Trahe nos, Virgo Immaculata; Draw us, O Virgin Immaculate; we will run after thee to the fragrance of thy ointments. (Fifth Antiphon; cf. Cant. 1:3)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
My Very Dear Sons,
Beginning already in the earliest centuries of the Church, a debate arose as to the universal nature of original sin and its effects on the great friends of God such as Saint John the Baptist or Saint Joseph. Were they touched by this hereditary harm? Our Lord affirmed that “no one born of woman” was greater than Saint John (Mt. 11:11). Could he have been affected by the ugliness of original sin? But the question that caused the most discussion was relative to what part sin may have had in the body and soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Though the doctrine was not yet clearly defined or even understood, many had the intuition that— somehow—Our Lady would have been preserved from the evil of sin and even from the slightest contact with the very shadow of its malice. Saint Augustine, for his part, though quite aware of the universality of salvation operated by Christ, refused to entertain the idea of sin having in any way touched the Holy Mother of God. He wrote:
[I make an] exception [for] the holy Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I do not wish there to be any further question as far as sin is concerned, since how can we know what great abundance of grace was conferred on her to conquer sin in every way, seeing that she merited to conceive and bear him who certainly had no sin at all? (On Nature and Grace against Pelagius, Chap. 42.)
Nevertheless, the need to maintain the doctrine of universal salvation operated by Christ was also acutely felt. How could the Lord Jesus, Son of God made Man, fail to be the Savior of all, including of His own Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary? If she had no sin, in what way did He save her? The dilemma seemed insurmountable to some of the most profound minds the world has ever known, to doctors of the Church. Saint Bernard, for example, wanted to imitate Saint Augustine in making an exception for Mary, but he thought she could be sanctified only after conception, not before. He wrote,
If Mary could not be sanctified before her conception itself, on account of the sin (concupiscence) involved therein, it follows she was sanctified in the womb after conception, which, since she was cleansed from sin, made her birth holy and not her conception. (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Letter to the Canons of Lyons, 5, 7.)
Saint Thomas Aquinas, for his part, though very nuanced and leaning toward the Immaculate Conception, thought it likewise better to admit her sanctification after conception.
The Blessed Virgin, he tells us, was sanctified in the womb from original sin, as to the personal stain; but she was not freed from the guilt to which the whole nature is subject, so as to enter into Paradise otherwise than through the Sacrifice of Christ; the same also is to be said of the Holy Fathers who lived before Christ. (Summa Theologiae, III, 27, 1, 3m.)
Although the Church of Rome, he continues, does not celebrate the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, yet it tolerates the custom of certain churches that do keep that feast, wherefore this is not to be entirely reprobated. Nevertheless the celebration of this feast does not give us to understand that she was holy in her conception. But since it is not known when she was sanctified, the feast of her Sanctification, rather than the feast of her Conception, is kept on the day of her conception. (Ibid., 3, 3m.)
Thus speaks the Angelic Doctor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, echoing the opinion that most theologians held in his time, when the feast of the Immaculate Conception had not really won a place on the liturgical calendar.
But there remained among the faithful an attraction, a spiritual attraction, to the idea that Our Lady was never touched by original sin, not even in the way Saint Bernard and Saint Thomas understood it. It was the Franciscan theologian, Blessed Duns Scotus, who hit upon the answer to the dilemma (as expressed in the Collect of today’s feast). He offered the idea that in prevision of Christ’s merits on the Cross, from the very first moment of her conception, Our Lady already profited from the salvation to come and remained untouched by this evil. In 1483, Pope Sixtus IV addressed the controversy over the Immaculate Conception and gave Duns Scotus’ conclusion in favor of the doctrine papal approval. After this, there was no longer much of a quarrel in the Church. Most people happily celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (promulgated in 1476) and the controversy died down. In the 20th century, Saint Maximilian Kolbe would make the Immaculate Conception the very center of his Marian theology and of his whole approach to God through Our Lady.
For us black monks it is interesting to note that well before Blessed Duns Scotus taught on this subject, a holy Benedictine monk of England, Eadmer, promoted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, arguing that Christ’s human perfection required that His Mother should also be without sin.
Even closer to us we know that Dom Gueranger, the founder of our Benedictine Congregation, in his Memoire on the question of the Immaculate Conception, shows how one of the objections of Saint Bernard to the Immaculate Conception, that is to say that the Church did not then allow the celebration of feast, could be turned around, as the feast had been approved in Dom Gueranger’s time. The Church’s dogma cannot be in conflict with the authorized practice of the faith. In other words the liturgical feast of the Immaculate Conception, authorized by Rome even before the definition of 1854, was a sufficient proof of the doctrine that Our Lady was conceived without any trace of original sin, that terrible evil the human race inherited from Adam and Eve after their fall. As with Eadmer the monk and Duns Scotus, the immaculate beauty of Our Lady was leading the Church to a great and splendid truth. The definition of Pope Blessed Pius IX finally confirmed this great Marian dogma for time and eternity. A few years later a Lady of great beauty appeared to a peasant girl near the city of Lourdes. When asked by Bernadette for her name, she said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
O Mary, conceived without sin, help us enter into this beauty of your Immaculate Conception, a truth too high for us fully to comprehend, but one we embrace. Our time, as never before in the History of the Church and of humanity, greatly needs your immaculate purity and maternal love. Draw us, O Virgin Immaculate; and we will run after thee to the fragrance of thy ointments. Amen. Alleluia.