On November 10, 1947, cloistered away in rural Kentucky, the famous American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal: “It seems to me that that definition [the Immaculate Conception] was a turning point in the modern history of the Church. The world has been put into the hands of our Immaculate Lady and she is our hope in the terrible days we live in.”
When I was in grade school, not that 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. Although I dutifully joined in responding pray for us who have recourse to thee, in fact I probably had only the vaguest idea at first what the word recourse really meant. (It's in the nature of public prayers - as with any formal language - to employ fancier vocabulary than ordinary speech.) But, given the very high quality of religious instruction that we still had in those days, my guess is that I probably better understood the meaning of the words Immaculate Conception before I ever completely figured out the word recourse!
Of course, back in 1858, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in what was then more-or-less a garbage dump 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. Intellectuals, on the other hand, 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 European society might be today if that were still the rule at the Sorbonne!)
Meanwhile, 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, in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus, exactly 160 years ago on December 8, 1854, would then go on 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. 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.”
Meanwhile, a mere two months after Pius IX’s dogmatic definition, the small, struggling Catholic community in Knoxville, TN, purchased this land on Summit Hill outside the town’s then northern limits intending to build their first parish church here. And, at its dedication later that year, the church was named for the Immaculate Conception.
I know I have told this story before, but it bears repeating. Nearly 30 years ago, I got a phone call one day from someone worried that the Devil was throwing things at him. At first, I felt totally at a loss how to answer. Nothing in my seminary training had, I thought, adequately prepared me for this. As we talked, however, it became obvious to me what the right answer really was – namely, that, in Christ, God has already decisively defeated the Devil. 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 great festival of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patronal feast of our historic parish.
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.
When Mary appeared to Saint Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531, she spoke in the Aztec language. The Aztec word (which to the Spaniards sounded like an already familiar title, Guadalupe) literally meant “Who crushes the serpent.”
God’s great plan for our salvation, the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the purpose of his will [Ephesians 1:11], 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].
An American prayer from 1959 fittingly invokes Mary's patronage on our nation:
Most Holy Trinity, we put the United States of America into the hands of Mary Immaculate in order that she may present the country to you. Through her we wish to thank you for the great resources of this land and for the freedom which has been its heritage. Through the intercession of Mary, have mercy on the Catholic Church in America. Grant us peace, Have mercy on our President and on all the officers of our government. Grant us a fruitful economy born of justice and charity. Have mercy on capital and industry and labor. Protect the family life of the nation. Guard the innocence of our children. Grant the precious gift of many religious vocations. Through the intercession of our Mother, have mercy on the sick, the poor, the tempted, sinners - on all who are in need.
Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2014.