The Immaculate Conception: Patroness of the US
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the infallible dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This ex cathedra statement made official the eternal sinlessness of Mary, showing that from the moment of the creation of her soul she was granted a unique grace from God to be excluded from the stain of original sin, enabling her to carry Jesus Christ in her womb. This is a teaching that had been widely believed throughout the Church for at least 250 years before being declared, and it was forbidden to teach to the contrary, but once the doctrine was declared infallibly it became a teaching that all Catholics are bound to believe by faith.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception states that “The Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.” Original sin was not removed from her soul as happens with baptism, but in fact was never even present there to be removed. It was because of the merits of Christ that this was able to occur, because no one can have that debt of original sin removed or excluded without Christ's actions and the grace of God. At Lourdes, France in 1858 – just four years after the dogma was proclaimed – Mary herself confirmed this to St. Bernadette during one of her 18 apparitions, telling Bernadette “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
For centuries prior to the promulgation, there had been a feast day in place to commemorate the conception of Mary within the womb of her mother St. Anne, and in the Eastern church the feast is still called the Conception by St. Anne, or the “Child-begetting of the holy Anne, mother of the Mother of God.” It seems that the feast originally came from the East, and its origins in both the Eastern and Western churches were in monasteries.
This aspect of Mary has become one of the most popular Marian devotions, and many dioceses and churches consider Mary the Immaculate Conception their patron. She is the patroness of the United States with this title, declared so officially by the first Council of Baltimore in 1846.
The patronal church of the United States is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, dedicated to the patroness of the United States and located in Washington, DC. It is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, and one of the ten largest in the world. It is an often-visited pilgrimage site for Americans, being the largest Marian shrine in the United States.
The church was built both to help the Catholic University of America gain more prominence and to create a national shrine dedicated to honor Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God. It took several years to raise the money necessary to create such a building, and in 1920 the site of the future church was blessed. A few months later the cornerstone was placed on the site; however, because there was not yet a builder at that point, actual construction did not begin until 1922. The Great Upper Church was dedicated in 1959, and in 1990 the church was named a minor basilica by Pope John Paul II. The beautiful church contains many chapels dedicated to different titles of Mary in both the Great Upper Church and the Crypt Church, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Lourdes, and Our Lady of Hope, among many others. There are also chapels dedicated to saints including St. Joseph, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Lucy, St. Susanna, and St. Dominic.
The Immaculate Conception is an important title and aspect of Our Lady, and one very special to the United States (and many other countries, cities, and locations). The feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, is a holy day of obligation in the United States and some other countries including Ireland, and has a vigil attached to it.