THE WAY TO AN ADULT FAITH (My weekly meditation
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION (1)
"We declare , pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful". ("Ineffabilis Deus", Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Pius IX on December 1854).
I - The True Meaning Of The Terms
The first step in understanding the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not to confuse the Virginal Conception of Jesus with the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception doesn't seek to teach us that the Most Blessed Mary entered the world through a virginal conception as was the fact for Jesus Christ. When we speak or write about the Virginal Conception we are saying that Jesus was conceived by a virgin, the Blessed Virgin Mary. With the term "Immaculate Conception”, however, we mean that the conception of Mary in the womb of Saint Anne was free from all stain of original sin, the sin of Adam and Eve, which affected all other human beings. While other human creatures enter this world in a state of original sin, and have to be purified by Baptism, the Virgin Mary entered this world in a state of original sanctity. In the Byzantine Rite we celebrate this feast of the Immaculate Conception on the ninth of December, the feast of Saint Anne. This helps us to understand the dogmatic declaration. In fact, we should always refer to the Blessed Virgin's mother, Saint Anne, to understand the words "Immaculate Conception". So we say that the conception of Mary in Saint Anne's womb was immaculate.
It is significant also that we celebrate the Immaculate Conception nine months before the feast of Mary's birthday, on September 8. This unique and miraculous event happened in the first moment of the Blessed Mary's conception, when her soul was created and infused into her body. From the first moment of Mary's animation in Saint Anne's womb, Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin, and sanctifying grace was granted to her, before sin could take effect in her soul. (Cf The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII Copyright 1910 by Robert Appleton Company). It is also important to note that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception doesn't teach us that Mary was exempted from the temporal penalties of Adam - from sorrow, bodily infirmities, and death. However it does allow us to conclude that all the passions, all the debilities pertaining to original sin, were excluded from her existence, as well as obviously all other sins.
II- A Secular Faith And Teaching
The Catholic Church took a long time to define this truth, although from the beginning, "from ancient times", Christians were aware of Mary's perfect sinlessness.
The truth of the Immaculate Conception is implicit in the Sacred Scripture "contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation" ("Ineffabilis Deus").
The Fathers of the Church, from the very beginning, were in deep awe before the exceptional prerogatives of the Mother of God. Even if we cannot interpret all their expressions in the literal sense of the dogmatic definition, it is beyond doubt that the belief in Mary's immunity from sin from the moment of her conception was prevalent amongst the early Fathers of the Church, especially those of the Greek Church. In fact, Mary's purity was celebrated by the Fathers of the Church in luminous expressions : the Virgin Mary is " the most holy, all pure, all immaculate, all stainless, alone most immaculate” (St Ephraem), "immaculate of the immaculate" (Origen), and "when not yet born, she was consecrated to God " (Theodorus of Ancyra), " pure from eternity, exempt from every defect " (Typicon S. Sabae)…
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Patristic writings on Mary as the "second Eve" abound as well. This comparison with the incorrupt and innocent Eve in
This privilege was quite fitting, as it was from this creature pure in body and soul that the 'new Adam' would be formed. Belief in the Immaculate Conception was lived for centuries by generations of faithful, who even solemnized and celebrated a feast in honor of the Conception of the Most Blessed Mary.Congregations and religious communities, altars and churches were founded through the centuries in honor of the Immaculate Conception, and were approved by the Popes.
"From ancient times" the bishops of the Church, ecclesiastics, religious orders, and even emperors and kings, as well as the Catholic faithful "have earnestly petitioned this Apostolic See " (Pius IX), asking the Popes to declare this truth as an article of faith.
In 1546, the Fathers of the Council of Trent, after defining that all men are born infected by original sin, declared that they had "no intention of including the Virgin Mary" . This remark in favor of Mary's special status further fostered devotion to Our Lady's Immaculate Conception.
