“In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts.” (Isaiah 26:1)
The dogma of the “Immaculate Conception” of Mary is essential to our daily life and we don’t necessarily see it or use it as such. Why would the Church proclaim something that is not useful for us? Therefore, an intelligent approach would be to dig deeper in order to understand the real daily use of a “Dogma”.
In fact, the “Immaculate Conception” is not a Dogma about Mary only. It is a fundamental element for our “Spiritual Life”. How can this be?
At the Cross, Jesus gives us Mary: “Woman, behold, your son!” (see John 19:26-27). This means that this privilege of Mary benefits us in many ways, since Mary “belongs to us”. In fact, we know that Mary, in the Annunciation and throughout her life said “yes” to God, for herself and for each one of us. (“She uttered her yes “in the name of all human nature”. By her obedience she became the new Eve, mother of the living” (Catechism 511))
“Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (Catechism 491)
The huge gap that lies between Mary and each one of us is not only at the level of her Conception (from the first moment of her conception she is preserved immune from all stain of original sin) but at the level of its practical consequences: being able to believe. The insistence in St. Luke’s Gospel on “Mary’s Faith” versus “our lack of faith” (or better said our “incapacity to believe”) is something really staggering.
Early on in his Gospel, St. Luke presents us with two annunciations, one that “didn’t work”, and one that did. One was unfruitful (Zachariah didn’t believe) and the other one was fruitful (Mary did believe for herself and for Zachariah).
The parallelism Luke makes is deliberately done, and is very powerful: it is meant as well to be the Portal of his Gospel. The conclusion of this asymmetrical presentation of the “capacity to believe” in Chapter 1 reaches its high peak when Mary and Elisabeth meet. Not Zachariah this time, but his wife, has a very deep dialogue with Mary where she will utter central truths for us who are seeking to believe:
“Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil what has been said to her!” (Luke 1:45)
The Lord said things through the Angel to Zachariah, he didn’t believe.
The Lord said things through the Angel to Mary, and she believed.
Not only that, but Mary brings us the light of her Faith, and offers it to us: see how she doesn’t remain at home with the Grace of God she has received, on the contrary, she visits her Cousin Elisabeth, and through her visits each one of us, at home. This is why Mary will utter this very unusual self-praise: “From now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). All the generations will receive her visit, will draw from her unique immaculate faith the capacity to believe. This is not something to be taken lightly!
Two facts now emerge: 1- we notice the huge gap between her capacity and ours. 2- this gap is narrowed by the fact that the “grace” and “privilege” she received are offered to us as well.
Does Jesus speak about these essential truths? Well yes, but in a semi-hidden way, because it is a “secret”. Why does he “hide” these essential truths? Jesus feels that a minimum of desire and preparation are required in order to be able to appreciate their true value and bear fruits. Otherwise it would be like throwing pearls to the swine: “though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.” (Luke 8:10) One has really to want it, to ask for it, to seek it humbly but with deep desire.
In order to better understand the “Immaculate Conception of Mary” let us have a look at the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13, Mk 4, Lk 8). This parable is the key parable, in the sense that if we don’t understand it, we won’t understand any parable: “Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mk 4:13).
This parable analyses the soils, i.e. “our, way of receiving” the Word of God, our way of BELIEVING. It doesn’t discuss anything about God Himself; on the contrary, it addresses the human being and his capacity to receive the Word of God and bear fruits. Its goal is to show us how our ways of dealing with God are too short, don’t reach fruition and that we need to adopt the ways of the “Good Soil”: Mary.
In this fundamental parable, Jesus offers us 4 different “soils” (read: “4 ways of believing”) and studies them carefully. The striking thing is that only one soil is capable of bearing fruits (i.e. fully believing): the fourth soil, also called “the Good soil”.
Remember: “liturgy” is the way the faithful, throughout the ages, express their own faith. Paying attention to the contents of the Liturgy can bring us precious information about our faith. In the liturgical tradition of the Church (the Maronite and Byzantine rites at least), Mary is called the “Good soil”, the “Soil in which God sowed His Divine Seed: the Son”.
Let us return to the Parable of the Sower: We can then safely explore the avenue of considering Mary as “the Good soil”.
Remember that in this parable, regarding “the act of believing”, the red line between “bearing fruits” and “not bearing fruits” is fundamental. What is the point of starting to believe and not reaching completion (bearing fruits)?
