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Clarity on Mary's privilege; Presbyterian service instead?

        Q. In a recent article on Our Lady in a well-known Catholic magazine, I was disturbed to read that the Blessed Mother was "saved retroactively from original sin" in view of the merits of Jesus Christ. I had always learned that, from the time of her conception, Mary was born without sin and already saved.

        My knowledge of theology is admittedly limited so I could be wrong, but I find no reference to "retroactivity" in the Church's official teaching. Was the author of the article taking liberties in defining dogma? (Prospect, Kentucky)

        A. I agree with you, and you are correct. The Catholic Church does believe that Mary was free from all sin from the time she was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. The problem, in the magazine article you reference, would seem to come from the author's misuse of the word "retroactively."

        The correct word might have been "prospectively." As Pope Pius IX said, when proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, "the most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin."

        There was nothing "retroactive" about it: Mary's privilege happened first, before the death and resurrection of her son Jesus - but it was an anticipatory privilege, granted in view of the (foreseen) merits of Christ's redemptive action.

        I think you can feel assured that the author of the article does understand the teaching properly since, in the paragraph previous to the one you quote, he wrote: "This dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches that from the moment of Mary's conception, which took place in the natural way between her parents Anne and Joachim, she was uniquely preserved from the stain of original sin."

        Q. Where we live in Virginia, we don't have many Catholic churches. For the four churches in our area, we have five priests and only one speaks understandable English. The other four are from Africa and speak with thick accents. We may catch one or two words in the homily, but that's all. Basically, we just sit there and get no teaching or inspiration. Is it possible for us to attend the Presbyterian church service instead? (Virginia)

        A. No. Your obligation as a Catholic is to participate in the Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, as you'll find in the Code of Canon Law, No. 1247. You would not fulfill that requirement by attendance at a Presbyterian service - nor would you receive the immeasurable benefit of weekly Comm with Jesus through the Eucharist.

        I do, however, sympathize with your plight. Hearing the word of God broken open in a homily is a vital part of the Eucharistic experience - and if you are regularly missing that, you are missing a lot.

        So here are my suggestions. I think you should talk with your pastor and voice your concern - ideally, along with a small group of like-minded parishioners.

        Perhaps some accommodation could be made, such as having the homily written by the priest-celebrant read to the congregation by a lector, or, coupled with an oral delivery, having the homily text printed on the parish's website so that parishioners could read it later on.

        My hope is that, eventually, there will be larger numbers of American young men entering the seminary. In the meantime, I am very grateful to priests from Africa and elsewhere who are coming to the U.S. to fill the gap. Without them, there would be far more U.S. Catholics without a weekly Sunday Mass.

        Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.

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