By Rita E. Piro
This week on Dec. 8, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, one of the most important feast days of the liturgical year. It is also probably the most misunderstood.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin and her conception was therefore immaculate. It does not refer to the conception of Jesus in his mother’s womb, which is correctly called the Incarnation.
Mary identified herself as the Immaculate Conception to St. Bernadette Soubirous, St. Brigid of Sweden, and St. Catherine Laboure. More than 25 countries, including the United States, are under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception, as is the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Debated by theologians for centuries beginning before the Middle Ages, the nature or status of this identification for Mary wasn’t settled until 1854 when Pope Leo IX formally established the Immaculate Conception as dogma (a belief held with unquestionable certainty), giving it the highest level of authority by making it an infallible teaching.
Says Pope Francis, “The feast of the Immaculate Conception can be summarized by the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary as ‘full of grace.’ By calling her ‘full of grace,’ the angel meant that she ‘was full of the presence of God,’ leaving no room in her life for sin. She was created immaculate so that she could welcome fully, with her ‘yes,’ God who was coming into the world”.
The Immaculate Conception is one of the most popular feast days in the Catholic world, including in Latin America, Europe, Guam, Syria, and the Philippines. Nowhere is the day more celebrated, however, than in Italy, where it is a national public holiday with schools, banks, government offices, and most businesses all closed.
The day also serves as the official kickoff to the Christmas holidays when families, towns, piazzas, hotels, churches, businesses, and the Vatican set up their presepe or Nativities. Throughout Italy, there are processions in honor of Mary, during which locals celebrate their individual town’s specific Marian devotion, some of which are well-known while others are more obscure.
The pope is also part of the feast day’s fun. Every Dec. 8 since 1947, the pope makes his way to the Piazza di Spagna, home to the famed Spanish Steps as well as the Spanish Embassy, where he lays a wreath at the base of the Colonna dell’ Immacolata, the Column of The Immaculate One.
On top of a 40-foot-high monument stands a huge statue of Mary with outstretched arms. The Corinthian-style column was erected by the city of Rome’s fire department and dedicated on Dec. 8, 1857, in honor of the Immaculate Conception. Once the pope has placed the wreath and offered his blessing, the head of the Rome fire department ascends a fire truck ladder to the top of the statue and places a wreath around Mary’s outstretched arm.
Not to be outdone, the Italian police force has as its patroness La Fedelissima, “The Most Faithful One,” to whom Pope Pius XII entrusted the protection of Italy’s police officers—also on Dec. 8, in 1949.
La polizia take Nov. 21, the Presentation of Mary, as their feast day, when they honor Mary under the title Virgo Fidelis, Faithful Virgin, which, according to the police statement, “embodies all the meaning of Mary and her mission as Mother and Co-Redemptrix of the human race as entrusted to her by God.”
The mottos of the Italian police, Fedeli a Dio e all’umanità attraverso i secoli fino alla morte (“Faithful to God and to humanity through the centuries to the death”), and of the fire department, Fermiamo i fuochi, donando il nostro cuore (“We stop fires, giving our heart”), both express their members’ faith in Mary and their willingness to serve humanity even if it costs them their lives.
Whether or not we are connected to the NYPD or FDNY through family and/or friends — and I am not — we would do well to entrust our own police and firefighter forces to the care and protection of La Immacolata and La Fedelissima. Because of our separation of church and state, our brave and dedicated firefighters and police officers are unable to officially celebrate with feast-day wreaths, banners, processions, and parades that display their faith in and devotion to Mary and the mission of Jesus.
But they do display faith every time they mount their fire trucks or patrol our streets. Like Mary, their lives are lived in fidelity and devotion to the mission of God, in service to all the people of God, no matter the cost.
Rita E. Piro is a multi-award-winning freelance writer for the Catholic Media Association and lifelong resident of the Diocese of Brooklyn.