Bishop Peter Elliott, Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne and Episcopal Delegate for the implementation of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, preached this sermon at Evensong & Benediction for the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the Church of the Holy Cross, South Caulfield, Victoria, Australia. It is reproduced here from the Anglo-Catholic.
The heart of Corpus Christi College, the seminary of the Province of Melbourne and the archdiocese of Hobart, is a beautiful gothic chapel. Recently constructed within the bluestone shell of a modest colonial church, it features two windows on either side of a Pugin tabernacle. The rich stained glass depicts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but in a most original way.
On one side the apostles are gathered around Mary in prayer, a detail recorded by St Luke leading into his account of Pentecost (cf Acts 1:14). That window represents the Marian dimension of the Church. On the other side the window presents St Peter presiding as teacher among the apostles. This scene represents the Petrine dimension of the Church, perpetuated across all ages in the Popes, teaching and governing as the true successors of the Fisherman of Galilee.
Future priests who raise their eyes to the glowing colour of the windows are invited to contemplate the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church in two complimentary principles. The Marian and the Petrine dimensions are held together through what guides them both, the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete who prays in and through us and who guides and preserves the Church from falling into error.
In the new English translation of the Roman Mass, the Church is consistently referred to as “she” and “her”. In that perspective of the Church our Mother we find Mary, first member of the Church, but, as Saint Augustine pointed out, she is not greater than the Church. Therefore when we take up the title given her at the end of the Second Vatican Council, “Mother of the Church”, we do not set her above the Church, rather she is found, like any good mother, within the family circle of the Church. As such we gather around her in prayer with the apostles of Pentecost.
Tonight we celebrate her Immaculate Conception. In the dogma of the Immaculate Conception the Marian and Petrine principles converge. By the authority of the successor of Saint Peter, the truth of Mary’s sinless origin was solemnly defined in 1854. The Petrine principle was used to deepen and discern a truth that enriches the Marian principle.
All this has bearing on preparations for the Personal Ordinariate for former Anglicans in Australia. But to what extent can we say that the Immaculate Conception part of the “Anglican patrimony”? Our Evensong tonight is certainly part of the patrimony, and I thank Fr Graeme Mitchell for graciously officiating at this Evensong, with Bishop David Robarts presiding. But can we really find the Immaculate Conception within the spiritual and cultural heritage that Pope Benedict commits us to maintain in the Personal Ordinariates?
Late medieval England was a centre of belief in and devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. St Anselm’s disciple, Eadmer, the Franciscans William of Ware and his pupil Duns Scotus upheld the Immaculate Conception. This might explain why December 8th is designated as “the conception of the Virgin Mary” in the calendar of Elizabeth I, 1560, and later in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, even if this day is not found in Cranmer’s calendars of the 1549 and 1552 editions. Why mark a specific day, nine months before the Birth of Our Lady, September 8, if her conception is not a significant event in salvation history? The only other conception found in the Calendar is the conception of Jesus Christ, March 25th, that is, the Annunciation.
Was this liturgical day maintained in an Anglican national calendar in the late Seventeenth Century because some Caroline Divines were sympathetic to a doctrine that they knew was held universally across the Channel in Catholic Europe? The Immaculate Conception was a well established belief even then, when it was still not a defined dogma. While not defining the dogma, the Council Fathers of Trent, in their teaching on Original Sin, had cited St Augustine who exempted Mary from any talk of sin. The definition had to wait until 1854, when Blessed Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception to be a truth of faith to be held by all the faithful.
In no way does this teaching diminish the universal saving work of Jesus Christ by exempting Mary from redemption. In his definition of the dogma, Pius IX carefully taught that Mary is redeemed by the anticipated merits of her Son. The power of the Redemption Christ won on the cross is applied to her before he died for us all in time. His redeeming work transcends time. Mary is redeemed by being preserved from Original Sin at the first instant she exists.
We all need the Sacrament of Baptism to free us from Original Sin, so Mary needed to be preserved from Original Sin. Like all of us, she needed to be redeemed. In her case it was granted in a unique way, and for a specific purpose, in order to be the true Mother of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He is her Redeemer as well as ours. In her Magnificat she who is “full of grace” rightly praises “God my Saviour”.
