Celebrating Mary's Immaculate Conception

150th Anniversary of the Definition

                                                                                              by Brother John  M. Samaha, S.M.

The feast of Mary's Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8, and honors the conception of Mary in her mother's womb without original sin. Sadly, this is frequently misunderstood . 

This year is the 150th anniversary of Blessed Pope Pius IX's solemn definition of this doctrine, on December 8, 1854. Pius IX explained that Mary was preserved from original sin by a "singular grace and privilege" given her by God "in view of the merits of Jesus Christ" as Redeemer of the human race. Mary, like every other human being, needed the redemptive benefits of Christ; but, in anticipation of what God did for all through Christ, she alone was preserved from original sin "from the first moment of her conception." 

In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (n. 25) , the Second Vatican Council pointed out the social and structural elements of sin, which helps us to understand original sin as a human condition that everyone encounters in the world from the moment of birth. Thus Mary's "singular grace and privilege" is easier to understand. By her Immaculate Conception she was conceived in the fullness of grace, in the state of closest possible union with God in view of her future role as the Mother of God.

This feast was celebrated already in the seventh century in Palestine as the Conception by St. Anne of the Theotokos (Mother of God) on December 9. But the doctrine is understood differently by some Eastern Christian Churches because of a variance in their theological understanding of original sin. The observance spread West from Constantinople. Still called the Conception of St. Anne and observed on December 9, it was prominent in Naples in the ninth century, in English monasteries in the eleventh century, when It was called the feast of the Conception of Our Lady, and in France in the twelfth century.

When the feast was introduced in France, St. Bernard of Clairvaux opposed it, igniting a controversy that endured for three centuries. Most Scholastic theologians, including St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, opposed the doctrine on the grounds that it detracted from the universality of the redemption by Christ. But it was defended in the thirteenth century and explained with theological clarity by Blessed John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan. In 1263 the Franciscans adopted the feast.

The opponents of this feast and doctrine had argued that Mary had to be touched by original sin for at least an instant, even though she was sanctified in her mother's womb. John Duns Scotus resolved these objections by explaining that Christ can save and redeem in two ways: he can rescue from sin those already fallen; or he can preserve one from being touched by sin even for an instant.

The Council of Basel in 1439 affirmed this belief. Ten years later the Sorbonne in Paris required all  its degree candidates to pledge an oath to defend the Immaculate Conception  of Mary. Pope Sixtus IV in 1476 approved the feast with its proper Mass and office, and in 1708 Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the universal Church  and made it a holyday of obligation.

Later the Council of Trent (1545-1563) explicitly declared that Mary was exempt from the taint of original sin. From then on the belief was embraced generally and defended by all schools of theology. Many Catholic leaders and founders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries promoted and expounded Mary's Immaculate Conception with special interest and verve, and this doctrine became an important part of many Marian spiritualities. One such exponent was Blessed William Joseph Chaminade (1761-1850), founder of the Marianist Family.

At the First Council of Baltimore in 1846 the Catholic bishops of the United States of America chose Mary under the title of her Immaculate Conception as the patron saint of the nation. This deepened interest in the vast new country. 

The apparition of Mary immaculate to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830 at Paris also advanced the devotion. And the solemn definition in 1854 was the culmination of this development. Like an additional seal on the definition, four years later Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirious at Lourdes and identified herself when asked who she is by replying, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

In 1863 a new Mass and Office were composed for the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This feast is also celebrated as the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Church of England. Among the Eastern Churches the feast of the Conception by St. Anne of the most Holy Theotokos continues to be observed on December 9. The date set for the feast is nine months before the feast of the Birth of Mary on September 8.  

To celebrate the centenary of the definition of Mary's Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius XII, a great apostle of Mary, declared 1954 a Marian Year, the first.

In 2004 we are privileged to mark the sesquicentennial of that definition. "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you."

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This page, maintained by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, Dayton, Ohio 45469-1390, and created by Ravi Chandra Alluri , was last modified Monday, 06/04/2007 11:28:46 EDT by Michael P. Duricy . Please send any comments to jroten1@udayton.edu.