Throughout the liturgical year there are a number of feasts that focus our attention on the Blessed Mother. One such feast is eminently important for American Catholics even though it celebrates an event that occurred thousands of miles away and hundreds of years before any European set foot on these shores. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, one of several holy days of obligation in our liturgical calendar, not only commemorates the sinless conception of Mary in the womb of her mother St. Anne, but also celebrates her as the Patroness of the United States.
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is possibly the most misunderstood feast in the Church calendar. Since there is no biblical reference to the Immaculate Conception, each December 8th we listen to the Gospel story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her acceptance of God’s invitation to be the mother of the Savior. This same story is read – fittingly – on March 25th, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord.
Only recourse to the nine-month human gestation period can clear things up in the minds of Catholics who mistakenly believe that the Immaculate Conception is about the conception of Jesus: if Jesus had been conceived on the 8th of December then it would be impossible for Him to be born on the 25th, and thus we celebrate His conception on the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th – nine months before Christmas.
Those outside the Catholic Faith might find it odd to celebrate a feast that has no biblical evidence, but Catholic Tradition has always held that Mary, to use the words of the early Church Fathers, was “in all things unstained.” By the time that Bl. Pope Pius IX infallibly declared on December 8, 1854, that Mary was conceived without sin the entire Catholic world, including the United States, had been supporting this ex cathedra teaching for generations.
In 1792 Bishop John Carroll placed the newly established United States under the protection of the Blessed Mother in her title as the Immaculate Conception, and in 1846 the American bishops reinforced Bishop Carroll’s declaration when they unanimously voted to proclaim the Virgin Mary, conceived without sin, as the Patroness of the United States.
In 1920 ground was broken in Washington, D.C, on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – the largest Catholic church in the Western Hemisphere. The basilica belongs to no diocese and is thus the home church of all American Catholics. It fittingly resides on the campus of The Catholic University of America, the only pontifical university in our land, a school that also belongs to all American Catholics.
The basilica is a testament in stone both to the many immigrant communities who make up the Church in America as well as to the devotion to the Blessed Mother that each group brought with them to the United States. Seventy chapels reside in the magnificent Neo-Byzantine structure, each one representing individual ethnic groups who put the ‘catholic’ in the Catholic Church in America.
All who are among the one million yearly visitors to the basilica can find a chapel where they can pray in front of an image of the Blessed Mother that would be familiar to previous generations in her or his family. In this home to all American Catholics they can feel the presence of both the Mother of God and the mother of their mother’s mother’s mother.
Even without making the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., we can take time this Advent to reconnect with our heritage and the religious traditions of our forbearers. Beginning with our celebration of Mass on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception we can place ourselves and our families under the mantle of Mary’s protection, and we can pray for her assistance and guidance as we prepare once again for the salvific arrival of Her Son and our Lord.