Monthly Archives: December 2012

Immaculate Conception


Today is the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I think the Immaculate Conception is the most misunderstood doctrine of the Catholic Church.  Many Catholics think it refers to Mary’s miraculous conception of the child Jesus when she received the visit from the angel at the Annunciation.   I think that people are confirmed in their error when the Church assigns the Gospel of the Annunciation to today’s Mass of the Immaculate Conception (Luke 1, 26-38).

The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception in her mother’s womb, and means that from the first moment of her conception Mary was free from all sin.

It is a fair question to ask why anyone would want to declare that Mary was sinless at the moment of her conception.  I think it all goes back to Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, and their interpretation of the Bible story of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).

Saint Paul seemed to believe that because Adam sinned, all his descendants are born in a state of sinfulness (Romans 5, 12-18).  Saint Augustine called this state Original Sin, and suggested that people contract this sinfulness in the moment of their conception.

But people believed that Mary was different, that God did not allow her to contract the sinful state at her conception.  So they said Mary’s conception was sin-free, or immaculate.

I think the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the theologians’ way of explaining the belief that God preserved Mary from the sinful effects of Adam’s sin.  The proponents of the doctrine of Original Sin teach that, because Adam sinned, every human person, with the exception of the Virgin Mary, is born not only free to sin but actually inclined to sin.  They teach that Mary is conceived not only free from sin but also with no inclination to sin.

This leaves me with the question of why God would want to create the rest of us sinful by nature.  Do the proponents of Original Sin mean to say that God freely decided to create us flawed with an inbuilt inclination to sin?  That would seem contrary to God’s goodness.  Or do they imply that Adam, by sinning, forced the divine hand so that God had no option?

In 1893 Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “Many, many doctrines are far harder than the Immaculate Conception.  The doctrine of Original Sin is indefinitely harder.  It is no difficulty to believe that a soul is united to the flesh without original sin; the great mystery is that many, that millions on millions are born with it” (Meditations and Devotions p.84).


Saint Ambrose


Today is the feast day of Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the 4th century AD.

Ambrose was born in Trier (present day Germany) about 340 AD.  He went to Rome to study Literature and Law.  He was appointed Governor of Liguria, with headquarters in Milan.  Ambrose was interested in Christianity, but he was not a baptized Christian.

In 374 there was a serious conflict between the Catholics and the Arians in Milan about the appointment of a new bishop.  Each group wanted one of their own to be appointed, and there was a near riot.  Ambrose, as Governor, went to see if he could help them resolve their differences peacefully.  As he spoke to the crowd, someone called out, “Ambrose, Bishop”.  The call was taken up by others, and soon the whole crowd was calling out for Ambrose as bishop.  Ambrose refused, but a few days later he agreed, was baptized, and was ordained bishop of Milan on December 7th.

He was a true pastor of his people, and defended them and the true Faith by his words and deeds.  As bishop of Milan he met Augustine of Hippo, who was a student in Milan at the time.  Ambrose helped Augustine in his efforts to reform his life, and then baptized him when he decided to become a Catholic. Augustine went on to become bishop of Hippo, in Africa.

Ambrose, with Augustine, Jerome, and Pope Gregory I, are the four Fathers (outstanding teachers) of the Latin (Western) Church.  Ambrose died in Milan in 397 AD.

Saint Nicholas


Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, whose gifts to the poor made him the model for our modern day Santa Claus.  Saint Nicholas was bishop of Myra (located in present-day Turkey) around 300 AD.  He was imprisoned during the persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (303-305 A.D.) but released when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D.

I worked for one of St. Nicholas’ successors, when I was secretary to the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila from 1955-1958.  The Apostolic Nuncio was Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, titular bishop of Myra, where St. Nicholas once was bishop

When he finished his term in the Philippines, Archbishop Vagnozzi was appointed Apostolic Delegate to the United States, and after that he returned to Rome, where he was made Cardinal, and put in charge of L’Istituto delle Opere di Religione.

L’Istituto delle Opere di Religione (Institute of the Works of Religion) is popularly known as the Vatican Bank.  It may function as a bank, but it is different.  The ATM’s are in Latin, priests enter by a special door, and there is a life-size picture of the current Pope hanging on the wall.