Wednesday, 12 December 2012

62: The practical use of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception #2

Immaculate Conception
(continuation of previous post)
To me, the historical context of the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is very important in order to understand it fully, and we should strive to understand the “political”, practical, thread in it.
Again, being specialised in “Spiritual Theology”, I am essentially interested in the practical spiritual impact of the Proclamation of a Dogma, any Dogma.

First: what is a “Dogma”?

The word “Dogma” we use, is a word inherited from the Greek Philosophers. A dogma for them is a universal principle which founds and justifies a specific practical conduct, and which can be formulated in one or in several propositions. A Dogma (especially amongst the Stoic Philosophers) is like a sentence of practical wisdom that one will meditate, ponder upon, and put into practice: it essentially impacts the daily life.

The use of the word “dogma” crossed from the cultural philosophical use amongst the Greeks to early Christians.
- Was that an error? Would that have meant a deviation of the right understanding of Jesus’ message?
- I am not sure it is the case. Let us have a closer look.

For early Christians (the first centuries), the “dogmas” were something very practical. It appears as well to be the same for the non-Greek christians: the Apostles themselves who were Semites.

A very early example of the implicit use of the idea of a “dogma”

See for instance how saint Matthew in his gospel presents the Trinity as a “Dogma”, i.e. as something to put into practice. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is the Great Charter (Carta Magna) of the newly baptised. Remember we are baptised (i.e. immersed) in each Person of the Trinity. In the Sermon of the Mountain, saint Matthew dedicates a section for each person of the Trinity: Mt 5:17-48 is offered to put the Son into practice, Mt 6 is to help us put the Father into practice, and Mt 7 is for us to put the Holy Spirit into practice. Each Person is a “dogmata”, not a sentence thought, but a Person in whom we are supposed to meditate upon, to enter, to be immersed in.

“Being Baptised” meant simply that the Father did Baptise (immerse) us, in the Trinity.
- How would this happen?
- For the first Generation, God the Father was considered to have like two hands: st Irenaeus says that the Son and the Holy Spirit are the Hands of the Father (remember that Irenaeus is disciple of the disciple of saint John). So “Baptism” would be seen as follows:
The Father takes us in His Hands and holds us tight: as a result we shouldn’t escape from His hands. How? But a set of practices that would help us remain immersed (baptised) in the Son, in the Father and in the Holy Spirit (in that order, see 2 Co 13:13).
To “be Baptised” for the first generation of Christians implied to put into practice the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity. The “Dogma” of the Trinity was practical and vital.
Therefore for the Catechesis of the first Christians (i.e. the Sermon of the Mountain), a whole chapter was dedicated to approach each Person of the Trinity in a practical way.
For a mnemonic reason, remember that each hand has 5 fingers, so you’ll find the 5 points (one per finger) to remember about the Son in Mt 5 and the same for the Holy Spirit: five sections in Mt 7.

Easy to count, easy to remember, easy for meditation, easy to put into practise. The whole “Greater Charter” (Carta Magna) of Christianity, i.e. the Dogma of the Trinity, is all comprised in this Sermon, the Sermon of the Mountain.

The historical background of the dogma

- Would dogmas change?
- Obviously: no.
- Would we have new dogmas?
- Obviously: no.
- So why do we have “new” dogmas?
- We don’t. We just proclaim a truth as a “dogma” when we see it, after a long development, under a clearer light. (Theological note: Even if it is the Pope who proclaims a Dogma, the proclamation is an act of all the Church, as you'll see below, the Pope makes a consultation first in order to "sense" the "feeling of the faithful". The infallibility of the Pope draws its principle from the infallibility of the Church and not vice-versa.)

I would ad to that last reply something important to my eye: a Dogma, as we just said, has a direct practical use to it. It is not “one more truth to proclaim”, it is one more thing to put into practise, one more thing we already put into practise but the use of which today is much more urgent, this is why it is underlined by the Faithful, the Church, the Pope.

- So why that urge to proclaim Mary as the “Immaculate Conception”?
- This is exactly my point: the historical context of the proclamation is very important to understand the reason and mainly its application in daily life.

Let us remember few facts that will help us situate historically the “proclamation” of the Immaculate Conception of Mary by Pope Pius IX:

Pius IXth

1- Pope Pius the IXth is witnessing the end of the “Middle Age” political system, and the new spirit of the French Revolution invading the spirit of the Italians and most of Europe.

2- These changes are quite drastic and, with all the good will of the Pope, are seen and felt as a threat to the normal order of things.

Pellegrino Rossi

3- The Pope’s life is under serious threat. His Prime Minister, Pellegrino Rossi, has been assassinated (15th of November 1848), the Swiss Guards are disarmed, making the Pope to a prisoner in his palace.
Then on the 24th of November 1848, the Pope then escapes in disguise as a regular priest to Gaeta, in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies leaving Rome to the radicals and the mob.