The parable helps us as well to understand the “fullness of Grace” that characterises Mary: being “full of grace” allows her to bear fruits, i.e. to believe. Only God dwells in the “FULL-of-Grace”, only God acts in her, and His action doesn’t find in her any obstacle, and therefore she can bear fruits. Mary is “the good soil”.
Now, can we really receive Mary in our heart, in our life, and make use of her own faith?
Saint Therese of the Child Jesus sums up all that we said, and brings it to completion in a genial way when she said:
“I am not shaken when I see my weakness
The treasure of the Mother belongs to her child
And I am your daughter, oh my dear mother
Your virtues, your love, aren’t they mine?
Therefore when in my heart will descend the white Host
Jesus, my Sweet Lamb, thinks he reposes in you!…” (Poem 54,5)
You may say to Mary: “your faith Mary is mine, therefore I believe not with and through my weak sterile faith, but with your own faith.
This is why Pope John Paul II, in His Encyclical letter on Mary “Redemptoris Mater”, (RM), mentions the fact that we are called to participate to Mary’s faith (see RM 27) and has this other ingenious affirmation: “Mary’s faith […] in some way continues to become the faith of the pilgrim People of God” (RM 28).
This short text on the understanding and use of the Immaculate Conception is worth being read a few times, in order to receive all its rich contents.
Re-read, ponder, wonder…
ask, receive and then ACT…
The historical context of the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is very important in order to understand it fully, and we should strive to understand the “political”, practical, thread in it.
Again, being focused on “Spiritual Theology”, we are essentially interested in the practical spiritual impact of the Proclamation of a Dogma, any Dogma.
First: what is a “Dogma”?
The word “Dogma” we use, is a word inherited from the Greek Philosophers. A dogma for them is a universal principle which founds and justifies a specific practical conduct, and which can be formulated in one or in several propositions. A Dogma (especially amongst the Stoic Philosophers) is like a sentence of practical wisdom that one will meditate, ponder upon, and put into practice: it essentially impacts the daily life.
The use of the word “dogma” crossed over from the cultural philosophical use amongst the Greeks to the early Christians.
– Was that an error? Would that have meant a deviation of the right understanding of Jesus’ message?
– I am not sure it is the case. Let us take a closer look.
For early Christians (the first centuries), the “dogmas” were something very practical. It appears as well to be the same for the non-Greek christians: the Apostles themselves who were Semites.
A very early example of the implicit use of the idea of a “dogma”
See for instance how St. Matthew in his gospel presents the Trinity as a “Dogma”, i.e. as something to put into practice. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is the Great Charter (Carta Magna) of the newly baptised. Remember we are baptised (i.e. immersed) in each Person of the Trinity. In the Sermon of the Mountain, saint Matthew dedicates a section for each person of the Trinity: Mt. 5:17-48 is offered to put the dogmata of the Son into practice, Mt. 6 is to help us put the dogmata of the Father into practice, and Mt. 7 is for us to put the dogmata of the Holy Spirit into practice. Each Person is a “dogmata”, not a sentence though but a Person upon whom we are supposed to meditate upon, enter in, be immersed in, be transformed into.
“Being Baptised” meant simply that the Father did Baptise (immerse) us, in the Trinity.
– How would this happen?
– For the first Generation, God the Father was considered to have two hands: St. Irenaeus says that the Son and the Holy Spirit are the Hands of the Father (remember that Irenaeus is the disciple of the disciple of St. John). So “Baptism” would be seen as follows:
The Father takes us in His Hands and holds us tight: as a result we shouldn’t escape from His hands. How? By implementing a set of practices that would help us remain immersed (baptised) in the Son, in the Father and in the Holy Spirit (in that order, see 2 Cor 13:13).
To “be Baptised” for the first generation of Christians implied to put into practice the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity. The “Dogma” of the Trinity was practical and vital.
Therefore for the Catechesis of the first Christians (i.e. the Sermon on the Mountain), a whole chapter was dedicated to approaching each Person of the Trinity in a practical way.
For a mnemonic reason, remember that each hand has 5 fingers, so you’ll find the 5 points (one per finger) to remember about the Son in Mt. 5 and the same for the Holy Spirit: five sections in Mt. 7.
Easy to count, easy to remember, easy for meditation, easy to put into practise. The whole “Greater Charter” (Carta Magna) of Christianity, i.e. the Dogma of the Trinity, is fully comprised in this Sermon, the Sermon on the Mountain.
The historical background of the dogma
– Would dogmas change?
– Obviously: no.
