Lourdes: "I Am The Immaculate Conception" Part 2. By Monsignor John T. McMahon, M.A., PH.D.

The Way of the Cross

The layout of the Stations of the Cross at Lourdes is the work of a true artist. I think he must have begun with the 14th, and worked backwards. A mighty cleavage in the rocky, steep shoulder of the mountain which rises sheer behind the Basilica gave the artist a wonderful opportunity to create a living tableau of the laying of the Body in the Sepulchre. The life-sized figures carrying the Body of the dead Christ are just about to enter the cleft cave. Mary and John and the faithful women follow. The tomb is hewn out of the solid rock, and gives a most realistic picture of the burial.
The fourteen groups are gifts from national pilgrimages. They are life-sized bronze figures, and the artist has set them in positions that create a sense of activity.
At ten o'clock in a morning of bright sunshine we began the Way of the Cross. As our pilgrimage was so large it was decided to do the Stations in groups. A priest was assigned to each group. As one group moved off from each station another arrived. The result was to give an echo-like effect to our prayers and hymns. The prayers and the verse of the Stabat Mater which we had finished came to us like an echo as the other group took our place.
The Stations are placed on either side of the narrow, cobble-stone path which winds its way up the steep shoulders of outspurs of the Pyrenees. The sun was hot, the going uneven, and the loose stones were uncomfortable as one knelt for the prayers. The ‘Stations were tableaux vivants of the fourteen episodes on the way from Pilate’s court to the tomb. The figures are life-like and aid one’s mental picture of what happened on Good Friday. The effort of the climb and the rough going created a mood in sympathy with the Passion. The climbing and the kneeling were unpleasant that hot fore-noon, and we felt it was a penitential way for all, especially for the old.
But I must confess that my meditation brought me closer to Jesus and Mary one moonlight night when I climbed that path alone. All the street noises were hushed and nothing broke the stillness of the night except the chimes from the Basilica tower singing the Lourdes “Ave, Ave.” The higher I climbed the nearer and clearer was the “Ave,” and its message blended fruitfully with my meditations on Mary’s part in the Passion of her Divine Son. That is one reason why I must return to Lourdes. I want to walk again the Way of the Cross up the sides of a mountain, to walk alone in the silence of the night with only one voice to break into my meditations, the “Ave” of Lourdes.
Up, ever up, we slowly made our thoughtful Way of the Cross until, at the 12th Station one of the pilgrim priests celebrated Mass, and I preached on Mary’s share in that Via Dolorosa. Here are the ideas I proposed to the pilgrims brought there by the Irish Dominicans, and gathered round that altar in the glorious sunshine of an October morning.

The Mother of the Irish

We yield to no one in our love and devotion to Mary: she is, and always will be, the Mary of the Gael, the Mother of the Irish. In our ancient tongue she is linked with God in all our salutations. We say Dia is Mhuire Dhuit, and I have heard my grandparents always add to the invocation: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” the words “and to Mary the Mother of God.” So in our history, in our tradition, and in our language, the devotion to Mary has always been the devotion of filial children to a loving Mother. So Our Lady of Lourdes must be very happy looking down upon us here this morning. Here we are children of Mary, children of the Gael, come from afar to do her honour. We have made sacrifices in coming, but we are glad to do so if it will bring us nearer to Mary.

Ephesus, the City of Mary

I want you to go back with your imagination to a scene in the city of Mary, the city of Ephesus. That is the city where the Evangelist took Mary when he went there as its first Bishop. When Our Lord looking down from the Cross, said to John: “Behold thy Mother,” the gospel tells us that John from that moment took her to his own. He brought her to Ephesus where she lived with him while he was Bishop of that See. And oh! what a scene that was each time St. John said Mass assisted by Mary, the Mother of God!