4- At Gaeta, in a very small crypt, the Pope prays during 9 months. He had a great devotion to Mary under the name of the “Immaculate Conception”. (You can visit the Church (“Santissima Annunziata”) and the crypt also called “Cappella d’Oro”)
Cappella d'Oro in Gaeta where Pius IX prayed for 9 months
It is during this time that the Pope formed the decision to start the process of consultation that will lead later to the declaration of the Dogma of the “Immaculate Conception”.  He published his Encyclical Letter, “Ubi Primum”, the 2nd of February 1849 to the bishops of the Catholic Church asking them for opinion on the definition of a dogma on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

The Pope remained in Gaeta till the 4th of September 1849.

Time of total distress

The Pope’s Prime minister is killed, his life is under threat, he has to escape, and he does it in disguise. This tells us the degree of distress the Pope is in.

It is quite obvious that the only practical help he could find was in Mary, not only that, but “Mary the Immaculate Conception”. In a situation of darkness, of total darkness, where the future of the Church is under serious threat, the traditional political order is upside down and threatened to disappear, where evil is trying to kill… the Pope turns in prayer to the Immaculate, the only Creature after Jesus that was never defeated by Evil. We can say that the Pope found the solution for his distress.
Do you see the practical, spiritual and political situation in which is born the desire to proclaim solemnly Mary as the “Immaculate Conception”?
He is in fact declaring that he found The Solution for his distress, he wants to present the solution, and he wants to say what happened to him and how she helped him.
He wants to say that this is the will of God to put in the Centre of the Church the First Sign of His Victory, the New Eve, the one that was never defeated by Evil. She is at the heart of the Church, real source and proof of Hope that God gave us.
You’ll notice that in the definition of the Immaculate Conception, it is said that this “grace”/ privilege comes directly from Jesus’s salvation, from Jesus’ Cross. I like to see Her, first Saved Person, and mother, with Him, of all the saved, I like to contemplate Her coming out of His Side, New Eve, totally pure.
The first sign of Jesus’ victory on the Cross is Mary. The prototype of all the Saved people, is Mary.
The mother and the “Mould” of all the saved, is Her as well. She generated the Head, and generates each person in the Body.
God put this Sign (the Immaculate) right in the centre of his Church. Mary is the only one who believed (see previous posts), Mary is the Prototype of Jesus’ Disciple and follower (see previous posts).
All of us, like the Pope and like that moment in the history of the Church, we reach the darkest point in our spiritual journey, and we all lift our eyes, in the darkness, to the Star of the Sea, Mary, the Only Immaculate Point in the Dark Sky, “gift of Jesus for us”, “capacity to believe” given by Him to us.

The role of Immaculate in the “Dark night of the spirit”

Now this is more technical here. According to saint John of the Cross, the “Dark night of the spirit” is the deepest and final purification the faithful should go through before reaching the “Union with Jesus” (See his book "The dark night", especially the second part). You might recognise it in the “Great trial” mentioned in the book of Revelation (Rev 9:14-17) or find it in a more plain way in: what the Apostles (or any Jesus’ follower) have to go through when Jesus is about to start his Passion: all your hopes about the Messiah-Saviour will vanish, all your life, your spiritual life seems to go and disappear in the land of oblivion.

Ven. Fr. Marie-Eugène

Now, a great catholic Master, the Venerable Fr Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus OCD (1894-1967) (his process of Beatification is on the verge of reaching completion), in his great book “I want to see God”, says that Mary plays a fundamental role in this crucial moment were everything in our “spiritual life” seem to disappear. He quotes saint Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort, saying that the presence of Mary all together 1- makes that time of deep purification lighter, more bearable, and 2- is essential for this turning point in our spiritual life (the deep purification). In fact, for the first time, we are called to make a pure act of Faith, and in order to do so, we learn to use “Mary’s faith”, or better said: we ask her to “believe for us”. In doing so, we let her grow in us, and transform our spirit at the image of hers, being now for the first time capable of “believing as she believes”.

We are then starting to follow “the only one who believed in the Resurrection”, “the one around whom the distressed apostle gathered in order to draw from her the pure faith in Jesus”.

In a way, pope Pius the IXth is saying to us: in these great times of distress, the Church continues not with the strength of papacy, or any human strength, but through the help God put in Mary, the Immaculate. God had his victory in her, and is offering to each one of us this same Victory, by putting Mary in the centre of Jesus’ faithful. Mary said “Yes” to God in the darkest moment of history (when Jesus is dead): she believed in the Resurrection; and God gives us her “Yes” so we can use it and overcome the darkness. (Note: John-Paul II made all this very clear during his Pontificate)

Does it make more sense now to believe that Mary is Immaculate Conception? Do we see better how practical is that “dogma”?

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