This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary at Purpose Conference 2023, Rosebank College, 8 December 2023
According to Dictionary.com, a ‘screenager’ is any teen or young person who is proficient at using smartphones, computers, or tech gadgets in general, and who spends considerable amounts of time on social media or gaming apps. Screenagers are mostly Gen-Zedders, born between 1996 and 2010. They are the first generation to grow up as ‘digital natives’, that is, the first to live with smartphones and other devices, fast-speed internet and multiple apps as staples of everyday life, and the first to have to navigate, from a young age, the ups and downs of social media. I guess everyone here is a Gen-Zedder and most of you are card-carrying (or at least device-carrying) screenagers.
Walking around with the power of the internet in our pocket is, of course, a great boon. It gives us access to unlimited information, communications, entertainments, shopping, navigation, Ubers, bill pay, and more. Throw in the ever-evolving AI with its chatbots and the rest, and smart phones are fast becoming super smart.
Yet there are downsides. Too much screen time or the wrong kind can adversely affect brain development, eyesight, sleep patterns and physical health, or our focus and distraction levels, our moods, anxieties and mental health, our capacity to form and maintain lasting relationships. The technologies can be used to bully, persecute, brainwash, pornographise or defraud people. We all know how all-consuming, even addictive, these technologies can be: just ask yourself how many hours a week spend on them or how easy you would find fasting from devices for an extended period. And there’s all the issues of how we sort out true from false and good from bad in what you encounter on screen, how we avoid living in a bubble or an echo chamber only hearing what’s comfortable to us, how we harness these technologies rather than becoming their slave.
Being a screenager can be fraught. Yet people’s valid concerns about the grip and effects that devices can have does not mean all Gen Zedders are lazy, tech-addicted social misfits. That sells your generation short. Like most things, the technology you have at your disposal can be a force for good or ill. But many were helped by it during the COVID lockdowns. Many use it as a way of hooking up with others in healthy ways. Some use it to learn more about their faith and share it with others, an e-Pulpit for proclaiming the Gospel and spreading Christ’s love far and wide.
God has a track record of co-opting young people and their culture to progress His divine plan. Think Isaac on his way to sacrifice with his father (Gen 22:3-19) or Joseph when his brothers fortuitously sold him into slavery (Gen 37:2ff). Or Samuel when he heard God calling in the night with his vocation (1Sam 2:18; 3:1ff) or David when he took on Goliath (1Sam 16:12-13). Think of Ruth famed for her loyalty and kindness (Ruth 2:11f, 22f) or Jeremiah when he started his prophetic mission (Jer 1:7). Or Daniel when he was taken into royal service, and Esther also (Dan 1:3-4; Esther 2:7-9). They were all your age. God often taps young people on the shoulder for a mission!
In today’s Gospel it’s the teenaged Mary of Nazareth (Lk 1:26-38). God sends a first-century DM (direct message) on the Archangel app, addressed to “Hail Mary, full of grace” and with a subject line that reads “Rejoice O favoured one: the Lord is with you!” (Lk 1:28-29). A pretty scary message, that one: Mary probably wondered whether it was safe to open it or whether it might have a virus. Sensing an anxious delay, the app declares: “No worries, Mary. God’s got a plan for you. He wants you to bear His Son Jesus.” She sends back a puzzled emoticon.
Quick as a flash the Archangel App responds: “Yep, it’s true. Son of Most High God. Jesus ≈ God saves. King of kings. Real holy.” This time she sends back three question marks. After all, she’s engaged but she’s never done what makes babies happen. Now the app drops another bombshell: “Yep. You’re the Blessed Virgin. But the Holy Spirit will make it happen. God does some whacky things!” (Whirling eyes emoji.)
At that point no one would have blamed Mary if she’d deleted the conversation string, then the app, and then cut and run. But she’s different. Her mind is big enough for to-ing and fro-ing with the big questions and then drawing her own conclusions with God. Her imagination is big enough to cope with an elderly cousin being pregnant and God doing great things for her too. Her heart is big enough to embrace a vocation. She might not know what the future holds but she knows Who holds the future. She loves the Lord God. She only wants to be His handmaid. If He wants it, she wants it. She sends a thumbs up emoji.
But today’s feast is the Immaculate Conception, not the Annunciation. A lot of people confuse the two. They think the Immaculate Conception is about Jesus being conceived without sex. They’re way off target. The Immaculate Conception isn’t about Jesus and isn’t about sex. It’s about Mary being conceived without sin. It happened maybe 15 or 16 years before today’s Gospel. “No worries, Mary. God’s got a plan for you. He’s had it in mind from all eternity.” So God created Mary, like Adam and Eve and Jesus, without that original sin, stain or brokenness we notice in other human beings. She would be special, because her mission was so special. As the first Eve was Mother of all the living, this new Eve would be Mother of the redeemed.
That makes the Immaculate Conception, like the Annunciation, a prelude to Christmas. Mary’s extraordinary conception points to that yet more extraordinary one celebrated in our Gospel today for which she was being prepared. Her sinlessness points to her Boy who would redeem us all from sin. Her precious beginnings foreshadow the infinitely more precious One that would inhabit her womb once she was an adolescent.
Immaculate Conception-Annunciation-Christmas: three new beginnings for humanity, really parts of one big new beginning for humanity called ‘the Incarnation’. But today’s feast can also be thought of as the beginning of the Church. Normally we think of Good Friday as the beginning of the Church, when Christ’s sacrifice culminated in the blood and water of the sacraments flowing from His side, or Pentecost Day when the Holy Spirit turned the frightened disciples into a courageous band of evangelists. Yet today is the feast of the conception of the first Christian: the first person to encounter Christ, to believe in Him, to love Him and give herself over to His mission. By being preserved in her very conception from original sin, she is effectively conceived and baptised in one go. Today is, therefore, the advent of the first Christian and many more are promised: Immaculate Conception-Good Friday-Pentecost, three parts of the one great origin for the Church.
So, there’s a lot going on in this feast we celebrate today! It’s about one young woman’s journey of faith. It’s about the Incarnation of Christ and Redemption of humanity, a new beginning for all humanity. It’s about the origin of the Church, as we see the first Christian made before our eyes. Mary was conceived without sin. But when she was old enough she chose sinlessness for herself. She chose to be a hero. A holy hero. A saint.
That’s what God wants for every one of you. Place yourself at His service like Mary, pondering His word just before she got the Angel App message and then pondering His workings throughout the rest of her life; like Mary, asking her questions, getting her answers, and then committing herself heart and soul; like Mary, giving herself over to acts of service such as caring for her pregnant cousin Elizabeth; like Mary, interceding in prayer at Cana; like Mary, receiving the sacraments at the Last Supper and Pentecost; like Mary, saying YES to God with her whole life, her whole being. She was no older than you guys. If she could do it, you can do it.
So, my young friends, follow in the footsteps of young Mary, trust in God and offer Him your hopes and your fears. He will give you more than you could ever imagine. Do this and you will show the world what high purpose Gen Z are truly capable of!