In 1645, the king of
Two centuries before the dogmatic declaration of the Immaculate Conception, this traditional teaching was "authoritatively and decisively " declared by Pope Alexander VII on December 8, 1661, using almost the same terms of the final definition of 1854: " Concerning the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, ancient indeed is that devotion of the faithful based on the belief that her soul, in the first instant of its creation and in the first instant of the soul's infusion into the body, was preserved free from all stain of original sin. And in this sense have the faithful ever solemnized and celebrated the feast of the Conception " (Apostolic Constitution “Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum”,
Before the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Alexander VII, Duns Scotus (d. 1308), a Franciscan monk and famous theologian, had also made an important contribution in establishing the true meaning of this dogma. The final conclusion of 1854 came after a long controversy among theologians about Mary's Redemption and the exact moment of her Redemption. St Thomas Aquinas himself (d. 1274) didn't know the doctrine in the sense of the final definition of Pius IX, though he put forth the principles that enabled other theologians to reach the true resolution of all the difficulties presented in the famous controversy.
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III- THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
It was in the nineteenth century that God, through the Church, revealed in a very clear way this truth to the faithful in a solemn declaration, so confirming an already long-held teaching.
Before and after that solemn act, this truth was confirmed by the Virgin Mary herself in two apparitions.
In 1830, the Most Blessed Mary appeared to Saint Catherine Labouré, when she was a simple novice of the “Sisters of Charity”, spending her novitiate on Rue du Bac, Paris. On November 27, the Virgin Mary appeared for the third time. Framing Our Lady was a prayer: “ O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee”.According to the Virgin Mary, Catherine received a mission: to spread Marian devotion through this image in the form of a medal. This religious event opened the “Marian era” (Paul VI) , in which we are still living today.
Daniel-Rops in his “History of the Church of Christ” informs us of the profound impression that this apparition of the Virgin Mary made on Pope Pius IX :
“Pius IX always had a great devotion to the Mother of God. Like other Catholics of his time he had been impressed by the apparition of Our Lady to Catherine Labouré and by the rapid expansion of the Arch-confraternity of the Miraculous Medal, as well as by the conversion of Alphonse-Marie Ratisbonne in Rome after a vision in which Mary had appeared to him as shown in the medal, surrounded by the words O Marie conçue sans péché. Soon after his arrival at Gaeta, as if to show that he was not entirely preoccupied with political affairs, he canonized a number of saints*** (including Antony Zaccaria, founder of Barnabites) and let it be known that he intended to appeal to the Blessed Virgin for her intervention in order to “calm the fearful storms buffeting the Church”, and to proclaim the dogma of her Immaculate Conception” (The Church in an Age of Revolution – l789-1870 Volume II ) .
In 1958, four years after the proclamation of the dogma, the Blessed Mary appeared again to a young girl, St. Bernadette Soubirous , at Lourdes, and after several apparitions, revealed her name to her : "I am the Immaculate Conception", so confirming the Church's declaration.
IV- PREPARATION FOR THE DEFINITION
A diligent examination of this truth was made by Pope Pius IX before declaring the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
He established a especial congregation of Cardinals and selected theologians to study the question and give their opinion. It was only after having written to all bishops of the world and receiving their assent in a sort of "CONCILE PAR ECRIT", that in a solemn Consistory of the Cardinals Pius IX declared : "We concluded that we should no longer delay in decreeing and defining by our supreme authority the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. And thus we can satisfy the most holy desire of the Catholic world …"
V - CULTURAL CONTEXT OF THE DEFINITION
The dogma was proclaimed in a century when the spirit of rationalism was gaining a foothold, together with all the "isms" of the nineteenth century: materialism, positivism, liberalism.... Consequently, the Christianity was losing its privileged place of the past - a fact which was considered one of the most important phenomena of that century.
With the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, faith prevailed over all those currents of philosophy in which reason appeared to contradict faith. The most Blessed Mary was placed over and above all these currents of philosophy, as she was not stained by the original sin that made reason infirm. The declaration - coming as it did in a century where reason and science were deified - put a halt to the development of these philosophies, while at the same time elevating faith, the supernatural, to its true level. In a century of naturalism, Pius IX testified that "nature yielded to grace", or in other words, that grace overcame nature.
VI- DEYOND THE BOUNDARIES OF
THE CULTURAL CONTEXT
Pius IX was giving a response to the century of reason and science, and at the same time to all ages, including our own time, in which "the dictatorship of relativism", as noted by Benedict XVI, continues to spread, together with a loss of moral principles.
