died of it; it was one of the commonest causes of death for young children during those mountain winters. Albino’s mother cared for him devotedly, but he steadily grew worse; at last he seemed near death. She finally went to the nearby military field hospital, and got the doctor, a captain to come see her son. He gave Albino the medicine that saved his life. This story of his mother’s care never left him. It was actually the basis for some of his maternal images of God. (3)

Certainly Bortola’s life was one of sacrifice. She had to raise her children alone much of the year. At the same time, she cared spiritually for many young working girls in the village. Albino particularly recalled how hard his father’s yearly departure for work was on her. She could never pack the suitcases without red and swollen eyes. Whenever she received a letter from her absent husband, she dropped everything to read it to the children, her face changing to reflect good and bad news, and whether her husband was working or not. Albino recalled years later to a group of emigrant laborers, “I lived these problems by reading them on my mother’s face.” (4) Here, in contrast to the commission to priestly activity his father had given him, his relationship with his mother aided in his the penetration into the inner reality of the soul, reflection and contemplation.

Many years later, Luciani quoted approvingly the words of French novelist René Bazin, “there are some mothers who have priestly souls and transmit them to their sons.” (5) Perhaps he was thinking of his own mother here too.

If a good relationship with one’s parents is a requisite for a solid paternal and maternal idea of God, Albino Luciani certainly had that. In fact, he turned naturally to both paternal and maternal imagery for God. But it is particularly the maternal imagery I want to explore here. I will quote only the small number of passages I have found during my years of translating Luciani’s works into English. Of course, I can’t claim they are exhaustive. But certainly they will give a good idea of why he used this imagery.

“Like a Little Child in its Mother’s Arms”

The idea of God as a mother seems to have already taken root in Luciani’s spirituality when he was a young priest. This prayer found in one of his notebooks can probably be dated to the time of a serious illness in the spring of 1947, when he was 34. Doctors suspected that he had tuberculosis, and he spent three months in a sanatorium, but the illness turned out to be viral pneumonia. The danger of death led to him writing a reflection on his life and his sins, one of the very few truly private passages that have been found in his writings. He concluded it with these words to God:

This evening I feel more than ever the weight of my flesh. I ask you for a grace, I would like you to be close to me in the hour in which I close my eyes on earth. I would like you to hold my hand in yours, as a mother does with her child in the hour of danger. Thank you, Lord. (6)

Reflecting on the moment of death is often frightening, even for a Christian who trusts in God. Luciani brought to it what is perhaps a personal memory of his own mother; it is certainly a powerful image of the comfort and protection of God. Something this powerful would naturally find its way into his sermons and other writings.

As bishop of Vittorio Veneto in 1960, Luciani gave a talk, which I have previously quoted, to the clergy of his diocese on “priestly humility” using Psalm 131 as his guide, and going through it line by line. Here too he stressed the maternal imagery in the psalm:

Sicut parvulus in gremio matris suae;
sicut parvulus, ita in me est anima mea (v. 2)

Like a little child in its mother’s arms;
Like a little child, so is my soul within me.

I liked better the old version (7) of this short verse, which in place of parvulus [little child] had ablactatus [weaned child] (8) and it gave me the image of a baby who is quiet and content resting on its mother’s breast, without asking any longer with tears and screams for its mother’s milk. Parvulus in this way is the priest who abandons himself and entrusts himself to God, with a spirit of simplicity and infancy. And if it seems to you that the approach is not worthy of us, teachers in Israel, I recall to you rather, that the “nisi eficiamini sicut parvuli” (unless you become like little children) was said precisely to the apostles and at the very moment they were debating problems of precedence and were asking “quis putas, maior est in regno coelorum? [Who, do you think, is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?] (Mt 18:1-4). It was then that the Lord called a child and placed it in the midst of them, saying, “In this way must you be little children!” (9)

Luciani recommends entrusting yourself to God with “a spirit of simplicity and infancy” like the child in its mother’s arms. It was for him the primary means of obtaining humility through self-abandonment — the humility that was to lead to great confidence in God and great deeds like St. Paul’s. Another evocative aspect of this imagery is that, as Luciani stresses, it is of a satisfied child who is no longer hungry. This image of contentment is that of the soul in union with God; it recalls what he told his students about the spiritual life being an alternation between the effort to conquer ourselves and increased pleasure in and union with God.