– Would we have new dogmas?
– Obviously: no.
– So why do we have “new” dogmas?
– We don’t. We just proclaim a truth as a “dogma” when we see it, after a long development, under a clearer light.
Theological Note: Even if it is the Pope who proclaims a Dogma, the proclamation is an act of the Church as a whole, as you’ll see below, the Pope makes has a consultation first in order to “sense” the “feeling of the faithful”. The infallibility of the Pope draws its principle from the infallibility of the Church and not vice-versa.
I would add something important in my eyes to that last reply: a Dogma, as we just said, has a direct practical use to it. It has a real impact on us, in our daily life. It is not “one more truth to proclaim” or to believe in, it is one more thing to put into practice, one more thing we already put into practise but the use of which today is much more urgent or vital, this is why it is underlined by the Faithful, the Church, the Pope.
– So why that urge to proclaim Mary as the “Immaculate Conception”?
– This is exactly my point: the historical context of the proclamation is very important to help us understand the reason why it was made in the first place and mainly its application in daily life.
Let us remember a few facts that will help us historically situate the “proclamation” of the Immaculate Conception of Mary by Pope Pius IX:
1- Pope Pius IXth is witnessing the end of the “Middle Ages” political system of Kingdoms, and the new spirit of the Republic of the French Revolution invading the spirit of the Italians and most of Europe.
2- These changes are quite drastic and, with all the good will of the Pope, are seen and felt as a threat to the normal order of things. Remember also that the Pope at that time still had land and estate and was considered as a Ruler.
3- The Pope’s life is under serious threat by the Italian Republicans. His Prime Minister, Pellegrino Rossi, has been assassinated (15th of November 1848), the Swiss Guards are disarmed, making the Pope to a prisoner in his palace.
Then on the 24th of November 1848, the Pope escapes in disguise as a regular priest to Gaeta, in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies leaving Rome to the radicals and the mob.
4- At Gaeta, in a very small crypt, the Pope prays for 9 months. He had a great devotion to Mary under the name of the “Immaculate Conception”. (You can visit the Church (“Santissima Annunziata”) and the crypt, called “Cappella d’Oro”.)
It is during these dire times that the Pope formed the decision to start the process of consultation that would lead later to the declaration of the Dogma of the “Immaculate Conception”. The idea wasn’t new, but the aforesaid events triggered the process. While still in Gaeta, on the 2nd of February 1849, he published his Encyclical Letter “Ubi Primum”, to the bishops of the Catholic Church asking them for their opinion about the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
The Pope remained in Gaeta till the 4th of September 1849.
Time of total distress
The Pope’s Prime minister is killed, his life is under threat, he has to escape, and he does it in disguise. This tells us the degree of distress the Pope is going through.
It is quite obvious that the only practical help he could find was in Mary, not only that, but “Mary the Immaculate Conception”. In a situation of darkness, of total darkness, where the future of the Church is under serious threat, the traditional political order is upside down and its survival is under threat, where evil is trying to kill… the Pope turns in prayer to the Immaculate, the only Creature after Jesus who was never defeated by Evil. We can say that the Pope had found the solution for his distress and the turmoil of the Church.
Do you see the practical, spiritual and political situation in which is born the desire to proclaim solemnly Mary as the “Immaculate Conception”?
By doing so he is in fact declaring that he found The Solution for his distress, he wants to present the solution, and he wants to say what happened to him and how Mary, invoked under this specific mystery, helped him.
He wants to say that this is the will of God to put at the Centre of the Church the First Sign of His Victory, the New Eve, the one that was never defeated by Evil. She is at the heart and root of the life of the Church, real source and proof of Hope that God gave us.
You’ll notice that in the definition of the Immaculate Conception, it is said that this “grace”/ privilege comes directly from Jesus’s salvation, from Jesus’ Cross. In this sense we can contemplate Her as being the first Saved Person by Christ, and mother, with Him, of all the saved. We can contemplate Her, first Saved Creature coming out of His Side, New Eve, totally pure, Mother of the Church.
The first sign of Jesus’ victory on the Cross is Mary. The prototype of all the Saved people, is Mary.
The mother and the “Mould” of all the saved, is Her as well. She generated the Head, and generates each person in the Body.
God put this Sign (the Immaculate) right in the centre of his Church. Mary is the only one who believed (see other articles), Mary is the Prototype of Jesus’ Disciple and follower.
