Perhaps one of the most misunderstood Christian concepts is the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which is about her heart having been “sinless, immaculate, and pure” from the moment of her conception, as Father Edward Looney, a priest in Wisconsin, writes in his new devotional, A Heart Like Mary’s: 31 Daily Meditations to Help You Live and Love As She Does. (The Feast of the Immaculate Conception falls on December 8.)
In seeking a “greater transformation of heart,” Father Looney turned to Mary as “mother and teacher to the Son of heart, to teach [him] how to have a new heart.” A small companion, it’s a guide to cultivating a Marian heart, and he talks a little about what that means in an interview with National Review Online.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is the Immaculate Conception so widely misunderstood, and how can we help to change that?
Father Edward Looney: Since the feast occurs during Advent, and everyone has their mind set on Christmas, they automatically associate the Holy Day with Jesus. Besides that, the gospel for the day is the Annunciation. We can help people understand by pointing out that December 8to December 25 is only 17 days. The liturgical calendar can also serve for catechesis — March 25 plus nine months is Christmas Day. December 8 plus nine months is September 8, when we celebrate the nativity of Mary.
Lopez: I’m so sorry for the recent loss of your mother. Has Mary played a role in your mourning?
Father Looney: Mary grieved a lot in her life — over the deaths of the Holy Innocents, John the Baptist, her husband Joseph, her own son, and the apostles, as one by one they were martyred. One thing that struck me as I prayed the fifth sorrowful mystery one day was the fact that Mary was at the foot of the cross with John and Mary Magdalene. This tells us two things.
First, people were there to comfort and console Mary. Secondly, Mary needed to support others in their time of grief, especially the apostles, who save one, were absent from the foot of the cross. Mary was consoled, and she consoled others. That became an important fact for me to realize. In those first hours after receiving the news, I felt so alone because I am an only child and have no other living relatives. Then I realized I had Mary, who was and remains my mother now. Like Mary at the foot of the cross, I quickly identified the people who were John and Mary for me and who continue to console me to this day.
Lopez: You do a fair amount of writing and social media. Why have you determined that this is an important part of your vocational life?
Father Looney: I would say that I did not determine this was part of my vocational life, but God did. I never set out to write books or share other content, but God inspired me, and I responded to that call. People told me they enjoy my writing and find it helpful. I don’t want to go before the Lord and have Him ask me why I didn’t use the gifts he gave me to their fullest potential. I also think it is important work because so many people are hungering. If I can help them in just a simple way, I am glad that God used me to accomplish His purposes.
Lopez: What is the story about Mary and Wisconsin, and why isn’t it more well-known?
Father Looney: Mary appeared in 1859 in Champion, Wis., to a Belgian immigrant named Adele Brise. The local people always revered the apparition, but the farther away you go from the region, the more frequently you meet people who have never heard of it.
Why isn’t it well known? When we think of Guadalupe, Lourdes, or Fatima, their popularity rests in what happened — a miraculous tilma, a healing spring, and the spinning sun. The “miracle” associated with the Wisconsin apparition occurred twelve years later on the eve of the apparition anniversary, when a fire broke out, and the land where people gathered in prayer was spared from the fire.
Another reason it might not be as well known is that the news of the apparition did not spread as quickly as with other apparitions. Also, when a message is more challenging or complex, people do not latch on to it. A priest from Belgium pointed this out to me regarding their two apparitions in Beauraing and Banneux. The apparition of Beauraing is less popular than Banneaux, in part because the message of Banneux is more appealing — it is a message of healing, very similar to Lourdes, whereas Beauaring calls us to prayer and conversion of life.
That’s the message of Champion — praying for conversion, going to the sacraments, and catechizing the youth. It could be said the apparition was in part, personal, in that it gave Adele a mission for her life — gathering the children and teaching them what they should know. When Adele died, it could have seemed that the message was lived and complete, but Adele handed it on to others, and by extension now we all need to live this message. These are just a few of the reasons I can think of for why people still don’t know about this gem in the United States. If you want to visit an apparition site, there is no need for a Transatlantic flight; you can go domestically to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.
Lopez: What is your favorite aspect of Mary?
Father Looney: Mary’s importance in salvation history lies in the fact that she became the mother of our God, Lord, and savior. This must be every person’s favorite aspect of Mary, because without her motherhood of God, she is nobody, but because she said yes to being God’s mother, she is everything for us.
Lopez: Why are there so many unique names for Mary? Guadalupe and Perpetual Help and Queen of Heaven and all the rest?
Father Looney: The names of Mary are many. Some are attached to geographic locations, for example because of an apparition (think: Our Lady of Fatima, Lourdes, etc.); others come from scripture or Mary’s roles (think: mother, virgin, Queen, etc.); and still others are rooted in devotion (Perpetual Help, Good Success, Undoer of Knots, etc.). We must not forget that there is only one Mary, and that is Mary of Nazareth. All of these titles of Mary describe who she is and how people relate to her.
Lopez: How does one begin a relationship with Mary? Or begin to deepen one after time away or not much time spent with her since memorizing the Hail Mary in grade school?
Father Looney: Our relationship with Mary must first be rooted in the scriptures. This is where we meet her, both the prefigurements and prophecies, and then the actual Handmaid from Nazareth. Secondly, our relationship with Mary must take on a personal nature. That’s what I think A Heart Like Mary’s does, by making Mary personable and relatable, and seeing how we can live our earthly lives just like she did. Thirdly, we can deepen our relationship with her by “accepting” Mary as our mother. This is what one of my favorite spiritual writers, Chiara Lubich, says, that we hear about Saint John living with Mary, but do we think that we can live her with right now? Almost every day, Catholic blogger Marge Fenelon tweets the same message, reminding people they can talk to Mary about their day. This is a move towards allowing Mary to mother us as her children. If you want to deepen your relationship with Mary, your tools are the Bible, your rosary, the miraculous medal, and any of the many books that have been written about Mary.
Lopez: You begin your book with the image on display in Fatima, Portugal, for the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions there to three children. What was so striking about that to you and how might its message — both of the Fatima events and the anniversary image — live on with a new urgency? Most people certainly are not aware of the anniversary image, and maybe even some people are unaware of the original apparitions.
Father Looney: The image you speak of was a huge heart sculpture with a mirror at the very bottom of the heart. As I looked up at the heart of Mary, I realized that there I was, in her heart. We must all realize that Mary holds each of her children in her heart, and she loves us with the love of a mother. That’s why, in Fatima, she expressed her desire for peace, because she doesn’t want to see us deprived of this great gift. Her remedy for war and violence was the rosary. In our world today, we see the lack of love all around us. We see the violence and the threat of looming war. Mary is the answer, as she gives us a human model for love, and also intercedes for us, mediating that grace of peace to our world.
The Immaculate Heart of Mary is very significant in the Fatima story because Mary promised that, in the end, her Immaculate Heart will triumph. This is important for us to hold on to as believers. Sometimes it would be easy to despair and lose hope, to give up on prayer. But the message of Fatima and Mary’s heart is one that says, “Don’t give up. In the end good will triumph over evil.” In my opinion that begins with you and me. Allowing Mary’s heart to triumph in us and through us will be a small change in our world, but one for the better.