Luciani was not the only one to have called attention to this aspect of the Psalm. Not long after he wrote this, Pope John XXIII, during his yearly retreat in Castel Gandolfo in August 1961, developed the imagery of the Psalm in the same direction but with a rather unusual image. He is speaking about facing tribulation (he had to face much with the development of the Council):

That little Psalm 130 has always made and still makes a great impression on me, It says: “Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes raised before you. I do not run after great things that are higher than me. “Immo composui et pacavi animam meam. Sicut parvulus in gremio matris suae, ita in me est anima mea” Oh, what dear words are these! But if I have to be troubled toward the end of my life, Jesus my Lord, you will comfort me in my tribulation. Your blood, your blood that I will continue to suck from your chalice , as though to say from your heart, will be for me a pledge of salvation and eternal life . . . . (10)

Pope John spoke of “sucking” the Precious Blood from the chalice as though from Jesus’ side or his breast. Jesus becomes the mother here, as he did for many mystics of the Middle Ages. I find this really intriguing, and there are other similar passages in Papa Roncalli’s spiritual journal from his earlier years. However, I don’t recall anything of it in his public teaching as Pope.

Luciani did not always use maternal imagery for God, of course. Often he used the traditional imagery of Father for God and Mother for Mary. But the basic idea was always the same. In a piece he wrote as Patriarch of Venice for the feast of the Holy Rosary in October 1973, he wrote:

When people talk about “adult Christians” in prayer, sometimes they exaggerate. Personally, when I speak alone with God and Our Lady, I prefer to feel like a child rather than an adult. The miter, the skullcap and the ring disappear; I send the adult on vacation and the bishop too, along with the staid, serious and dignified behavior that go along with them, in order to abandon myself to the spontaneous tenderness that a child has for Mama and Papa. To be, at least for half an hour or so, as I am in reality, with my misery and the best of myself, to feel surfacing from the depths of my being the child I once was, a child who wants to laugh, chatter and to love the Lord, and who sometimes feels the need to weep so that mercy may be shown him, helps me to pray. (11)

The same idea of getting rid of anything that might lead to pride (adulthood and episcopal rank) combined with the spontaneous tenderness and open heart of a child, occur here as well.

A Light in the Darkness

The maternal imagery for God returns in a sermon from the beginning of Lent, 1975, Luciani used a maternal image from the writings of Pope Gregory the Great, which he developed at some length:

Among the primary convictions of my Christian faith, then, is this: if I am baptized and am without serious sin, there exists in me, in addition to my natural human life, another life. The first life can be seen, and is manifested through growth, movement, sight, and reason. The second consists of internal acts of faith, hope, and love, but it is not perceptible; it can be accepted only on the basis of the word of God. We can compare it to the blood that circulates in us constantly without our noticing it. It is the beginning of this life, not its fullness: it will be full and completely underway only in heaven.
Anyone who tries to describe it must be limited to stammering. Here stammering is precisely what I will try to do by developing an image used by St. Gregory (Dialogues 4:1):
A child who has been born and grown up in an underground prison has never seen a ray of sunlight, never seen the beauty of the countryside flooded with the light of day or shimmering under the pale moonlight. Well, his mother, who is in prison with him, tries to teach him about the beauties of our world: “My son, if you only knew how radiant with splendor the sun is! It is like the flame of our lamp, but a flame so great that it illuminates the whole world!” Then she shows him a dry leaf: “if you only knew how many leaves there are up there! Of every color, every form, every fragrance! And they are alive, attached to branches with flowers and exquisite fruits; when the wind passes by, their rustling is like a song; if the sun is burning hot, they give cool shade!”
The child believes in his mother, he listens, his eyes widen, but what a dim idea he would have of our earth irrigated by waters, given life by the sun, cultivated by man! So it is with us: we believe in God, who has spoken to us, we believe in the beauty of the supernatural life in us, but with St. Paul we say: “Our knowledge is imperfect. . . for now we see as though in a mirror, in a confused way. . one day we will see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:9-11). (12)