Mary Never Forgets

Mary never forgets, and in gratitude for the hospitality which she received from that city of Ephesus, she is now about to confer on that same city the signal honour of declaring to the world that she is the Mother of God, her greatest, her grandest, her unique title. The year is 431 and the Bishops of the Catholic world are assembled at Ephesus to debate whether Mary was in truth the Mother of God, and not merely the Mother of Christ made Man. The people of Ephesus are excited, and late one evening there comes from the council chamber the news, that the Bishops have decided to proclaim to the world as a dogma of our faith, that Mary is truly and really the Mother of God, So they rush from their homes, and light torches, and as the Bishops leave the council chamber they escort them to their houses, filling the streets of Ephesus with their jubilant cry of “Mary, Mother of God.” That must have been a wonderful scene, and we will recall it each time in our processions while we are here in Lourdes singing the Lourdes “Ave,” that’ long ago at Ephesus that cry, that jubilant, grateful cry, of “Mary the Mother of God” filled that city.
Mary never forgets. She remembers all that the children of the Gael have suffered in her name and for her sake, and if we cling to the faith of our fathers today, it is because of Mary’s protection. She recalls the family Rosaries said in stealth behind closed doors during the long night of the penal days when the priest was hunted and the Mass was stopped, but in the fingers of old and young were Mary’s beads recalling to them that Mary was still in her high heaven protecting the children that she loved.

Our Inheritance from St. Patrick

Now come with me to another scene. This time it is in Rome. It is the same year 43I. and a young bishop kneels at the feet of the Pope, Pope Celestine, to receive from the Pope his commission to bring the good tidings of the Gospel to a pagan people across the seas. And as Celestine puts his hands upon the head of the young bishop he must have spoken to him about this new dogma of the Mother of God and told him to teach that dogma to the people among whom he was to bring the good tidings of the faith.”Bring to them a love of Mary,” spoke the Pope to the young bishop, “give them a devotion to Mary as the Mother of God.” How well that young bishop did that you can answer for yourselves by looking in upon yourselves while here in Lourdes and realise the feeling of being close to Mary in this holy spot.
That young bishop was our own St. Patrick, and if we, children of the Gael, are devoted to Mary, it is our inheritance from his teachings to our forefathers many centuries ago. There is no sacrifice great enough, or big enough, that we children of Mary are not prepared and willing to make for her sake, and for her honour, and so we have come to this holy place of Lourdes, and we are going to make a greater sacrifice still for we are going to cross three countries until at last we arrive at Fatima again to do her honour.

The Sorrows of Thy Mother

We have made the Way of the Cross and let us always remember that admonition: “Forget not the sorrows of thy Mother.” To go frequently to Mary in her sorrows is to draw closer and dearer to her. We have walked in meditation along the Way of the Cross in this inspiring setting, up the steep sides of the Pyrenees. The way has been steep, it has been difficult. The life-size figures of each Station have aroused us, and our imagination has painted the scene more vividly than ever before. In each of those Stations Mary has a part, but she comes vividly before us at the 4th, when she meets her Divine Son, sees the depth of His Sorrow, feels the intensity of His sufferings, and she stands there before Him helpless, unable to do a thing to alleviate that suffering. He looks at her, the only creature who has no part in His condemnation, and seeing her suffering, His own sorrows become more painful.

Mary Walks the Irish Roads

While here at the 12th Station she stands beneath the Cross, the sword of Simeon pushed in to its very hilt, the Mother of the Man of Sorrows has verily become the Woman of Dolours. And who of any race, or of any time have followed closer to Mary along the Via Dolorosa, than our Irish mothers? Mary has ever walked the Way of the Cross along the roads of Ireland. Over the cobblestones of sorrow and sadness she has trod with them who have known so much suffering, so much grief at parting, so much hunger and want, for her sake. No wonder Mary loves the Irish mother, no wonder the Irish mother loves Mary. And you, Irish mothers, who year by year, send your sons and daughters out from your homes into the foreign missions, how dear you are to her who freely and willingly gave up her own Son for the sake of others.
And now, here at the 12th Station, she stands by His Cross to see Him die. That gift of the mothers of Ireland towards the spread of our faith outside her own shores has brought the greatest blessing upon the people of Ireland. Mary accepts your sons for the priesthood and the teaching orders of brothers, and your daughters for all the religious communities of women as a precious gift to her Son; and so out from their own kith and kin they sail, but they leave behind them a fragrant memory of sacrifice made for the love of Mary.

