Elizabeth Julian rsm
And there we have it! This is exactly what the Immaculate Conception celebrates. Mary was always full to the brim with grace. Grace is so much more original, so much more powerful than sin. Yet our Catholic mentality at times seems fixated on sin. As it stands, the very term ‘Immaculate Conception’ is a negative expression. A far more positive rendition is ‘the gracing of Mary’. Mary was so graced by God from the very moment of her conception that there was no room for sin at all. Even though she had to die, being human like us, she was always a friend of God. Since original sin was believed to be inherited from one’s parents Mary had to be sinless because had she been tainted by it she would have passed it on to Jesus. This would have been unacceptable because sin is incompatible with God.
Ask any Catholic what they think the feast of the Immaculate Conception is about and you’ll discover a lot of confusion. Many of us mistake Mary’s virginal conception, that is, Mary’s conception of Jesus without male intervention, for the belief about her original sinlessness which the Immaculate Conception celebrates.
But does it really matter what we believe about Mary? Yes, because first of all, the Immaculate Conception is a dogma of our faith – one of the doctrines (teachings) of Catholicism that we must believe if we want to call ourselves Catholic. Second, it’s the patronal feast of our archdiocese. So the question becomes then: should the feast of the Immaculate Conception make any difference to our lives here and now in Wellington or do we write it off as something ‘so yesterday’?
The process of definition
Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as a dogma on 8 December 1954, but the feast itself began to be celebrated in the liturgy in the seventh century in the East and in England in the 11th century.
Throughout the centuries many famous theologians took sides against the belief. Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) objected to the doctrine simply because it was new, while Thomas Aquinas (d.1274) and Bonaventure (d.1274) opposed it because they thought that saying Mary was conceived without sin, was also saying that she had no need of redemption. That is, she would have no need to be reconciled with God through Christ.
It was not until the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) argued rather cleverly that Mary’s immaculate conception in no way denied her need to be saved by Christ, that the doctrine became accepted. Scotus argued that Mary was still dependent on Christ whether his grace freed her from sin or preserved her from sin.
He further argued that since Christ was a perfect redeemer it was necessary to claim that someone was preserved from sin. The reason for this was that Christ’s mediation would have been less than perfect if he had only freed Mary from sin, since to preserve from sin is more perfect than to free from sin. (In a similar way it could be claimed that being preserved from contracting a disease is better than being cured of it.) Scotus then concluded that this perfect saving action of Christ was in favour of Mary.
To get a better understanding of why the teaching got elevated to the level of dogma, it is helpful to put it back into its historical context. Towards the end of the 18th century people began to be very suspicious of anything that could not be proved through reason alone. Consequently, devotion to Mary declined. Many shrines were abolished and the number of Marian feasts was severely reduced.
When the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1773 the outlook was bleak because the Jesuits had consistently fostered devotion to Mary. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, however, the emphasis on reason had spent itself and a period of romanticism followed. Marian devotion and teaching flourished once again.
This new climate favoured the mystical, and there was a great wave of enthusiasm for all things Marian. There was already a lot of public interest in the question of Mary’s freedom from original sin because in 1830, a French nun, Catherine Laboure, had a vision of Mary standing on a globe with rays of light streaming from her hands. Around her were the words: ‘O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.’
According to Catherine, Mary asked that a medal be made according to this vision. This ‘miraculous medal’ became very popular everywhere and impressed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the minds of ordinary people. This led to Pius IX solemnly defining it as a dogma in 1854. Four years later in Lourdes, a peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed that Mary had appeared to her as a young girl wearing a veil and a blue sash and had identifed herself as the Immaculate Conception.
The next 100 years saw increasing enthusiasm regarding Marian devotion, culminating in the dogma of the Assumption in 1950. From 1950-1958 both popular devotion to Mary and scholarly writings about her expanded enormously. Those of us now in our 50s were perhaps the last generation to experience such saturation in all things Marian. However, with the arrival of John XXIII and Vatican II a much more balanced approach was adopted and Mary was presented in the context of a renewing church.
Unfortunately there is no biblical text that says explicitly that Mary was conceived without original sin. The clear concept of original sin appeared only in the fourth century with the teaching of Augustine. The understanding of Mary’s sinlessness stems from the church’s reflection on her role in salvation history. This reflection took place as it always does in prayer, liturgy, popular imagery and theology.
There were roots, however, in the New Testament. Luke portrays Mary as the first Christian disciple, the first one to hear the good news and to respond. Being freed or redeemed from what the Western church has called ‘original sin’ through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a fundamental privilege of those who became Christian disciples by hearing the good news and accepting it through faith and baptism.
Therefore, to claim that Mary was the first Christian to be delivered from this universal sinfulness, even to the extent of being conceived without sin, is to say that as the first Christian disciple, she was the first to receive the privileges of discipleship.
The Gospel passage assigned for the feast of the Immaculate Conception is the Annunciation story (Luke 1:26-38). This particular story describes Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus, while the feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates her own immaculate conception. So it’s no wonder that many Catholics are confused about what it is we are commemorating! It’s also the day when we in Wellington pray to Mary to protect us from earthquakes. Why do we do this? In 1855 Wellington experienced a very severe earthquake. Bishop Viard, overseas at the time, decided on his return to consecrate the city to Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception. (Remember that the dogma had been defined in 1854.) Thus each year on 8 December, Wellington Catholics ask Mary to protect the city from further earthquakes.
The story is told, however, that during World War II Archbishop O’Shea forgot to say the prayer and in 1942 Wellington again experienced a severe earthquake.
Making it meaningful now
Today, in continuing the tradition of praying for protection from the terror and destruction of earthquakes, we ask Mary as a friend of God and our sister in faith to stand with us before God as we pray for the needs of our city. Perhaps we could spend some time before the Madonna and Child tekoteko in Te Papa, the statuette of Mary and her son thought to have been carved about 1890. Mary is standing on a head.
Manuka Henare suggests that the subject of the art work may be Mary as the Immaculate Conception. It was probably carved by Patoromu Tamatea and was offered to a priest for use in the local church. However, fearing Pakeha Catholics would be upset, the priest declined the offer.
If such an offer were made to your parish today, how welcome would it be? If your parish or parish cluster had to depict Mary as the Immaculate Conception what would she look like – like the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes overlooking Paraparaumu, or like the cloaked statue of Our Lady of Lourdes on the hillside at Pukekaraka, Hine Nui O Te Ao Katoa, Mary Great Mother of the Whole World, or like the tekoteko at Te Papa, or like the figure on the miraculous medal or something else entirely?
Have a think about it. And spare a thought, too, for the Sisters of Mercy. On 12 December 2005, 150 years after Bishop Viard consecrated Wellington city to the Immaculate Conception, Sisters of Mercy throughout New Zealand will become a ‘new creation for mission’, Nga Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa.
It’s been a somewhat shaky journey to get this far so we’ll need all the help we can get to live out that which we will publicly profess to be.