Why Is the Immaculate Conception a Most Appropriate Patroness for the United States?
In these four days between the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 8-12), we honor Mary as a prophetic warrior who gave us her Son to crush the murderous serpent
The Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of the “Immaculate Conception,” is patroness of the United States. She was proclaimed unanimously on May 13, 1846, by the Catholic bishops of the United States under that title. Pope Pius XI affirmed that decision July 2, 1847.
That decision occurred seven and a half years before the same pope formally declared the Immaculate Conception to be a binding dogma of the Catholic Church.
Yet Dec. 8 comes and goes. Not a few Catholics in the United States ignore its status as a holy day of obligation. Some attend Mass, but I bet most really wonder what’s so important that we are celebrating this day. (It must be important: it’s the only holy day besides Christmas not subject to the U.S. bishops’ “Saturday-or-Monday-holy-days-don’t-count-unless-we-transfer-them-to-Sunday” rule].
So why is this day so important and why is the Immaculate Conception an appropriate patroness for the United States, especially today?
First, some preliminary clarifications. On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived free of sin. Mary, by virtue of the prevenient grace of her Son’s Redemption, was free of original sin from the first moment of her conception. She was without sin throughout her life.
It is telling that we mark Dec. 8 — the day Mary was conceived — as the holy day on which Mass attendance is obliged, not Sept. 8, the day the Church celebrates the Nativity (i.e., Birth) of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Dec. 8 does not celebrate Jesus’s conception. That is what we celebrate on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation (although we use the Gospel of the Annunciation in the liturgy on Dec. 8 because, first, the whole reason for the Immaculate Conception was to prepare a worthy Mother for the Son of God who comes into the world at his Annunciation; and second, there is no canonical Gospel of Mary’s conception, birth and childhood.
Now, why is she a most appropriate patroness for the United States, especially today? Three reasons:
First, celebrating Mary under the title of the “Immaculate Conception” should focus attention to America’s ongoing failure to reckon with the reality of conception. America’s hands bear the blood of 60 million “products of conception” who have been killed since Roe v. Wade. There are many Americans who want to continue that bloodletting. And, to be honest, if you read Marvin Olasky’s excellent history, The Story of Abortion in America, you’ll see that even when the law protected the unborn, law enforcement often looked the other way when it came to ignoring the rights of the unborn.
The very term I cited, “products of conception,” is employed by pro-abortionists to dehumanize the unborn. Isn’t it paradoxical that when Mary first appeared at Lourdes in 1858 and the visionary Bernadette Soubirous asked her to identify herself, Mary’s response was “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Not “I am Mary,” or “I am the Blessed Virgin,” but “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Clearly being a “product of conception” was not dehumanizing to her — in fact, it was a title elevated supernaturally.
Isn’t it interesting that when Our Lady appeared in 1830 to reveal the Miraculous Medal to St. Catherine Labouré, Mary’s design included the invocation, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Not “O Mary, Mother of God,” or “O Mary, who suffered alongside your Son,” or any other formulation. “O Mary, conceived without sin …” was how Our Lady chose to focus on her intercessory role 16 years before the bishops of the United States chose her as our patroness.
There’s also her intercessory role. Mary gave the Miraculous Medal as a sacramental to help her children in the midst of their problems. The biggest problem human beings face is sin. It is usually the source of many of their other problems. Again, if you read Olasky, you’ll find that abortions (not just) in colonial America were usually sought by men who impregnated a woman and then wanted to abandon her. Is it not telling that Mary seeks to extricate us from our problems and sins — many of which are connected with sex and conception — under the title of the Immaculate Conception?
Second, Dec. 8 teaches us about personhood. In defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX wrote that “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first instant of her conception … was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin …” (Ineffabilis Deus, “Definition”).
Among pro-abortionists’ arguments against the humanity of the unborn is the contention that they lack “agency,” i.e., they are not autonomous, they are not self-aware, they don’t “do” anything voluntarily. They just grow. Well, Pius clearly attributes a moral status to Mary — free from sin, immaculately conceived — for which she did nothing. She did not “earn” it. It was purely God’s grace. So, we’re stuck with some contradictions: if the abortionists are right, Mary is not human. But how can a non-human have a moral quality? And if she could (and did) have a moral quality, then does being able to “do” something or “act autonomously” have any relevance to the humanity question?
Mary is from the first moment of her conception. In fact, she identifies herself with that fact: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” So, another reason why she is a most appropriate patroness for America today.
Third, Mary’s self-identification — “I am the Immaculate Conception” — is absolutely not a status or identity she conferred on herself. It is wholly and absolutely an identity that alone comes from the hand of God. Mary, as “handmaid of the Lord,” considers her identity from the hand of God as something to be received, not rebelled against. She makes that identity her own: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
In an America where every hormonal crest and ebb is deemed the epiphany of a new “gender,” Mary’s identity — established at her conception and received from the hand of God — provides a vital model for a society rapidly trying to anchor itself to a radically subjective, self-defined vision of “identity.” That’s not how the patroness of this land “identified” herself.
And, in an America where the failure to “affirm” that subjective, self-defined vision of “identity” would be branded by some as “unloving” in ethics, Mary proves otherwise. She shows that the question of love and identity does not come from her imposing her self-definition on others but from the pre-existent and prevenient grace of God which brought her into existence out of love as who she is, “the Immaculate Conception.” It’s the same love that brings every human being into existence and gives that person and identity — “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5) and “called you by name” (Isaiah 43:1) — a name and identity that does not come from self-imposition or even self-discovery but from the design of God. Mary was loved into and sustained in existence by God not because of anything she did or whom she considered herself to be, but because God willed her to be and gave her identity.
Let me draw a last connection. The “Immaculate Conception” is the patroness of the United States. But America has a considerable Latino population and, for the rest of the Americas, Dec. 12 — the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe — is their patroness. Mary appeared to Juan Diego not far from where the Aztecs had engaged in human sacrifice and the Christianization of the Americas in no small part ended that practice. Our Lady of Guadalupe is also revered in connection with the pro-life movement. The most cursory glance at the iconography shows no small affinities between Our Lady of Guadalupe — she who crushes the head of the ancient serpent who brought death into the world — and the Immaculate Conception. We read the Old Testament and wonder about the worship of Baal and Astarte, “deities” that fetishized sex and demanded child sacrifice and were resisted by prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel. Yet the Americas themselves are full of Baal and Astarte worshipers, not just in history but today. Happily, especially in these four days, Dec. 8-12, we can honor a much more prophetic warrior who gave us her Son to crush the one who was “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).
We could make additional observations about how the Immaculate Conception teaches us about what true freedom is (hint: not mere “choice”), but our space is limited.
So, particularly at this moment in American history, the Immaculate Conception is a most relevant patroness who provides much essential guidance for our lives today. For Catholics who wonder why we must go to Mass on a cold December’s night, why this day is important, and what it has to do with our country, I hope the above provides some answers about the true “sacred ground” on which the Immaculate Conception defines our nation.
[With acknowledgement to Father John Paul Heisler for ideas in this essay. All views are my own].