A pilgrim from India holds her baby in front of a painting of the Mary and the Christ Child Dec. 17 in the grotto of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)
A pilgrim from India holds her baby in front of a painting of the Mary and the Christ Child Dec. 17 in the grotto of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Pope Francis has spent his papacy reflecting on the role of mothers in society and trying to bring that maternal warmth to the Catholic Church.

Though Mother's Day is a time when people all over the world honor motherhood, the pope takes the opportunity throughout the liturgical year to express his admiration of mothers, who he says are not always held in the right regard and "barely heard" in the church.

He frequently says he wants the church to be a loving mother, using the example of Mary, whose humility and tenderness aren't virtues of the weak, but of the strong, and that we don't have to mistreat others to feel important and make a difference.

In a letter to the world's bishops marking the feast of the Holy Innocents Dec. 28, 2016, Pope Francis said they must listen for the sobbing of today's mothers because there are so many new Herods today, killing the young with their tyranny and "unbridled thirst for power."

Listen to where the cries are coming from, he said; they are not to be ignored or silenced. It's going to take courage to first acknowledge this difficult reality and work to ensure "the bare minimum needed so that their dignity as God's children will not only be respected but, above all, defended."

This year in the United States and in dozens of other countries, Mother's Day is observed May 14.

For Kathleen Wilson of Fredericksburg, Virginia, her role as mother reaches beyond her responsibilities to her 12 biological and adopted children.

The pro-life activist is a founder of Mary's Shelter, a program that provides expectant mothers in crisis with housing, counseling and parenting classes to help them as they carry their babies to term and sometimes for years after they give birth.

Wilson sees this mission as an extension of her faith and motherhood.

Mary's Shelter was established following an encounter she had with a woman outside of an abortion clinic who was intending to end her pregnancy, Wilson told Catholic News Service in a March interview at her home.

While she was praying outside of the Washington abortion clinic, Wilson noticed the woman driving around the block several times and then sitting in her car.

"We (members of the prayer group) could tell she was hesitant to go into the clinic while we were praying outside," she said. "I walked up to her car, she rolled down the window and I asked her if I could help.

"This woman just looked at me and asked, 'What can you help me with?' The truth is, I had nothing. No answers for her."

It was wake-up call for Wilson that if she was really going to make a difference in the pro-life movement, she was going to have to be able to help women who see no other choice than to end their pregnancy with abortion.

Activists who support legal abortion frequently criticize pro-life crusaders as zealots who want to impose their sense of morality on pregnant women who face a crisis without offering tangible resolutions for their situation.

Wilson decided if she was going to tout pro-life morals, she was going to have to offer pro-life solutions.

"I do see this as part of my role as mother," she said. "It's not just about saving the babies, but it's also about saving their mothers and hopefully allowing them to know the joys of motherhood."

While acknowledging that motherhood comes with tremendous sacrifice, responsibility, hard work and heartache, Wilson said all of that, for her, is overshadowed by the jubilation parenthood provides.

Pope Francis points to a few of his favorite biblical heroines as examples of a mother, praising the seemingly contradictory qualities of each: Like Mary, she is silently compliant to God's will; like Rachel, she weeps inconsolably, drawing God's and the world's attention to a reality people would rather ignore; and like the persistent widow, she doesn't let being a nobody stop her from speaking up against injustice, making a fuss and pestering the one who does have power to make things right.

Those are the qualities embodied by the mother of Maureen Antwan, an Iraqi Chaldean who has resettled in the Phoenix area.

Antwan, a parent of two sons, said her mother, Suaad Nissan, was willing to sacrifice her life for that of her family.

She put her family foremost and thought of her children first, "even if she loses everything," Antwan said of her mother.

Antwan very much mirrors her mother. The children come first and both women would gladly give up their own comforts so that their children have the best life possible.

Baltimore resident Crystal Morris is another example of a mother who has made it her mission to raise awareness about social injustice.

Morris proudly works in the rectory of her Catholic parish church -- St. Peter Claver -- a church that draws attention in the public square to the issues of racial discrimination, extreme poverty and substance abuse.

While the church has frequently offered a refuge to her children, Morris said the parish's involvement in social issues has served as a good example to them.

St. Peter Claver is in the neighborhood that erupted in racial unrest in 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died while in police custody.

Religious leaders at the church have been working with the people of Baltimore to help ease racial tensions, improve relations with the police and develop better economic opportunities in that part of the city.

Morris credits the church and the older women involved in the parish with helping her raise her children in that impoverished environment, which has been plagued with crime and gang violence.

A world without mothers would be "inhumane," Pope Francis said, "because mothers always know how to give witness -- even in the worst of times -- to tenderness, dedication and moral strength."

It is often the mother who passes on "the deepest sense of religious practice" as she plants and cultivates the seed of faith in a child by sharing prayers and devotional practices, he said.

"Without mothers, not only would there be no new people of faith, but the faith would lose a good portion of its simple and profound warmth."

Amy Laddbush of Bowie, Maryland, believes it's her duty as a Catholic mother to nurture the faith of her 11 children.

Since Laddbush is relying on the church to be her family's spiritual and moral backbone, she said it's incumbent upon her to provide them with the lessons of the religion.

"It's really the greatest gift I can give my children," she told CNS during an interview at her home. "It's my job as their mother to raise them to be good and kind people. Bringing them up in the church is the best way I know how to do that."