Today is December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which is in a way really too bad for St. Romaric whose feast shares this day. Why is this a problem? Have you ever heard of St. Romaric? Obviously, saints are supposed to be humble so he probably doesn't mind but wouldn't it be nice to at least get a mention at Mass? St. Romaric was a Merovingian nobleman who lived in the 7th century. Queen Brunehilda had Romeric's father killed and Romeric became a homeless wanderer for a time. St. Amatus converted Romaric who then became a monk and founded a monastery called Remiremontin 620. St. Amatus was the first abbot but Romaric soon took his place and served for thirty years. He died in 653.
Okay, now that we've given due recognition to St. Romaric we can talk about the reason you're going to Mass today. Don't forget – you have to go to Mass today, it's a holy day of obligation. And for those of you who think you can be sneaky by going to an evening Mass and make it count for both, your wrong. According to Canon Lawyer Edward Peters, you have to go to two Masses to satisfy two obligations to attend Mass. You aren't required to attend a Mass celebrated specifically for the feast but you do have to go to Mass on the specific day.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception actually originated long before the dogma was proclaimed in 1854. For several hundred years there was a feast celebrating Mary's conception and in the Eastern churches the feast is still called the Child-begetting of the Holy Anne, mother of the Mother of God. The feast was first celebrated in monasteries before spreading to the general church.
On December 8th, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception which stated that Mary was granted a unique grace from God to be free from the stain of original sin. Mary confirmed the title when she appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858.
The devotion to the Immaculate Conception is especially strong in the United States. The council of Baltimore – of catechism fame – declared Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception the patroness of the United States in 1846 – 8 years before the dogma was officially declared.
Back when I was in high school we lived near Washington DC for a year while my dad completed a tour at the Pentagon. One of the most incredible places to visit, apart from the Smithsonian and the main post office where you could buy EVERY stamp in circulation – yes, I collected stamps and still have my albums – was the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Shrine sits on the campus of the Catholic University of America and is the largest Catholic church in North America and one of the top ten in the world.
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The construction of the church was approved by St. Pius X in 1913 who personally contributed to its construction. In 1915 the first model of the future church was created by architect Burrall Hoffman, Jr. in a gothic style that looks nothing like the finished church. The church took almost 40 years to complete and was finally dedicated 1959 by Cardinal Spellman.
The church is built in a Romanesque style so instead of the pointed arches and almost lace-like stone work that you find in Gothic churches, the arches are rounded, the windows are smaller and the structure has a much more substantial presence. One of the reasons that this style was chosen was to distinguish it from the National Cathedral which was being built at the same time. I've been in both churches and the National Shrine is much more breathtaking, especially because of the mosaics that cover the inside of the domes.
The most impressive one, and one that must give folks like Fr. Richard Rohr and Fr. Keating the shakes is the Christ in Majesty mosaic that covers the dome above the altar. I recommend that you save a copy of this image somewhere in case you ever start to believe that getting into Heaven is a cake walk. The mural is 3600 square feet of “don't mess with me Jesus” looking like he's ready to do some serious smiting. Flower power Jesus isn't anywhere to be found. Actually, Fr. Rohr, who is really big on man retreats where guys act primitive and dance around fires may like the art, but not the connotation.
The crypt church is impressive in its own right. There is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes and dozens of other chapels surround the perimeter. You may have heard that one of the chapels is dedicated to Our Lady of Hope and was donated by Bob Hope's family. Fortunately, Bob Hope's reputation as a comedian is solid because his taste in architecture isn't.
Getting back to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, if you've ever mentioned this to a Protestant you've most likely received criticism for it. There are three main points about this dogma that need to be explained clearly so both sides start from the same point. As a side note, what I'm saying here isn't coming from my own minimal apologetics skills, I'm just stealing from the Beginning Apologetics Series published by San Juan Seminars and available at aquinasandmore.com. For only $54.95 you too can sound as smart as Patrick Madrid, Dave Armstrong, Scott Hahn or any other Catholic apologist with facial hair. This special package includes all nine Beginning Apologetics books and even though it's always included, we'll pretend we're giving you an extra great deal by throwing in the Beginning Apologetics I study guide. But wait, there's more! For a limited time, defined as “as long as the books are in print” we'll also through in the place-mat scripture cheat sheet so you can covertly defend the faith during meals with non-Catholics. Facial hair not included.
As I was saying, there are three main parts of the dogma. First, Mary was preserved from original sin and the effects of original sin from the moment of her conception. Second, Mary didn't receive this gift as a result of any action of her own. She was redeemed by Christ just like everyone else but instead of receiving the gift of redemption after baptism she received it proactively to preserve her from original sin. Finally, Mary still had free will. Just like Adam and Eve who also didn't have original sin but had free will, Mary could have chosen to sin or to even refuse to be the Mother of God but didn't.
If you want details including scripture verses, quotes from Church Fathers and other explanations of this doctrine and other Marian questions, you should really get the 6th Beginning Apologetics book. Each of these books is only about forty pages long and the easiest way to learn how to explain Catholic theology to non-Catholics and to Catholics who don't know or believe their Faith.