The discussion on the origin and theological meaning of the woman without sin, Mother of Jesus, has run through the history of Christianity, until Blessed Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854.
In 1830, following the Marian apparitions that occurred at the Rue du Bac in Paris, Catherine Laboure, a novice of the convent, had a “miraculous medal” struck, in which were inscribed the words that she saw during the Virgin’s apparition: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
In 1858, after Our Lady’s apparitions at Lourdes, Bernadette Soubirous said that the Virgin appeared to her saying: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
In order to understand the meaning, in God’s plan, of the Immaculate Conception — the meaning that the celebration of this feast has for modern man, and above all what is implied by the existence of a woman without sin in the mediation of God’s mercy –, ZENIT interviewed Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary of the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary.
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ZENIT: The feast of the Immaculate Conception is approaching and, paradoxically, it seems that enormous evil is growing in the world. As Penitentiary, what can you tell us in this regard?
Cardinal Piacenza: The privileged place of observation of the sacramental internal forum, typical of the Apostolic Penitentiary and the fact of confessing habitually, gives me the occasion to articulate some reflections on the mysterium iniquitatis because of which the certainty is of capital importance of the existence of a point of humanity not stained by sin. This is the Blessed Virgin Mary!
ZENIT: Who is the Immaculate Conception really?
Cardinal Piacenza: Mary Most Holy, the Mother of the Lord, is Immaculate by sovereign divine disposition, in view of the sublime task assigned to her by Providence and received by her liberty and by the strength and with the strength of the foreseen merits of Christ on the Cross. The Immaculate is the certainty that humanity is not necessarily sinful. There is an oasis in the world, although small, not marked by sin! We can look at this as the full realization of all that our heart is, and of all that, in its innermost depth, our heart desires.
ZENIT: But does that mystery concern us also? What does it say to the man of today?
Cardinal Piacenza: It certainly concerns each one of us, especially in the collective and personal everyday dramas; we all have an absolute need of the Immaculate. We have an absolute need of Her total belonging to ourselves, to our concrete human experience and, at the same time, of Her total estrangement from sin. An estrangement that – properly regarded – is a profound human desire and which increases, proportionately, with the global visibility and the violence of evil in the world, a desire that cannot, in the end, be suffocated by some negative experience. No matter how abysmal the evil can sometimes be in which men fall, our heart is made for the harmony that shines in the Immaculate. And in the depth of every man, though degraded, there is always a seed of nostalgia of goodness, which pastoral charity imposes on us to appreciate.
ZENIT: How can one resist all the evil in the world? How can it be overcome with goodness?
–Cardinal Piacenza: The first way to “resist evil” is to recognize it, to call it by its name, without deception. We can say that the greatest sin is not to recognize sin and to structure ways of self-justification that, in fact, frustrate the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They are always updated editions and, more or less, disguised of the ancient Gnostic heresy.
If from the abyss of evil, even if for only an instant, one raises one’s eyes to the Immaculate, she, the all Beautiful, the all Holy, the all Pure, with her omnipotence supplicates, is able to obtain everything from her Son, the One Redeemer; her provident mediation can restore everything, everything can be wholesomely radiated by her maternal look.
ZENIT: Is this Christianity’s “novelty”?
–Cardinal Piacenza: This also!! Fully realized in the Immaculate is the prophecy, according by which the Lord “makes all things new” (cf. Revelation 21:5). And our time is in extreme need of such profound renewal.
Mary is the absolute novelty. Mary is the new definitive creature, not like each of the baptized, because wholesomely redeemed, but because she was mysteriously preserved in view of Christ’s merits. The existence of this “fragment” of the created universe, who has never known the shadow of sin, dilates the heart and gaze of each one; it makes possible ever new wonders and sustains the certainty that, against all the ugliness of man and of history, the last word is:”Mercy.”
God’s Mercy always offered and never denied!
ZENIT: Did Mary really live as a genuine person, as a free woman?
Cardinal Piacenza: Immaculate is she in whom the luminous gift of liberty, which God gives to every human creature, is used in the fullest, perfect and realizable way.