Since the mid-Nineteenth Century, some Anglo Catholics such as Fr Stanton of St Alban’s Holborn accepted the Immaculate Conception, with a new-found love for Mary that flourished in beautiful churches where her shrines were set up or restored. I came to accept this dogma at the age of eleven, during some months our family spent in London. I first learnt personal devotion to Mary in various Anglo Catholic strongholds where we worshipped.
In one of those churches, All Saints Margaret Street, this doctrine was never taught and was even excised from the Divine Praises. But my first and favourite image of Our Lady is on the right side of that church and it was here that I began to pray to her. I may have found my belief in the Immaculate Conception while playing with Irish children in the front garden of apartments in Belsize Park, Hampstead. In those days, Catholic children were equipped to argue theology with precocious Anglican boys. They knew their catechism.
However I first sensed the place of the doctrine within some Anglican circles when reciting an unexpurgated version of the Divine Praises at the Church of the Annunciation, Bryanston Street: “Blessed be her holy and Immaculate Conception.” Happy childhood memories were later crowned by a decisive pilgrimage to Walsingham, as an Oxford student at Saint Stephen’s House in late 1967. That pilgrimage initiated my final journey into full communion with the Catholic Church.
As Wordsworth put it, Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”. We can joyfully gaze on her in prayer, for she is the Cause of our Joy. In this spirit of joy, Saint Maximilian Kolbe always referred to Mary as “The Immaculate”, echoing the words she spoke to Saint Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, “I am the Immaculate Conception!”
This truth of faith also speaks to us of hope, of a new beginning, of the Incarnation that we will soon celebrate once more at Christmas. God is among us as one of us. There is hope for our fallen race because God is at work in us, reshaping our fallen nature through grace. He begins with his masterpiece of grace, “Mary Immaculate”. She who is “full of grace” is the New Eve.
For centuries, the praises of “Mary Immaculate” have resounded in the hymns, prayers and poetry of Christians in the West and, even earlier, in the East. But liturgical praise and devotional enthusiasm is not enough. We need to return to the question of truth itself. On the threshold of the Personal Ordinariate, I now turn to the Petrine principle, the authority with which the sinless origin of Mary is proposed to us.
Within the Ordinariate many here tonight will soon be in full communion with the Successor of Saint Peter. Being “subject to” his authority means accepting what he teaches us from the Chair of Peter, ex cathedra. However, this Petrine principle rests on a greater foundational principle of the Church, her “apostolic descent”, one of her marks as the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”. Her apostolic descent is obvious in the apostolic succession, the unbroken chain of Holy Orders. But that succession is not just a matter of bishops ordaining other bishops, rather at the same time it is the passing on and preservation of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith, what Anglicans call “the faith once given”. The apostolic teaching office or Magisterium is one of the main ways this Deposit is transmitted, protected and interpreted across the ages.
The teaching of the Pope and the Bishops, the Magisterium or teaching voice of the Church, is a gift and work of the Holy Spirit in the living Church. Its scope is only “matters of faith and morals”, not questions of science, politics or economics, even as these domains of human thought may inform social doctrines and some moral issues, for example in bioethics. Obviously the Immaculate Conception comes under the title of “matters of faith”. However, the Magisterium is found not only in solemn definitions of faith and morals made by Popes and Ecumenical Councils, that is, the Extraordinary Magisterium, but also through the ongoing day to day Ordinary Magisterium, when the whole Episcopal college teaches according to the Petrine Principle “with Peter and under Peter”.
There is a dynamic quality in the mission of the teaching Church, evident at the Second Vatican Council. The Church constantly applies and interprets the living apostolic tradition of faith and morals for the needs of different times, meeting challenges and guiding the faithful through difficult issues. But the pilgrim people are not just passive receivers of teachings. As the Second Vatican Council taught, the whole People of God, using that “sense of faith” that is within them, receive and pass on these teachings. That very “sense of faith” has often contributed to the formulation of revealed truths. The truth about the sinless origin of Our Lady was popular among the lay faithful even when theologians debated it. Blessed John Henry Newman is our guide in discerning the “sense of faith” in God’s People. Faith evokes faith.