A Gift from Irish Mothers

What a noble part those sons and daughters are playing in the vineyard of the Lord today! The missionary spirit of the Irish flourishes today as it did in the days when Irish monks took the countries of Europe in their stride. That was a golden age, it is no less golden today. The very name of Ireland overseas is linked with missionary zeal and activity. May that zeal flourish, for the extraordinary thing about the gift of faith is that the more you share it, the more you give it away, the more it grows within you. And all the sacrifices that the people of Ireland are making for the missions, and what sacrifices they are, everybody knows, not only in money, but in the gift of their sons and daughters, that is the greatest crown that Ireland can wear. Hers is a great spiritual kingdom upon which the sun never sets. You may fly across the world in a ‘plane, and every place you touch down you will find Irish priests, Irish Brothers, and Irish nuns engaged in every work for the alleviation of the suffering of man, for the care of the children, the homeless, the foundling, the orphans, the lepers, the sick, the abandoned, all for the greater glory of God and for the honour of Mary their Mother.
That is our proudest boast, and that, my dear Irish mothers, is your contribution when you give your greatest gift, greater than your money, greater than your prayers, the gift of your sons and daughters to the missions. No wonder Our Lady of Lourdes is smiling down this morning upon us, her Irish children, her Irish pilgrims, come from that land that loves her to bear that love to her here at Lourdes and later at Fatima. God bless you all !

The Welcoming Madonna

Within the Rosary Chapel there is a fresco of Our Lady on the arch over the main altar. It depicts Our Lady with arms outstretched, her blue cloak in her hands as if about to enfold each of her children in a maternal embrace, her face radiating a welcome, and her eyes tender with love. Immediately she becomes to me the Madonna of Welcome. I took many pilgrims to look up at her, and to feel the warmth of that Mother’s smile. It is a picture which I hope to carry with me down the years. If an inspired artist can arouse such warmth in a pilgrim’s heart by just looking on that creation of his, what will be the effect when we look up into that face in the hereafter, and see in it a welcome that will fill our souls wit h happiness! What a rich thought to sustain us in our striving against that strong inclination to evil which we inherited from Adam’s sin! On the last morning at Lourdes I knelt for a time looking at the Madonna of Welcome, sad at the thought of leaving Lourdes and going away from that reassuring smile. She seemed to smile more sweetly as a group of us bade her goodbye, and we felt that the Madonna of Welcome can also be a comfort, and a strength when one must go.

The Definition of the Dogma

“I am the Immaculate Conception,” Our Lady herself declared at Lourdes in 1858, just four years after the definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854. The words spoken by Mary at Lourdes were strange words indeed for the peasant child, Bernadette, who could hardly have known the dogma defined four years earlier. Surely Mary must have used those words: “I am the Immaculate Conception,” in gratitude for the definition of the dogma. She might have said: “I am the Virgin Mary; I am the Queen of Heaven; I am the Mother of God”; she might have used any of the titles in the unending litany of her graces. But, if she was to express the innermost truth, her real worth before God, she could only say: “I am the Immaculate Conception; I am His ideal of created holiness; I am His perfect one; I am the sinless one.”
Let us recapture a glimpse of the scene in St. Peter’s, Rome, on Friday, December 8, 1854. The Bishops of the world were assembled to discuss the ten volumes of reports sent to Rome from all the Catholic Bishops. For four days of five hours these reports were presented for discussion, with the result that a unanimous decision approved of the dogma. A special week of prayer prepared for the great day. The relics of Rome were ex-posed for the veneration of Bishops, priests, and people. A day of strict fast was observed on the Thursday. It rained all that week in Rome, but the morning of the 8th dawned crisp and clear. The procession formed in the Sistine Chapel. Two hundred mitred prelates marched. Penitentiaries of St. Peter’s, the Swiss Guard, the noble Guard, surrounded the Pope borne on his chair of state through the cheering crowds.

