Why do Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception? What does it mean and how is it related to Mercy? Why did Pope Francis choose the feast of the Immaculate Conception to begin the Jubilee? Is Mercy mere forgiveness or is it much more?
ZENIT asked these and other questions to Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary.
ZENIT: Your Eminence, the Extraordinary Jubilee Year, proclaimed by Pope Francis, begins with the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Can you explain in what this feast consists and how it developed?
Cardinal Piacenza: In every Marian celebration, the Church always turns to contemplate the roots of Her life itself and Her irreducible vocation to be the Bride of Her Lord, Mother of the redeemed and Mystical Body, living Presence of Christ in the world. The great truth of the Immaculate
ZENIT: And what can the Immaculate still say to Western man “sated and desperate,” wedged between the pretension of emancipation, of seeing every wish of his transformed into a right, and the absence of an ultimate meaning for his life?
Cardinal Piacenza: Perhaps man is only more desperate, given that the economic crisis has also made the securities of a few years ago fail! You used an interesting word: “emancipation.” The only possible emancipation for man cannot be from truth, but from sin. Emancipation from truth, from the truth of Christ, God made man, and from his own created human nature and from the moral law inscribed in his heart, emancipation from that intelligent and humble obedience, which truth always requires, cannot but lead man to an ultimate solitude, in which he becomes incapable of seeing God, of communicating with brothers and of hearing that which the “great sign” of reality suggests incessantly. Sin is always a “practical denial” of truth. To be emancipated from it enables man to open himself to the great horizon of God, to enter into a true dialogue with every other man, and into that extraordinary “friendship” with Creation, which we see in so many Saints, as the great Saint Francis of Assisi, and that Pope Francis wished to recall in the Encyclical “Laudato Si’.” However, there is no other emancipation from sin, no other “salvation,” which is not in Christ. The Immaculate is She who is full of grace because She was “pre-redeemed,” namely, redeemed by Christ, not only before any other creature, but at the very root of Her being. Mary Most Holy is integrally human, in Her the fullness of humanity flowers. As opposed to us men, She is not “restrained” by original sin in what constitutes the only, true appropriate purpose of human nature: the intelligent and free relation with the truth of God and with His love.
ZENIT: Your Eminence, in the past decades Marian devotion has at times been placed at the margins be it in theological research, be it in pastoral action, adducing expressly as reason the necessity of a greater “Christological” concentration, perhaps also geared to a more effective ecumenical dialogue. However, is it really possible to leave the Immaculate out of consideration in the thought and life of the Church?
Cardinal Piacenza: Every word and every choice of Christ, who is God made man, is for us simply an inexorable necessity. If He divinely chose not to do without Mary of Nazareth to become man and save us, we cannot, nor do we certainly want to pretend to do without her. Moreover, in Mary the whole Christian Revelation finds, we can say, its “foundation,” its “method” and its continuous “protection”: Revelation has in Her its “foundation,” theologically and historically speaking: theologically, because God, conceived first in her Heart and then in Her Immaculate Womb, takes flesh in Her and from Her, uniting Himself definitively to our nature; historically, because entering in the world through Mary — “Spouse of a man of the House of David, named Joseph” Saint Luke tells us – Christ inserts Himself fully in the great river of human history and of the family of David, in particular. In Mary, Revelation then has its “method”: as to the most pure freedom of Mary, in the moment of the Annunciation, the Mystery conferred the unheard of power to open or not the doors of Heaven, thus Christ, who is the Mystery made flesh, confers on every man the same unheard of power to receive or not His Person and His grace. In Mary, finally, Revelation has its continuous “protection,” because Christianity, being a “life,” the Divine Life of Christ in us, is not only in need of human coherence and even of great speculations, but always and above all of a Mother! And then, as the great Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe teaches, we must have no fear of loving Our Lady “too” much, because Christ will always love Her more than us.
ZENIT: Do you think that the Immaculate can also have a particular meaning for this Jubilee Year dedicated to Mercy?
Cardinal Piacenza: Certainly. In fact, the Immaculate shows us, in a simple and clear way, how we must understand the Mystery of Mercy. Widespread today, in fact, is a certain tendency to “measure” Mercy “on sin,” almost as if sin has the power, or worse yet the right, to arouse Divine Mercy; almost as if Mercy can be reduced to mere “forgiveness” of fault. Divine Mercy certainly also means forgiveness of the sinner but, at the same time, it is immensely more. It is God’s “irrupting” in man’s history; it is His revealing Himself to us, revealing the Mystery of His divine intimacy; it is His sharing of our human condition itself, to the end, to the experience of death, to render us entirely participants of His own Divine Life; it is our participating in such Divine Life through the Sacrament of Baptism, which changes our being radically, drawing it to the Being itself of Christ, in His Being Son of the Eternal Father, and admitting us in the great communion of the Baptized, which embraces heaven and earth, which is the Communion of the Church; it is giving His Real Presence in the Most Holy Eucharist, which unites us ever more perfectly to Him and draws us in His salvific Offer to the Father. Mercy, understood as forgiveness of individual fault, comes only ”after” in this sense. First there is the immense gift of the Life of Christ and then the wonderful “removal” of that which in us has obfuscated or compromised it. The Immaculate is the real beginning of all this and is its womb for ever.
ZENIT: One last question, Eminence, hoping that you can give us this confidence: what do you ask the Immaculate for the Church in this Jubilee Year?
Cardinal Piacenza: I answer with pleasure, raising now, in fact, through this means my prayer to the Immacula
te, that She may obtain three graces for us: first of all the protection of the Holy Father in his unimaginable task of Supreme Pastor of the Church, perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity, called to confirm his brothers in the faith, resisting the tempest of errors that grips the world; in the second place, I ask the Immaculate for a great and renewed vocational spring, which can give the Church holy priests and consecrated persons, for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity; finally, I ask simply, that She grant the great promise of Fatima, whose centenary occurs in 2017: the great triumph of Her Immaculate Heart.
[Translation by ZENIT]