On December 8, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Catholic belief that Mary was free from original sin from the moment of her existence was promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
While Marian devotion remains strong in the church, the Immaculate Conception is a complex concept that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful. Many people still wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. In fact, it refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favor, was without sin from the moment she was conceived. The main stumbling block for many Catholics is original sin. Today we are simply less and less aware of original sin. And without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense.
The late American Bishop Fulton Sheen put it another way in 1974, speaking about the loss of the sense of sin. Sheen said: "It used to be that the Catholics were the only ones to believe in the Immaculate Conception. Now everyone believes he is the immaculately conceived."
Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma in 1854, but the idea that Mary was born without the stain of sin did not appear out of the blue. It took shape after a long and complicated theological debate that, in some respects, still continues. Already in the earliest Christian times Mary was held to be an ideal model of holiness, and by the eighth century Eastern Christians were celebrating a feast in honor of Mary's conception.
For centuries, theologians hesitated to say that Mary was completely free from original sin because they thought it would contradict a major tenet of the faith, the universality of redemption. In the 13th century, the Franciscan Duns Scotus found a new way to look at it, saying that Mary's special role did not free her from the need of redemption -- it simply required a different form of Christ's mediating grace.
When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma, he referred explicitly to the biblical story of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel's salutation, "Hail, full of grace," is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin. No other human being collaborated in the work of redemption as Mary did. The early church wanted to explain in a plausible manner how God’s Son could be “completely human, yet without sin.” Their answer was that the mother of God must have been without sin.
Within the Roman Catholic tradition we have given this preeminent disciple many names and titles out of love and honour. We celebrate three great moments of her life knowing that they represent all of our lives. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, God was present and moving in Mary's life from the earliest moments. God's grace is greater than sin; it overpowers sin and death. Through her Immaculate Conception, Mary was called for a special mission.
The second moment of Mary's life is the Incarnation. Through the virginal birth of Jesus we are reminded that God moves powerfully in our lives too. Our response to that movement must be one of recognition, humility, openness, welcome, as well as a respect and dignity for all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Through the Incarnation, Mary was gifted with the Word made Flesh.
The Church celebrates Mary's final journey into the fullness of God's kingdom with the dogma of the Assumption promulgated by Pius XII in 1954. As with her beginnings, so too, with the end of her life, God fulfilled in her all of the promises that he has given to us. We, too, shall be raised up into heaven as she was. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God's. Through her Assumption, Mary was chosen to have a special place of honour in the Godhead.
What happens to Mary happens to Christians. We are called, gifted and chosen to be with Jesus. When we honour the Mother of God under the title “Immaculate Conception”, we recognize in her a model of purity, innocence, trust, childlike curiosity, reverence, and respect, living peacefully alongside a mature awareness that life isn’t simple. It’s rare to find both reverence and sophistication, idealism and realism, purity, innocence and passion, inside the same person as we find in Mary. Something inside us yearns always for innocence, purity, freshness and trust. If we lose these we find ourselves cynical and disillusioned with an unhappiness that comes precisely from having been around, from having had our eyes opened, from having knowledge without innocence. We need to hold that innocence and experience in a proper tension. Mary, Mother of the Lord teaches us how to do just that.
Today we pray in a special way for the Church in the United States of America that is under the patronage and protection of the Immaculate Conception.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation