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: Repenting and renewing our role as shepherds

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Jesus tells the disciples in St. John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” contrasting his goodness with the thieves who come only to steal and destroy.  This past week my fellow U.S. bishops and I sought to act as good shepherds by approving three measures to increase our vigilance and prevention of the evil of sexual abuse by bishops, shepherds who have betrayed the flock entrusted to them.

This last weekend we celebrated Father’s Day, which should remind biological and spiritual fathers of their great responsibility of protecting and raising up new life. This mission is further emphasized by the Rite for the Ordination of a Bishop, which says, “In the Church entrusted to you, be a faithful steward, moderator and guardian of the mysteries of Christ. Since you are chosen by the Father to rule over his family, be mindful always of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and is known by them, and who did not hesitate to lay down his life for them.” This is the model for all bishops.

But the scandals of Theodore McCarrick, Bishop Bransfield and others have made it clear that our vigilance has not been adequate. To quote from the just-issued “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitment” statement, “We, the bishops of the United States, have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside of the Church over these failures.  The anger is justified; it has humbled us, prompting us into self-examination, repentance, and a desire to do better.” This sentiment was clear in my interactions with my fellow bishops in Baltimore this past week.

As evidence of our commitment, we overwhelmingly passed a set of directives for the bishops’ conference to implement Pope Francis’ Vos estis lux mundi document on handling abuse by priests and bishops. These directives include the creation by May 31, 2020 of a third-party phone and online system that receives reports of potential violations by bishops, the establishment of a protocol in which the Holy See designates and authorizes metropolitan archbishops to investigate cases of alleged abuse by bishops, and the expectation that the investigating bishop involve lay experts in assisting with these inquiries. For any investigations that falls under my jurisdiction, I will ensure that lay experts are involved, as I’ve done throughout my time as a bishop. As the new directives indicate, I will also appoint a lay person to receive complaints from the third-party reporting system, publicize how to make reports, ascertain the credibility of reports and gather any additional information necessary for an investigation to commence.

I also want to highlight that the bishops overwhelmingly approved protocols for imposing limitations on former bishops who were removed from office for grave reasons and that we adopted a code of conduct for bishops, which explicitly states that the Dallas Charter will now include bishops.

All these measures are in addition to those we have been enforcing since 2002 in relation to preventing sexual abuse of minors by priests. The Archdiocese of Denver has a strong track record of actively working to protect children, including annual audits, background checks of employees and clergy, and a code of conduct that previous bishops and I have all signed, and a robust training program aimed at fostering safe environments for children. The effectiveness of these measures over the past 20 years has made us a model for other institutions seeking to combat abuse.

Pope Francis rightly noted in a January 2019 personal letter to the U.S. bishops that the consequences of our failures cannot be fixed by being administrators of new programs or committees.  They can only be resolved by humility, listening, self-examination and conversion.

My brother bishops and I hope that by obeying the Word of God, seeking the will of the Father and embracing what the Church expects of us, we will imitate Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Read more

Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi can be read at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190507_vos-estis-lux-mundi.html

The USCCB Directives implementing Vos estis can be read at: http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/2019-june-meeting/upload/usccb-modified-amended-directives-2019-06.pdf

Reach out

Christi Sullivan serves as the Protection Specialist for the Office of Child and Youth Protection and can be reached at 303-715-3241 or Christi.Sullivan@archden.org.

Victims of abuse can reach out to Dr. Jim Langley, the Victim Assistance Coordinator, at 720-239-2832 or Victim.Assistance@ArchDen.org.