Homily for Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception,
Mt. St. Mary Seminary, December 9, 2002.

On December 8, 1854 Pius IX defined as an article of faith that "the Virgin Mary at the moment of conception was preserved from all defilement of original sin by a unique privilege of grace in view of the merits of Jesus Christ." In many ways this definition was a profound counter-cultural gesture because in 1854 original sin was not a particularly popular idea, at least not beyond the pale of Catholic faith. The idea that humanity had undergone some primeval catastrophe which left it out of touch with holiness and inclined toward self-destruction seemed contrary to everything that was going on in the world. In the mid-19th century the philosophers were talking about the total intelligibility of being and its irreversible progress toward total fulfillment. The revolutions of 1848 had been an indication to progressive thinkers that the common man - the shopkeeper, the artisan, the soldier - was now ready to take over control of his own destiny, was now capable of directing his world to peace and prosperity. Most of the revolutions had failed, to be sure, but everybody knew there would be others that would eventually bring human kind to utopia. In literature the romantics were proclaiming the natural goodness, strength, and creativity of all human energies. In five years Darwin would announce that survival was the reward for fitness. On the basis of that, people would soon convince themselves that all human effort was naturally and necessarily evolving toward the best of all possible worlds. In this context, the idea of an original sin seemed like an ugly relic of the middle ages. Yet it was precisely in this context that the Church taught that one and only one human person was sinless, that one and only one had been preserved from being born into catastrophe. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was profoundly counter cultural in 1854 because it implied the doctrine of the universality of original sin.

In our time it's a little easier to believe in original sin. Despite unparalleled advances in knowledge and technology, humankind has made a mess of things. We don't know - or don't care to know - how to distribute the abundant food supplies of the world, with the result that many go hungry while others are glutted. We continuously struggle to keep deadly chemicals out of our water. Terrorism has become a way of life all over the world. War is endemic, and we count ourselves lucky if it is confined to far off places and not afflicting us here at home. Individuals find their lives to be without meaning. The most sacred ties between human beings, marriage and family, are looked upon as outdated by some and as the source of heartbreak and ruin for others. Priests abuse children. It's a lot easier today to believe in some fundamental human defect that undermines all our efforts. It's a lot easier to believe in original sin than it was in 1854.

But the same Immaculate Conception of Mary that served to underline the universality of sin in the past serves today to teach us about the universality of redemption. The same Christ whose love and obedience to the Father preserved Mary from sharing in the universal human disaster, this same Christ makes Himself available to the desperate world of 2002. The redemption that kept Mary sinless is still there to take away the sin and the failure and the aimlessness of every human being who is willing to accept it. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception implies the universality of original sin, but it also reflects the doctrine of the efficacy of Christ, of the universality of redemption. 

This shift of polarity in the existential meaning of the Immaculate Conception is reflected in the way we express our devotion to our Blessed Mother. In the past, people tended to look on Mary as the completely different one, the great exception, the utterly unique one, to the point that she seemed to have nothing in common with the rest of us. Vatican II turned this point of view around when it taught that Mary is the model of the Church, the Church of which we are a part. Scripture scholars tell us that the New Testament portrays Mary as the one who is totally committed to Christ, His first and most pre-eminent follower, but follower none the less. We, too, profess a commitment to Christ; we, too, claim to be His followers. Contemporary devotion to the Mother of God respects her uniqueness, but it stresses the realities that we share. The original sin from which Mary was preserved is the original sin from which we, too, have been freed. The grace of Christ that was hers is the same grace of Christ that is ours. Mary is significant for us because the central factors in her life are the central factors in our own.

The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary has served as a reminder of the need for redemption to a world that was smug and self-sufficient. The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary has also served as a sign of the accessibility of redemption to a world in despair. Perhaps the lesson is that, no matter in which direction we may be facing, we need Mary Immaculate in our lives in order to remember who Christ is and who we are ourselves.

Most Rev. Daniel E. Pilarczyk
Archbishop of Cincinnati 
S. D. Gl.


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