Pope Gregory saw the dungeon as being in total darkness because the neophyte Christian does not yet have the fullness of faith, so he cannot know anything about the immortal life of the just in heaven on his own. He concludes his little allegory with the words: “Anyone who is not yet solidly grounded in this faith ought to accept what his elders say, putting his trust in them, since they have experimental knowledge of the invisible world through the Holy Spirit. In our story too, it would have been foolish for the little boy to think his mother was telling him lies about the light, merely because he himself knew nothing but the darkness of the dungeon.” (13)

In Gregory’s story, the mother represents the Church. It is only by having the life of the Spirit in us through Baptism and membership in the Church that we can really perceive the truth about eternal life or understand its nature. The child in the dungeon, or neophyte Christian, can know the eternal world through faith in those in the Church who have the Holy Spirit; in time, when he comes to full understanding, he will know through the Holy Spirit himself. (14)

Luciani subtly changes the original by making the Christian not a neophyte believing for the first time, but the Christian who has experience of God (the dungeon is no longer completely dark). He also changes it to take better advantage of the motherhood imagery in the original that was clearly important to him. The mother in his version of the story is not the Church, but God speaking directly to, or even within, the individual soul, teaching us about the life of the “world above.” Through our spiritual experiences in this world, guided by God, we can have at least some idea of the heavenly life.

The relationship between mother and child here is an especially intimate one. Nor is it a passive one on the part of the child – another development that goes beyond Gregory. The child believes his mother, and therefore has confidence that what she says to him is real. Through this act of humility he is able to set out on a path of greater spiritual understanding that otherwise he never would have been able to undertake. Difficulties in conceiving the higher spiritual life still remain, but he has an opportunity to grow in faith (15) This is another example of Luciani using motherhood imagery to illustrate the inner life, the life of contemplation.

God’s Undying Love

The final passage I will cite is one that I just recently came across. It is actually a direct preview of what Luciani would say as Pope and it also comes from 1975, from a talk that Luciani evidently gave in Rio Grande do Sul Brazil, during his trip to visit the Italian immigrants there. What I have is only an excerpt without the context, but it gives a very vivid picture:

We are the object of an undying love on God’s part. We know: he always has his eye on us, even when it seems to us that it is night. He is a Papa, even more a mother. He does not want to harm us; he only wants to do good to us, to everyone.
Little children, when they happen to be sick, have one more reason to be loved by their mothers. And we too, if we happen to be sick with wickedness, if we have gone astray, we have one more reason to be loved by the Lord.
Isaiah says that God has our name written on the palm of His hand. (Is. 49:16) And that means that if God perchance has a table up in heaven, on that table our photograph will be prominently displayed.
We are always present to the Heart of God.

Luciani never tired of trying to find imagery to show how close we always are to the “heart of God.” Though this excerpt doesn’t include it, I think the original must have included that passage from Isaiah that Luciani was to use so memorably later on as Pope: “Can a mother forget her own child? But even if she were to forget, God will never forget his people” (cf. Is. 49:14 15). This seems all the more likely to me because he quotes the very next verse from Isaiah at the of the passage.

Now I will attempt to sum up the spiritual view contained in Luciani’s pre-papal writings. Humility, abandonment of self and child-like trust is our necessary attitude toward God. This trust is necessary for our inner dialogue with God, and the ascent of our souls to perfection and union with God; it is necessary when we translate our faith into life; particularly in the area of courageous and generous action for the faith. Seeing God as a mother as well as a father is a help to us in all this.

Most of the passages I have cited from Luciani’s time as a bishop are concerned with this attitude of trust from the child toward the mother, not so much the maternal character of God considered in itself; this is most likely because for spiritual and ascetic purposes – that is, for inculcating the right attitude in the Christian — of course our childlike attitude is the most immediately valuable. Very little of what he said could be considered speculation about the nature of God. Some of it based on the Bible or the Fathers, but much seems to have come from his own inner spiritual experience as well as the experience of his life. Earlier in his life, it is in fact in his most private prayer that we can see God’s own activity as a mother pictured in strong imagery. But this last aspect also seems to have come out more in his public preaching during his later time in Venice.

The next installment will consider how his talks as Pope reflect these ideas, why he spent so much time dwelling on maternal imagery during his short papacy and why the public reaction to this was so strong.


