When I was learning about Catholicism, as an Anglican in the process of converting, Mary was a sticking point. Yes, of course Jesus’s mother was “full of grace,” as the angel had said, and therefore worthy of admiration. But why did the Church teach that she was conceived without original sin and received bodily into heaven? These teachings seemed to owe more to popular piety than to the Scriptures, or even the Church Fathers. Mary’s Assumption was defined as an article of faith in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, who made clear that he was speaking infallibly. Coming from a tradition that taught neither Mary’s Assumption nor the infallibility of the pope, I found this fact a tough pill to swallow. What was it about Mary that made Catholics claim she had received so many unique gifts from God, beyond even the high honor of being Christ’s mother?
A helpful Mercedarian brother came to my aid. What I hadn’t understood at first was that Mariology is ecclesiology. That is to say, every special grace given to Mary is an eschatological promise to the Church. In a way she is unique, as the Mother of God. But in another way she is not unique: Her preservation from sin, her bodily entrance into heaven, and even her celestial coronation are the first fruits of the glories Christ offers everyone who shares in his Body. It is only fitting that he begins this glorification with his mother, the woman who gave him that human body.
At the end of all things, the Church will be immaculate, a spotless bride (Ephesians 5:27). Each human body will be resurrected and the saints will experience heaven in the flesh, their bodies and souls reunited (1 Corinthians 15:42). And the saints will have crowns to offer up to the Thrice-Holy God (Revelation 4:10). Mary is the “already” of Christ’s kingdom of “already but not yet.”
As a Catholic, I’ve come to love Mary more and more as I’ve learned more about the Church’s teaching on her. She is a testament to the heights humanity can reach through surrender to God’s grace and union with Christ. R. R. Reno has
These doctrines are life-giving good news, clarion trumpets against the satisfaction with mediocrity that plagues contemporary religious life. Catholics should embrace what we believe about Mary and celebrate it fervently and joyfully. That is why we have a feast day, this very day, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. What God has done in Mary is a reason for jubilee.
Sadly, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, in many parts of America, passes by without much fanfare. This is absurd, as it is the patronal feast day of our nation. America’s principal patron saint, chosen unanimously by the U.S. bishops in 1846, is the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception. Americans do many things with a verve and abandon that astonishes people of other nations—witness the size of the cars we manufacture and the portions we consume at restaurants. Why do we fall so short in celebrating the feast day of our heavenly patroness?
In other nations under her patronage, such as Nicaragua and the Philippines, the Immaculata’s feast day is celebrated with public processions and caroling. Such festivities are possible for us as well, and so Catholic parishes, fellowships, families, and individuals should organize gatherings to observe these traditions. It is becoming more and more clear that Catholics cannot remain faithful while trying to “blend in” to the default American culture. We should embrace this disconnect and re-introduce America to a vibrant Catholicism that launches into the public square.
In a of Kevin Starr’s Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America, Stefan McDaniel points out that many Spanish explorers and missionaries came to America burning with devotion to Mary, and named many of the natural landmarks they encountered after her. America, McDaniel says, “may have been raised Protestant, but it was baptized Catholic.” He issues a call-to-arms of sorts:
More than “Catholicism,” more even than the Catholic Church, Mary Immaculate, Queen of Heaven and Earth, has entered our history and territory, claiming it for herself. Mostly without knowing it, we Americans live in a Catholic history and move in a Catholic geography.
If we are ever to realize this fact, it will be through pilgrimage to our domestic holy sites, and through observance of December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as our preeminent feast. The status of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as the national patron is currently a piece of Catholic trivia; Catholics can make it a public truth by the simple means of food, drink, song, and bunting.
Inspired by McDaniel, my wife and I are hosting a celebration tonight in honor of the Immaculate Conception. We have invited friends to bring their favorite poems and songs about Mary to share out loud at a Marian poetry party. We will conclude with a rosary procession through Lincoln Center Plaza. Maybe other celebrants around the country will find ways to incorporate barbecuing (Mary’s feast trumps the Friday fast from meat), and even blue-and-white fireworks. Mary, our patroness and the promise of our eternal destiny, deserves to be feasted in exuberant American style.
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Alexi Sargeant is a theater director and culture critic who writes from New York.
Photo by Justin Brendel.