MARY IN OUR DIVINE HISTORY
Father R. Plus S.J.
Lourdes, France, March 25, 1858
We should not be astounded at such a sublime privilege! Are not the reasons which wage battle in favor of the Immaculate Conception of Mary evident? Due to His holiness, Jesus had to be born of a sinless Mother; He ‘who finds specks in the Angels themselves’ and Who ‘takes delight only amongst the lilies’ would never have consented to have been born of a flesh tainted by sin.
The starting point of the elevation to grace is, for each one of us, Baptism. Every man, in fact, enters into existence with the consequences of original sin, and he does not possess that divine life which God wanted to give to humanity, because our first parents lost it. Therefore, born firstly to human life, it is necessary that he be born a second time to the divine life. This is the reason the baptismal rite exists: to introduce him into the Christian life, in the supernatural sphere, into the family of the children of God.
One creature alone in the world entered into human existence entirely pure: Mary; and this incomparable privilege is called the Immaculate Conception. The Church does not want it to be understood that Mary was conceived as She Herself conceived Jesus Christ, that is, by means of the Holy Spirit; that would mean to attribute to Her a divine and miraculous origin like that of Our Lord. It does not mean that at all; the Church, calling Mary ‘Immaculate’ in Her conception, means that Mary, from the moment that St. Anne conceived Her, was preserved from the original sin contracted by all the descendents of Adam and Eve.
A Protestant convert was right in saying: “It seems to be that the supposition alone of a sin of Mary would reverberate as an outrage on Christ, from Whom She received all perfections and Who He is not ashamed to call His Mother.”
Moreover, had not Jesus to preserve Mary from original sin for His own glory? What in fact was the purpose of His coming to earth? It was to reduce to a minimum the empire of sin. Would His victory have been so complete, if, even for an instant, the demon would have been able to make his mark upon Mary, depriving Her of divine life?
Better still: for the very love itself He nourished towards His Mother, had not Jesus to preserve Her from every stain? Honoring Her from all eternity, did He not set things in motion so that she would be absolute purity? And behold: She comes amongst us: “Eternal Wisdom – Bossuet will exclaim in addressing the Word of God - You see in this very same instant She is about to be contaminated by a horrible sin and to become prey to the demon. By Your goodness, remove this tragedy: start to honor Your Mother, grant that it may be of profit to Her to have a Son Who would exist before Her; because, to be precise, She is already Your Mother, and you are already Her Son.”
Until the decision December 8, 1854, the Church left the firm belief in the Immaculate Conception to the free acceptance of the Faithful; however, She authorized it, since the feast was celebrated whilst the dogma had still not been formulated definitively.
In truth, in early Christian times and up to the 10th Century, explicit testimonies of such a Marian privilege are not to be found. In the Bible, the Mother of the Redeemer is described in the act of crushing the serpent, and we can agree, without any difficulty, that Her triumph over the demon would not have been very effective if firstly She had been its victim. In the Gospel the Angel proclaims Mary “Full of Grace” and “Blessed amongst all women” : at the height of their meaning, these expressions logically include the exemption from original sin. But all that the Faithful understood from the reading of the Bible and of the Gospel was the marvellous holiness of Mary. The precise point of the immaculate preservation did not appear as such to them. Their attention was not drawn to this because for them it was not a problem.
Only the Middle Ages will shed complete light on the various controversies. Saints and eminent theologians – such as St. Bernard and St. Thomas Aquinas - did not dare give their opinions; they were inclined rather towards the negative opinion, not believing that the privilege of Mary was obvious from the texts of the Gospel and of the Holy Fathers, which could exclude the Holy Virgin from the affirmation revealed of original sin, but that it was absolutely universal. The University of Paris clearly sided with the defenders of the Immaculate Conception; in particular in 1387 it sent several of its members, which included Pierre d’Ailly and Gerson to the Pope, in order that the adversaries of the privilege of Mary be denounced and condemned.
The first requests to obtain from the Church the recognition of the glorious title of Mary, dated back to the Council of Basel in 1453. The Immaculate Conception was then defined as a pious doctrine, in harmony with the worship of the Church, through reasoning and Sacred Scripture, but the decree did not have the strength of the law, due to the schism which the Council of Basel allowed itself to be drawn into.
New steps were taken in the XVI Century, during the V Lateran Council; and in the epoch of the Council of Trent, Pope Leo X considered a definition, but did not arrive at that point: and in a purely negative way he declared that, speaking of the universality of original sin, Mary was not to be included in this universality. This could appear to be a timid gesture, and yet it was instead an important act, which demonstrated how the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was certainly not heretical, or false, as some people claimed it to be. However, it was not sufficient to impose it as a doctrine of the faith or even as an “un-discussed” doctrine.
In the meantime, the defence of the Marian privilege continued to flow to the centre of Christianity. Alexander VII published a Bull, determining that the cult of the Immaculate Conception of Mary be valid in the Roman Catholic church, threatening severe punishment upon those who would oppose it or be detractors of it. Thus we see the University of Douai July 2, 1662, proclaim unhesitatingly from the mouth of the Rector, the belief so dear to the hearts of the people: “Holy Mary, Conceived without original sin, Immaculate Virgin and Mother of God, We, the Rector, together with the entire University of Douai, today with single hearts and voices, elect You as our Queen, Patroness and Directress, and we are prompt, according to the exhortation of the Holy Father, Pope Alexander VII, and in union with the greater part of the whole world, to profess and defend always and everywhere Your Immaculate Conception.”
In the year 1748, Benedict XIV had the scheme of a Bull written up; but it was reserved for the 19th Century to see the expectation of the preceding centuries fulfilled. A commission was named by Pope Pius IX to examine the question, and Rome asked the opinion of the Bishops of the whole world: out of 626 replies, only four were negative, which later on was reduced to one only. On December 8, 1854, in the presence of 63 Cardinals and 143 Bishops coming from every part of the world, Pius IX solemnly proclaimed this most beloved dogma. Four years later, at Lourdes, the apparitions to St. Bernadette took place with the precious disclosure made by the Virgin in the only language that the young Soubirous girl understood – the dialect of the Pyrenees: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
[From: De Vita Contemplativa, Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, Italy. Tip and translation: Contributor Francesca Romana.]