Unpacking Mary's Privilege
A Commentary by Father Joseph Chamblain, OSM
Assumption Catholic Church



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Five years ago this month, the Church unveiled a new translation of the Mass prayers. Under Pope Benedict’s direction, the new translation was designed to fix the deficiencies of the translation that we had been using since Mass began to be celebrated entirely in English in the late 1960’s. The original translators had opted for a rather bland paraphrase of the original Latin, but the prayers were well suited for people who actually pray in English. Unfortunately, the translation left out significant phrases, allusions to scripture, and, in some cases, were theologically inaccurate. So, those who clamored for a more literal translation eventually got their way. The problem is that Latin and English are very different languages. In English we put important words at the beginning of the sentence, while in Latin they are usually at the end. English depends upon proper word order to be comprehensible, whereas in Latin a word’s ending determines its place in the sentence. Thus, interruptions in the word order are not a problem in Latin, but make an English prayer hard to follow. Mercifully, most of the Latin prayers themselves are short and concise and are not difficult to follow when translated word for word into English; but there are exceptions.

I remember the first time I read the Opening Prayer (Collect) at a crowded 12:10 Holyday Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception: “O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son, grant, we pray, that as you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the death of your Son, which you foresaw, so, through her intercession, we too may be cleansed.” I looked up and everyone was staring back: What in the world are you talking about? Then, later in the Mass, The Prayer Over the Gifts contains the phrase, “prevenient grace.” What is that?

The real problem is that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is itself a complex notion and is not well served by long Latinate sentences. When they hear the term “Immaculate Conception” many Catholics think it refers to the virginal conception of Jesus (that Christ was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit). In fact, the mystery is not talking about the conception of Jesus but about the conception of Mary: that she was preserved from “the stain” of sin from the first moment of her existence. This special privilege of Mary was a popular belief in the Church during the first thousand years of Christianity, but it was troubling to theologians. According to Catholic teaching, all human being inherit original sin as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. How could that not also be true of Mary, since she was conceived without divine intervention? Maybe she never committed any intentional sins during her lifetime; but she was still part of fallen humanity waiting to be redeemed. By the thirteenth century the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was widely celebrated and generally represented the faith of the church, but theologians were still struggling to find an acceptable way to justify it.

In the early fourteenth century, the theologian Duns Scotus found a way out of the impasse. He affirmed the idea that Mary shared our common humanity and had to be redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He then added the notion that to be preserved from original sin is a greater grace than to be set free from it. To put things in common language: it is better to have someone stop you from falling down a hole than to allow you to fall down a hole and then pull you out of it. This is what is meant by “prevenient grace”. Mary was preserved from sin in light of the coming of Christ the Redeemer and in anticipation of it. In very careful language the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception became official church teaching in 1854.

In more recent times, Pope John Paul II wrote of this mystery, saying that because of her Immaculate Conception, “Mary belonged entirely to Christ.” She was never outside the circle of God’s love. In a very real way, December is Mary’s month. Mary’s special privilege made her turn entirely toward the coming of the Redeemer. In the midst of a month so given to parties and shopping and rushing around, Mary invites us to join her in focusing our minds and hearts on Christ.