Saint Ignatius High School

The Immaculate Conception

Mary's Immaculate Conception - a reminder that Jesus is God and also fully human - shows us that our mother's are our first and best teachers. Mary, the mother of our Lord, is filled with grace and mercy as she loves Jesus wholeheartedly before He was born. She is our motherly role model and teacher to us all.

The Immaculate Conception

In 1846, the bishops of the United States unanimously petitioned Pope Pius IX to place the nation "under the special patronage of the holy Mother of God, whose immaculate conception is venerated by the piety of the faithful throughout the Catholic church." (Pastoral Letter of the Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore). The Church in America was relatively small and still seen as mission territory (as it would remain until 1908). But with the recent influx of Catholic Bavarian and Irish immigrants, it was clear that it was here to stay and in need of a patron. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception would be she, and her feast day--December 8--would become a holy day of obligation for Catholic Americans. 

Eight years later, Pope Pius IX, in his bull, Ineffabilis Deus (1854), would declare that 

…the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful. 

This proclamation, made after consultation with the world's bishops, elevated this teaching about Mary to that of a dogma: an infallible, essential truth of the Faith which is necessary to believe.

But for all of the importance associated with Mary under this title, it remains perhaps the most misunderstood article of Faith--ironically among actual Church-going people. In part, because the Gospel reading of the day is the account of the angel Gabriel's greeting Mary with the salutation "Hail, full of grace" (Lk.1:28), most Catholics confuse Mary's conception in her mother's womb with that of her Son at the Annunciation. 

In calling Mary "full of grace," (in Greek, kecharitomene), Gabriel acknowledged that the Nazarene girl had--unlike the rest of us--never been touched by sin. Catholic theology would, over time, begin to unveil the rich meaning behind this greeting.  Kecharitomene is what is known as a harpax legomenon, literally a word "expressed once": nowhere else in Scripture do we see this construction. As one scholar, Andrew Greenwell, points out, "it is a one-of-a-kind word for a one-of-a-kind person in a one-of-a-kind situation."

So if Mary's a "one-of-a-kind person in a one-of-a-kind situation," why must Catholics believe and focus so much on this teaching?

It's a fair question. The delightfully-named Mariologist, Fr. Frederick Jelly, O.P., notes that the doctrines and titles of Mary are important, even essential, to Christian Faith because of what he calls their "Christological" (what they say about Jesus) and "Ecclesiotypical" (what they say about the Church/Christian living) aspects.

On the "Christological" level, Mary's Immaculate Conception reminds us that Jesus is God--He deserves the best, purest "vessel" through which to come into the world. It also reminds us that He is human and needed to be raised by human parents who would teach and model for Him how a believer interacts with God and others.  

And our mothers are our first--and best--teachers.

In her conception, Mary shows us the saving power of Jesus's grace transcends time: God, existing in eternity--above time--was able to apply the merits of the Paschal Mystery to His mother. He thus helped prevent her from sinning, making Him the most perfect of saviors.

Looking at Mary is like peering into a mirror where we see ourselves as we were meant to be. All are important and known by God--even before conception: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you," God told Jeremiah and, by extension, the rest of us "before you were born, I dedicated you…I appointed you." (Jer. 1:5).

God has a plan for all of us--and gives us the gifts and grace we need to fulfill that plan (if we only accept that grace and, like Mary, give Him our fiat–"May it be done to me according to your will" (Lk 1:38)). Mary was singularly graced--because her role was one that only she could fulfill. But while Mary's role in salvation history was unique (no one else would give birth to the Son of God, after all), the same can be said for each of us. From all eternity, God knew the world would be the way that it is now, on a local as well as global level. And from all eternity, He knew He would put us into this world to help build His Kingdom. Each one of us is unique, each one of us has our special blend of talents, interests, personality characteristics, and experiences. And we are each called to give of ourselves in a way no other person in the history of the world can. There will be one or more people whose lives can be changed for the better because of our singular presence at a crucial moment in their lives.

It's a rather daunting thought.

But what God reveals in the Immaculate Conception is that He has been preparing us for that moment all along.

As they revealed their request for the Immaculate Conception's patronage, the American bishops noted that "...by the aid of her prayers, we entertain confident hope…that you will be enabled to practice the sublime virtues, of which her life presents a most perfect example." 

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

 

Amen.

 

A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.