On August 14-15, 2004, Pope John Paul II will go to Lourdes, France, to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. That proclamation by Pope Pius IX took place on Dec. 8, 1854, with the dogmatic bull “Ineffabilis Deus”. When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes on February 11, 1858, She introduced Herself as the “Immaculate Conception”.
On September 8, 1953, Pope Pius XII had written the encyclical letter “Fulgens corona” (in Latin, “radiant crown”), to mark the 100th Anniversary of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Here are excerpts from this encyclical:
The radiant crown of glory with which the most pure brow of the Virgin Mother was encircled by God, seems to Us to shine more brilliantly, as We recall to mind the day, on which, one hundred years ago, Our Predecessor of happy memory Pius IX, surrounded by a vast retinue of Cardinals and Bishops, with infallible apostolic authority defined, pronounced and solemnly sanctioned “that the doctrine, which holds that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first moment of Her conception was, by singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved from all stains of original sin, is revealed by God, and therefore to be firmly and resolutely believed by all the faithful.” (Dogmatic bull Ineffabilis Deus, of Dec. 8, 1854.)
The entire Catholic world received with joy the pronouncement of the Pontiff, so long and anxiously awaited. Devotion of the faithful to the Virgin Mother of God was stirred up and increased, and this naturally led to a great improvement in Christian morality. Furthermore, studies were undertaken with new enthusiasm, which gave due prominence to the dignity and sanctity of the Mother of God.
Moreover, it seems that the Blessed Virgin Mary Herself wished to confirm by some special sign the definition, which the Vicar of Her Divine Son on earth had pronounced amidst the applause of the whole Church. For indeed four years had not yet elapsed when, in a French town at the foot of the Pyrenees, the Virgin Mother, youthful and benign in appearance, clothed in a shining white garment, covered with a white mantle and girded with a hanging blue cord, showed Herself to a simple and innocent girl at the grotto of Massabielle. And to this same girl, earnestly inquiring the name of Her with whose vision she was favored, with eyes raised to Heaven and sweetly smiling, She replied: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
This was properly interpreted by the faithful, who from all nations, and almost countless in number, flocked in pious pilgrimage to the grotto of Lourdes, aroused their Faith, enkindled their devotion and strove to conform their lives to the Christian precept. There also miraculous favors were granted them, which excited the admiration of all, and confirmed that the Catholic religion is the only one given approval by God.
In a special manner was its significance grasped by the Roman Pontiffs, and when, in the space of a few years, the devotion of clergy and people had raised there a wonderful church, they enriched it with spiritual favors and generous gifts.
When Our predecessor decreed in the Apostolic Letter that this tenet of Christian doctrine was to be firmly and faithfully believed by all the faithful, he was merely carefully conserving and sanctioning with his authority the teaching of the Fathers and of the whole Church from its earliest days right down through the centuries.
In the first place, the foundation of this doctrine is to be found in Sacred Scripture, where we are taught that God, Creator of all things, after the sad fall of Adam, addressed the serpent, the tempter and corrupter, in these words, which not a few Fathers, Doctors of the Church and many approved interpreters applied to the Virgin Mother of God: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and Her seed” (Gen. 3:5). Now, if at any time the Blessed Mary was destitute of Divine grace even for the briefest moment, because of contamination in Her conception by the hereditary stain of sin, there would not have come between Her and the serpent that perpetual enmity spoken of from earliest tradition down to the time of the solemn definition of the Immaculate Conception, but rather a certain subjection.
Moreover, since the same holy Virgin is saluted “full of grace” and “blessed among women” (Luke 1:28, 24), by these words, as Catholic tradition has always interpreted, it is plainly indicated that “by this singular and solemn salutation, otherwise never heard of, it is shown that the Mother of God was the abode of all Divine graces, adorned with all the charisms of the Holy Spirit, yea, the treasury well nigh infinite and abyss inexhaustible of these charisms, so that She was never subjected to the one accursed” (Bull Ineffabilis Deus).
