Immaculate Conception of Mary
A feast called the Conception of Mary arose in the Eastern Church in the seventh century. It came to the West in the eighth century. In the 11th century it received its present name, the Immaculate Conception. In the 18th century it became a feast of the universal Church. It is now recognized as a solemnity.
In 1854, Pius IX solemnly proclaimed: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.”
It took a long time for this doctrine to develop. While many Fathers and Doctors of the Church considered Mary the greatest and holiest of the saints, they often had difficulty in seeing Mary as sinless—either at her conception or throughout her life. This is one of the Church teachings that arose more from the piety of the faithful than from the insights of brilliant theologians. Even such champions of Mary as Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas could not see theological justification for this teaching.
Two Franciscans, William of Ware and Blessed John Duns Scotus, helped develop the theology. They pointed out that Mary’s Immaculate Conception enhances Jesus’ redemptive work. Other members of the human race are cleansed from original sin after birth. In Mary, Jesus’ work was so powerful as to prevent original sin at the outset.
Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memory of St. Ambrose, the brilliant Bishop of Milan who influenced St. Augustine’s conversion and was named a Doctor of the Church. Like Augustine himself, the older Ambrose, born around 340, was a highly educated man who sought to harmonize Greek and Roman intellectual culture with the Catholic faith. Trained in literature, law, and rhetoric, he eventually became the governor of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan. He manifested his intellectual gifts in defense of Christian doctrine even before his baptism.
While Ambrose was serving as governor, a bishop named Auxentius was leading the diocese. Although he was an excellent public speaker with a forceful personality, Auxentius also followed the heresy of Arius, which denied the divinity of Christ. Although the Council of Nicaea had reasserted the traditional teaching on Jesus’ deity, many educated members of the Church – including, at one time, a majority of the world’s bishops – looked to Arianism as a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan version of Christianity. Bishop Auxentius became notorious for forcing clergy throughout the region to accept Arian creeds.
At the time of Auxentius’ death, Ambrose had not yet even been baptized. But his deep understanding and love of the traditional faith were already clear to the faithful of Milan. They considered him the most logical choice to succeed Auxentius, even though he was still just a catechumen. With the help of Emperor Valentinan II, who ruled the Western Roman Empire at the time, a mob of Milanese Catholics virtually forced Ambrose to become their bishop against his own will. Eight days after his baptism, Ambrose received episcopal consecration on Dec. 7, 374. The date would eventually become his liturgical feast.
Bishop Ambrose did not disappoint those who had clamored for his appointment and consecration. He began his ministry by giving everything he owned to the poor and to the Church. He looked to the writings of Greek theologians like St. Basil for help in explaining the Church’s traditional teachings to the people during times of doctrinal confusion. Like the fathers of the Eastern Church, Ambrose drew from the intellectual reserves of pre-Christian philosophy and literature to make the faith more comprehensible to his hearers. This harmony of faith with other sources of knowledge served to attract, among others, the young professor Aurelius Augustinus – a man Ambrose taught and baptized, whom history knows as St. Augustine of Hippo.
Ambrose himself lived simply, wrote prolifically, and celebrated Mass each day. He found time to counsel an amazing range of public officials, pagan inquirers, confused Catholics and penitent sinners. His popularity, in fact, served to keep at bay those who would have preferred to force him from the diocese, including the Western Empress Justina and a group of her advisers, who sought to rid the West of adherence to the Nicene Creed, pushing instead for strict Arianism. Ambrose heroically refused her attempts to impose heretical bishops in Italy, along with her efforts to seize churches in the name of Arianism. Ambrose also displayed remarkable courage when he publicly denied communion to the Emperor Theodosius, who had ordered the massacre of 7,000 citizens in Thessalonica leading to his excommunication by Ambrose. The chastened emperor took Ambrose’s rebuke to heart, publicly repenting of the massacre and doing penance for the murders. “Nor was there afterwards a day on which he did not grieve for his mistake,” Ambrose himself noted when he spoke at the emperor’s funeral. The rebuke spurred a profound change in Emperor Theodosius. He reconciled himself with the Church and the bishop, who attended to the emperor on his deathbed. St. Ambrose died in 397. His 23 years of diligent service had turned a deeply troubled diocese into an exemplary outpost for the faith. His writings remained an important point of reference for the Church, well into the medieval era and beyond. St. Ambrose has been named one of the “holy fathers” of the Church, whose teaching all bishops should “in every way follow.”
