Warning: “Prevenient Grace” Alert!

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Graciously accept the saving sacrifice which we offer you,

O Lord, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

of the Blessed Virgin

Mary, and grant that,

as we profess her,

on account of your prevenient

grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so, through

her intercession

we may be delivered

from all our faults.

Through Christ our Lord.

Of all the challenging and words and phrases that have appeared in the new translation of the Roman Missal in the first year of its use – and indeed there are many – perhaps none is more obscure than “prevenient grace,” found in the Prayer Over the Offerings on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

What is prevenient grace and why is it important? We’ll talk about that in a moment, but first, a word about the Immaculate Conception itself.

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8th, is a beautiful and important feast day for Catholics and a holy day of obligation. All Catholics are obliged to attend Holy Mass in observance of that day, which, this year, falls on a Saturday. (And yes, Catholics are bound to attend Holy Mass twice that weekend – once for Saturday and once for Sunday.) The Virgin Mary, under this title of the Immaculate Conception, is also the patroness of the United States, an additional reason to attend Holy Mass on that occasion as we pray for God’s blessing upon our nation.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition but formally promulgated only in 1854, proclaims that our Blessed Mother was preserved free of original sin from the first moment of her conception. This was a special privilege given to Mary by God because she had been chosen from the beginning to be the Mother of God’s Son. We further believe that Mary remained completely free of every personal sin her whole life long. This “unique holiness” comes completely from Christ; “she is redeemed in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.” (Cf: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 490-493)

That brings us back to the topic of the day, prevenient grace. According to the prayer cited above, Mary was untouched by sin because of prevenient grace – a theological concept that refers to freely-bestowed divine grace that precedes any human decision or action. Prevenient grace exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done.

While the phrase might be obscure, the meaning is important. It means that Mary was preserved free of sin – not because of anything she herself had done or would do to merit such a blessing – but in anticipation of the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. Mary was saved by Jesus, as we all are!

The concept of prevenient grace might pose a challenge to preachers and listeners alike, but it also provides a perfect opportunity to talk about some key elements of our faith – God’s intervention in salvation history, the meaning of the Immaculate Conception, the unique role of Mary in God’s plan, and that we all have to depend on Jesus for the hope of eternal life.

All this detailed theology set aside however, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception encourages us to look to Mary with love and devotion as a powerful example and a personal friend in our daily lives. Recall that devotion to the Virgin Mary is a hallmark of our Catholic faith and culture.

As Mary was sinless, we should strive to be sinless too, always avoiding the occasions of temptation and sin, and trying to do what’s right, good, holy and pleasing in the sight of Almighty God in every situation we encounter.

As Mary welcomed the Word of God and presented Jesus to the world, we too should invite Jesus into our lives in prayer and sacrament, keeping our eyes always fixed on Him, and making Him present everyday by our thoughts, words and deeds.

As Mary, because of her profound faith, was able to trust in God’s providence during times of uncertainty and turmoil, so too should our faith enable us to trust in the Lord, even when we don’t have all the answers; even when the future is hidden from our sight.

As Mary embraced the profound suffering she endured as the Mother of Jesus, especially as she stood at the foot of the Cross, we too learn to accept the suffering, pain and disappointments that come our way, seeing in those moments an opportunity for personal growth and redemption.

As Mary, in her glorious Assumption was taken body and soul into heaven, so too can we gaze beyond the limited confines of the present horizon and look forward to the glorious future we will have as children of God.

The English poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in his beautiful poem, “The Virgin” wrote of the Virgin Mary: “Mother! Whose virgin bosom was uncrost with the least shade of thought of sin allied; Woman! Above all women glorified, our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

“Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” In just those five famous words, the poet captures concisely the meaning of the Immaculate Conception. It’s a wonderful feast day for us. Let us honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, saved by “prevenient grace;” let us follow her example of faith and holiness; and let us “fly unto her” for unfailing assistance in our daily lives.