The importance of the Immaculate Conception for modern times

Father John A. Kiley

At her final appearance to the children at Fatima, the Blessed Virgin Mary confidently and reassuringly declared, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” When the turmoil of the past one hundred years is considered – World Wars, Communism, Nazism, the Holocaust, African and Asian upheavals, AIDS, secularization, abortion, and sadly on and on — one wonders anxiously when “in the end” will actually occur. Human history has always consisted of “wars and rumors of wars” so the near and even the distant future will probably not be any different. Original sin and its sometimes disastrous but always demoralizing effects will be forever evident. Yet, the Virgin Mary does, in her good time, predict a triumph, a victory for her Immaculate Heart and a victory for God Himself who certainly must lament much of human history.

Mary’s prediction of an ultimate triumph is deliberately and provocatively linked to one of her four unique privileges: her Immaculate Conception. Mary’s greatest privilege of course was her Divine Maternity. The creature giving birth to the Creator defies reason. The virginal conception of her Son and her bodily assumption into heaven are exceptional events as well. But at Fatima Mary chose words that link her freedom from sin from the first moment of her existence to the final victory that God’s Providence will mysteriously but assuredly achieve in history.

Mary had already been emphasizing her Immaculate Conception through her apparitions in modern times. When Mary appeared to Daughter of Charity Saint Catherine Laboure at the Rue de Bac in Paris in 1830, the Blessed Virgin graphically promoted devotion to her Immaculate Heart by entrusting the Miraculous Medal to the young sister. The now familiar aspiration, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!” encircles an image of Mary on what is probably the most popular medal worn by many Catholics today. In 1858, the Blessed Virgin again appeared several times to the country girl Saint Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in southern France. Her repeated message, as at Fatima, was a call for prayer and sacrifice but at her final appearance Mary revealed herself in the local dialect, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Pope Pius IX, in 1854, solemnly and definitively declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, codifying for all time that Mary had indeed been conceived in the womb of her mother St. Anne without any taint of original sin at all. Mary from the first moment of her existence was preserved from all sin; she was always “full of grace,” as Gabriel’s warm greeting at Nazareth signaled. The Pontiff of course was happily making official what had been part of Catholic tradition from Apostolic times. The great minds of the Church had discussed the issue over the centuries, arguing and appreciating the richness of the doctrine. The writings of St. Bernard and Thomas Aquinas quite oddly are a bit ambiguous about the issue. Others, especially the Venerable Duns Scotus, were campions of Mary who, like Eve before her, began her human existence sinless. Mary, of course, did a better job of preserving her initial innocence. Many devout believers of course have warmed readily to the ever sinless Mary. After Queen Marie Antoinette was beheaded a prayer to the Immaculate Conception was found in her purse.

The believing faithful certainly cannot claim for themselves a Divine motherhood, or of a virgin birth, or of an assumption into heaven. Nor has any believer ever been conceived without original sin. Yet, while Mary’s first three prerogatives are completely out of reach for any believer, Mary’s sinlessness is certainly a goal toward which every believer should strive — even if only after the fact. Christian believers are certainly not sinless at the beginning of their earthly journey but everyone can strive to be sinless at the completion of that earthly sojourn. Mary’s sinlessness was entirely the gift of God. She did not earn it; but she did cooperate with it. And in her cooperation, Mary is an example for all believers. Unexpectedly conceiving a child, fleeing persecution into Egypt, comprehending Jesus’ complex public life, witnessing his crucifixion and death, swept up into the activities of the Apostolic Church — Mary did not have an easy life. Her words of cooperation to Gabriel are a motto for all subsequent believers: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.” Free from sin at birth, Mary was a willing handmaid, a compliant servant. The believing world, freed from sin at Baptism, is now similarly called to be God’s helpful servants, his reliable stewards, assured of sharing in Mary’s promised triumph.