By Father Richard S. Jones
Chaplain, UPMC Mercy Hospital
Through years of priestly ministry, I have developed an email list on which I send weekly reflections, stories, quotes, prayers, pictures, and songs to family, friends, and faith companions. I view it as a ‘loop of grace’ to continue sharing the faith journey with those God has sent into my life.
It is a small reflection of how we are always connected with each other in the communion of the saints. And first among the saints to whom we need to stay in close relationship is the Blessed Mother. This month we have a special opportunity to honor her and grow closer to her on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.
This momentous day honors Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother, Anne, without stain of original sin. Our legacy from the first rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden, original sin caused Adam and Eve to “become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image” (CCC 399). All of us – except Mary – have inherited this distorted vision of God. Mary, however, is the living conception of God’s own perfection.
The teaching that Our Blessed Lady was free from original is implied, though not explicit, in Scripture through the angel’s greeting, ‘Hail, full of grace!’ Over many centuries, Mary was venerated as God’s purest creation and as the ‘new Eve’ and ‘Mother of all the living.’ Mary was chosen; Mary was loved; Mary was full of grace. Many Catholics had a deep devotion to Mary as the Immaculate Conception.
In 1846, the bishops of the United States unanimously chose the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Immaculate Conception as patroness of our country. Michael O’Connor, the first bishop of Pittsburgh, was among them. On December 8, 1854, in Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Blessed Pius IX proclaimed solemnly the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and formalized the Church’s longstanding belief that Mary was redeemed from the first moment of her conception.
It states: ‘We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the 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 in firmly and constantly by all faithful.’
In every year and season of our lives, as a people of faith who have received a call through baptism, we are charged and challenged to live in holiness. Mary is our best companion in this, because she did so perfectly. Advent is the perfect time for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, because it focuses on Mary’s journey and calls us to be like her.
Mary looks at us with a mother’s gaze of immaculate and unconditional love. Mary is the New Eve, “a sign of sure hope” (Lumen Gentium, 68), who reverses the course of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Through Mary’s obedience, the beauty of the Immaculate Conception moves us to beg God for his forgiveness, his friendship, and his grace.
As a seminarian at the Theological College of the Catholic University of America, I served as a pilgrim guide for visitors to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, located just across Michigan Avenue from my residence. Although I was the only Pittsburgh seminarian studying in Washington at that time, I never felt alone near Mary’s House.
We still look to Mary, whose immaculate conception paved the way for the birth of her Son Jesus as our Savior and Lord, to show us how to live as people of faith in our everyday lives. Like Mary, each of us is called to be an instrument of God’s love, a vessel of God’s grace, a channel of God’s communication, a messenger of God’s hope and healing, and a blessed adopted child of God.
As we celebrate this feast of the Immaculate Conception, may our hearts be opened a bit wider for the coming of her divine Son. May we carry out God’s will obediently, humbly, and joyously as Mary did. What greater gift could we offer the world…the nation… the church…the family?
Each December 8, Mother Church holds before us her very best. Mary stands ready to accompany us on our pilgrimage of faith.