150th Anniversary of the
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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."
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
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.
2004 we are privileged to mark the sesquicentennial of that definition. "O Mary,
conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you."