As each one of us, and as opposed to the Son, Mary obeys by faith, showing humanity how a full use of liberty is possible and obedience carried out, remaining in the Exodus dimension of faith. Our human liberty itself, which can never be reduced to an arbitrary whim, has in Mary a luminous example and a source of hope. A Marian man is a free man! The Church is Marian and, therefore, free.
ZENIT: In this connection, what is the most significant moment in the life of Mary Most Holy?
Cardinal Piacenza: The highpoint of Mary’s liberty is her “yes,” to the Angel’s Announcement. It is the ‘yes’ pronounced in face of a meeting and a proposal, as happens again today with every Christian announcement.
Mary’s “yes,” which, as a ray of warm and luminous light, runs throughout history until the consummation of the centuries; until the definite construction of the temple: the New Jerusalem.
A “yes” that is the vibrant tremor of the liberty of an unknown and courageous girl of Nazareth, and which reminds us that every free human act has infinite value because it is in relation with the infinite.
ZENIT: Is Mary’s yes forever?
Cardinal Piacenza: The Blessed Virgin Mary extends her mantle over the whole history of salvation, precisely through her “yes,” which is an effective and consoling echo, certain and vibrant, real and at the same time prophetic, of the possibility of the definitive defeat of evil, already in history. The Immaculate is the woman that in Genesis is prophetically indicated as she who “will crush the serpent’s head,” and the woman” clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and crowned with twelve stars,” of the vision of Revelation.
ZENIT: How can one live, then, “close “ to the Lord’s Mother?
Cardinal Piacenza: All men and women in history can consecrate themselves to her, as the “sure way” of total offering of self to God, in his Son Jesus Christ. . We should entrust our lives to her and to her Immaculate Heart! We always entrust the Church and the whole of humanity, the Pope and the Bishops, families, young people, the elderly, the sufferers of all sufferings and the so-called “estranged” to her intercession.
The existence of the Tota Pulchra is, in fact, the authentic horizon of Christian and human hope. It is because of this that Dante described her as “lively fountain of hope.”
ZENIT: Forgive the pedestrianism, but does not your reading risk being too “spiritual” in face of various positions that claim a new recognition of women in the Church?
Cardinal Piacenza: I wouldn’t say “spiritual,” but in the Christian meaning of the term, namely, real. Mary Most Holy is all this! The Church herself lives jointly of the Marian-charismatic and Petrine-institutional principle. And the two principles are altogether inseparable: there is no charism without an institution that receives it, and there is no institution that is not, itself, charismatic; so true is this that the apostolic succession itself is transmitted with the imposition of hands, through, in fact, a charismatic way. And who is the greatest of the two? Certainly Mary!
If then you refer to the reiterated topic of the priestly ordination of women, I cannot but quote Pope Francis who affirms textually: “The Church has spoken and has said no. John Paul II pronounced himself with a definitive formulation, that door is closed” (Press conference, 28/07/2013).
From the theological point of view, in a cultural context that always puts more violently in discussion the very unity-duality man-woman, I believe there should be a profound and effective “anthropological alliance,” founded first on reason and, therefore, on Revelation.
From the point of view of the “visibility” of woman in the Church, and in her “structures,” it is not about foreseeing “female quotas”; for the Church, baptism suffices. However, objectively, nothing would impede, for instance, having a woman at the top of Vatican structures, where sacred ordination is not required. We think of social communications; financial, charitable, cultural, etc. ambits. In all those posts, in which the priestly “munus” is not required, the only criterion should be the real competence and identification with the thought and working of the Church.
ZENIT: Do you really think this is possible?
Cardinal Piacenza: The fact that women cannot receive sacred Ordination, does not at all imply their “subjection.” We are all at the service of the Church, and the Pope is “Servant of the servants of God”; to be at the service of the Kingdom has nothing to do with “servility,” as the world understands it. The Saints teach us that to “serve” in this sense is to “reign.” Each one is called to flower, as Mary Most Holy did, where the Lord has placed him/her. Knowing that no flower is more beautiful or more perfumed than the Mystical Rose, the “handmaid of the Lord.”