When God calls us, He also gives us the strength to overcome any obstacles that come the way. Read the amazing story of how Father Peter Tran clung to God when assailed by the storms of life In April 1975, the lives of Vietnamese people who live in the South were changed forever when Communists took over the country. More than a million South Vietnamese soldiers had been captured and imprisoned in concentration camps throughout the country, while hundreds of thousands of clergy, seminarians, nuns, monks and brothers were detained in jails and re-education centers so they could be brainwashed. About 60% of them died in the camps, where they were never allowed to receive visits from their families or friends. They lived as though they had been forgotten.
A War-Torn Nation
I was born in the 1960s, during the war, just after the Americans arrived in my country. I was brought up during the fight between the North and the South, so it formed the backdrop of my childhood. By the time the war ended, I had nearly finished secondary school. I did not really understand what it was all about but I was very sad to see so many people grieving for all their loved ones who had been killed or imprisoned.
When the Communists took over our country, everything was turned upside down. We lived in fear under constant persecution for our faith. There was virtually no freedom at all. We did not know what would happen to us tomorrow. Our fate was totally in the hands of Communist Party members.
Answering God’s Call
In these inauspicious circumstances, I felt the call of God. Initially, I reacted against it strongly, because I knew it was impossible for me to follow that call. First of all, there was no seminary where I could study for the priesthood. Secondly, it would not only be dangerous for me, but also for my family, who would be punished if the government found out. And ultimately, I felt unworthy to become a disciple of Jesus. However, God has His own way to bring about His plan, so I joined the (underground) seminary in 1979. Sixteen months later, the local police discovered that I wanted to become a priest and so I was conscripted into the army.
I hoped that I might be released after 4 years, so I could return to my family and my studies, but during my training a friend warned me that we were being sent to fight in Kampuchea. I knew that 80% of the soldiers who went to fight in Kampuchea never returned. I was so terrified at the prospect that I made plans to desert, despite the perilous risks.
Although I escaped successfully, I was still in danger. I couldn’t endanger my family by returning home, so I was continually on the move, in constant fear that somebody would see me and report me to the police.
Fleeing for Life
After a year of this daily terror, with no end in sight, my family told me that, for the safety of everyone, I must attempt to escape from Vietnam. One day, after midnight, I followed secret directions to creep to a small wooden fishing boat, where fifty people had gathered to squeeze on board to run the gauntlet of the Communist patrols. From young children to the elderly, we held our breaths and each other’s hands until we were safely out in the open sea. But our troubles had only just begun. We only had a vague idea of where we wanted to go, and had little idea of where to head to get there.
Our escape was full of hardships and perils. We spent four days in terrible weather, tossed about in a rough sea. At one stage, we had given up all hope. We doubted that we would be able to survive the next storm, and believed that we would never arrive at our destination, as we were at the mercy of the sea which seemed to be driving us nowhere, and we couldn’t work out where we were. All we could do was entrust our lives to God’s Providence. All this time, He had us under His protection. We couldn’t believe our good fortune when we finally found refuge on a small island in Malaysia, where I spent eight months in a refugee camp before being accepted into Australia.
Having endured such terrors, I finally discovered that “After rain comes sunshine”. We have a traditional saying, “a flow will have an ebb”. Everyone in life must have some gloomy days to contrast with the days of joy and contentment. Perhaps it is a rule of human life. No one from birth can be free of all sorrows. Some are physical, some are mental, and some are spiritual. Our sorrows differ from each other, but almost everyone will have a taste. However, sorrows themselves cannot kill a human being. Only the lack of will to continue in surrender to God’s will can discourage someone so much that they seek shelter in illusory joys, or choose suicide in a vain attempt to escape from sorrow. I feel fortunate that I have learnt, as a Catholic, to trust God entirely with my life. I believe that He will assist me whenever I am in trouble, especially when it seems that I am out of options, encircled by enemies. I have learned by experience to seek shelter with God, the shield and stronghold of my life. Nothing can harm me when He is by my side (Psalm 22).
