Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA
I have heard the dogma of the Blessed Mother’s immaculate conception
called everything from “unnecessary political propaganda” to “Mary’s
crowning as the fourth Person of the Blessed Trinity.” Our Marian dogmas
tend to get folks a little overexcited: Mary is a Catholic goddess.
Catholics believe that Mary is equal to Christ as our Redeemer. Since
Mary is the Mother of God, it is actually her flesh and blood we consume
at the Mass. No doubt some of these errors are the products of
overeager amateur theologians. Some are intentional misrepresentations
made for scoring points against the Church. Others are half-heard,
misheard, or re-heard rumors and poorly memorized fifth grade
catechesis! So, let's set the record straight on the Dogma of the
We are here this evening to celebrate one of those oft-misheard,
misunderstood Marian dogmas: the Immaculate Conception. On this day in
1854, Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical titled, Ineffabilis Deus
(“Ineffable God”). In this letter our Holy Father writes: “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.”
Let’s look at what this statement says and then look at what it means.
Here’s what we need to notice:
1). The phrase “we declare, pronounce, and define that…” establishes Ineffabilis Deus
as an infallible papal pronouncement. Not the first nor the last.
Please note that papal infallibility wasn’t officially defined (i.e.
“limited”) until 1870 at the First Vatican Council some sixteen years
2). The Holy Father is pronouncing infallibly on an existing doctrine.
In other words, Pope Pius IX did not “invent” the dogma of the
Immaculate Conception. Our modern solemnity developed rather
circuitously over the centuries from the second century oriental feast
of The Conception of St John the Baptist. This feast and the feast of
The Conception of St. Anne, Mary’s mother, carried the tradition in the
East until we find in the eleventh century liturgical books the Feast of
the Conception of Virgin Mary. The first Feast of the Immaculate
Conception was celebrated by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476.
3). Mary’s immaculate conception in her mother’s womb was achieved “by a
singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God…” This was a
unique gift to Mary, an individual dispensation made especially for
4). Mary’s preservation from O.S. was made possible by “the merits of
Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race…” Mary did not save herself
nor preserve herself from original sin. Like the rest of humanity, our
Mother, very much a human woman, was “saved” by Christ.
5). Pius IX defines “immaculate” as “preserved free from all stain of
original sin…” In other words, Mary was spared the effects of the Fall
and was thus perfect in her humanity while living among us, remaining
sinless her entire life, leading to her bodily assumption into heaven.
6). As already noted, the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception has
always been believed by the Church. Pius IX’s 1854 declaration simply
elevates the doctrine to the rank of dogma, teaching us that Mary’s
sinless state at the instant of her conception “is a doctrine revealed
by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the
faithful.” Believing firmly and constantly in the truth of the
Immaculate Conception is not optional for Roman Catholics; it is
definitive of the faith, i.e. de fide.
That’s what the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches. What does it
mean? Think about what Mary the virgin girl was asked to do by the
angel Gabriel. She was asked to assent to conceiving, carrying, and
giving birth to the Word of God, His only Son. Gabriel greets Mary with,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” Mary is scared nearly
speechless by this and “ponders what sort of greeting this might be.”
Gabriel, seeing her distress, says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you
have found favor with God.” Mary assents to the angel’s request to be
the Mother of the Word among us, saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of
the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Not only does
the I.C. explain how the Son of God becomes the Son of Man w/o the stain
of Original Sin, the dogma also foreshadows for us the conception of
Follow me here:
Mary gives the Christ his flesh and bone. The Church is the Body of Christ on earth, making Mary our Mother.
Mary gives birth to the Word made flesh. The Church in the flesh –that's all of us—preaches and teaches the Word to the world.
Mary, the deathless Mother of the Church, is raised bodily to heaven.
The Church, our deathless Mother, will be raised bodily on the Last
As members of the Body of Christ, we are given the dogma of the I.C. as
more than a theological explanation, as more than an infallible
definition of Catholic truth. The I.C. is for us a way of knowing our
Father and the strength of His fidelity to His promises. Paul teaches us
that God chose the Church, as he chose Mary “before the foundation of
the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.” Immaculate. Like
Mary, “we were also chosen…so that we might exist for the praise of His
glory…” Mary is the exemplary church, the ideal body of believers
assenting to the will of God; conceiving, carrying, giving birth to the
Word daily, hourly before the world, for the world. And for this
purpose, Mary and the Church were themselves conceived, carried, and
birthed without the stain, the burden of sin.
This solemnity is a singular grace, a gifted moment where we glimpse
not in passing but in perpetuity the overwhelming power of our Father to
accomplish through Christ the promises He made to our ancestors long
ago: a virgin will conceive a son and he will be called “Emmanuel,”
God-with-us, Jesus the Christ!
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