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Ave Maria!
Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary—8 December AD 2007

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Latin and English
Immaculate Conception of the BVM
In Conceptione Immaculata - December 8

“The most blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege granted her by God, was preserved from any stain of original sin....”[1]

    With these words, one hundred fifty three years ago today, Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as “a doctrine taught and revealed by God, and therefore to be believed with firmness and constancy by all the faithful.”  With this definition, the Pope put an end to a minor controversy that had gone on since the middle ages.  He also opened a new controversy with those who denied the ability of a Pope  (or even the Church) to make infallible pronouncements—a controversy that would come to a head a few years later when the Vatican Council issued its formal declaration of papal infallibility in 1870.[2]  Others objected that the Immaculate Conception was not mentioned in the Bible, and was, therefore, not a subject of compulsory belief.

    The objectors and their objections were, of course, incorrect.  The Church is the doctrinal authority instituted by Jesus Christ, and under the rather precise conditions specified by the Vatican Council, the Pope, as successor of Saint Peter, speaks for the Church with infallible certainty and full authority to define what Christians must believe in matters of doctrine, and how we must act in matters of morality.  Such definitions are “irreformable,” for they represent unchanging truths in the mind of God.

    But it might help to appreciate this dogma of Mary’s sinlessness from the first moment of her conception if we ask ourselves: “How did Pope Pius come to know this truth?”  When it is exercised, papal infallibility keeps the Popes from defining something that is erroneous—but it doesn’t give them any new information that they lacked previously—it is not a new revelation from God, but, rather, a statement of how we must interpret what God has already revealed.

    So how did Pope Pius come to know the truth of this intimate matter, beyond the powers of human investigation?  How did he know that when Joachim and Anne conceived the child Mary in the normal human manner, she was in no way tainted by the original sin of Adam and Eve?

    The first piece of evidence is in the sacred Scripture;  that third chapter of the Book of Genesis that we sometimes refer to as the “proto-Gospel” (“proto-Evangelium”), in which God promises to send a Redeemer to repair the damage of sin.  The serpent in that chapter is the devil, the embodiment of all that is evil.  Previously he had alienated himself from God through his rebellious refusal to serve among the Angels.  Now, out of pure spite and jealousy. he had just alienated the human race from eternal life with God.  “I will not serve,” he said, “and if I cannot enjoy eternal happiness, I will strive to make sure that no one else does either.”

    To this God said: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”[3]  Now, “enmity” is an interesting word.  One might translate it as “hatred,” but “antagonism” seems to capture the sentiment here more correctly.  While evil can never be perfect (for it is only a negation of good), the devil would seem to be as close to perfect evil as possible.  Thus, the devil’s antagonist could only be someone who was as perfectly holy as possible.  Indeed, this antagonist would have to be far more holy than the devil is evil—for opposites merely cancel one another.  If you add equal quantities of hot and cold, or positive and negative, or north and south, they simply annul one another.  We know that, at creation, the devil was momentarily good, but then chose eternal evil.  So that she might be the superior antagonist, God created Mary eternally good, with not so much as a moment of imperfection.

    And, Mary, of course, was the Mother of God.  (A fortiori) by the same reasoning, Her seed, Jesus Christ was the perfect antagonist of evil.  It is inconceivable that His perfect holiness could have been borne by a woman marked, even in any small way, with the imperfection of sin.

    And we have the testimony of the Angel, which we heard in this morning’s Gospel:  “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou amongst women!”[4]  Mary was “full of grace” at a time when such a thing was humanly impossible.  She was “blessed amongst women.”  Like Eve, she had been created in the state of grace;  but, unlike Eve, she persevered in grace, cooperating with God rather than with the serpent.

    The early Church had little trouble understanding Mary’s sinlessness.  They had a beautiful phrase in Greek:  Mary was called “pan‑agia (Παναγία)—all holy,” to which was often added the title of “Theotokos—the bearer of God,” exactly, “the mother who gave birth to God.”  There were a few heretics who sought to detract from her importance—the fifth century Nestorius in Constantinople is the best known example;  he held a flawed understanding of the Incarnation, which led him to suggest that Mary could be the mother of the human Christ but not the divine—but even he did not stoop to assail Mary’s holiness.

    Nestorius’ predecessor, Saint John Chrysostom wrote that she was the “Virgin whose soul was adorned with virtues.... no creature at all, whether visible or invisible, can be found greater or more excellent than she.”[5]

    The controversy in the middle ages was unimagined in the early Church, and may seem insignificant today.  Medieval theology was remarkably detailed in its thought—perhaps it thought “too much” on the topic of Mary’s conception.  In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a number of the scholastic theologians held the notion that, as a daughter of Adam and Eve, Mary was conceived with original sin, but was purified of it immediately thereafter.  Quickly, and repeatedly, the Church came down upon those who suggested any stain of sin at all in the Mother of God.  We have a number of papal pronouncements, starting as early as 1476, condemning this idea whenever it cropped up.  Pope Pius IX summarized these in the document he issued on this day in 1854.[6]  The Council of Trent specifically exempted the Blessed Virgin from its pronouncements on original sin.[7]

    As suggested by today’s reading from the Book of Proverbs, Mary was conceived in the mind of God before the ages, “the firstborn of His ways, the forerunner of His prodigies,” the necessary and all-pure agent, whom He would pair off against the evil of the serpent.[8]  “By the foreseen death of His Son (and hers), with His prevenient grace, He preserved her from all stain of sin” to be the antagonist of the devil.[9]

    What a wonderful grace it would be to imitate our Lady’s example.  All too often we think of sin as something we might want to pursue if it were not for the fact that doing so would bring the loss of our souls—we view the pleasures of sin almost as a positive good.  How much better it would be to follow our Lady’s lead, recognizing that there is also an enmity between us and the devil, recognizing that, together with her we too can be antagonists of the devil.

    This will require her help, but her help is assured in a phrase that pre-dates the definition of the Immaculate Conception by about a quarter of a century—the phrase on the Miraculous Medal:  “Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”


[1]   Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854,

[2]   Vatican Council, 18 July 1870, Session IV, Ch 4

[3]   Genesis iii: 15.

[4]   Luke i: 26-28.

[5]   Saint John Chrysostom, Sermon at Metaphrastes.  (Common of the BVM lessons of the second nocturn)

[6]   Sixtus IV, Cum præexcelsa, 28 February 1476;  Grave nimis, 4 September 1483  (Dz. 734, 735)

[7]   Dz. 792.

[8]   Epistle:  Proverbs viii: 22-35.

[9]   Cf  Collect and Secret of the Mass.


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