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 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr