|The Grotto at Lourdes where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858|
Sometimes you might be given the idea that many of the things that the Church used to teach, or that were parts of our faith, have changed. You’ll hear people say, ‘Oh, we don’t believe that any more. We’ve moved on’. Well it’s good to know that the content of our faith doesn’t change. We believe today what we have believed from the beginning, although our understanding of what we believe is deepening all the time.
One of the teachings of our faith is that Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a special grace of God, was preserved from original sin and from personal sin. This is what the Immaculate Conception means. It was officially made a dogma (teaching) of the Church in 1854. That means that it was given the highest recognition of the Church’s teaching authority. When something is made a dogma, or teaching, of the Church, it doesn’t mean that we have just decided that it’s true, rather it’s a recognition that it has always been believed as true and so it is concretized, if you like. This means that for us Catholics we are asked to accept it as a part of the faith. The teaching of the Immaculate Conception reads:
From the first instant of her conception, by a singular and privileged grace of Almighty God and in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, the Virgin Mary was preserved intact from every stain of original sin (Pius IX, Bull Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854).
Think of your own mother. Hopefully you love her even if you fall out with her every once in a while. Imagine if you could create your own mother, what wouldn’t you do for her and give her? Imagine how beautiful you would make her. Well God did create his own mother and so imagine what a master-piece she must be. And what could be the greatest gift that God could give to his own mother, if not to preserve her from all stain of sin, which affected the rest of us? And so this is what He did. It makes a lot of sense. The poet Wordsworth describes her as, ‘Our tainted nature’s solitary boast’. We say that she is ‘The highest honor of our race.’ How blessed we are to have her as our mother.
Mary is the woman of faith. When the angel Gabriel came to her and told her that she was to be the mother of the most high God, she said, ‘But how can this be, since I do not know man?’ She didn’t understand it, but she believed in the word the angel had spoken.
There are often aspects of our faith which we don’t understand, or struggle with. We ask, ‘How can this be?’ How can it be that the Pope can not err in matters of faith and morals? He is only a man. How can it be that bread and wine turns into the body and blood of Christ? I don’t know, but I believe. The theologians don’t understand all the teachings of the Church, the bishops don’t, the Pope doesn’t. That is where faith comes in. We don’t fully understand but we believe. We believe them because they come from the Lord.
Mary didn’t understand how the angel’s promise could come about, but she believed it and as a result the Word became flesh. Jesus, who is God, was born of Mary. Can you imagine if Mary had to fully understand how this could happen before she said yes? I doubt that we would have had Jesus at all, but she accepted it in faith. She said, ‘Let it be done to me according to your word.’ As a result of her faith, Christ was born.
Today you will still find people, including priests and religious who don’t believe all the teachings of our faith, but we are not asked to accept their opinions, even if they appear to be well founded. We are only asked to accept the teachings of the Church, which we believe are the teachings of Christ. There is a big difference between the teachings of a person and that of Jesus Christ, Son of God and that gives us confidence because it means that what is passed on to you does not depend on any one person who teaches you, including me.
In 1858, four years after the teaching of the Immaculate Conception, an uneducated peasant girl called Bernadette received visions of Our Lady at Lourdes. She had 18 apparitions altogether. She was told by the priest to ask the ‘beautiful Lady’ her name, which she did. Bernadette asked several times, but the beautiful Lady just smiled each time. On one of the last apparitions when Bernadette again asked her name, Mary replied: ‘Que soy era la immaculada concepciou’ (I am the Immaculate Conception). Bernadette went back to the priest constantly repeating these words ‘Immaculate Conception’, since she had no idea what they meant, and repeated them to the priest. When Bernadette told him that the beautiful lady said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’, he was dumbfounded, because he knew she would never have heard these words, or have made them up. This helped to confirm to him and the bishop that the apparitions were real. Perhaps this was heaven’s way of confirming what we believe.