Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: In the School of Mary

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
(Fontgombault, December 8, 2018)

Ave Maria, gratia plena.
Hail Mary, full of grace.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,

IN THIS SATURDAY, a day traditionally dedicated to Mary, the Church celebrates a great mystery, the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Among all the mysteries of the faith, this one is assuredly one of the most unfathomable. How might we approach it? We shall be helped by the readings of the Mass.

The Book of Proverbs evokes the eternity that dominates the time of creation:

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made any thing from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old, before the earth was made. (Prov 8:22-23)

The eternal Wisdom who is speaking in these lines, already beside God during the creation of the world, will incarnate itself in Mary’s womb, making itself a human word: that is Christmas’ mystery.

But the Tradition has also chosen to put these words on the lips of the woman who was to offer her womb as a shelter to the eternal Wisdom, to the Son of God. In the work of recreation of a mankind blighted by sin, Mary has played a unique role. She was, between the Incarnation and the Ascension, the creature closest to the Lord, she who in everything offered herself as His handmaid.

And while Mary remains the closest creature to God, “playing before Him at all times,” we also know that her “delights are to be with the children of men.” As a mother who is happy and plays with her children, such is Mary with us.

For the gospel, the Church has kept but a short extract from the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel’s words. An angel doesn’t talk for the sake of talking; and he doesn’t speak on his own behalf, he speaks on behalf of God. When he hails Mary as full of grace, he
no doubt notes the bodily beauty of Mary, but most of all, he records the reflect of a spiritual beauty and grace, unmatched in any other creature. The angel of God marvels, and we marvel with him.

Ave Maria, Hail Mary. May we repeat these words as Bernadette, as Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco did, as Catherine, Jacqueline, Jeannette, Nicole, and Laura, and so many others who had the grace to see our heavenly Mother. May we simply repeat these very simple words as the angel: “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

The Church has conveyed this beauty, this inner grace of Mary. In a dogma defined in 1854 by Bl. Pope Pius IX, she teaches:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in Virtue of the merits of Christ Jesus, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin. (Bull Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854)

To that, we should add that by the grace of God, Mary remained pure from all personal sin throughout her whole life. With the Fathers of the Eastern tradition, we may therefore call her the All—Holy.

Such is therefore the reason of this unique beauty. Such a privilege was eminently fitting for her who was to become the Mother of God. At the time of the Annunciation, Mary was already wholly belonging to God. Nothing in her had ever connived in a more or less deliberate way at evil. Even the original sin, that stains every human being before he is born, had not touched her. It is from this pure soil that her luminous answer springs forth: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38)

Yet, Mary did not grasp this personal privilege as a looted spoil; and this privilege was not even limited to the sole fact that it was fitting that the Word of God should be born from a pure Virgin. Mary’s life didn’t stop with the birth of Jesus. If Mary was the handmaid of God by giving to the Word of God His human nature, she also remained the handmaid of God during the first years of Jesus, then by the side of the Apostles, the disciples, and the burgeoning Church. Her Immaculate Conception made of her the perfect channel for the graces entrusted by God. A limpid crystal, a tool without a stain, nothing in her could obscure the divine light.

Grace flowed freely through her, while at the same time receiving from her a motherly note.

Today, Mary remains the handmaid of God by the side of all of us. Her beauty also makes her the ambassadress of mankind to the Father. But how should we address her, the All—Holy?

In The Diary Of A Country Priest, Bernanos invites us to consider the eyes with which Mary looks at each of her children:

Yes, lad, to pray to her as you should, you must feel those eyes of hers upon you: they are not indulgent for there is no indulgence without something of bitter experience they are eyes of gentle pity, wondering sadness, and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something which makes her younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang, and though a mother by grace, Mother of all grace, our little youngest sister.

At the foot of the Cross, Mary received us as her children. Every mother loves by nature her children. But this love undergoes the limitations entailed by a body, a mind. In the case of Mary, the place of this love happens to be her most pure Heart. Mary loves her children with a free heart, a non—possessive heart, a heart that leads to Christ, and makes itself the messenger of Christ.

In Fatima, in 1917, when Lucia expressed the wish to go to heaven with Jacinta and Francisco, Mary answered:

Yes, I shall take Jacinta and Francisco soon, but you will remain a little longer, since Jesus wishes you to make me known and loved on earth. He wishes also for you to establish devotion in the world to my Immaculate Heart. [..] I will be with you always, and my Immaculate Heart will be your comfort and the way which will lead you to God. (June 13, 1917)

On January 20th, 1842, Mary appeared to Alphonse Ratisbonne, an atheist of Jewish extraction, who had rebelled against all religions, and especially against Catholicism. Challenged to wear a medal of the Blessed Virgin, he had taken up the gauntlet and accepted. He entered an unbeliever the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte with a friend, and ten minutes later, Alphonse was kneeling in front of the chapel of St. Michael, as in an ecstasy:

"Standing above the altar, tall, shining, full of majesty and meekness, the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as she is depicted on my medal. With her hand, she signalled me to kneel. An irresistible strength drew me towards her." And he concludes: "She didn’t say anything. I understood everything."

In these times of great tribulation for our country and its civil peace, of calling into question the dignity of man and the essence of human nature, may Mary obtain for our rulers and fellow citizens that they may understand there can be no social peace without a humble acceptance of the truth on man, who is a work of art stemming from the hands of God, without an unconditional respect of life and family such as they are wanted by God, and last, without the conscience that the world is a gift of God, a gift to be shared.

In the school of Mary, may we understand that the greatness of man lies in his answering freely every call of God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38)

Queen of peace, of families and men, pray for us.