This doctrine, unanimously received in the early Church, has been handed down clearly enough by the Fathers, who claimed for the Blessed Virgin such titles as Lily Among Thorns; Land Wholly Intact; Immaculate; Always Blessed; Free From All Contagion Of Sin; Unfading Tree; Fountain Ever Clear; The One And Only Daughter Not Of Death But Of Life; Offspring Not Of Wrath But Of Grace; Unimpaired And Ever Unimpaired; Holy And Stranger To All Stain Of Sin; More Comely Than Comeliness Itself; More Holy Than Sanctity; Alone Holy Who, Excepting God, Is Higher Than All; By Nature More Beautiful, More Graceful And More Holy Than The Cherubim And Seraphim Themselves And The Whole Host Of Angels.
If these praises of the Blessed Virgin Mary be given the careful consideration they deserve, who will dare to doubt that She, who was purer than the angels and at all times pure, was at any moment, even for the briefest instant, not free from every stain of sin? Deservedly, therefore, St. Ephrem addresses Her Divine Son in these words: “Really and truly Thou and Thy Mother are alone entirely beautiful. Neither in Thee nor in Thy Mother is there any stain” (Carmine Nisibena, Ed. Bickell, 123). From these words, it is clearly apparent that there is only one among all holy men and women about whom it can be said that the question of sin does not even arise, and also that She obtained this singular privilege, never granted to anyone else, because She was raised to the dignity of Mother of God.
This high office which the Council of Ephesus solemnly declared and sanctioned against the heresy of Nestorius (Cf. Pius XI, Encyclical Lux Veritatis; Acta Apost. Sedis, Vol. 23, P. 493, ss) and greater than which does not seem possible, demands the fullness of Divine grace and a soul immune from stain, since it requires the greatest dignity and sanctity after Christ. Yea indeed, from this sublime office of the Mother of God seem to flow, as it were from a most limpid hidden source, all the privileges and graces with which Her soul and life were adorned in such extraordinary manner and measure.
For as Thomas Aquinas correctly states: “The Blessed Virgin, because She is the Mother of God, has a certain infinite dignity from the infinite good, which is God” (Cf. <M>Summa Theologiae, I, Q, 25, Art 6 as 4um). And a distinguished writer develops and explains this in these words: “The Blessed Virgin... is the Mother of God: therefore, She is the purest and the most holy, so that under God a greater purity cannot be understood” (Cornelius a Lapide, In Matth. 1.16).
And again, if we consider the matter with attention, and especially if we consider the burning and sweet love which Almighty God without doubt had, and has, for the mother of His only begotten Son, for what reason can we even think that She was, even for the briefest moment of time, subject to sin and destitute of divine grace. Almighty God could certainly, by virtue of the merits of the Redeemer, bestow on Her this singular privilege; that therefore He did not do so, we cannot even suppose. It was fitting that Jesus Christ should have such a mother as would be worthy of Him as far as possible; and She would not have been worthy, if, contaminated by the hereditary stain even for the first moment only of Her conception, She had been subject to the abominable power of Satan.
Nor can it be asserted that the Redemption by Christ was on this account lessened, as if it did not extend to the whole race of Adam: and therefore something taken away from the office and dignity of the Divine Redeemer. For if we carefully and thoroughly consider the matter, we easily perceive that Christ the Lord in a certain most perfect manner really redeemed His mother, since it was by virtue of His merits that She was preserved by God immune from all stain of original sin. Wherefore, the infinite dignity of Jesus Christ and His office of universal redemption is not diminished nor lowered by this tenet of doctrine; rather it is greatly increased.
Non-Catholics and reformers are therefore mistaken when, because of this pretext, they find fault with, or disapprove of, our devotion to the Virgin Mother of God, as if it took something from the worship due to God alone and to Jesus Christ. The contrary is true because any honor and veneration which we may give to our Heavenly Mother undoubtedly redounds to the glory of Her Divine Son, not only because all graces and all gifts, even the highest, flow from Him as from their primary source, but also because “The glory of children are their fathers” (Book of Proverbs, XVII 6).