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NOVEMBER 22, 2004

 

 

 

 

COMMENTARY

• Immaculate Conception doctrine defined 150 years ago

• Knitting is one of the ways to be in the presence of God

 

Immaculate Conception doctrine
defined 150 years ago

By Brother John Samaha, S.M.

Next month marks the 150th anniversary of Blessed Pope Pius IX’s solemn definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. On Dec. 8, 1854, he declared that Mary was conceived in her mother’s womb without original sin.

Sadly, this doctrine is frequently misunderstood.

Pius IX explained that Mary was preserved from original sin by a “singular grace and privilege” given her by God “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ” as redeemer of the human race.
Mary, like every other human being, needed the redemptive benefits of Christ, but, in anticipation of what God did for all through Christ, she alone was preserved from original sin “from the first moment of her conception.”

In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (n. 25), the Second Vatican Council pointed out the social and structure elements of sin, which helps us to understand original sin as a human condition that everyone encounters in the world from the moment of birth.

Thus Mary’s “singular grace and privilege” is easier to understand. By her Immaculate Conception she was conceived in the fullness of grace, in the state of closest possible union with God in view of her future role as the Mother of God.

This feast was celebrated already in the seventh century in Palestine as the Conception by St. Anne of the Theotokos (Mother of God) on Dec. 9. But the doctrine is understood differently by some Eastern Christian Churches because of a variance in their theological understanding of original sin.

The observance spread west from Constantinople. Still called the Conception of St. Anne and observed on Dec. 9, it was prominent in Naples in the ninth century, in English monasteries in the 11th century when it was called the feast of the Conception of Our Lady, and in France in the 12th century.

When the feast was introduced in France, St. Bernard of Clairvaux opposed it, igniting a controversy that endured for three centuries. Most Scholastic theologians, including St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure, opposed the doctrine on the grounds that it detracted from the universality of the redemption by Christ.

But it was defended in the 13th century and explained with theological clarity by Blessed John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan. In 1263 the Franciscans adopted the feast.

The opponents of this feast and doctrine had argued that Mary had to be touched by original sin for at least an instant, even though she was sanctified in her mother’s womb. John Duns Scotus resolved these objections by explaining that Christ can save and redeem in two ways: he can rescue from sin those already fallen or he can preserve one from being touched by sin even for an instant.

The Council of Basel in 1439 affirmed this belief. Ten years later the Sorbonne in Paris required all its degree candidates to pledge an oath to defend the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Pope Sixtus IV in 1476 approved the feast with its proper Mass and Office, and in 1708 Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the universal Church and made it a holyday of obligation.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) explicitly declared that Mary was exempt from the taint of original sin. From then on the belief was embraced generally and defended by all schools of theology.

Many Catholic leaders and founders of religious communities in the 18th and 19th centuries promoted and expounded Mary’s Immaculate Conception with special interest and verve, and this doctrine became an important part of many Marian spiritualities.

One such exponent was Blessed William Joseph Chaminade (1761-1850), founder of the Marianist family.

At the First Council of Baltimore in 1846, the Catholic bishops of the United States chose Mary under the title of her Immaculate Conception as the patron saint of the nation. This deepened interest in the vast new country.

The apparition of Mary Immaculate to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830 at Paris also advanced the devotion. And the solemn definition in 1854 was the culmination of this development. Like an additional seal on the definition, four years later Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes and, when asked to identify herself, replied, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

In 1863, a new Mass and Office were composed for the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on Dec. 8, nine months before the feast of her birth on Sept. 8.

This feast is also celebrated as the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Church of England. Among the Eastern Churches, the feast of St Anne of the Most Holy Theotokos continues to be observed on Dec. 9.

To celebrate the centenary of the definition of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius XII, a great apostle of Mary, declared 1954 a Marian Year, the first.

In 2004, we are privileged to mark the sesquicentennial of that definition.
“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.”

(Marianist Brother John Samaha is a former religious educator in the Oakland Diocese. He currently resides in Cupertino.)


Knitting is one of the ways to be
in the presence of God

By Julie McCarty

In “Beginning to Pray” (Paulist Press), Archbishop Anthony Bloom recounts how a woman in her nineties came to him when he was newly ordained, frustrated with her prayer life. She complained that, in 14 years of praying the Jesus Prayer, she had never really felt God’s presence. (Imagine saying the rosary all that time and not perceiving God’s presence even once.)

Father Anthony commented that perhaps she wasn’t giving God a chance to get a word in edgewise.

He suggested that each morning, she should take out her knitting supplies and “knit before the face of God” for 15 minutes. He forbid her to utter even one word of prayer. “You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room,” he said.

Although his advice sounded rather strange, the elderly woman decided to give it a try. After breakfast, she went to her room, lit a candle before the icon, pulled up a chair, and sat down.
At first, she felt relief at being allowed to “do nothing,” and then, as she looked around the room, she experienced fresh gratitude for all the things in her room.

She began to knit in a calm, unhurried fashion. With only the sound of the clock gently ticking and the needles rhythmically clicking, the old woman began to be aware that the silence was not an absence. The silence of her room was filled with the rich presence of God, a divine silence that permeated the quiet within her soul.

Words of prayers can certainly help us express ourselves to God. Yet, as we mature spiritually, God invites us to pray in other ways as well, ways that do not always involve the use of words.

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a 17th-century Carmelite, discovered a way to pray in the midst of his daily work that involved few or no words. The classic book “The Practice of the Presence of God” describes his approach as recorded in conversations, spiritual maxims, and letters.

Brother Lawrence sought to remember God’s presence in every moment of the day, no matter where he was or what he was doing. When he was first assigned to work in the monastery kitchen, he felt an inward aversion to the idea. The more he practiced recalling God’s presence while working amidst the pots and pans, the more he began to find joy. After 15 years of cooking, Brother Lawrence came to feel God’s presence as much in the kitchen as in the chapel.

Practicing the presence of God was something Brother Lawrence encouraged others to do, including people outside the monastery walls. For example, in a letter to a laywoman, he wrote: “…think often of God, by day, by night, whatever you are doing, in your duties, even in your amusements. He is always near you and with you; do not neglect Him. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you; why then leave God alone? Do not then forget Him, think about Him often—to do so is the proper business of a Christian: if we do not know our calling we must learn it.”

We, too, can practice the presence of God. The best place to begin, I believe, is to think of God during the simplest tasks we do, like washing our hands, sweeping the floor, doing lawn work, or walking in the parking lot. When done quietly, with little fuss or hurry, these simple tasks can become occasions for practicing a simple awareness of God.

Gradually, we can focus our hearts on God’s presence in slightly more complicated tasks. When rocking a child to sleep or embracing a loved one, we can thank God for his presence. Turning on the evening news or powering up the computer to answer e-mail, we can recall God is with us. We can come to know God’s presence when encountering a homeless person, dealing with a difficult situation at work, or being stuck in a traffic jam.

And, like the 90-year-old woman, we can knit before the face of God. For the rest of her life—she lived another decade—she was able to find the contemplative silence containing God’s presence whenever she truly entered the quiet stillness within herself.

(Julie McCarty, M.A.T., is a freelance writer from Eagan, Minnesota, whose syndicated column on prayer appears in diocesan newspapers around the country. Contact her at soulwriting@yahoo.com. )

 

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