I was an Anglican priest from an Evangelical background. I was living in England and working in an Anglican parish, but I was being drawn more and more to Catholicism. One of the problems was the Marian dogmas. I came to understand them, but could not accept them. I didn’t mind if Catholics believed them. I didn’t see why we had to accept them. Why couldn’t they just remain a pious opinion?
During a visit to Greenville, SC I debated the matter with a Catholic priest named Fr. Paul. Fr. Paul is an African American and at the time he was pretty hefty. He enjoyed drinking beer and eating fried chicken. So I was having dinner with him at my brother’s house, and I was picking a fight about the immaculate conception. He was very kind and listened to me carefully. I explained how Thomas Aquinas didn’t believe it and how it wasn’t necessary because then St Anne would also have had to be immaculate and how it was a late dogma…blah, blah, blah. Finally he just chuckled and said, “We believe in the Immaculate Conception because the Pope tells us to. Pass the fried chicken.”
He was right, but God still wanted me to ‘get it.’ So I put my intellectual objections on one side and I began to pray the rosary more seriously and allowed my Protestant bias and intellectual arguments to lie dormant for a time. I didn’t disbelieve it nor did I believe it. I just let it be.
Then I was traveling in Normandy in France. I wandered into Bayeaux Cathedral. As in most of the medieval cathedrals there were lots of little side chapels. I was pretty much the only person in the cathedral. I stopped in a little chapel and saw the finger bone of St Therese who lived just down the road in Lisieux. Then I stopped in another chapel and knelt to pray. I don’t know what I prayed–maybe the rosary. I don’t know. I was caught up in prayer for some time. Then I walked out of the cathedral and the morning sun was bright and clear in the plaza outside, and I suddenly realized that I believed in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Then I also remembered who the little chapel was dedicated to in which I was praying. It was St Bernadette–to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared and confided, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
I no longer simply understood the dogma and the logic of it, but I saw the beauty of it and the wonder of the simple girl of Nazareth becoming the second Eve. As I realized I believed in the Immaculate Conception I also suddenly became more aware, in a deeper way–a way very difficult to articulate–of the reality and historical concreteness of the incarnation itself. Suddenly Jesus Christ–Son of God and Son of Mary–was more real than he ever was before and I also grasped why the church requires this belief and does not allow it to remain a pious option.
It is because the church wants us through the Marian dogmas to be introduced to Christ in a more real and powerful way. Through this mystery mother Mary brings us closer to her Son. I had heard Catholics saying such things for a long time and didn’t get it. As I ‘got’ the Immaculate Conception I suddenly got the rest of it as well.
Now as a Catholic priest I will soon go on this beautiful feast day to celebrate Mass for the third time. First for the children of my parish school, second for the children at the Catholic High School where I also serve as chaplain, now for an evening celebration with the people of my parish. I’ll celebrate the feast with joy–knowing that in this glorious dogma the church upholds not only the incarnation of Jesus Christ the Son of God, but also re-affirms that God works miraculously within the history of the human race and through the particularity of individuals who, through his grace, change the course of history. So in the Virgin of Nazareth and also connecting with the shepherd girl of Lourdes.
Oh, by the way, I was finally ordained as a Catholic priest back in Greenville, about eighteen years after the conversation with Fr.Paul. For my ordination someone in the diocese had to stand up before the bishop and affirm that I had studied, been examined, and that I understood and held the fullness of the Catholic faith.
It was Fr Paul who stood up for me with a big grin on his face, and affirmed that I was qualified. I was just waiting for him to say, “Pass the fried chicken”