During my high school years, I believed the Immaculate Conception was the conception of Jesus. I was taking instruction in religion from a teacher who had a master’s degree in Catholic theology.
On Dec. 8, he stood up in front of the class and said, “Today is a holy day for Catholics. They go to Church to remember Jesus’ conception and in just three weeks he will be born on Christmas Day. This is what the Church means by the virgin birth.”
Later in high school I began reading books about Mary, and then learned this teacher was wrong on both accounts. I perceive many Catholics might have mistaken beliefs about Immaculate Conception, including whose conception we actually celebrate. How might we come to a better understanding of this teaching of the Church? Here are a few suggestions:
Know the history
Catholics for centuries have believed in the Immaculate Conception. If you ever heard of Fr. Donald Calloway or Fr. Michael Gaitley, or seen the initials MIC, these priests belong to a congregation called the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. Their order was founded in 1673, 181 years before the dogmatic declaration in 1854 by Bl. Pius IX. That means many people have been devoted to this title and reality of Mary for a long time.
Even more so, we see in the writings of many saints how they called Mary “sinless.” If you have never read the document called Ineffabilis Deus (Ineffable God), consider doing so. It traces the thought of our Catholic tradition. You can read it here.
Even Mary herself taught that she was immaculately conceived, years before the magisterial pronouncement. When Mary appeared to St. Catherine Labouré in Rue de Bac, she asked for a special medal to be struck with the words:
O Mary, conceived without original sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
Known to many as the Miraculous Medal, it was given to the Church as a sacramental in 1830 by the Blessed Mother.
After the Church declared the teaching, Mary appeared in 1858 to St. Bernadette Soubirous. After asking several times the identity of the beautiful woman, Mary finally told St. Bernadette that she was the Immaculate Conception. Many took this as a confirmation of the Church’s latest dogma. The history is clear: The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary.
Most Catholics live their faith life from Sunday to Sunday. The Church, however, celebrates the Mass every day, and on certain days celebrates various saints or biblical stories. If we live liturgically, which could be as simple as finding out each day’s saint or feast, or as advanced as praying the Liturgy of the Hours or attending Mass, we would come to an understanding of today’s feast.
Each year the Church celebrates on March 25 the feast of the Annunciation, calling to mind the angel Gabriel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth and conception. Nine months later brings us to Christmas Day. The feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) is nine months from Sept. 8, when the Church celebrates the Nativity of Mary. Observing a liturgical rhythm in our spiritual life can help us understand the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Confronting the confusion
It should surprise no one that confusion exists around the Immaculate Conception. The feast occurs during the Advent season of preparation, a somewhat Marian season as we wait with the pregnant Mary for the nativity of our savior, in which our focus is on Jesus’ birth. The Gospel reading for the day (Luke 1:26–38) is the Annunciation, which tells the story of Jesus’ conception. Perhaps these two realities lead to confusion, in addition to poor catechesis over the years.
When you go to Mass, you will hear the opening collect. It says:
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son, grant, we pray, that, as you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw, so, through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.
The text of the Mass leaves no doubt, we are celebrating the conception of Mary, who was free from sin, that is, exempt from original sin, even at the moment of her conception.
Today’s feast emphasizes Mary’s role in salvation history, and how God worked in her life from her very first moments in the womb of St. Anne. By knowing the facts of today’s feast, you will be able to confront the confusion, and celebrate with joy Mary’s immaculate conception.