First Reading: Proverbs 9: 1-6
Second Reading: Excerpt from VII document The Church in the Modern World #16 about primacy of conscience
Gospel Reading: Luke 1:39-56
The feast day of the Assumption of Mary will be celebrated in the church this Saturday and the gospel reading that we just heard will be used. Have you spent much time thinking about the ex cathedra teaching about the assumption of Mary that was given by Pope Pius XII in 1950? Maybe that has not topped your list of things to ponder but it is a good place to start as we think about our theme tonight of primacy of conscience. This infallible teaching of the 1950s has some flaws as it was based on the common theology when original sin was predominant.
The premise of this ex cathedra teaching says that our bodies undergo the corruption of death due to original sin that all people are born with except Mary because her body was assumed into heaven. One hundred years before the teaching about Mary’s assumption another infallible teaching was proclaimed that said Mary was conceived without sin. The teaching of original sin lead to elaborate theologizing in order to keep Mary untainted and well preserved. I don’t think Mary would approve especially if you look at the way she is pictured in the gospel of Luke.
Mary bravely accepts the angel’s news that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary rises up after this mindboggling news and goes on her own to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary embraces her call from God to do the impossible and then rejoices with her cousin Elizabeth who is also the recipient of a call to the impossible. The virgin and the barren woman are both pregnant and know that what is happening is of lasting significance and importance. They know that they are doing what God has called them to do. Mary responds from the depths of her soul by praising God. She sees how everything is being turned upside down. She sings praises to God, “You have scattered the proud in their conceit, you have deposed the mighty from their throne and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty…” (Bridget Mary would call this a holy shake up.)
I just can’t see this Mary in need of being proclaimed as one who was born without sin or as one who was assumed. Can you? Wasn’t it good enough that she bravely answered God’s call to be the mother of Jesus?
Fast forward from the time of Mary and Elizabeth to 1953, just a few years after this infallible teaching about Mary was given. The world was a place with rigid ideas about what was right and wrong or what was sinful or pure. The following scenario played out in the world in many ways and can give evidence to the need for us to follow our informed conscience even when the world around us beckons us to do otherwise.
A nineteen-year old young woman was dating a soldier and got pregnant. She was afraid to tell him. Instead she went to her parents. She asked them to let her move away and live with her aunt in another state so that she could quietly have the baby in a place where no shame would come to the family for this horrible sin of being unmarried and pregnant. Her parents did not hear her. Instead her mother insisted that she go to a doctor who would “take care of the problem.”
What does this girl do? Just what she is told…she gets in her car alone and drives by herself to the doctor’s office. She tells him her mother sent her there. He gives her directions to the home of a woman who will “help her with her problem.” She returns to her car and drives to the woman’s home. The woman invites her in and performs an abortion. After driving home home, the young woman goes into the bathroom, begins to hemorrhage and then passes out. She wakes up in the hospital. “You almost died,” the doctor told her. “I wish I had,” she responds.
Things have changed since then and some for very good reasons. Listen again to part of our second reading from a Vatican II document, “ Deep within their consciences all people discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves but which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil…For all people in their hearts is a law inscribed by God.”
The nineteen-year old woman went against her own conscience. She moved against the law on her heart that was inscribed by God. In doing so, she sentenced herself to a prison of deep pain and self-judgment that affected each of her relationships in a negative way throughout the rest of her life. Her story is similar to the many people who have served in the military and suffer from PTSD. All through history many have been unable to stand up to sinful structures, systems and abusive authority figures despite the voice of God in their conscience. We honor and remember those who did.
In a Sunday Angelus address in 2013 Pope Francis reiterated Vatican II teachings about the importance of primacy of conscience, resurrecting what his predecessors suppressed. “May Mary help us,” he said, “to become more and more…free in our conscience, because it is in conscience that the dialogue with God is given-men and women able to hear the voice of God and follow it with decision. Jesus wants neither selfish Christians, who follow their egos and do not speak with God, nor weak Christians, without will, ‘remote-controlled’ Christians, incapable of creativity, who seek ever to connect with the will of another, and are not free. Jesus wants us to be free, and this freedom-where is it found? It is to be found in the inner dialogue with God in conscience.” Will Pope Francis put actions to his words and lift the excommunication of women who have followed their consciences and were ordained as priests? How about the people like you who worship in these liturgies? Wouldn’t it be fitting for the Pope to lift threats of excommunication and loss of diocesan jobs?
We must admit that many solid teachings of the past have been proven wrong. We now know that the world is not flat, that the earth revolves around the sun and we come from original blessings not sin. We are always learning new things about our world and ourselves. The more we learn about ourselves the better we know God. With knowledge comes responsibility. We know how to send a person to the moon and how to genetically create an animal. We live in the information age and in a world of rapid change. Just because we can do something should we?
In this fast paced changing world it is imperative that we learn to make choices with an informed conscience. We must prayerfully listen to the God voice inside and stay connected to our souls as we face each day that is filled with a multitude of decisions. There are many reasons we must listen to the law inscribed on our hearts by God. What tops the list is what Pope Francis said: we can only be free the way Jesus wants us to be when we are in dialogue with God in conscience. If we are free in this way we will be able to rise up like Mary and embrace God’s call to do the impossible. Maybe we can even reframe the Assumption of Mary to the Rising Up of Mary. On this feast day she urges us to join her in courageously following what God has inscribed on our hearts. Then we will be filled with the same joy she had when she sang praises to God saying, “ My soul magnifies God—Let the oppressed hear it and be glad! Glorify God with me and let us exalt God’ s Name together!”