The Feast of the Immaculate Conception: America’s Real National Day

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In our post-democratic era, there are all sorts of questions of identity being bandied around the post-Christian West, not least in our own United States. The dominant view for over two centuries saw this nation as primarily an instrument of freedom, firstly for itself, and then for all the world. For those of a conservative disposition, the great lockdown is the latest blow to that notion. For the “Woke,” the Land of the Free is an unforgivable sin, erected on the bones of one race by the enslaved labor of another and ruled by an irredeemable third. These two views cannot long endure in tandem.

But where do Catholic Americans fit into this dreary national picture? For all that we have missed innumerable “Catholic moments” and chances at evangelization, we do have our own alternative to the alternating chaos and repression on offer. For just as Saint Patrick is patron of the Irish, Saint Andrew of the Scots, Saint David of Wales, and Saint George of England, so Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is patroness of the United States of America.

In a strange way, the roots of our country go back to the very roots of Marian devotion. The first recorded apparition of Our Lady was in A.D. 40 in Zaragoza, Spain, when Saint James the Great, discouraged by his seeming lack of success in reaching souls, was ready to leave Spain. Bilocating (for she was still living in Ephesus), the Virgin, standing on a stone pillar, foretold that the Apostle’s work would be crowned with eventual victory after his death. Our Lady of the Pillar is today the patroness of Aragon.

In a somewhat similar jam, Christopher Columbus promised his restive crews in 1492 that if they did not sight land by the end of October 12—the feast of Our Lady of the Pillar—they would turn around. Having prayed most devoutly to her, the great navigator duly discovered the Americas on that day. All the moronic renamings of Columbus Day and destruction of his statues cannot take away from the victory won on that date by the Queen of Heaven and her gallant client.

French, Spanish, Portuguese, and even English missionaries and settlers from Quebec to Argentina brought their various devotions to Our Lady and built shrines in her honor. In return, over the five-centuries-long European adventure in the Americas, Our Lady has affected numerous approved apparitions and miracles. One of the earliest and best-known is that of Guadalupe, which eventually resulted in the conversion of most of the Mexican Indians. In 1945, Pope Pius XII accorded her the title “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas,” and that of “Patroness of the Americas” a year later.

But despite our heavy Protestant orientation, our own sector of the Americas has a native devotion to the Blessed Virgin, in addition to those of the earlier French, Spanish, and English settlers. On May 28, 1792, newly minted Bishop John Carroll addressed his newly minted Diocese of Baltimore, which he had placed under patronage of Our Lady. “I shall only add this my earnest request,” he told the faithful:

that to the exercise of the sublimest virtues, faith, hope and charity, you will join a fervent and well-regulated devotion to the Holy Mother of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; that you will place great confidence in her in all your necessities. Having chosen her the special patroness of this Diocese, you are placed, of course, under her powerful protection; and it becomes your duty to be careful to deserve its continuance by a zealous imitation of her virtues and a reliance on her motherly superintendence.

When he began construction of the cathedral in 1806, Carroll would dedicate it to Our Lady under the title of the Assumption.

Thanks to births and immigration (rather than evangelization, alas!) the Church in the United States grew rapidly over the next several decades, so that twenty-two bishops gathered in Baltimore for the Sixth Provincial Council in the United States in 1846. Deciding to make Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception our patroness and so making her December 8 feast day our national day, the bishops wrote in their pastoral letter:

We take this occasion, brethren, to communicate to you the determination, unanimously adopted by us, to place ourselves and all entrusted to our charge throughout the United States, under the special patronage of the holy Mother of God, whose Immaculate Conception is venerated by the piety of the faithful throughout the Catholic Church. By the aid of her prayers, we entertain the confident hope that we will be strengthened to perform the arduous duties of our ministry, and that you will be enabled to practice the sublime virtues, of which her life presents the most perfect example.

Anticipating the fiftieth anniversary of the definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, around 1904 clergy and laity began talking about building a shrine in Our Lady’s honor under this title; a decade later, the cornerstone was laid. Despite starts and stops, the shrine was completed in 1959. In that year, Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle consecrated the United States of America to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Now, national consecrations to Our Lady or Our Lord under one or another title are almost a commonplace of devotional life in Catholic countries. Generally undertaken by the head of state with the country’s bishops, they are a sign that the monarch (or republic) recognizes the sovereignty of Christ and His Mother over them and all society. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil renewed his country’s consecration to the Immaculate Heart last year. Obviously, in non-Catholic countries such as our own, collaboration with the civil authorities in such cases is problematic, to say the least.

At any rate, in the face of the Covid pandemic and the widespread closure of churches across the globe, not least in the United States, the bishops of both this country and Canada decided to renew the consecrations of their respective countries on May 1. In the United States, the event was livestreamed from various cathedrals, but led by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles in his capacity as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The central prayer offered by His Excellency was: “With the love of a Mother and Handmaid, embrace our nation which we entrust and consecrate once again to you, together with ourselves and our families.” After that, the event was lost in the news, thanks to a death in Minneapolis and the ensuing rioting and self-laceration indulged in nationwide.

Not everyone forgot, however. Bearing in mind that full national consecrations require the cooperation of the head of state Father Ian Bozant, FSSP, rector of the National Shrine of Saint Alphonsus Liguori in Baltimore, made an invitation to President Trump on September 8:

Mr. President, you have been given the authority to govern this nation from Almighty God, for all authority comes from Him (cf. Romans 13:1). As a result, you and all leaders of this world are engaged in a battle between good and evil, light and darkness. This battle should not be fought alone…. I ask you to consecrate this great nation to the Blessed Virgin Mary… so that you may invoke the protection of the great Mother of God.

The invitation was for the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, October 7. Perhaps President Trump will now consider doing so. Given the apparent campaign of fraud being perpetrated against him, he (and we!) need all the protection we can get.

It is well within the President’s purview to approach the nations’ bishops and together rededicate this nation to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. On this—Americans’ true “national feast”—let us pray that she will inspire him to do so. Who knows? Mr. Trump has been a true friend to America’s Catholics and has often expressed his support for the cause of the orthodox faithful. The Divine is already at work in his heart. Anything is possible.

In the meantime, while our friends and relations are trying to figure out what it is to be American, we should show them. First and foremost, to be a good American means to be a child of Mary. It means loving and revering the saints, blesseds, and candidates for sainthood produced by our land, and its Catholic history.

Let us cultivate a deeper devotion to Saints Junípero Serra, Kateri Tekakwitha, Elizabeth Seton, and John Neumann. Let us ask Blessed Solanus Casey and Michael McGivney, Venerable Augustus Tolton and Fulton Sheen to intercede for our country in this time of crisis. And let us commit ourselves to the example of the glorious Jesuit Martyrs in North America: to persist in our mission, to win all souls for Christ, even unto death.

Just as French Catholics keep the Assumption as their real national day, so should we do with the Immaculate Conception. Go to Mass—and put out the flag!

Charles Coulombe

By

Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine's European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan's Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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