New Life in a New Land
When I arrived in Australia, I threw myself into studying English so that I could follow the longing in my heart to keep studying for the priesthood. It was not easy for me in the beginning, living in such a completely different culture. Often, I couldn’t find the right words to convey my thoughts without being misunderstood. Sometimes I felt like screaming loudly in frustration. Without family, or friends, or money, it was difficult to start a new life. I felt lonely and isolated, with little support from anyone, except God.
He has always been my companion, giving me strength and courage to continue persevering despite all the obstacles. His light has guided me through the darkness, even when I failed to recognize His presence. Everything I have achieved is by His grace and I will never cease to be grateful to Him for calling me to follow Him.
St Nicholas of Myra
On Dec. 6, the faithful commemorate a bishop in the early church who was known for generosity and love of children. Born in Lycia in Asia Minor around the late third or fourth century, St. Nicholas of Myra is more than just the inspiration for the modern day Santa.
As a young man he is said to have made a pilgrimage to Palestine and Egypt in order to study in the school of the Desert Fathers. On returning some years later he was almost immediately ordained Bishop of Myra, which is now Demre, on the coast of modern day Turkey. The bishop was imprisoned during the Diocletian persecution and only released when Constantine the Great came to power and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
One of the most famous stories of the generosity of St. Nicholas says that he threw bags of gold through an open window in the house of a poor man to serve as dowry for the man’s daughters, who otherwise would have been forced into prostitution. The gold is said to have landed in the family’s shoes, which were drying near the fire. This is why children leave their shoes out by the door, or hang their stockings by the fireplace in the hopes of receiving a gift on the eve of his feast.
St. Nicholas is associated with Christmas because of the tradition that he had the custom of giving secret gifts to children. It is also conjectured that the saint, who was known to wear red robes and have a long white beard, was culturally converted into the large man with a reindeer-drawn sled full of toys because in German, his name is “San Nikolaus” which almost sounds like “Santa Claus.” In the East, he is known as St. Nicholas of Myra for the town in which he was bishop. But in the West he is called St. Nicholas of Bari because, during the Muslim conquest of Turkey in 1087, his relics were taken to Bari by the Italians. St Nicholas is the patron of children and of sailors. His intercession is sought by the shipwrecked, by those in difficult economic circumstances, and for those affected by fires. He died on December 6, 346.
I was about to return home to work and save money for my college education but God had a big surprise for me
When I was a college student many years ago, I went on a mission trip to the Texas/Mexico border to volunteer with Our Lady’s Youth Center and the Lord’s Ranch Community. This lay apostolate, founded by a well-known Jesuit priest, Fr. Rick Thomas, had outreaches to the poor in both Juarez, Mexico and in the slums of El Paso. I had just completed my first year at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and after this 3-week experience of missions, I was to return home for the summer to work and save money, then go back to Ohio to continue my college education. At least, that was my plan. But God had a big surprise for me.
A Radical Departure
During my first week at the Lord’s Ranch, I started getting the uncomfortable sense that the Lord was calling me to stay. I was horrified! I had never been to the desert or experienced dry, swelteringly hot weather. I was born and raised in the tropical paradise of Hawaii surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, palm trees and an abundance of flowers and rain forests. The Ranch, on the other hand, is surrounded by mesquite bushes, tumbleweed, and a parched, semi-arid landscape.
“Lord, you’ve got the wrong person in mind,” I cried out in my prayer. “I could never live here, never hack this life of hard manual labor, no air conditioning, and very few creature comforts. Choose someone else, not me!”But the strong feeling that God was calling me to a radical departure from my carefully planned-out life kept growing in me.
One day in the chapel at the Lord’s Ranch, I received this reading from the book of Ruth: “I have heard what you have done… you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom previously you did not know. May the Lord reward what you have done! May you receive a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” Ruth 2:12-13
I slammed the Bible shut. I did not like where this was going! Putting Out the Fleece After the second week of wrestling with the Lord, I stopped praying. I didn’t like what He was saying. I was sure He had gotten the wrong girl. I was only 18 years old! Too young, too inexperienced, too much of a wimp, not tough enough. My excuses sounded good to me. So I threw down a fleece (like Gideon did in Judges 6:36ff). “Lord, if you are really serious about this, speak to me through Sister.” Sister Mary Virginia Clark was a Daughter of Charity who co-led the apostolate with Fr. Rick Thomas. She had an authentic gift of prophecy and would share inspired words at the prayer gatherings. That week at the prayer meeting, she stood up and said, “I have a prophecy for the young women from Steubenville.” That got my attention. I don’t remember anything she said, except for the words, “Follow the example of the women in the Old Testament.” Ouch! I thought immediately of the reading in Ruth I had received in prayer.
“Okay, Lord. This is getting too real.” So out comes another fleece: “If you are really serious, have Sister Mary Virginia say something to me directly.” There, I thought. That should end it.
Sister used to speak individually with all the visitors who came through the Lord’s Ranch, so it was not unusual that she asked to meet with me that weekend. We had a nice chat, with her asking me about my family, my background, what led me to the Ranch, etc. She said a prayer at the end of our conversation, and I got up to leave. “Whew, dodged a bullet,” I was thinking, when suddenly she asked, “Have you ever thought about staying here?”
My heart sank. I couldn’t respond so just nodded yes. All she told me was, “I’ll pray for you.” And I sadly walked out the door. I went outside to get some air. I headed for the small, man-made lake at the Lord’s Ranch. I had grown up on an island surrounded by the ocean so to be near water was always comforting and familiar to me. This small catfish-stocked pond was an oasis in the desert where I could sit and soothe my troubled soul. I cried, I pleaded, I argued with the Lord, trying to convince Him that there really had been some divine mix-up. “I know you’ve got the wrong person, God. I don’t have what it takes to live this life.” Silence. The sky as if bronzed. No movement or stirring.
When the Scales Fell
Sitting there alone by the peaceful water, fluffy white clouds floating overhead, I calmed down. I started to reflect on my life. I had always felt close to God since I was a little girl. He was my closest friend, my confidante, my rock. I knew He loved me. I knew He had my best interests at heart and would never harm me in any way. I also knew that I wanted to do whatever He asked, no matter how distasteful it was.
So I grudgingly gave in. “Okay, God. You win. I’ll stay.” At that point I heard in my heart, “I don’t want a resignation. I want a cheerful, joyful yes.” “What! Now you’re pushing it, Lord! I just gave in, but that’s not enough?” More silence. More inner struggle.
Then I prayed for the desire to be here — something I had avoided asking for all this time. “Lord, if this is truly Your plan for me, please give me the desire for it.” Instantly, I felt like roots shoot out of my feet, grounding me solidly here, and I knew I was home. This was home. This was where I was meant to be. Unasked for, unwanted, unattractive to my human senses. Not at all in my script for my life, but God’s choice for me. As I continued to sit there, it was as if scales fell from my eyes. I started seeing the beauty in the desert — the mountains that frame the Lord’s Ranch, the desert plants, the wild ducks that were sharing this watering hole with me that evening. Everything looked so different, so striking to me. I got up to leave knowing that there had been a dramatic shift in me. I was a different person — with a new perspective, a new purpose, a new mission. This was to be my life. Time to start embracing it and living it to the full.
That was 40 years ago. My life has been nothing like I envisioned it would be in my teen years. God’s plan for me swerved in a dramatically different direction than I thought I was going in. But I am so glad and grateful that I followed His path and not mine. I’ve been stretched and pulled way out of my comfort zone and what I thought I was capable of; and I know the challenges and lessons are not over yet. But the people I’ve met, the deep friendships I’ve formed, the experiences I’ve had, the skills I’ve learned, have enriched me far beyond what I thought was possible. And even though I initially resisted God and His crazy plan for my life, now I can’t imagine living any other way. What a full, vibrant, challenging, and joy-filled life it has been! Thank You, Jesus.