The 'IC' of the 'MIC': 150 Years After

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is primary, of course, to the Marians of the Immaculate Conception and has always been one of the Congregation's most important, even seminal, days. This year on Dec. 8, the Marians again celebrate Holy Mass at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy on Eden Hill, beginning at 10:30 a.m. The Mass will include a special ceremony in which Marian priests and brothers will renew their vows.

The Most. Rev. Fr. Jan Rokosz, MIC, Superior General of the Marians, in a letter to his congregational brothers, called Dec. 8 "an opportunity for us to return to the source of our vocation, namely, to Christ. ... Let us discover with renewed strength how beautiful and attractive holiness is, which we contemplate in Mary Immaculate ... ."

'The Gratuitous Love of God'
Father Jan called the Immaculate Conception "the sign of the gratuitous love of God." He then "cut to the chase" with the directness wisdom must assume:

Within each one of us, there is some sort of inclination to sin, which wants to dominate us. If we establish that our primary goal is to fight evil, then our entire thinking will revolve around sin, which we will want to conquer. This will lead to a haughty type of ascetic "muscles" and a dangerous concentration on moral perfection. The truth of the Immaculate Conception reminds us that Christ saves us. He waits until we come to Him with all our misery and helplessness.

This theme of avoiding moral scrupulousness is one of controlling ideas that appears throughout the Diary of Saint Faustina, between and in the lines of the sayings of Jesus, and in all benign spiritual counseling. Besides being a cornerstone to the quality of mercy, unscrupulousness is a tremendous thought upon which to dwell, because it prevents a tendency many have to "beat themselves up" because they are not "perfect as God is perfect."

What We Lost, He Returned
Wisdom deals with where we are, not where we have been or want to be. We are not perfect. God understands that. He cradles our weaknesses and enhances our strengths. He transforms our sufferings and ladles our joy. He forgives our sins and celebrates our goodness. What we ripped apart, He made whole again. What we rejected, He restored. What we lost, He returned.

How did He do all this? As Fr. Jan wrote, "The truth of the Immaculate Conception reminds us that Christ saves us" (my italics). Around the neck of every man, woman, and child on the planet should be a yellow, diamond road sign reading: "Caution! The Divine Mercy at work!"

Yes, we should strive for perfection, but we must accept forgiveness - not forgetting to forgive ourselves - when we fail to achieve it. We must reach through adversity to the stars. As people striven to great goodness, we can count on Mary's help, she who "calls the faithful to her Son and His sacrifice, and to the love of the Father" (Lumen Gentium, Second Vatican Council).

The Immaculate Conception is the "IC" of the "MIC" you see after the names of the Marians whenever one of the Congregation is mentioned. The "IC" of the "MIC" keeps the mystical significance of Mary's love for us - before us - everyday.

Teen Angel
Perhaps the greatest validation of the Church's declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 are the mysterious events that followed four years later, between Feb. 11 and July 16, 1858, in a rock grotto in southern France. It happened to a teenage girl.

She was born on Jan. 7, 1844, the last of six children. The next day, her parents -Francois and Louise - carried the swaddled baby in the frosty cold to the parish church, where she was baptized and given the name Marie Bernarde. As a baby, she survived cholera. As a young girl, she suffered asthma so suffocating that she would beg her nurses to tear open her chest so she might breath without such strained labor.

Despite her delicate constitution and diminutive size, Marie was a lively child. She loved to laugh, enjoyed making up games for the other kids (even when her health meant she couldn't play), and possessed a simple "clarity" that many took (or mistook) for simple-mindedness. She also had a habit of carrying in her dress pocket a white marble prettily veined with blue and a rosary.

In 1855, hardship descended upon the family. The French winter brought a brutal, withering freeze that essentially put the girl's father, a miller, out of work. The ensuing poverty stuck the family so bad that Marie's parents sent the 11-year-old to stay with her mother's sister, Aunt Bernarde, who gave the girl her middle name. The move helped the family make ends meet, although it meant the girl's separation from her beloved family. Seven months later, though, with the weather much improved and Francois able to find work, the girl returned home.

There, she lived the peasant life with her family, helping her mother with household chores and caring for her younger siblings. While the family still struggled to make ends meet, they did not experience the crushing, life-threatening poverty that plagued it earlier. Life began to settle down in a hard but pastoral simplicity.

