Today, the Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception. In case you’re one of those Catholics (like me) who used to think that this feast was about the conception of Jesus, recall that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. This is a particularly interesting dogma as it was not formally defined until 1854, in the encyclical of Pope Pius IX entitled Ineffabilis Deus. In that letter, the Pope affirmed the doctrine as follows:
“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
This is something that is truly and utterly amazing; God himself chose, because of the merits of Jesus Christ, to preserve his mother from any and all stain of original sin. He was to provide himself a sinless mother to not only bear him physically, but later, to raise him. Catholics are sometimes accused, precisely because of doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, of putting too much attention on Mary. I can understand how one might look at some devotional piety and, from an outsider’s perspective, get a little confused or concerned. But, rightfully understood, the reason that we pay so much attention to Mary, and devote ourselves to trying to imitate her and let her lead us to Christ, is because it was Christ himself who showed us this path.
You can see this idea at work also in the way the Catechism treats the life of Mary within the section on Jesus. Paragraphs #422-682, a large chunk of the Catechism, are dedicated to the statements about Jesus in the Creed. But within that section, from paragraph #484-511, is where the discussion of Mary is located. It might seem odd to be reading about Jesus’ life and example, then suddenly stumble upon a section devoted to Mary. But the Virgin Mary had such an important role in Jesus’ life, not the least of which was her being a sinless womb for him to grow in. But perhaps more significant than her role in the birth of Jesus as a young woman, was the way she helped to form him as he grew up.
In the Jewish tradition, it is the task of the mother to lead their children in learning the traditional prayers, and this is a task that would have fallen on Mary. Certainly Mary would have been an example and a teacher for him in the life of prayer, and this prepared him for his public ministry. But Mary also becomes a model disciple, in fact, perhaps the best disciple. She is the one who dismisses Jesus’ concern about his “hour” not yet having arrived, and this leads to his first miracle at the wedding in Cana. She is also there at the Cross, when nearly everyone had abandoned Him. And she is there in the upper room, praying with the disciples as they await the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Mary’s role in Jesus’ life, then, is critical at many points. The dogma we celebrate today, affirmed not only by Pope Pius IX, but also by the miraculous apparitions at Lourdes and voiced by Mary herself, points only to one piece of the puzzle. But it is such a beautiful piece. My favorite author, Venerable Fulton Sheen, puts it this way:
When Whistler painted the picture of his mother, did he not have the image of her in his mind before he ever gathered his colors on his palette? If you could have preexisted your mother (not artistically, but really), would you not have made her the most perfect woman that ever lived— one so beautiful she would have been the sweet envy of all women, and one so gentle and so merciful that all other mothers would have sought to imitate her virtues? Why, then, should we think that God would do otherwise? When Whistler was complimented on the portrait of his mother, he said, “You know how it is; one tries to make one’s Mummy just as nice as he can.” When God became Man, He too, I believe, would make His Mother as nice as He could—and that would make her a perfect Mother. (The World’s First Love)
Can’t say it any better than that! So make sure to get to Mass on this Holy Day of obligation, and pray the Rosary if you have time.
God Love You!