Pope Pius IX Weeps

When the Pope intoned the “Gloria in Excelsis,” a ray of winter sun shot through the lofty dome of St. Peter’s to encircle his head like a halo. Everyone remarked it, for this holy man, Pius IX, had a deep personal devotion to Mary Immaculate. This was the only shaft of sunlight in a week of incessant rain.
As Pope Pius IX walked to the platform, after the Gospel was read in Latin and Greek, to perform his most solemn act, the definition and promulgation of a new dogma, the whole vast assembly arose in hushed expectancy. In charged silence the crowd listened to the fine, clear voice of the Pope reading the Bull: Ineffabilis Deus-”The Ineffable God.” The clear voice began to falter, betraying his emotion, and when he came to the words declaram us (“we now declare”) the voice was silent, and in its place came the sobbing of that grand old man, now fully conscious of the signal honour granted to him to proclaim, in the presence of the Bishops of the world, urbi et orbi (to Rome and to the world), the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Many a tear dimmed the eyes of the assembled Bishops at the sight of that strong roan, Pius IX, moved to tears. Recovering himself, on he read, and at its finish the cannons from Fort St. Angelo boomed through St. Peter’s, and the bells of Rome began to peal. Everyone took a holiday to view the illuminated city, and next day the Bishops met the Holy Father, and from him received a gold medal commemorating the event, and a print of the Immaculate Conception. The medal was struck from gold given by the Irish miners on the Ballarat goldfields in Australia. The diocese of Perth, Western Australia, was one of the first to be dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and its Cathedral was among the earliest to honour Our Lady under that title.
The eye-witness report of the scene in St. Peter’s on December 8, 1854, was taken from Archbishop Dixon of Armagh, who was present that day.

To the Sinless One

Like those born in the salt mines of Russia. who never see the light of day, people who live in the grimy atmosphere of sin are unable to appreciate sinlessness.
Lady Butler, better known as the painter of the “Roll-Call,” records an incident in the West of Ireland. She had been watching a poor woman driving home a small flock of sheep, and remarked how beautiful they were. And indeed, the sheep in that part recall the bright-fleeced animals of Homer. “Yes,” was the unexpected reply, “and they are without sin.”
In that age when men prayed and lived close to God, painters had a supernatural insight. The Madonnas of the Middle Ages are prayers spoken on canvas by men who believed. Twenty-five times one of them tried and tried to put on canvas his conception of the woman without stain, the Immaculate Miracle. His creation exists, the Immaculate Conception by Murillo, Seville’s boast, painted, as they vow, “with milk and roses.”

God Could Do It: He Did It

Sin is defilement, sin is hostility to God, and whatever might touch the Woman predestined to be the Mother of God-made-Man, it could not be sin. St. Augustine says that the honour of the Lord forbade it. The Lord saved her body from the curse of Eve, why not her soul from the sin of Adam? Well had the monk of Canterbury argued a century and a half before the dogma: “God could do it: He ought to do it: He did it.”
Mary Immaculate stands alone, separated from the purest and the holiest by a privileged redemption; “preserved” from sin, and not merely cleansed from it. She is our “solitary boast,” the only merely human being who has escaped the defilement that runs in our blood. And as an invalid child in a city slum finds all the beauty of life concentrated in one pure and fragrant lily on the window sill, so in a world where the soilure of sin meets us on every side, we turn with relief to the Woman all fair who alone remains to us from our uprooted paradise.
For Mary we have no words to match her peerless glory. Only the spotless angels of God can appraise the miracle of her sinlessness-if even they.
Gratitude for Mary Immaculate
All of us, unless blinded by sin, can feel a thrill of delight in the thought of her, the Immaculate. Surely we can never thank God enough for the Immaculate Conception, for all there is in her of light and grace and glory-for all that raises our hearts and fills us with the hope of better things.
And for our youth, what confidence springs from the thought of the sinless one who is their loving Mother! The practice of invoking her each morning and night with the three Hail Marys in honour of and gratitude for the Immaculate Conception, is a sure defence against the weakness of the flesh, the corruption of the world, and the wiles of the devil. Let us priests, parents, and teachers help the child to form this practice, adding after each Hail Mary, the ejaculation: “O Mary, by thy pure and Immaculate Conception, make my body pure and my soul holy.”
“For all high thoughts thou bringst to mind,
We love thee; love thee better yet
For all that taint on human kind
Thy brightness helps us to forget.”

Nihil Obstat:
Daniel Mannix,
Archiepiscopus Melbournensis, 11/6/53