Unless you’re a zealous convert, or perhaps a catechist, this chapter is going to blow your proverbial mind. It touches upon two much-misunderstood beliefs of the Church—the Immaculate Conception and the infallibility of the pope.
In the nineteenth century, a fourteen-year-old French peasant girl named Bernadette was gathering firewood with her sister and a friend. Dawdling behind the other two as they returned home (they had to cross a stream and Bernadette did not want to ruin her stockings), Bernadette had a vision of Mary. At first, she did not know what she was seeing. She described a shining figure in white who asked her to return to the grotto of the appearances every day for the next two weeks. She told her family of the vision and they were not as supportive as might have been hoped.
(In their defense, I have a teenage daughter and would also not be very enthusiastic about her meeting someone in the woods.)
Bernadette persisted and did as the shining figure instructed. As the crowds gathered, that obedience had a cost. When the figure told Bernadette to drink from the spring, the crowds gasped to see the young girl digging with her fingers in the mud (there was no visible spring) and even swallowing the soggy earth. At length, a spring did appear. When Bernadette asked this shining apparition her name, she was told only, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette repeated this to her parish priest but had no idea what it meant.
The Church authorities who took an interest in the mysterious occurrences at Lourdes (the site of Bernadette’s grotto) were another matter. They knew precisely what was meant by that statement as, just four years previously in 1854, Pope Pius IX had declared as a doctrine of the Church that Mary had been conceived without original sin—an event the Church called “the Immaculate Conception.” It had long been an accepted belief in the Church that Mary had always been sinless, but there had been countless controversies about just what this meant or how it occurred. In settling the controversy Pope Pius resorted to declaring the doctrine ex cathedra—a rather arcane bit of language indicating that
he was stating this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as pope, as the head of the Church, and as a matter of doctrine. Rather than quelling controversy, however, this stirred up a bit of its own.
No one, probably least of all the popes themselves, is comfortable with the idea that someone is infallible—incapable of being wrong. Thus, when Pius took the newly defined idea of papal infallibility for its first test drive (the doctrine was promulgated by the First Vatican Council in 1870), there was some resistance. The arguments against papal infallibility are legion and needn’t be cataloged here, but it seems pretty evident that all humans are wrong some of the time. For anyone to state otherwise seems pompous at best and insane at worst. However, consider the alternative. Christ established the Church to guide us all toward salvation. It was the Church that created, preserved, and propagated the Scriptures. It was the Church that preserved our many sacred traditions (have you ever seen the word
“Trinity” in the Bible, for example?) to help us understand the faith that has been revealed to us. And it is the Church that has the duty of protecting the revealed “deposit of faith” (as theologians call it) for all generations to come. Certainly St. Peter could not have given us guidance on the proper Christian use of automobiles or the Internet. The letters of St. Paul don’t mention Islam or how we should relate to it. And no Church leader today can predict how the world will change in the centuries to come. So since it is clear that the world changes in unexpected ways, and it is also clear that followers of Christ are expected to continue in the faith even in these new circumstances, would it make any sense at all for Christ to have left us without some certain guidance?
The Church says no. And, lest some suggest that this is because the doctrine of papal infallibility tends to the Church’s advantage, I believe that it is simply because that is what makes sense. God has gone to extraordinary lengths to reveal the means of our salvation to us. Why would he allow that to simply fade into irrelevance when the world changes?
If the idea of papal infallibility still troubles you, please take a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church where the purpose behind this doctrine and its meaning for us today is covered in exhaustive
detail. In the meantime, it might help to know that the pope has spoken ex cathedra exactly twice—once to declare the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and once to declare the doctrine of Mary’s assumption into heaven.
Now, back to Bernadette and the grotto. You have doubtless by now made the connection between St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes, as we now know her. You probably recall some stories about Bernadette’s visions and about the hundreds of miraculous cures attributed to the waters of the now-famous spring at the grotto. But why, when asked, did Mary not give her name, instead saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception”?
If I have been at all persuasive on the topic of papal infallibility, you might reasonably infer that she was using this language to show some support for the poor, beleaguered holy father. But perhaps she wanted us to look a bit more closely at the doctrine he so recently proclaimed, which we will now do.
Ask ten Catholics what the Immaculate Conception was and nine will tell you that it means that Jesus was conceived while Marywas a virgin. (The tenth will tell you a long story about football.) While it is true that Jesus was conceived by, let’s say, extraordinary means, this is not what the Immaculate Conception is all about. Early Christians had a hard time understanding how Mary, a normal human woman, could conceive and bring forth Jesus, God-made-man. This wasn’t because they lacked respect for women, or even because the whole virgin birth thing troubled them (it didn’t). Rather, they could not understand how someone sinful—even someone only guilty of original sin, someone who had never
committed an actual willful sin in her life—could possibly be worthy to bear the Savior. At the same time, the puzzlement went, if Mary wasn’t guilty of even original sin, then she wouldn’t need a
Savior, would she? And we’d need a whole new set of theological principles to describe the special case of this one person.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception neatly solves this dilemma. It explains that, indeed, Mary was free from all sin—even the stain of original sin. But, far from meaning that she did not need Jesus, the doctrine explains that her sin was eliminated in anticipation of her cooperation with God in the Incarnation. If you see a bit of time-travel at work here, you’re right. Well, sort of. God exists and works outside of time and so can do anything at anytime or even everything at once. It was only at the Incarnation that God broke into our world, into our understanding of time to live as one human man two thousand years ago.
One last item to clear up: Some are confused by the appearance of the feast of the Immaculate Conception just before Christmas. Wouldn’t its date suggest that the two are related? In fact, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception falls on December 8, exactly nine months before we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Mary—her birthday. Rather tidy, yes? And exactly nine months before Christmas, on March 25, we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel appeared to Mary to announce that she had been chosen to be the Mother of Our Lord.
It is helpful to deepen our understanding of Mary and the Church at the same time because, in a very real way, Mary is Mother of the Church and our mother as well. Students of Scripture point to
Jesus’ words from the cross, telling the Beloved Disciple, “Behold, your mother,” even as he tells Mary, “Behold, your son.” By these words, Jesus tells all those left behind—and that includes us—that we still have each other. Mary has a world of children to look after and we have a heavenly mother to turn to.
Are there aspects of the faith that you still find puzzling or mysterious? This Christmas, resolve to spend the coming months unwrapping the gift of your faith by reading up on topics still beyond your understanding.