Despite the incontrovertible fact that the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was truly the adequate response to its age, as it is also for our own time, we shouldn't assume a priori that the purpose of Pius IX was simply to defend our Catholic faith or to fight the false ideologies of his time. We also have to consider the holiness of this pope (recently declared "blessed" by John Paul II), who had a particular devotion to the Mother of God, whose prerogatives he sought to magnify in his solemn pronouncement. In fact he made his thoughts on this known very clearly :
" … As soon as we ( … ) had begun to govern the universal Church, we have had nothing more at heart - a heart which during our most tender years has overflowed with devoted veneration and love for the most Blessed Virgin - than to show forth her prerogatives in resplendent light ".
It would be therefore shortsighted if we viewed the declaration of the Immaculate Conception merely as an apologetical attitude of the Apostolic See. From the perspective of faith, the dogmatic proclamation should be regarded more profoundly, considering that the Holy Spirit is always explaining to the faithful the details of the entire Truth which has already been revealed by the Sacred Scriptures. In fact , there is a spiritual and mystical dimension that surpasses the cultural context of the age of the dogmatic proclamation.
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VII- Positive Side Of The Definition
Far from being a dogmatic declaration in a negative sense, against so many "isms", the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception should be seen in a positive sense.
1- " Mary is the "icon of the Church"
Since Mary is the first redeemed, and thus preceeds us in the way of salvation, the Most Blessed Mary appears more and more as the "icon" of the Church, as the "type" of the People of God. She is the "New Eve" praised by the Fathers of the Church; she is the most perfect human being after the Son of Man; in her, humanity reaches its utmost level; Mary is the new humanity. Using the words of Pius IX himself : "She approaches as near God as is possible for a created being " (Ineffabilis Deus ").
Pope John Paul II brilliantly and briefly summed up all these positive sides of the definition when he said : "being the first redeemed by her Son, she is already what all the Church desires and hopes to be. She is the eschatological icon of the Church (... ) She is predestinated above all creatures as the model of sanctity for her people" ( Homily
2 – Mary, example of true liberation
Since the Blessed Mary is the first liberated by Jesus, she is the perfect example of true liberation. For she was liberated from the most important of all the slaveries and dependencies, namely from sin and its consequences. Thus, the devil did not have dominion over Mary for even a single instant of her existence. Evil - the work of Satan - was completely absent from her person. There was an enmity between the two, as had been predicted in Genesis : “I will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman (Mary) and between your offspring and hers”. Furthermore, it was also predicted that, in her Son, Mary would be victorious over the serpent :”He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 1,l5).
The announcement of this liberation is also fitting for our times, when many sorts of slaveries are sweeping humanity, destroying in particular the cell of society, the family. “The various forms of the erosion of marriage (…) are an expression of anarchic freedom that are wrongly made to pass as true human liberation” (Benedict XVI, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, l5 June 2005).
3- Emphasis on Jesus, the unique Mediator
The definition of 1854 also preserves the Church's Christocentric ecclesiology.
Jesus Christ, the unique Mediator, is the central focus of this definition: the Virgin Mary is immaculate by virtue of her Son's merits. Her only attitude was the correspondence to her Son' intervention. Moreover, the Virgin Mary acts, in her response, as the obedient servant of God, listening and responding completely to His Word, which she used to meditate upon and " incarnate " in her ... directing always her entire liberty towards God and the Good. Her liberty, we must recall, is not affected by the eternal God’s choice of her to be the Redemptor’s Mother.
In a dynamic "subjective redemption" she gave her free consent to the Redeemer's gift, she participated actively in receiving this gift and she grew in sanctity, continually increasing "her original gift" (Pius IX).
4- A New Image of the Church
Another consequence of the dogma is a new vision of the mystery of the Church. Since the Virgin Mary is the icon, the "type" of the People of God, and because this resemblance is so luminous, we should say that, in the definition, not only is the Virgin Mary is exalted as holy and all-pure, but also the Church, the People of God, the Body of Christ continued through the centuries.
5- Revelation of God's mercy
This privilege, granted to nobody else, is the supreme act of God's mercy, who actuated his love without any merit on the part of His beloved daughter.
