Letter to Religious and Consecrated Women and Men
in the Archdiocese of Southwark
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
8th December 2022
My dear Sisters and Brothers
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a feast particularly dear to us in our Archdiocese as Our Lady Immaculate is our primary patron. I wish you a blessed and happy feast!
Celebrated at the beginning of the liturgical year, in his beautiful season of Advent, the Solemnity of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception guides the Church towards the nativity of our Saviour. It is in the Mother of Christ that the first-fruits of redeemed humanity are revealed. God does great things in her for us. God fills her with grace and preserves her from all stain of sin. Today, then, we celebrate the mystery of the beginning of a human life, a woman who listened not to herself, but to God; a woman detached from self, who sought not her own will, but the will of the God who loved her into being since the foundation of time.
The background for today’s feast is the Annunciation, when the angel’s mysterious greeting resounded: ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.’ (Luke 1:28) ‘Full of grace’… these words express Our Lady’s unique destiny; but they also point us to ours, to the destiny of every person, each of us loved by God from all eternity and made to live for eternity.
This ‘fullness of grace’ is Mary’s starting point, but for all others it our goal. The Apostle St Paul tell us that ‘God chose us – in Christ - before the foundation of the world, and created us to “be holy and spotless before him.’ This is why he ‘blessed us’ before our earthly existence and sent his Son into the world to redeem us from sin. Mary is the masterpiece of this saving work, as created ‘holy’ and ‘spotless,’ thereby showing us the aspiration and possibility of our true vocation as Christians. With her, we too seek to ‘live through love in his presence’ and enjoy the overflowing grace gifted to us in and by the ‘Beloved.’ (Cf. Eph 1:3-6).
It was not just the words spoken to Our Lady by the Archangel Gabriel which define that moment in Salvation History. Her response to Gabriel’s pronouncement - that she would conceive and bear the Son of God - is also said in our hearing too. Mary says quite meekly: ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38) In the response of the humble girl of Nazareth, Mary reveals something about herself which grounds our belief in her Immaculate Conception. Mary’s fiat, her willingness to accept whatever God intends for her, points to her perfect acceptance of the gift, which God offers to every person: the gift of freedom. By accepting God’s will for her, without reservation, Mary revealed her true perfection as one who is totally free and therefore totally able to respond perfectly to God’s will.
God sought a perfect place for perfection to become incarnate, and Mary, through her ‘yes’ reveals to us the mystery of our own lives: that we, too, are free to welcome the Saviour into the temple of our heart.
This is the great mystery for all the baptised, but in a very special way, it is the vocation of all those who have said ‘yes’ to God in covenant and betrothal as Religious and Consecrated persons. Through Mary the Lord Jesus, in a particular way, has found a home in us, in you. You are the temple and dwelling place of His love; and Mary is our mother who accompanies and sustains us, reminding us of our freedom to welcome and honour so great a guest.
The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote of three dimensions of the acceptance of God’s gift of true freedom: thanksgiving, prayer, and divine indwelling. When we are fully open to God’s gift of freedom, it is natural for us to respond in gratitude (Cf. 2 Cor. 4:15). We read of Our Lady’s gratitude in her great canticle of praise and thanksgiving, the Magnificat. Here, Mary’s gratefulness for her own giftedness is heard: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.’ (Luke 1:46–48) The essence of the Magnificat is that God has done this great wonder. It is in Mary’s rejoicing that her gratitude to God for so great a gift is expressed.
The next dimension Balthasar explores is that of prayer. He says prayer is ‘the most tangible realization of human freedom.’ Schooled by Mary, our prayer is to be grounded in our trust in God and his plan for our lives. There is no better human model for prayer than Mary. For two thousand years Christians have sought her as a prayerful companion and intercessor, because of her perfect acceptance of God’s gift of true freedom.
Finally, Balthasar reflects on God’s indwelling in those who have accepted the gift of freedom. Christ was conceived in Mary, because she was perfect in her acceptance of the gift of freedom. When we have accepted the gift of authentic freedom then Christ is born in us.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminds those living Religious and Consecrated life about the importance of prayer which helps those devoted to the Lord in this vocation to return to God. Prayer keeps alive with in us the truth that it is God who has called and it is God to whom we must give a home in our hearts and lives. We do not serve our own interests or institutions, but God’s. Together with the vow of poverty, which acts as a wall against vanity and pride, and with patience as a grace to confront the difficulties of community life, we will grow in our vocation fed with tenderness through ‘… what the Spirit does in each of the people called.’
Mary Immaculate reminds every human being, whatever his or her situation, that God loves and calls them personally. God is with each of us, Emmanuel. God desires only our good and bestows upon us a plan of grace and mercy. God wishes to pitch his tent in our souls, such is his love for us.
Mary is not only the model of your call as Religious and Consecrated women and men, but also of your response. She said ‘yes’ to God at the beginning and at every successive moment of her life. She embraced God’s will, even when she knew it would lead to the shadow of the cross. And so, Mary says to us, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ (John 2:5) She knows the difficulties we face, but she knows, too, who can help us through them. As the mature fruit of all who call themselves Christians, she is already what the entire Church desires and hopes to be; and she prepares us to receive the birth of Love almighty into our souls.
The Immaculate Conception is not the culmination, but the starting point, the threshold to salvation. The perfection we celebrate in the Immaculate Conception is what we believe the whole Church will one day experience. We rejoice that, imperfect though we may be, we exist for the praise of God’s glory (Cf. Romans 5:8; Phil. 1:9-11).
Thank you for your service to the Church and to our Archdiocese. You are a blessing in so many ways, and often in ways you will not see. I am so very grateful for your faith and witness. Together, we turn our gaze to Mary, the sign of sure hope in Christ. May the Immaculate Virgin help each one of us to be converted to the Lord Jesus, and to be evermore open to experiencing the healing and liberating power of his love, freely given and, pleased God, freely and fruitfully received.
Please pray for me, as I do and will for you
Your brother in Christ
Archbishop of Southwark and Metropolitan
 See: John O’Donnel, SJ, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (London & New York: Continuum, 1991), 72.
 Pope Francis, Address to representatives of the Claretianum Institute of the Theology of the Consecrated Life on the occasion of its 50th anniversary (https://www.claret.org/it/claretianum-50-anni-al-servizio-della-vita-consacrata-1971-2021/).