At the entrance to the Renaissance Basilica of Saint Augustine in Rome, a Schatzkammer packed with Caravaggios that stands on a side-street next to a cheap pizzeria, you can find a little chapel with a big statue. It’s the “Madonna del parto” — Our Lady of Childbirth. Strange name.
The locals call her “la Veneratissima.” She is rumored to be miraculous. The statue, presenting the tawny girl from Galilee as a languid Roman matron with milky-white hands, is the serene heart of a niche consecrated to the sacred mystery of motherhood. And what a powerful mystery it is.
For centuries, Roman women high and low have made their way to this chapel. They fall on their knees, sometimes on their faces, and pray to the Madonna to conceive a child. Later, they pray for a healthy gestation and safe delivery. Then they come back to her, babies in arms, to show their squirming children to Our Lady. Sometimes they lay a photo of the baby at her feet.
In this grand Basilica there is no other place where the prayers are so intense. The safety and intimacy of this shrine is as sacred as one’s own home. As sacred as the womb.
It is no accident that this is the same church in which the body of Saint Monica lies. Ask any Catholic schoolgirl — one from a good school — “Who was Saint Monica?” and she’ll tell you immediately: “The mother of Saint Augustine.” Exactly. Monica is defined by her motherhood. And today is her feast.
Saint Monica has a niche in the basilica, too, just to the left of the high altar. There we see what happens when the babies grow up. Aging mothers come here to pray for adult children who have strayed. Repentent children pray for their aging mothers. Because Monica’s boy Augustine, as everyone knows, was a problem child — a know-it-all, a pear-thief, a heretic and a horny toad. And Saint Monica prayed for him. She prayed until his heart melted.
The mother defends her young: it’s primal. Monica spent her life fighting for her son, and she did so through intercessory prayer — one of the basic forms of prayer shown to us by Christ and imitated by His Mother. She had chosen a powerful weapon.
(The fundamental forms of prayer are adoration, praise, petition, intercession, and thanksgiving — see Catechism of the Catholic Church numbers 2626-2643.)
In prayer, a mother’s bond with her child is transfigured. What was merely natural is suffused with the divine. The tie of blood is made holy by the waters of baptism, and it becomes eternal.
Today, Monica and her son are both in heaven. Her body lies in his basilica. Her name is tied to his. The Church thinks of them as a team. For years, I have carried on my rosary a little steel medal, the mass-produced kind you buy out of a bin in an uncool Catholic bookstore. On the front is Saint Augustine, the great theologian and Father of the Church, resplendent in a miter and holding a bishop’s crook. This is the man whose writings are read in every university of the world; the author of the world’s first autobiography. A great. Flip the medal: there, her head bowed in prayer, hands folded over her breast, is Monica. The Italians know what the medal means: without his mamma behind him, the bishop would have stayed a cad.
Let’s remember Saint Monica today, on her feast, and think of her again tomorrow when we celebrate her son, whose holiness is her victory. Let’s learn from her example of spiritual grit. Let’s think of her as we endure in prayer. And let’s open our frayed family ties to the healing power of God, because God’s power will show itself even in the hidden crannies of our homes. His grace, called down by prayer, will seep into the stubbornest stains on our souls.
Thanks to my friend Fr. A.G. for inspiring this article.