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A Vatican light show

By Brett Graham Fawcett


Christ’s work in the world, it has long been recognized, usually takes one of three shapes: kingly, priestly, or prophetic. The papacy is an office that involves each of these elements. Some Catholics bristle against the papacy when it is especially regal, or sacral; but, lately, we’ve seen Catholics react against the current pope for the way he has chosen to be prophetic.

At the time of this writing, the most recent example was a light show projected onto St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 8, which stressed the urgency of action on climate change. Surrounded by the vast Roman night, the side of the venerable old church blazed with images of all sorts of exotic people, animals, and locations whose existence is jeopardized by our treatment of the environment.

Why was this so offensive to some Catholics? To judge by some of the angry articles written in response to it, some people simply dislike the fact that, in giving this light show his blessing, Pope Francis is giving such enthusiastic support to the solid scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change — which seems like rather old news at this point. Others, however, see a kind of sacrilege in the fact that this light show occurred on the Feast (in some countries, the Solemnity) of the Immaculate Conception, and that, rather than taking time to meditate on and beseech Our Mother, the Vatican chose instead to pursue a sordid political agenda, even using the sacred basilica as a prop in their propaganda. (Some have also objected to the involvement of the World Bank in that event, given their record of supporting causes opposed to the culture of life.)

There is no reason not to wish the event could have been done differently, or with a more explicitly Catholic or Marian focus. That being said, however, we should reflect on what exactly the Immaculate Conception means, and what its history is. Its major defender was Blessed John Duns Scotus, who was also well-known for his belief that creation is on a kind of journey toward God, which seems to anticipate the theory of evolution and much of modern science. Teilhard de Chardin (who is cited in Laudato Si’) famously said that this belief of Scotus would be “the theology of the future.” It is not unimportant that this was argued by the Marian doctor; Scotus believed that, for Christ’s redemption to be perfect, someone had to be perfectly saved before the end of time, and that person was Mary. Her Immaculate Conception brings the new heavens and new earth into our own cosmos, here and now; it is not wrong to consider our earth and its importance on the feast of her Immaculate Conception.

The Immaculate Conception also means that everything about Mary is fiat, receptivity to God, which in turn means that everything about her is mission. This is why, as soon as she receives God into her womb, she hurries off and begins her journey to see Elizabeth. She is utterly selfless, utterly about caring for others.

This is the point Pope Francis makes when, at the very end of Laudato Si’, with its calls to environmental stewardship and awareness of our interconnectedness, he includes a section on Mary as “Queen of All Creation,” who “cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world.” What else can the fact that the Immaculate Heart is Queen of Heaven and Earth mean, except that the Mother of Sorrows is involved with the suffering of creation?

In this light, I submit that, of all the times to be vividly reminded of our need to respond to the environmental crises of this world, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is one of the most fitting, for the Immaculate Conception reminds us why the world matters: because it matters to God.

Brett Fawcett is a master’s student at Newman Theological College in Edmonton.