Question: Would you please explain the Immaculate Conception?
-- Theresa T., Manchester, N.J.
Answer: The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854, is certainly among the more difficult doctrines of the Catholic Church to understand. In the declaration of 1854, the doctrine is presented essentially in these words: "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."
One way to approach this doctrine is to see it as a statement about Mary's vocation -- her unique vocation to give flesh to the Son of God in the world. The pre-eminent vocation we are given at our baptism is to make Christ present in the world.
This vocation was given to Mary in a unique and unsurpassable way. To say that Mary was "immaculately conceived" is to say that from her mother's womb, from the moment of her conception, she was given the vocation of bringing Christ into the world. Mary was predestined to be the mother of our Redeemer.
Like all Marian doctrines, this one names and signifies something important about the Church and about each Christian believer. This doctrine celebrates the truth that we are all called to be servants of God's grace as it works itself out and takes root in human history. It proclaims our vocation to be immaculate disciples and declares the vocation of the Church to be the immaculate Church, uniquely called to extend Christ's redemption into history.
This is not to suggest that the Church is the community of the perfect; far from it. The Church lives in both light and shadow, as do each one of its members. Yet Christian life in the model of Mary immaculately conceived is marvelous to behold, and the Church, despite all its faults, is the zone of God's liberating presence in the world.
The preface for the solemnity of the feast of the Immaculate Conception underlines this connection between Mary's Immaculate Conception and the vocation of the Church and its people. Immaculately conceived, Mary was God's "sign of favor to the Church at its beginning."
God "chose her from all women" to be "our pattern of holiness." Thus Mary's Immaculate Conception does not isolate her from humanity; rather, it unites us to her.
There is much, much more that could be said about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. What I am saying here is incomplete, but is, I hope, a useful beginning in dealing with a doctrine of enormous richness and depth.
Question: I like to follow the Mass prayers and readings from a missal. However, my old missal is falling apart. I would like to buy a new missal. Which version do you recommend?
-- L. Welch, St. Louis, Mo.
Answer: There are a number of well-bound and durable missals on the market. However, if I were you I would wait a couple of years, as the missal is about to undergo some significant changes. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy is presently working with the Holy See on producing a new translation of all the prayers of the Mass.
No date for the implementation of the new texts has been announced, but I expect that they may be officially promulgated within two or three years.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.