January 8, 2022

I recall a day not too long ago when our first child was around 6 months old. My husband and I had just stepped into church with our daughter for daily Mass. In an unusual turn of events, we had actually managed to get ourselves and the baby to the church 15 minutes before Mass began, and as I sat down in the pew with the baby quietly resting in my lap, I relished this rare opportunity for a new mother to have quiet and uninterrupted prayer.

Suddenly, a familiar sound emanating from our daughter not only interrupted the silence, but also indicated that my prayer time was over and a trip to the changing station was immediately in order. When, I wondered, do mothers ever have the opportunity to pray?

In The Heart of Motherhood: Finding Holiness in the Catholic Home, Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle describes the common dilemma of mothers seeking to balance the demands of home life and responsibilities of mothering with opportunities to pray and grow in holiness. “Duty calls constantly. Moms are on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” she explains. “So we learn to make our life a prayer.”

Drawing largely from her relationship with BI. Teresa of Calcutta and quotes from various saints, Church leaders and documents, and Sacred Scripture, Cooper O’Boyle emphasizes the mother’s God given role at the heart of the home and of the family. She balances these sound theological and catechetical reflections on the dignity of Christian motherhood and family life with a good dose of practical advice for daily living and personal reflections from her own experience as a wife and mother of five children. A particular focus of this book is the importance of a woman’s work in the home and ministry of presence to her family, especially to young children in their most formative years.

Cooper O’Boyle encourages mothers in their daily tasks, and especially commends those duties that get little recognition or praise as possible places of grace and encounter with God. She extols the virtues of those self-sacrificing and saintly mothers who are often quietly and humbly hidden in their families, but whose impact is nonetheless of great import not only to their own families, but to society at large. To mothers in particular, Cooper O’Boyle recommends the little way of the great St. Therese of Lisieux, who encourage us all to “remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God,” and to “do all that you do with love.”

Seeming to recognize that her appreciation and endorsement of the traditional role of mothers in the heart of the home and family may be met with resistance from those of us formed by the influences of modern society, Cooper O’Boyle wisely shares the mind of the Church on these matters. She heavily quotes Pope John Paul II, who said that it is “necessary to counter the misconception that the role of motherhood is oppressive to women and that a commitment to her family, particularly children, prevents a woman from reaching personal fulfillment and from having an influence in society.” She also quotes him (twice, for some reason) as saying that “the mentality which honors women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome.”

In addition to good advice pertinent to all Christian mothers, Cooper O’Boyle adds many distinctively Catholic features to her hook. Such reflections include those on Mary as our sublime model of motherhood, tips on praying the Rosary throughout a busy day, praying to receive a spiritual communion with Jesus when we cannot receive Communion at daily Mass, blessing ourselves with the Sign of the Cross throughout the day, and imparting parental blessings upon our children. She also gives examples of holy mothers-including Sts. Monica, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Rita of Cascia-as inspiration to all of us mothers striving to travel the path of sanctity.

While I enjoyed this hook overall, I did find Cooper O’Boyle’s writing and organization of thoughts to be a hit choppy and confusing at times. For example, in a chapter titled “Mary, Our Sublime Model,” Cooper O’Boyle does not actually make any mention of Mary until the fourth page of the chapter, and the opening pages consist of a series of true but disjointed thoughts on various attacks on the family and motherhood that confront us in modern society. In addition, there are other areas of the book where I felt the author presented some good and praiseworthy thought, but it was either in a slightly confusing location or was never followed through to its full conclusion.

The Heart of Motherhood encourages and inspires mothers to strive for holiness within their families through sound theological and practical principles, while still being easy to read and to understand. And while light enough for any Catholic mother to read and enjoy, it is not just some “Chicken Soup for the Catholic Mother’s Soul.” The author bravely delves into more weighty topics, such as learning not to run from our sufferings, but to offer them to Jesus as we learn to embrace the Cross. Finally and most importantly, Cooper O’Boyle urges mothers to learn to live and rest in God’s presence always, for often, as Pope Benedict XVI describes, “the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God.”

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