Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception 2020 – SMA Founders Day

Mary, Star of Evangelization

On 8 December 2020, the SMA celebrated the 164th anniversary of its foundation at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fourvière, Lyon, France. The following is an edited version of a homily Fr Michael McCabe prepared for this Feast, so dear to the hearts of SMAs.

It was on this day in 1856, 164 years ago, that Melchior de Marion Brésillac founded the Society of African Missions. It was no accident that our, now Venerable, Founder dedicated his new enterprise to the Virgin Mary on the Feast of her Immaculate Conception. The mid-nineteenth century was a high point of Mariological devotion in the Church. Many of the great Founders and Foundresses of Missionary Institutes and Religious Congregations in the 19th century laid their dreams at the feet of Mary. In 1854, two years before de Brésillac founded the SMA, Pius IX had capped a great wave of Mariological fervour with the definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The Dogma declared that, by the grace of God, and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Mary was preserved free from all sin.

In today’s liturgy, Mary is presented as the one who is without sin, the first beginning of perfection, in contrast to the first woman, Eve, who stands at the beginning of sin. In Mary a break is made with our sinful history and humanity is made newly open to God. The Immaculate Conception signifies that Mary is the first of the redeemed. In her we see what we are called to be, and what we shall be if we respond to this call. Mary, then, is not so much ‘our fallen nature’s solitary boast’ (as an old hymn to Mary puts it) as she is our model of perfection. What God has done in her, He can and will do in us.

It is no accident either that this feast occurs during the Advent Season, when we prepare our hearts and minds to celebrate the birth of the Son of the Most High. During Advent, Mary is presented a mother awaiting the birth of her child, whom she bears in her womb ‘with love beyond all telling’ as the Second Advent Preface states. According to the Anglican theologian [and former head of the Anglican Communion], Rowan Williams, Luke presents Maryas the first missionary, the first bearer of the Good News’, and she does this simply by accepting to be the vessel of God’s living Word, and carrying that Word in her womb.

This theme of Mary as the first missionary is brought out strikingly by Luke in the story of her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, which follows the Annunciation scene. Elizabeth, as yet unaware of Mary’s pregnancy, nevertheless recognises her as the bearer of the hopes and desires of all nations, and life stirs within her womb. Her unborn infant, John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for Christ, moves as if to greet the baby Jesus in the womb of Mary. This beautiful story teaches an important truth about evangelization or mission, namely that mission is not primarily about preaching or delivering a verbal message. It is rather about going out to meet another person with Christ in your heart and allowing his presence to touch those with whom we come into contact.

We have much to learn from Mary, Star of Evangelization and our Missionary Mother. As the first missionary, she models a patient and humble mode of missionary presence, not forcing God’s hand, but carrying Jesus with ‘love beyond all telling’ (2nd Advent Preface), and allowing the space and time for his presence to evoke that leap of recognition and joy in the hearts of those we meet. 

I will end with this reflection with a prayer:

Mother Mary, teach me how to be a missionary after you own heart, carrying Christ with love to those to whom I am sent, and allowing his presence to evoke an awakening response of recognition and joy in their hearts. Amen.