6- Glorification of the Trinity
John Paul II praises the Holy Trinity in His eternal decrees :
"…Today we contemplate Mary, the humble young woman of
The Immaculate Conception of the Redemptor's Mother is a sublime work of the Holy Trinity! In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, Pius IX recalls that the All-Powerful established "in one unique decree, the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of the divine Wisdom" (Homily of John Paul II
The most Blessed Mary is indeed the perfect and sublime work of the Holy Trinity, and the Trinity, for its part, reflects itself in this transparent creature.
7- Lays down the foundation for the dogma of
Since the Blessed Mary was immaculate from her origin she was not subjected to the consequence of original sin, the corruption of the body in the grave (Gen. 3:17, 19). Thus the dogma of Mary's Assumption, proclaimed by Pius XII, is a complement to the Immaculate Conception.
The immaculateness of Mary was indeed linked to her Assumption in the dogmatic declaration “Munificentissimus Deus” (
"… Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her
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VIII - THE FIRST REDEEMED, THE MOTHER OF THE REDEEMED AND THE REDEMPTOR’S MOTHER
All human creatures receive sanctifying grace in a precise moment of their existence (i.e.Baptism); Mary was from all eternity predestinated to be pure.
All human beings receive blessings and special graces from the Eternal Father; the Virgin Mary was filled with superabundant blessings from all eternity. We can think about Mary's beginning and the eternal Father's choice of Mary, when we read the first chapter of Ephesians :
" Praise be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessings in Christ : for he chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight ... "
.The way God wanted to grant Mary this privilege is clear for the Catholic Church: “All human beings are redeemed under the form of healing, purification; Mary, however, is redeemed under the form of preservation" (Cf Catéchisme pour adultes, Les Evêques de France, pg. 214).
Thus, in the people of the redeemed, she is the first. Being preserved from original sin, she ought not to wait the death and resurrection of her Son to receive the fruits of redemption.
This outstanding privilege comes wholly from Christ, by reason of the Redemptor's merits. The redemption reaches its utmost level in the redemption of the Blessed Mary. So she deserves the title used by Vatican Council II "the most excellent fruit of the redemption" (SC 103). In an "anticipatory redemption", she didn't incur the guilt of original sin; a special divine decree kept her from it in light of the foreseen or anticipated merits of Jesus Christ. ("The Teaching of Christ",
The stainless conception of Mary is the triumph of the Redemptor who chose her, the all-immaculate, before the creation of the world, to be His mother; His death and His resurrection saved Mary before her birth, thus preceeding our redemption: "In you, in fact, today we see realized the Divine project of God in each one of us (... ). The efficacy of Christ's redemption, in you, reaches the highest splendor”. (Mgr. Caffarra, Homily- 8 th December 1999 www.caffarra.it).
Since she is the first redeemed, anticipating, announcing and sharing Christ in our Redemption, she deserves the title of "the mother of the redeemed", according to the expression used by John Paul II (Homily- 8th December, 2004).
The Virgin Mary is indeed the "Tahera" (pure), and nobody else can claim this title. God chose her from all eternity to be "full of grace”, so that she could be the "Theotokos", the Bearer of God. In fact, the Divine maternity is the supreme reason for this eminent privilege. "Those whom God chooses for a particular purpose, He prepares and disposes so that they may be found suitable for the purpose for which they are chosen" ( St. Thomas III, 27, 4)
Because she was always "full of grace' from her origin, and always faithful to the will of God, and only under this condition, she was able to say "Yes" to the angel Gabriel, when he announced that she would be the Redemptor's mother.
God wanted to join the human race through a virgin, but a virgin with prerogatives non-existent in others creatures, adorned with the "splendor of an entirely unique holiness" and "immune from all stain of original sin " from the first instant of her conception.
Archimandrite Maurice Khoury (Monsenhor Maurício Curi) - Parish priest of the Immaculate Conception Church-
Omar Eben Al Khattab
Tel. 4152245 -
NOTA BENE : The Author thanks heartily Father Achilles Kiwanura Kasozi (Combonian) for the revision of these articles as well as Mrs. Mary Fitzpatrick for the English language revision.