SATURDAY, DECEMBER 8: The celebration of Christ’s birth is on the horizon for 2 billion Christians around the world—but about half of the world’s Christians, Catholics, pause on December 8 to recall the birth of another figure central to the Nativity: the Virgin Mary.
Most American Christians readily agree that they believe in an “immaculate conception,” thinking that it refers to Mary’s pregnancy and the eventual birth of Jesus at Christmas. National polls have documented this confusion and Catholic teachers regularly admit that even many of their own church members are confused. In fact, this infallible doctrine was only declared by the Vatican in the mid-1800s in a troubling era when the popes were eager to demonstrate their authority.
IMMACULATE CONCEPTION: WHAT IS THIS CATHOLIC DOCTRINE?
The doctrine in a nutshell: This official teaching of the Catholic church isn’t about Jesus’s conception; it’s about Mary’s own conception many years earlier.
The Chrisian world is divided on the doctrine: To this day, the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity does not accept the Vatican declaration from the 1800s—even though Eastern Christians readily affirm that Mary was without sin throughout her entire life. Most American Protestants aren’t even aware of the specifics of this Catholic doctrine. Some Anglicans who feel close to the Catholic church do affirm the doctrine; most American Episcopalians don’t. Even early Catholic theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, argued against the doctrine of immaculate conception. Aquinas argued that Mary must have sinned at some point and must have been redeemed like all other humans.
What the Immaculate Conception doctrine says: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website recommends that Catholics follow the presentation of these teachings in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. On the Immaculate Conception, the Catechism says:
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.”
WORLD FAMOUS BOOST TO IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
Catholic Day of Obligation:
In some Catholic countries, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a public holiday. In the United States, the majority of the nation’s Catholics don’t attend the special services—especially this year, since the Saturday feast day would mean going to Mass two days in a row.
The Famous Declaration at Lourdes:
In the early years of this doctrine, a startling event in France sealed the church teaching in the popular imagination of Catholics around the world. The 14-year-old peasant girl now known as St. Bernadette Soubirous began witnessing apparitions of Mary in early February 1858 at Lourdes. Then, in late March, the miraculous apparition declared: “Que soy era immaculada concepciou.” (In English: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”) The millions of pilgrims who flock to Lourdes see this inscription beneath the statue of Mary in the world-famous grotto. Each year at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a torch-lit procession draws thousands and ranks as one of Lourdes’ biggest annual events.
WANT TO HONOR MARY?
Try taking a virtual tour of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Symbols for the day include the color blue, a crown of 12 stars and lilies—any of which can be combined for celebration. (Make a candle with help from CatholicCulture.) Catholics also may want to recite the Prayer to the Immaculate Conception, courtesy of Global Catholic Network, and continue appropriate prayers for nine days following.