Like the Pope and like that moment in the history of the Church, we too reach the darkest point in our spiritual journey, and we all lift our eyes, in the darkness, to the Star of the Sea, Mary, the Only Immaculate Point in the Dark Sky, “gift of Jesus for us”, “capacity to believe” given by Him to us.
The role of Immaculate in the “Dark night of the spirit”
Now let us see a more specific aspect of the application of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
According to St. John of the Cross, the “Dark night of the spirit” is the deepest and final purification the faithful should go through before reaching the “Union with Jesus” (See his book “The dark night”, especially the second part). You might recognise it in the “Great trial” mentioned in the book of Revelation (Rev 9:14-17) or find it in a more plain way in: what the Apostles (or any follower of Jesus) have to go through when Jesus is about to start his Passion: all your hopes about the Messiah-Saviour will vanish, all your life, your spiritual life seems to go and disappear in the land of oblivion.
Now, a great catholic Master, Blessed Fr. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus OCD (1894-1967), in the second volume of his great book “I want to see God”, says that Mary plays a fundamental role at this crucial moment where everything in our “spiritual life” seems to disappear. He quotes St. Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort, saying that the presence of Mary all together 1- makes that time of deep purification lighter, more bearable, and 2- is essential for this turning point in our spiritual life (the deep purification). In fact, for the first time, we are called to make a pure act of Faith, and in order to do so, we learn to use “Mary’s faith”, or better said: we ask her to “believe for us”. In doing so, we let her grow in us, and transform our spirit into the image of hers, being now for the first time capable of “believing as she believes”.
We are then starting to follow “the only one who believed in the Resurrection”, “the one around whom the distressed apostle gathered in order to draw from her the pure faith in Jesus”.
In a way, Pope Pius the IXth is saying to us: in these great times of distress, the Church continues not with the strength of the papacy, or any human strength, but through the help God put in Mary, the Immaculate. God had his victory in her, and is offering to each one of us this same Victory, by putting Mary in the centre of Jesus’ faithful. Mary said “Yes” to God, “yes He will rise as he promised it” in the darkest moment of history (when Jesus is dead): she believed in the Resurrection; and God gives us her “Yes” so we can use it and overcome the darkness. (Note: John-Paul II made all this very clear during his Pontificate)
The “Line of Divide” of the Immaculate Conception
The first practical consequence of the fact that Mary is the “immaculate conception” is that she is the only one who was able to believe in God’s Words given to her through the Archangel Gabriel (Luke 1). She is “the only one”, the first one to believe and is also the mother of all believers, in the sense that she begets their capacity to believe! Our capacity to believe is deposited by God in her! And we are all called to go to her in order to draw from her, our Mother, this capacity. She is truly our mother, the mother of our faith.
During the Mass we say: “Look not on our faith but on the faith of your Church.”
During our baptism the priest asked our Godparents: “what do you ask the Church for?”. They have answered for us: “Faith” – because Faith obtains for us Eternal Life.
We say these things not knowing exactly what they mean. What is the Church’s faith? It is Mary’s faith. No other faith! What is the Faith we ask for during our baptism: it is Mary’s faith.
The line of divide between all the human race who is born under original sin and Mary who is born from Jesus’ heart dying on the Cross is the same line of divide we find in the parable of the sower between the first three soils (who can’t believe and can’t bear fruits) and “the good soil” Mary.
It is the same line of divide St. Luke puts between the two initial annunciations (to Zachariah (& us) and to Mary). Zachariah’s (& ours) failed, he remained mute, as a sign of his incapacity to believe the Angel’s Words, despite the fact that we was righteous and fulfilling all Moses Commandments (Luke 1:5).
In a way, many centuries before the Declaration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary conceived without original sin, born from the Saviour’s Side on the Cross, the Scriptures (Luke and John) drew the same line of divide between the New Eve and all of us her children to be, not conceived immaculate.
Luke showed us in his Gospel that Mary is the only one who was able to believe, because she is the real Ark of the new Covenant, the only one capable of believing and therefore receiving the Word of God in Her… and keeping Him for ever in Her. Luke showed us the same line of divide: Mary is the only one capable of believing, Zachariah (and us in him) weren’t and aren’t.
The Parable of the Sower showed us the same line of divide between the first three soils incapable of bearing fruits and the good soil, Mary.
In this sense, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is very well present in the Gospels.