Therefore magisterial teachings, dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception, call for assent on the part of all of us. This is known as the “assent of faith”. It is not merely assenting that a doctrine exists over there, like something preserved in a pickle jar. Assenting to teaching proposed by the Magisterium means saying with my head and my heart: “Yes, Lord, I believe this truth as revealed by You, the Holy One who cannot deceive us, hence a truth taught infallibly by Your Church.” The Second Vatican Council describes this assent of faith in the great constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 25. I commend this teaching on the infallible Magisterium to all who are moving towards full communion in the Ordinariate.
Nevertheless, when we return to the Petrine Principle, the charism of infallibility does not turn the Pope into a magic oracle, nor does it invest him with a domineering or controlling power. The infallibility of the Church is the work of the Holy Spirit in the whole Church, the Spirit leading us into all truth as Jesus Christ promised in the Gospel of John. It takes a specific form in the Petrine Office, the papacy, to “strengthen the brethren”. We hear the words of Jesus Christ to Saint Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
That process in time and space also presupposes the development of Christian doctrine, as Blessed John Henry Newman outlined it, and as perceived many centuries before by St Hilary of Poitiers. The faith “once given” is not fixed or set at one point of time in such a way that it cannot develop gradually and organically. Our understanding of the apostolic truths is deepened, enriched and clarified as the centuries unfold, but always under the guidance of the Spirit of truth.
When we reflect carefully, infallibility affirms our need for Christ’s Redemption, evident in the Immaculate Conception. In a world of sin some of the greatest sins are committed against truth. We see this every day in the media particularly at a time in this country when the word “marriage” is being used to described something that can never be marriage. Original sin darkened the human intellect and will and the effects are still among us, still within us. In this context, we need the light and grace of Revelation, the work of the Spirit in the two sources of Revelation, Scripture and Tradition. We need Revelation to show us the truths that matter.
When a Pope or Council is preserved from falling into error at certain critical moments, we can see the work of the same Holy Spirit who preserved Mary from Original and actual sin. But the Church cannot fall into error not only in solemnly defined teachings but in her consistent apostolic day-to-day teachings. In an analogous sense, she reflects the first of her members, Mary Immaculate. As Mother and Model of the Church, she was preserved from all sin. In a different way, but for our sake, she benefited from the work of the Redeemer, just as the Church, Bride of Christ, always benefits from the Divine Bridegroom, who gives himself up in love for her, cherishing and nourishing her (cf. Ephesians 5: 25-30).
The beloved Church, albeit imperfect on this earth, always has the assurance of Jesus Christ that she will never fail, because he will be with her faithfully for ever. His arms are for ever around her. This quality of the Church is known as indefectibility. It is closely related to her truth-teaching ministry, when she has his assurance that the Spirit of truth will not allow her to fall into error.
God’s providential plan for his Church was made “before time began”. Within that plan Mary was predestined from all eternity, yet each of us in our creation and baptism is part of predestination in a divine master-plan. Of course, there is an exaggerated and pessimistic doctrine of predestination, but this mystery remains a Christian truth, part of the scriptural and Patristic patrimony of the whole Church. What God wrought in the life of a humble Jewish maiden, in different ways he can accomplish in our lives today, always through grace, the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, who, as Saint Paul teaches, justifies us, sanctifies and glorifies us.
Therefore it is providential that the coming year when we will see the Ordinariate erected in Australia has been proclaimed a Year of Grace by the Catholic Bishops. The Year of Grace begins in Pentecost 2012 and ends with Pentecost 2013. It will combine with the Year of Faith, that has been proclaimed by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
Grace and Faith come together because these essentials of Christianity converge in the two principles of the life and nature of the Church, both Marian and Petrine. Mary the great woman of faith was “full of grace”. Peter the teacher of the faith was saved from his obvious human weakness by grace.
With the apostles and through their successors, we gather in prayer around Mary, and she leads us to her Son. Across the Christian millennia, we hear St Peter proclaim the basic truth of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Therefore this Solemn Evensong draws us to Jesus, to receive his Eucharistic blessing, and Mary is with us. She is always leading us to him, always presenting him to us for our loving adoration.