Immaculate Conception is still misunderstood

By  Fr. Francis X. Johnson, S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • November 30, 2006

On Dec. 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the dogmatic bull Ineffabilis Deus. In it he stated, "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, saviour of the human race, preserved from all stain of original sin." Since then, Catholics have celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception each year on the anniversary.

Many people still misunderstand the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In the encyclopedia World Book Millennium 2000 we read in the entry for Immaculate Conception, "The term is often confused among non-Catholics with the Virgin birth."

One example of such confusion is the statement by Gordon Sinclair, a broadcaster for CFRB, on Dec. 8, 1939. He said, "Today, the Catholics are trotting off to church to celebrate the Virgin birth." He was clearly wrong.

Sixty-one years later, in an article in The Globe and Mail entitled "A masterful performance" (about the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel), Michael Valpy wrote, "…at Nazareth, where Jesus' immaculate conception was announced." He confused the conception of Mary with her conception of Jesus. He implied that immaculate conception means conception without a human father.

About one year later in a lengthy article in The Globe and Mail, entitled "There's something about Mary," Valpy wrote, "She herself was proclaimed by the Catholic Church in 1854 to have been immaculately conceived, meaning without sex." Despite reading 75 books about Mary, he did not understand the Immaculate Conception. In fact, Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother Anne, following intercourse with her husband Joachim. This likely happened about 15 years before Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the plays, Sister Act I and II, which toured Ontario a few years ago, one of the jokes told was about the Immaculate Conception. But it was based on the misunderstanding cited above. When I pointed this out to the elderly Catholic woman who related the joke to me, she replied, "But we say in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 'Queen conceived without original sin, pray for us.' " In the hundreds of times that she had prayed that litany, she always thought that the word "conceived" referred to Mary's conception of Jesus, rather than Mary's conception in the womb of her mother Anne. This shows that even some Catholics misunderstand the Immaculate Conception. Such Catholics should reflect on Mary's words spoken to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in 1858, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

In English, we have a saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words." With a picture, perhaps people who do not understand the concept would grasp the reality of Mary's sinlessness. Such a picture was painted by the Flemish painter Jean Bellegambe (1470-1535). It is titled St. Anne conceiving the Virgin Mary. It shows St. Anne at prayer and Mary as a fetus, glowing like a neon light in her womb, because she is sinless and does not suffer from the darkening effects of original sin.

Mary's sinlessness from the moment of her conception was to prepare her for her vocation to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah. It should have been unthinkable for Jesus to spend nine months in a womb that was ever under the influence of the devil.

As Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception they should make sure that they understand the true meaning of the honour given to Mary. They owe this to God, who brought about the Immaculate Conception. They owe it to Mary who is the Immaculate Conception. And they owe it to themselves and to those to whom they will explain it.

(Fr. Johnson is a priest in the archdiocese of Toronto.)

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