Anticipating Merton’s hope a full century earlier, on May 13, 1846, meeting in Baltimore’s Cathedral of the Assumption, the 23 bishops of the United States designated the Blessed Virgin Mary, conceived without sin, as Patroness of the United States. Their choice was approved by Blessed Pope Pius IX less than a year later, on February 7, 1847.
That same Pope would then go on in 1854 to define the dogma of the Immaculate Conception - the Church’s faith that, thanks to the salvation Jesus accomplished on our behalf, Mary was preserved from sin, from the very beginning of her existence, and so was from the very start completely holy, that (as Pope Francis said in his Angelus Address yesterday) "the sanctifying love of God was already there, preserving her from the contamination of evil, which is the common heredity of the human family." She is, as the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth [1770-1850] had already famously addressed her: “Woman! above all nature glorified, Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”
That was one of my 8th grade teacher’s favorite quotes. She often used that title for Mary - Our tainted nature's solitary boast - and never more so than when referring to the 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, under the special patronage of the Immaculate Conception for the past 164 years. The secular press in 1850s Knoxville generally just referred to it as “the Catholic church,” but the beautiful little stone church Knoxville’s small Catholic community built on Summit Hill in 1855, on land purchased a mere two months after Pius IX’s dogmatic definition, was from its beginning dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
A century later, when I was in elementary school, not many years after Merton wrote that journal entry, the invocation and response, O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee, were a regular part of our school prayers. Given the intensity of religious instruction that we had in those days, my guess is that most of us had at least some sense of what May’s Immaculate conception was supposed to mean.
On the other hand, back in 1858, when the Blessed Virgin Mary herself appeared to a poor, somewhat sickly young girl named Bernadette Soubirous, in a riverside grotto in the cold, wet, little town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains and identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” poor Bernadette did not recognize the reference or understand the meaning of those words at all. Nor would she have known that intellectuals had been arguing about their meaning for centuries – so much so that in 1497 the University of Paris had decreed that no one should be admitted to the University without first swearing to assert and defend Mary’s Immaculate Conception! (Imagine how different modern Western society might be today if that were still the rule at the Sorbonne!)
The scripture readings we have just heard suggest a comparison, first popularized by the Fathers of the Church, between Eve, the mother of all the living, and Mary, as the New Eve,” mother of Jesus and mother of the Church.
In particular, the story we just heard from the Old Testament [Genesis 3:9-15, 20] highlights the serious damage done to the entire world by human sin - our alienation simultaneously from God, one another, and the world. Mary’s sinlessness, however, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power, empowering Mary to say Yes” to God where Eve had said “No” – God’s powerful plan to save us from ourselves.
The story calls Eve the mother of all the living. In spite of sin, human life continued – the very first sign that God was not going to give up on us. Of course, the serpent still lives and continues his mischief, but his doom is already certain. In the fullness of time, Eve’s greatest descendant, Mary’s Son, will strike at the serpent’s head and crush him.
The Devil can fight, but he cannot win. For God is more powerful than anything we can throw at him – or the Devil can throw at us. God is more powerful than sin. And that is what we celebrate in a very special way today on this our great patronal festival of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
God’s great plan for our salvation, the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the purpose of his will, the mystery decided upon from all eternity and hidden for so many centuries, has been realized in Mary’s Son, Jesus, and is now revealed in the life and mission of the Church. Mary’s holiness at the very beginning of her earthly life is also the Church’s holiness at its beginning and invites us to look forward to the Church as it will one day be in the perfect holiness of God’s kingdom. Thus, the Church looks to Mary as a model of the Church’s essential mission. As Pope Francis has written: “We implore her maternal intercession that the Church may become a home for many peoples, a mother for all peoples, and that the way may be opened to the birth of a new world. … With Mary we advance confidently toward the fulfillment of this promise, and to her we pray" [EG 288].
Homily for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 9, 2019.
Photo: Immaculate Conception Window in the Apse of Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN.