[ The following is my own, unofficial translation of the address that Pope Benedict XVI gave on Thursday, December 8th, and Piazza di Spagna. ]
Dear brothers and sisters!
The great feast of Mary Immaculate invites us every year to gather here, in one of the most beautiful piazzas of Rome, to render homage to Her, to the Mother of Christ and our Mother. With affection I greet all of you present here, and all those who are united with us through the radio and television. I thank you for your participation in this, my act of prayer.
On the summit of the column here, Mary is represented by a statue which recalls in part the passage of the Apocalypse that was just proclaimed: “A great sign appeared in the sky: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her heat a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1). What is the meaning of this image? It represents at the same time Mary and the Church.
First of all the “woman” of the Apocalypse is Mary herself. Mary appears “clothed with the sun”, that is, clothed with God: the Virgin Mary is completely surrounded by the light of God and lives in God. This symbol of her luminous attire clearly expresses a quality of the whole being of Mary: She is “full of grace”, filled with the love of God. And “God is light”, as Saint John says (1 Jn 1:5). So we see that the one “full of grace”, the “Immaculate” reflects with her whole person the light of the “sun” which is God.
This woman has the moon under her feet, which is a symbol of death and mortality. Mary, in fact, is fully associated with the victory of Jesus Christ, her Son, over sin and death; she is free from any shadow of death and completely filled with life. Just as death no longer has any power over Jesus who has risen (cf. Rom 6:9), so by a singular grace and privilege from God Almighty, Mary has left death behind her, she has overcome it. This is displayed in the two great mysteries of her existence: at the beginning, being conceived without original sin, which is the mystery that we celebrate today; and, at the end, being assumed body and soul into Heaven, into the glory of God. All her earthly life as well was a victory over death, because it was spent completely at the service of God, in complete oblation of self to God and neighbor. Because of this Mary is in herself a hymn to life: she is the creature in which the words of Christ have already born fruit: “I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).
In the vision of the Apocalypse there is another particular: on the head of the woman clothed with the sun is “a crown of twelve stars”. This sign represents the twelve tribes of Israel and means that the Virgin Mary is at the center of the People of God, of the whole communion of saints. In this way the image of the crown of twelve stars brings us to the second great interpretation of the heavenly sign of the “woman clothed with the sun”: beyond representing Mary, this sign personifies the Church, the Christian community of all times. She is expecting, in the sense that she carries Christ in her womb and she must give birth to Him in the world: this is the labor of the pilgrim Church on the earth, that in the midst of the consolations of God and the persecutions of the world must bear Christ to men.
It is precisely because of this, because she carries Jesus, that the Church encounters the opposition of a ferocious adversary, represented in the apocalyptic vision of “a great red dragon” (Rev. 12:3). This dragon has tried in vain to devour Jesus – the “male child, destined to govern all the nations” (12:5) – in vain because Jesus, through His death and resurrection, has gone up to God and is seated on His throne. For this reason the dragon, defeated once for all in heaven, turns his attacks against the woman – the Church – in the desert of the world. In every epoch, however, the Church is sustained by the light and the power of God, which nourishes her in the desert with the bread of the Word and of the Holy Eucharist. Thus, in every tribulation, through all the trials which she encounters in the course of time and in the various parts of the world, the Church suffers persecution but emerges victorious. It is exactly in this way that the Christian community is the presence and the guarantee of the love of God against all the ideologies of hatred and egotism.
The only threat which the Church should be afraid of is the sin of her own members. While Mary is Immaculate, free from all stain of sin, the Church is holy but at the same time marked by our sins. For this reason the People of God, journeying through time, turns to her Heavenly Mother and asks for her help; the Church asks that she accompany her on her pilgrimage of faith, that she encourages her task of Christian life and gives support to her hope. We need this help, above all in this difficult moment for Italy and for Europe, and for various parts of the world. Mary helps us to see that there is a light beyond the blanket of fog that seems to hang over the world. And so, especially on this anniversary, we do not cease to ask with childlike faith in her help: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you”, Ora pro nobis, intercede pro nobis ad Dominum Iesum Christum!