(1) Nina Luciani Petri, Mio fratello Albino: ricordi e memorie della sorella di Papa Luciani. With Stefania Falasca. (Italy: Trenta Giorni Soc. Coop, 2003), p. 19.

(2) These words are from the dedication to his book Catechetica in Briciole (1949).

(3) “Alle radici della maternità di Dio,” Il Gazzettino di Venezia, August 26, 1979, p. 13.

(4) Don Francesco Taffarel, “Nel ricordo di Mons. Luciani,” Bollettino ecclesiastico della diocesi di Vittorio Veneto 68 (October 1980): 563.

(5) “Il Servo di Dio Leone Dehon,” Opera 8:479. The quote is from Bazin’s novel Magnificat.

(6) Bassotto, Il mio cuore e ancora a Venezia, pp. 195-96. The date of the passage isn’t certain. Bassotto claimed that it was written at the same time as some notes for a spiritual conference Luciani gave at the Carthusian monastery of Vedana; he believed this was in the spring of 1947, but Luciani could not have given such a conference when he was ill in the sanatorium. Nevertheless, the whole tone of the passage does suggest that it was written at a time of serious crisis, most likely this illness.

(7) The “old version” of the Psalter Luciani was referring to was taken from St. Jerome’s Vulgate, whereas the “new version” or Versio Piana, was re-translated under Pius XII, and used in the Breviary from 1945 to 1971.

(8) According to Lewis and Short’s Latin dictionary, ablactatus was a word coined by St. Jerome specifically for the Vulgate; evidently he did so to best express in his opinion, the original meaning of the Hebrew; the word is also found in Gen 21:8. Some modern translations, including the NAB, use “weaned child.”

(9) “Salmo 130: L’Umiltà sacerdotale,” Opera 1:265-68. Luciani’s Letter to King David, Feb. 1972, was based closely on this earlier work, but didn’t contain any mention of these words of the psalm.

(10) Pope John XXIII, Giornale dell’anima, Italian ed.

(11) From Opera 6:199-202.

(12) Opera 7:26-29.

(13) Gregory the Great, Dialogues 4:3; the translation from the Latin is my own.

(14) The interpretation of this passage is discussed in Adalbert de Vogüé, “Un avatar du mythe de la caverne dans les dialogues de Gregoire le Grand,” Homenaje a Fray Justo Pérez de Urbel (Silos, Spain, 1977).

(15) C. S. Lewis very famously made use of this same little allegory of Pope Gregory in his brilliant essay “Transposition,” in The Weight of Glory and other Addresses. He didn’t identify the source, however, and may even have been using a medieval author who used Gregory.

(16) The passage is taken from Don Francesco Taffarel, Papa Luciani: Un pensiero al giorno (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero, Dario de Bastiani Editore, 1988), p. 64. Unfortunately, the text isn’t in the Opera and Don Francesco gives only an excerpt.


God as Father and Mother — Part III — 4 Comments

  1. Thanks, Lori. I think, as maybe you do also, that Luciani’s use of the image of God as mother arises from the personal, contemplative aspects of his spirituality rather from an effort to redefine God’s attributes in some manner at odds with the history of Catholic thought.

    Too many wish to think of him as having been a potential “revolutionary” is some way, whether in this matter or in other matters of faith and morals. I think he was revolutionary in the manner he touch souls, and would have continued to do so in personal ways had he been given a longer papacy.

  2. Thanks, Deacon Bob!

    I do think (and this is a bit of a preview of the next installment) that one reason that his September 10 Angelus as Pope where he quoted that passage from Isaiah caused such a stir while other things he said in the same vein as Pope did not, is that it did appear to reverse what Christian tradition holds. I mean that in that talk he seemed to give more prominence to one particular OT view of God as Mother over what Jesus has revealed to us about God as Father in the NT. I certainly don’t think this was an attempt to be revolutionary or reverse Christian teaching; rather it has to be understood in the context of his whole thought.

    Sorry for all the typos — which I hope to fix shortly — and the lack of complete citations in some cases. I will fix these if I ever come to revise and publish this work; that is, if my readers think it worthwhile!

  3. Pingback: Ask Pope Francis to Promote John Paul I’s Teaching on Mercy | On Pilgrimage

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