On Dec. 8, Pope Francis will celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, where he will venerate an image of Maria Immacolata erected not long after the papal definition made in Pius IX’s Ineffabilis Deus in 1854. The statue’s base is surrounded by Hebrew figures who foretold the coming of the Savior to be born of the Virgin: Moses, David, Isaiah and Ezekiel. He is not the first pope to make this mini-
pilgrimage across the Tiber on this day. As with his predecessors, Francis’ devotion to Mary is well-known, both under her title as the Undoer of Knots and as the Salus Populi Romani, evidenced in his numerous unannounced visits to Santa Maria Maggiore.
This title of our Lady as the Immaculate Conception, to whom the United States is dedicated as patroness, provides an opportunity to reflect upon the Catholic notion of sacred tradition. Like her Assumption into heaven, the dogma that Mary was conceived without sin in the womb of her mother St. Anne and remained so for her entire life is not explicitly found in the Bible. Yet, Catholics believe that, as Dei Verbum puts it, “Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God, committed to the church” (DV, 10). Thus, Revelation includes, but is not limited to the written texts of the Scriptures. Catholics argue that when studied prayerfully in a holistic context, the relationship between Jesus and Mary confirmed in the biblical accounts leads us to certain other implicit truths about her person, vocation, and indispensable role in salvation history. One of these is that because she is the living Ark of the Covenant — whose unqualified “yes” to the Archangel Gabriel, and ultimately to God, made salvation through Jesus possible — Mary ought to be venerated as unique among created human beings.
Catholics do not worship her, as worship is reserved for God alone. Rather they entrust their prayers to her intercession because of her unique relationship with her Divine Son.
Just as the written biblical texts which we revere attest to the saving mysteries of the singular Christ-event, so too do other truths about faith and morals which the church holds, ponders and promulgates, but which the community has learned from sources other than the explicit written Word of God. The honorific reverence extended to “Mary conceived without sin” is one such truth.
Last year on this feast, Pope Francis used the opportunity to point out that Mary is not alone in her call to radical holiness. “All along, we, too, have been chosen by God to live a holy life free from sin. It is a plan of love that God renews every time we approach him, especially in the sacraments.” It is in our relationship with her, and so with Christ, that we are able “to be loved and transformed by love” and “to learn how to be more humble and also more courageous in following the Word of God and in accepting the tender embrace of her son, Jesus, an embrace that gives us life, hope and peace.”
When a 14-year old French peasant named Bernadette Soubirous saw a vision of a mysterious woman in a grotto at Lourdes, the apparition supposedly told her in her local dialect “Que soy era Immaculado Cencepciou” (“I am the Immaculate Conception”). Many in the church have since that time seen this, and the related miracles associated with the appearance, as evidence of divine support for the development of doctrine and role of the sensus fidelium in confirming the Marian teaching.
Mary’s spiritual motherhood and mediation is a grace which, when properly understood, never occludes our relationship with Christ, but rather illuminates, clarifies and enriches it. Theologians like Elizabeth Johnson, as in her book “Truly Our Sister,” have sought to express how this relationship is not a pious exaltation of the not-quite-human, but rather a re-calibrating of our relationship with others, with the church, and with the divine through the lens of one who shared our common nature, and yet exceeded it only in loving the Lord above all else.
This feast, and the related one of the Assumption, both simultaneously show how Mary is unique, and yet how she is also truly the human face of the Mater Ecclesiae, the “Mother of the Church,” manifesting the relationship with God and the ultimate destiny to which each of us is called.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.