In 1497, the University of Paris decreed that no one should be admitted to the University without swearing to assert and defend the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Imagine if that rule were still in force! It would certainly be a very different world!
Just 161 years ago, in the year 1854, Blessed Pope Pius IX (who would soon bless Father Isaac Hecker’s project for the founding of the Paulist Fathers) finally defined the heart of the Church’s faith about Mary’s Immaculate Conception – our belief that, thanks to the salvation accomplished by her Son, Mary was preserved from all sin from the very beginning of her earthly existence and thus came into the world completely holy. Just one year later, the small but growing Catholic community in East Tennessee placed their first church and parish here in Knoxville under the heavenly patronage of the Immaculate Conception. And what an amazing 160 years we have had here up on this hill!
Meanwhile, in the middle of the 20th-century, an American monk Thomas Merton, who was one of the four famous Americans Pope Francis mentioned in his address to Congress back in September, said that the definition of the Immaculate Conception “was a turning point in the modern history of the Church. The world,” he wrote, “has been put into the hands of our Immaculate Lady and she is our hope in the terrible days we live in.” [November 10, 1947]
Anticipating Merton’s hope a century earlier in 1846, the Bishops of the United States had proclaimed Mary the patroness of the United Sates under the title of her Immaculate Conception. So today, already an especially grace-filled day the entire Church, is even more especially so for our country and for our own local parish community.
The New Testament does not explicitly speak of the Immaculate Conception. So the Church today focuses our attention on the Annunciation [Luke 1:26-38], one of the most famous scenes in all of human history. The Annunciation was the centerpiece of Mary’s earthly life - from her Immaculate Conception to her Assumption - and the basis for her heavenly life since then as Mother of the Church. At the Annunciation, Mary’s life-long fullness of grace was first formally acknowledged. More importantly, at the Annunciation, her life-long fullness of grace led her to answer “Yes” to God’s great plan to save the world with his mercy. For Mary is the living open door through whom Christ comes into the world so that we may enter into God’s kingdom.
In less than 10 hours, Pope Francis will begin an Extraordinary Jubilee Year by opening the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Holy Door which symbolizes the great open door of God’s mercy. The design of the Holy Door presently in use at Saint Peter’s dates back to the Holy Year of 1950. It consists of sixteen bronze panels. The four panels on the top row depict both the exile of Adam and Eve after the Fall and the Annunciation, when Mary’s “Yes” altered Adam and Eve’s “No” as the default response of the human race’s response to God’s mercy.
Every Holy Year is an invitation to go on pilgrimage – to pass as pilgrims through the Holy Doors in Rome and through our local door of Mercy soon to be opened for pilgrims at our own Cathedral Church. That ritual act of pilgrimage symbolizes the movement and direction of a faith-filled life, a life lived in grace-filled response to God’s mercy, as Mary lived every instant of her life from her Immaculate Conception to her Assumption. We must let that image of pilgrimage guide us in our own observance of the Holy Year of Mercy. The Holy Year pilgrimage, Pope Francis has reminded us, “represents the journey each of us makes in this life … by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us” [Misericordiae Vultus, 12].
Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on the Eve of the Opening of the Year of Mercy, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 7, 2015.