Monday, December 08, 2008

For Our Patroness, an Immaculate "Word"

Regardless of the day of the week on which they fall, but two observances of the calendar are always holy days of obligation on these shores: one is Christmas... and the other is today -- the national feast of these United States, the Immaculate Conception.

Anyone who didn't realize the import is forgiven -- Stateside celebrations for our patroness invariably register at a level comparable with crickets. Nevertheless, if there's one day that, year in and year out, should invariably be devoted to prayer for this land -- both in gratitude for its many blessings, and especially amid the economic, societal, moral and political challenges this moment in history calls us to face -- well, welcome to it.

Later today, the Pope will travel to Rome's Piazza di Spagna for the traditional "homage" to the statue of the Immacolata atop a pillar at the square's center... but as this is an obligatory day 'round these parts, it means an extraordinary "Word" for the solemnity, to boot.

Appropriately enough, fresh off the heels of a historic, charged political cycle, our Immaculate preach comes from Capitol Hill, courtesy of Fr Milt Jordan, senior priest at St Joseph's on the Senate Side (...and, given the number of the Hundred who show for Mass there, de facto Catholic chaplain to the Upper House).

A veteran pastor, administrator, educator, spiritual director, diplomat, raconteur, and pulpiteer, you can catch Jordan's daily insights and reflections at A Prayer on the Hill... for now, though, it's a gift to share his homily for our national feast.

But first, The Readings....

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Today these words come from Capitol Hill as we celebrate the feast recognizing Mary as patroness of our nation under her title of the Immaculate Conception.

But given our surroundings, let's begin with a secular title that's also a good fit for Mary: First Lady. Is it not realistic to consider the only woman, the single soul of all humanity to be conceived without any sin, even without a share in our original sin, as such? Is it not a truth that this young girl of no fame or fortune was chosen by God from all eternity to be the mother of his only Son? Indeed, then, Mary is the First Lady of our faith.

As we consider Mary's special role in salvation history, we face -- we're caught up by -- a fascinating activity of God. There is something truly overwhelming in today's Gospel, a singular experience of encountering awe -- one human being coming face to face with another and being moved to reverence and wonder. So we might ask ourselves, what is it that stirs up such emotions as we look at a picture or statue of this woman -- so often an image of a caring, loving mother, one with whom we experience a unique, unmatched relationship?

At different times in our lives we recognize that we are a journeying people, a people in pilgrimage. We seek to discover and understand God's will in our lives. We look to find God's agenda for us. On this journey, we never travel alone, and earthly journeys were a part of Mary's life: her visit to Elizabeth, traveling with Joseph to Bethlehem, her exile with her newborn Son and spouse to Egypt, then with Him to Cana and, then, the most painful of all -- up Calvary's hill.

But in each journey, Mary walks with God. In every instance, she serves us as a model -- a First Lady -- of faith and trust. She offers herself to us as a presence that invites us to love God. She walks with our nation as she watches over it and it continues to grow.

As the curtain fell on the 18th century, thirteen colonies declared their independence from a distant motherland. The dream of our Fathers gave birth to a new nation, these United States of America. And at the same time, our Church in this land was writing its place in history right along with it.

On August 15th 1791, in the small chapel of an English castle, Father John Carroll was ordained America's first Catholic bishop, assigned to the newly-founded Diocese of Baltimore. In his own "inaugural" address, given in the infancy of our life as a nation, Bishop Carroll dedicated these States to the patronage of the Mother of God, entrusting to her another earthly journey that continues to this very day. Even before this, as far back as 1643, the King of Spain dedicated his newfound lands in the Americas to the special care of the Mother of Christ and Mother of the Church.

In a mid-19th century letter, the Holy See summoned the American bishops to Rome for the solemn pronouncement of the Immaculate Conception as a definitive teaching of the Church. At the time, an eminent historian noted that the bishops "could bring with them three centuries of [their people's] devotion to Mary Immaculate as their offering to the Mother of God."

A century later, the man who would become Cardinal Cushing of Boston observed that "many of the shrines of Our Lady popular at the present time in America date from the arrival of the first European." He likewise noted that just as Europeans were creating their own Madonnas with the distinctive ethnic features of the various nations there, here in the baby USA, our First Lady took on the likeness of the indigenous Indians.

By the mid 1800s, the efforts of early American Catholics to advance the dogma of the Immaculate Conception began to meet with success. In 1847, Bl Pius IX confirmed the desire of the bishops that Mary, conceived without sin, would be the patroness of our Church. Maybe we've always been ahead of the curve, but this somewhat upstaged the formal declaration of the dogma eight years later! In 1866, it was decreed that December 8th was to be observed as a holy day of obligation in every diocese of the United States, and Mary's new journey was officially underway.

Our early bishops were clearly committed to Marian devotion and, above all, the Immaculate Conception. In promoting this most unusual, most divine reality of the birth of the Son of God by Mary, they were clearly enamored of God's mysterious love for us. The early leaders of our Church seemed to be convinced beyond any doubt that he loved this nation as he loved Mary, as he loves each of us, "even before the foundation of the world."

Today's feast offers each of us an opportunity to dust off the history of our Church in the United States and its adoption of Mary Immaculate as our special protector. Likewise, as we prepare to celebrate a historic inauguration, perhaps we might, without taking anything from our First Lady-to-be, keep in mind how significant Mary's care of our land was to our forefathers and foremothers. From the arrival of the Ark and the Dove on St George's Island in Maryland's St Mary's County to today, our Blessed Lady -- our First Lady -- has been and remains a very strong support in the lives of so many of us. Perhaps, as we experience the emotional stirrings of a transfer of earthly power and the ascent of a new generation into our nation's highest office, we also rouse up in our hearts the importance of our dedication as a people, as a nation, to Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception.

Today, we are waiting -- waiting to celebrate the day when our patroness birthed the Son of God into the world. As American Catholics, Catholic Americans, let us continue to call upon the Mother of God, our Mother, to continue her care and love for us all, for this nation placed under her care. In these tumultuous times when Main Street has felt the sting of Wall Street and turns with hope toward Pennsylvania Avenue, may we never forget the way to Mary, our Patroness. Let us always bring ourselves and our needs to her loving care, and just as she journeyed this earth with her Son and walks with each of us along our own paths, may her example and tenderness guide all of us, and this land we love, safely home.
...and keeping with the themes of spiritual history and national prayer -- and speaking of the aforementioned Carroll, to boot -- the founder-bishop's Prayer for the Nation and the Civil Authorities, first delivered by him on 10 November 1791:
We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope Benedict, the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own Bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance.

To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.

...and, lastly, as a musical bonus, two takes on the traditional antiphon proper to today's solemnity:

To one and all, on these shores and far beyond, the best of wishes for a buona festa.