The same line of divide is there also when believing in the Resurrection was needed. Jesus announced it many times! In whose heart did his Words (“I shall rise”) fall and dwell? When Jesus was dead for three days, who among his disciples (the forerunners of our Faith) was able to believe in His Words promising us that He will rise? Nobody, only Mary. The same line of divide is found here! This is why the Lord said to Peter (see Luke 22:31-32) that he would pray for him, so that when he “turned back” from his unbelief (i.e. he turned to Mary like the tower of Faith), he would be able to strengthen his brothers with the Faith that comes from Mary.
“To believe” requires the humility to acknowledge that it is a grace given by God in the person of Mary, perfect and archetype of Jesus’ disciple. The humility to go to her, acknowledge that she is the new Eve, our Mother, the embodiment of faith and faithfulness, and draw from her our capacity to believe in Jesus and follow Him. God gives us this capacity. In our turn, in her and through her faith, we become sons of God, capable of believing! But we need to acknowledge the source of our Faith: Mary’s, in order to stop living with the illusions of thinking that without Her we would be able to believe and that we would be able to go to the Son our Saviour. Mary’s Faith becomes our Faith. This is why the Ark of the new Covenant becomes the new city of Jerusalem: she is carrying all of us, her Children, God’s Children, in her womb, nurturing us. “In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong City; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts.” (Isaiah 26:1)
How does this dogma become life in us?
What are the consequences of believing in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on the day to day life level?
A- When the Church declares a dogma, she is inviting us to believe in it. As we saw above, while remembering the social and spiritual turmoil of the context the Declaration, this dogma is supposed to help us, to be like the channel or a window so we can receive a renewed power to be from God to live in a new social order. A dogma is first meant to be met with an Act of Faith.
B- The Act of Faith made upon the declaration allows us to enter more deeply into the reality of this truth. As a consequence we receive a new and deeper understanding of the relationship between Mary (seen as Immaculate, Gift from God to us) and us, living in a tormented world or times. Once we have this new understanding of this truth, we need to find a way to allow it to come alive in us, to nourish us and transform us. The main consequence of this dogma is the new understanding that we need to see that:
1- Following Jesus requires faith on our part, it is not automatic. We need to be totally involved with all our being in the act of following Christ. Faith is the total gift of oneself. In this sense we are called to discover that if on one hand we have the divine Seed, we need “the good soil” to receive it. Faith has two polarities: the seed and the soil! The seed alone can’t achieve anything without the help of the soil.
2- The second consequence of this deepening is that not any soil can do it! We need the good soil! So we need to understand that there are two ways to follow Christ: one being any soil and one being the Good soil!
3- The good soil is Mary. Only Mary was able to believe.
4- Mary is the mother of our Faith. Becoming ‘the good soil’ is to draw our capacity to believe from Mary.
Therefore the practical incidence of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is to use it on a daily basis, each time we need to make a Theological Act of Faith, Hope or Love. It is by becoming aware that with our best intentions and with our best spiritual endeavours, Mary’s ways are still way superior to ours.
When God gave the dogma of the Immaculate Conception to humanity in fact he was inviting us to go deeper in the waters of the Gospel. It is equivalent of putting the ax to “the root of the trees” and warning us that “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt. 3:10) God is moving up a gear.
Each time we want to go to God by our own means and good intentions with our own way of making an Act of Faith, or Hope or Love, we need to remember that we need to use the divine modality of making them: this divine way lies in Mary, is Mary’s Immaculate way of dealing with God, of allowing the Holy Spirit to work in Her.
This is why we say: “pray for us sinners”! We acknowledge that when we deal with God we are not ‘immaculate conception’, but we ask the help of the ‘Immaculate Conception’, so she can give us her way of dealing with God. “pray for us” means: lift us from our non-immaculate way of dealing with God to your immaculate way… introduce us in you. Let us dwell in you, stay in you, live and act in you and through you. This way, the dogma is really held by us, and becomes life in us and changes us.
Does it make more sense now to believe that Mary is the Immaculate Conception? Do we see more clearly how practical this “dogma” is?
A ground breaking lecture on the practical implications of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Sticking mainly to the Bible, we deepen the understanding of the Apostles’ journey of faith in relation to Mary.
We often don’t see the direct and practical implications of the various dogmas. To the point that we keep them in the “belief” area of our christian life and not our Spiritual practical life area. We lose a lot by not seeing the direct inner relationship between each dogma and our personal life.
Following the Apostle Journey of Faith, this groundbreaking lecture opens a new way of understanding the Immaculate Conception and its “use” in our daily life.