“O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.”
Last Monday, 15th August was the feast of our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven. I had been back in Paris from London for a few days and I decided finally to visit the chapel of Rue du Bac in Paris for the very first time. I had read more than 24 years ago about our Lady’s visit to this chapel in 1830 when she spoke with Sister Catherine Laboure for two hours, and later gave her the design of the miraculous medal (which has been an instrument of many miracles) with the inscription, “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse unto thee.” During this visit I experienced something of the presence and powerful intercession of our Lady.
Twenty four (24) years after Her apparition at Rue du Bac Pope Pius IX defined in 1854 the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that is, Mary was conceived without sin). Four years later in 1858 our Lady appeared again, this time in Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous, and declared to her, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Now this is astounding! Our Lady came twice from Heaven to announce her Immaculate Conception (both times in France), before and after the Pope’s promulgation of the same Dogma. One cannot help but think that there is great importance attached to this truth!
I don’t know of any other teaching of the Faith for which we have two visits from Heaven to announce and confirm them, except for the Incarnation (the Angel Gabriel announced this to Mary beforehand and another Angel announced the birth of Christ afterwards to some shepherds) and the Resurrection (Jesus Himself foretold His death and Resurrection and afterwards appeared to the disciples as the Risen Christ). One can be excused for thinking, therefore, that the Immaculate Conception is of great importance!
Recently (in the 20th century) St Maximilian Kolbe highlighted the fact that, not only was Mary conceived without sin, but that she is the Immaculate Conception, a very important and subtle distinction which deserves further attention. That is, Mary did not say to St Bernadette, “I was conceived immaculately”, but that she said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
But why wait until 1830 AD to declare this truth? And why come all the way from Heaven to make it absolutely clear to us? In the early centuries of the life of the Church many of the Fathers had alluded to Mary’s spotless purity, while a few had doubted it, and the Church had not yet made any explicit definition about it. In the 12th century the nature of Mary’s conception began to be heavily debated among theologians and philosophers. Later Mary’s conception began to be celebrated in some parts of the Church, although its nature was still uncertain. The Church would have to wait 18 centuries before Mary’s visit from Heaven at Rue du Bac to affirm her Immaculate Conception.
It is difficult to realise why God would wait so long for such an announcement, and we may never fully understand God’s timing in this life, but I think that we can get some important clues in this regard.
The events at Rue du Bac were preceded by the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries (which exalted the power of human reason and had both positive and negative effects) and followed by the rise of Rationalism in the 19th century (which in a certain sense prepared the way for the atheistic philosophy which would taint and torture the 20th century).
On another level, Rue du Bac was preceded by the French Revolution in 1789 and followed by various revolutions across Europe and the loss of the Papal states in 1870. The world was evidently experiencing deep and powerful changes on all levels, including profound changes on the political and philosophical levels, changes which still affect our lives today. In a very real way, our Lady’s appearances were preparing the Church for these changes and the challenges which would follow. The revelation of her Immaculate Conception comes at a crucial time in the history of the world, as if to give Christians a secure refuge, a powerful antidote against evil, and perhaps to signal a fresh, energetic and powerful initiative on Heaven’s part in the battle for souls.
Not only is the Immaculate Conception a symbol of the purity with which the Church will be consummately united with her Lord in the fulness of time, the Immaculate Conception is also the instrument by which Christ fully integrates us into the life of God, because she is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit and the Mother of all God’s children.
Hundreds of books could be written on the subject of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, I believe, and we would still not have said everything there is to say about her. However, one thing is very clear: Mary’s Immaculate Conception puts her in a unique and privileged position. Consider for a moment what the Immaculate Conception implies for our Lady’s spiritual life, or rather just one of the implications.
The Church teaches that original sin not only tainted man’s soul but also injured his powers. The intellect was darkened, the will was weakened, desire and passion became disordered. In baptism we are cleansed from the stain of original sin and the healing of our powers begins and continues as we cooperate with God’s will and grace in the course of our lives.
By her Immaculate Conception Mary was never tainted with original sin. That means that her powers were always intact. She was never subject to the weaknesses and faults and defects that we struggle with. Because of her perfect cooperation with the will of God she grew from one degree of perfection to another, and the enemy never had any power over her at all ! Mary’s relationship with God was never interrupted and Her union with God was never diminished. On the contrary, her soul unceasingly increased in perfection and we might even say super-abounded in perfection until the Angel of God had to declare that she was “full of grace”.
Now in modern times it seems that Mary is willing to descend from Heaven, to visit us in our exile, and to reveal this singular privilege of hers so that she might help us ever more. While she has attained such a high degree of sanctity and glory in Heaven, she is nevertheless still a daughter of Adam, and she still compassionates the race of humans from which she came.
Mary is both willing and able to apply all the force and power of the privilege of her Immaculate Conception for us and on our behalf, and to achieve miraculous changes in our lives which we by our own merits cannot attain, if only we will have recourse to her. This is implicit in the simple yet powerful invocation which she taught St Catherine: “O Mary conceived without sin pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
Amen ! So be it !
20th August 2011
Feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux