By Cardinal Justin Rigali

We can say that our Blessed Mother has had a special presence in the Americas for over five hundred years. We know that the flagship of Christopher Columbus, the Santa Maria, was named after her and, as part of their evening prayers aboard ship, Columbus’ crew sang the Salve Regina in her honor each night. The Spanish and French missionaries, who accompanied many of the explorers, introduced devotion to our Lady to the peoples they sought to evangelize and various places in both of the Americas still bear names that were given them in her honor. North, Central and South America are dotted with rivers, towns and cities named for our Lady under her various titles. My own birthplace, Los Angeles, is actually named for our Lady under the title of La Reina de Los Angeles, Our Lady, Queen of the Angels.

We are all familiar with the first of the native American Madonnas: Our Lady of Guadalupe. She appeared to the Christian native American Juan Diego in 1591, leaving on his tilma, or cloak, her image which is so beloved by the Mexican people, both in their native country and here in the United States. When various Spanish and French colonies were subsequently conquered by the British, especially in what we now know as the eastern part of the United States, some of the Catholic influence established by the earlier missionaries lessened but did not disappear. Shortly after the birth of the United States, the Holy See established the diocese of Baltimore, which included all of the original thirteen colonies as its territory. Father John Carroll was named its first bishop and was consecrated on August 15, 1791, the Solemnity of the Assumption of our Lady.

In the first Pastoral Letter which he addressed to his far-flung diocese on May 28, 1792, he entrusted his daunting task to our Blessed Mother. He wrote: “I shall only add this my earnest request, that to the exercise of the sublimest virtues, faith, hope and charity, you will join a fervent and well-regulated devotion to the Holy Mother of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; that you will place great confidence in her in all your necessities. Having chosen her the special patroness of this Diocese, you are placed, of course, under her powerful protection; and it becomes your duty to be careful to deserve its continuance by a zealous imitation of her virtues and a reliance on her motherly superintendence.”

The concept of patronage
As we recall our Lady as the Patroness of the United States under her title of the Immaculate Conception, it would seem appropriate for us to dwell on the concept of patronage and also to review our belief concerning the Immaculate Conception.

We know that the concept of patronage involves a certain intimacy between inspaniduals. It is sometimes used with a negative connotation but it is not meant to be so. It should describe a caring, intimate relationship in which one person or group looks out for another. We are all familiar with the concept of a patron saint. This is a heavenly intercessor with whom an inspanidual or parish or country has a special relationship. It is one of imitation on the part of the earthly inspanidual and special protection on the part of the heavenly patron. This is why the Church encourages us to name children after the saints, so that they might have a special protector in heaven, with whom they can cultivate a relationship and be provided with an example which they can follow in their own lives as Christians.

At the sixth Plenary Council of Baltimore held in 1846, the bishops of the United States unanimously chose our Blessed Mother, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, to be the Patroness of the United States of America. In the Pastoral Letter issued by the bishops, we read: “We take this occasion to communicate to you the determination, unanimously adopted by us, to place ourselves and all entrusted to our charge throughout the United States, under the special patronage of the holy Mother of God, whose Immaculate Conception is venerated by the piety of the faithful throughout the Catholic Church. By the aid of her prayers, we entertain the confident hope that we will be strengthened to perform the arduous duties of our ministry, and that you will be enabled to practice the sublime virtues, of which her life presents the most perfect example.”

The following year, the bishops were informed that “our Holy Father Pius IX most willingly confirmed the wishes of the Council that has selected the Blessed Virgin, conceived without sin, as the patroness of the Church in the United States of America” (Letter of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith). This patronage became the culmination of the place Mary already had in the life of the Americas and the beginning of a new chapter in her intimate relationship with the new Republic as its special Patroness.

The Immaculate Conception
The request of the bishops of the United States anticipated the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which would take place in 1854. Although the truth proclaimed in that year had long been held by the Church, it had not been infallibly proclaimed. Pope Pius IX (1846 -1878) made that solemn proclamation, teaching that: “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” (Ineffabilis Deus).

It is good for us to review this teaching at this time because sometimes there is some confusion concerning just what this mystery refers to. We are not speaking here of the Incarnation, which is the mystery in which the eternal Son of God became Flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the working of the Holy Spirit, nor are we speaking of the virgin birth by which Mary’s virginity remained intact, even though she had conceived the Word in her womb.

The mystery of the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother, whom tradition tells us was Saint Anne. This conception, which took place as a result of normal relations between Saint Anne and her husband, whom we know as Saint Joachim, did not involve the transmission of the sin of Adam and Eve, original sin, to the child conceived by Joachim and Anne. It is this preservation from original sin in the soul of Mary at her conception that we call the Immaculate Conception. The Church tells us that this was not accomplished apart from Christ, nor based on the merits of Mary herself, but by virtue of the foreseen merits that Jesus Christ would win by His Death and Resurrection. God saw from all eternity that it would be most fitting that the womb which would contain the Word made Flesh should never be touched by the stain of sin at any time.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council teaches, concerning this mystery: “Enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendor of an entirely unique holiness, the virgin from Nazareth is hailed by the heralding angel, by spanine command as ‘full of grace’ (Luke 1:28), and to the heavenly messenger she replies: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38)” (Lumen Gentium, 56).

Act of Entrustment of Pope John Paul II
During his first Pastoral Visit to the United States in 1979, which included a visit to Philadelphia, Pope John Paul II made an Act of Entrustment to the Blessed Virgin, which he recited on October 7 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. We can make his concluding words on that occasion our own as we celebrate once again the great Solemnity of the Patroness of our country: “The bishops of the Church in the United States have chosen you in the mystery of your Immaculate Conception as the Patroness of the People of God in this country. May the hope enclosed in this mystery prevail over sin and may it be shared among all the sons and daughters of America and throughout the human family. In a period during which the struggle between good and evil, between the prince of darkness and the Father of light and of evangelical love is becoming greater, may the light of your Immaculate Conception show to all the way of grace and salvation. Amen.”

4 December 2008