Reflecting upon the Immaculate Conception

Archbishop Aquila

Every Dec. 8, the Church observes the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and without fail, people think that this refers to Jesus’ conception, when it is actually the celebration of Mary being conceived without sin. I want to reflect with you on this mystery, so that we can appreciate its significance in salvation history.

The Catechism explains that through “the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception.” And in 1854 Pope Pius IX declared that this teaching is an infallible dogma of the Church.

Just as God’s grace reaches us 2,000 years after his death and resurrection through the sacraments, so too, did God the Father give the graces of his son’s sacrifice to Mary, so that she was conceived in her mother’s womb without inheriting Adam and Eve’s original sin.

This is what we celebrate every Dec. 8. God chose a woman, through the gift of motherhood, to actively participate in the redemption of the world! In the Office of Readings for this feast, St. Anselm eloquently observes, “Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night — everything that is subject to the power or use of man — rejoices that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace.”

It is truly wonderful and mysterious that God the Father began the redemption of the world by choosing Mary to play a vital role in his plan. This is why the Church Fathers speak of Mary as the “New Eve,” since by her obedience and trust, Mary began the process of undoing the harm inflicted by Eve’s disobedience and distrust.

The first bishops of the United States appreciated Mary’s unique role in our salvation and her heavenly protection, so in 1846 — some eight years before Pope Pius IX’s declaration of her sinless conception — they requested that she be named the patroness of our country, under the title Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Similarly, the Archdiocese of Denver has Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as its principal patroness and has named its cathedral basilica after her.

Mary might seem far from our everyday reality, but she is truly very close to us. She knows what it’s like to grow up in an uncertain time, to accept great responsibility at a young age, to raise a child in a place like Egypt and then return to Nazareth. She knew poverty and danger. She also knew great loss through the death of St. Joseph and then the death of her son, Jesus.

The key to Mary’s perseverance through the uncertain and unclear moments in her life can be found in her trust in the Father. Rather than doubting him when things seemed hard to believe, Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). When, for example, the shepherds appeared shortly after Jesus was born and related the angels’ message that they would find the Messiah wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, Mary pondered this miracle in her heart.

St. Anslem offers some insight into this mystery in a sermon he gave for this solemnity. He preached: “God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life.”

On this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation, may our hearts grow like Mary’s in trust of God the Father, and may we offer thanks to the Father for the gift of Mary our mother, and through her tender maternal intercession may we grow in greater trust to give witness to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior!

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash