At the end of his announcement of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invoked the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy: “Let us henceforth entrust this Year to the Mother of Mercy, that she turn her gaze upon us and watch over our journey: our penitential journey, our year-long journey with an open heart …” This invocation of Mary, Mother of Mercy was underscored by the announcement that the Holy Year will begin on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Let’s think about these two titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary together and ask ourselves how they are related.
Mary is the Immaculate Conception. This is how she identified herself to St. Bernadette. That she was immaculately conceived does not mean that she existed outside the economy of redemption, on her own independent track, but rather that she, by the merits of her Son, was redeemed in a unique way, preserved immune from all stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception. The “stain” of original sin is, of course, not a physical stain, but rather it refers to the impairment of freedom and therefore of the ability to love. This is the legacy of original sin. For this reason, either we are afraid of the consequences of choosing the good, or some other alternative seems more attractive. We can even choose the right alternative but for the wrong reasons or for mixed motives. Consider the power disparity that exists between Mary, a creature, and her Creator! Although it would not have been a sin to say “no,” Mary could have said “yes” to her vocation out of fear of God’s power or out of attraction to the status God could provide her! In a case like this, “in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith … it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.”
God’s grace is God’s mercy, and therefore Mary had to be wholly borne by God’s mercy. God’s mercy elected her for this vocation, and in and by God’s mercy she was able to assent with perfect freedom to God’s request. Because she is the Immaculate Conception, her whole being is defined by God’s mercy, and her “yes” is a completely unhindered act of assent to all of God’s merciful plans towards humankind that come to their fruition in the Incarnation. She is the “Mother of Mercy” in the sense that her motherhood is a gift of God’s mercy, and also in the sense that she is literally the Mother of the Incarnate Word, who is God’s mercy extended to us.
Devotion to Mary, Mother of Mercy, helps us realize that the Incarnation, as God’s greatest work of mercy, is not an abstract concept but is a Person. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2.6-7). Devotion to Mary deepens our awareness of how far that “self-emptying” mercy went, namely, to the point where the “Almighty became weak for us,” in other words, to the point where he became the direct opposite of almighty, a helpless baby who “uttered crying noises like all other children” and was completely dependent upon his mother. The divine compassion is concrete, not abstract, and the more devoted to Mary we are, the more a vista of the depth of this compassion, or mercy, dawns on our spiritual vision and we cry out: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven!” (Gen 28:17) The mercy of God is the gate of heaven, and in contemplating its awesomeness we stand on heaven’s threshold! There is nothing more powerful than the contemplation of God’s self-emptying mercy to prompt conversion.