The 'Little Fool'
In 1857, Marie left home one more time, spending the summer with Marie Aravant in the town of Bartres, working as a shepherd. The two Maries greatly enjoyed each other's company, the elder treating the younger as a daughter. Young Marie, in fact, celebrated her 14th birthday in Bartres. There was, however, one source of aggravation to her family: the teenager had not yet made her First Holy Communion.

Marie Aravant decided to change that. She began instructing her pupil about the Faith - to no avail. Young Marie has little interest in the subject, mainly because she had little aptitude for learning.

"It was useless for me to repeat my lessons," said Marie Aravant much later. "I always had to begin again [with her]. Sometimes I was so overcome by impatience [that] I would throw my book aside and say to her, 'Go along. You will never be anything but a little fool.' "

Marie Aravant asked the parish priest for advice, and he suggested that young "Bernadette," a diminutive of her middle name referring to her small stature, should return to her home in southern France - to Lourdes.

Most know of the events that would follow.

From Fetid Dump to Fecund Divinity
When she returned home, Bernadette was only months away from a series of 18 encounters with what she called a "small, young lady." As a consequence of those visitations, the girl's sufferings were to increase - perhaps they even acted as a magnet to attract the Blessed Mother in the first place. This is plausible, given the way Bernadette bore her trials with patience and humility, enabling the teenager and later the young nun to accept the fullness of their duress.

Bernadette would be left almost speechless by that initial encounter with Our Lady on Feb. 11, 1858. How fitting, since to say little or much would have been to say too much. Certain experiences must simply be. The words would come later, during and after 17 more apparitions. The 150 years that have elapsed since have turned the girl's experience into theMarian apparition, the Mother of them all, transforming an obscure grotto in a fetid dump into the most frequented pilgrimage site in the world.

Lourdes, a small town in southern France, hosts 5 million pilgrims each year. In all of France, only Paris has more hotels than this modest enclave of 15,000 people.

Virtually all Catholics know some portion of the wondrous events that took place in the rock grotto at Lourdes, France, 150 years ago. During the 18 apparitions, the "small, young lady" revealed herself as "the Immaculate Conception."

The final Lourdes apparition occurred on Friday, July 16, 1858. Bernadette spent the rest of her life, most as a cloistered nun of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, France, silently offering up her sufferings (mainly from asthma and tuberculosis) to help "poor sinners." She died on April 16, 1979 at the age of 35.

Pope OKs Special Indulgence
This year, beginning on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Church celebrates the 150th Jubilee Year of the Lourdes apparitions. To highlight the importance of this year of grace, Pope Benedict XVI has approved a plenary indulgence for pilgrims taking part in any public or private devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. A plenary indulgence removes all punishment for sins.

The special indulgence will be granted to anyone visiting the Lourdes shrine in France during the jubilee year, which runs through Dec. 8, 2008. Those who can't make it to Lourdes can receive the indulgence from Feb. 2-11 if during that time they visit any public sanctuary, shrine, or "other worthy place" dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. That would include the Lourdes Grotto at the Immaculate Conception Candle Shrine on Eden Hill, Stockbridge, Mass.

The indulgence requires:
• Confession reasonably near the time of the pilgrimage
• Receiving Holy Communion
• Praying for the Pope's intentions
• A spirit of determination to good and to avoid sin.
As a suggestion, the Vatican said pilgrims should also consider praying an "Our Father," the Apostles' Creed, and a prayer to Mary such as the "Hail Mary" or Magnificat.

Grasped by a 'Loving Gaze'
The "small, young lady" called herself the Immaculate Conception. What does it mean for us? It's a question people must answer for themselves. As you do, consider the words of Fr. Jan Rokosz. The Marian General told his brothers that the Feast of the Immaculate conception:

... is an opportunity for us to return to the source of our vocation, namely to Christ, who is the First-born of the new creation. Let us allow ourselves to be grasped by the loving gaze of Christ, to immerse ourselves in His grace, to discover anew the beauty of the life to which He calls us.

Come. Find the life to which you are called.

Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications both online and in print of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. He also authors "Dan Valenti's Journal" for

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