By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published December 6, 2012
In December 1854, Pope Pius IX issued “Ineffabilis Deus,” a papal document that proclaimed Mary’s Immaculate Conception as a dogma of the church, clarifying the church’s teaching on a theological area of reflection that had been debated for centuries.
In it, the pope declared that “from the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate.” This mother was to be “ever absolutely free of all stain of sin,” he stated.
The Immaculate Conception is celebrated on Dec. 8, and is a holy day of obligation.
The theological premise that Mary was conceived without original sin was by no means a new idea during the 19th century. Some scholars trace the tradition of people honoring Mary’s Immaculate Conception to as early as the fifth century, according to research provided by the University of Dayton’s Marian Library on its Mary Page. The papal document itself calls on this history when explaining the doctrine, which: “always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine.”
In various regions across the Middle East and Europe, a feast was celebrated at this time of year that was originally called the Conception (of Mary) by St. Anne and then, the Conception of Our Lady. Celebrations of the feast sparked controversy and much debate about the definition of original sin and the theological implications of Mary’s preservation from sin. The Church teaches through “Ineffabilis Deus” that Mary was given this “singular grace and privilege” so that Christ may enter the world through a sinless vessel.
The Immaculate Conception is often incorrectly spoken of and misunderstood as addressing the virginal conception of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. The dogma, in fact, states that Mary, while conceived naturally through her mother and father, was preserved from the stain of original sin to be the mother of Christ.
Another common point of confusion is the belief that Mary’s sinless conception removes her need for a Savior.
Pope Pius IX wrote that Mary was indeed redeemed, though in a different way, stating, “Mary . . . was never subject to original sin, but was completely preserved from the original taint, and hence she was redeemed in a manner more sublime.”
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, like all dogmas of the Catholic Church, points back to the essential message of the salvation won by Christ for humanity, and the grace given to Mary is from Christ’s redeeming work.
Contemporary documents, such as the joint message from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 2005, point out that “the glorious grace of God filled Mary’s life from the beginning.”
For Father Neil Dhabliwala, pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Dahlonega, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception further displays the Church’s belief that Mary was chosen by God and that all truth about Mary leads us directly to Christ.
“The Immaculate Conception, and all the Marian documents, are meant to point us to some truth about Christ,” he said. “The Immaculate Conception is meant to emphasize the fact that God had been preparing humanity for the coming of Christ, for the Incarnation. And he prepared Mary in a particular way.”
“It also just shows forth the power of God, that God can do amazing things in his creatures,” Father Dhabliwala continued. “When we see our Blessed Mother and all of the privileges that were given to her, it emphasizes the fact that God is powerful and he wants to work powerfully in his creatures. The magnificent things we see God doing in his creatures always points to the power and majesty of the Creator.”
Father Dhabliwala said God prepared Mary as a “fitting home” for Jesus. It is appropriate for God to decide that the one who would bear his Son would be totally spotless and untouched by sin, he said. “It only makes sense that the Lord would want to make a fitting home for himself in the womb of the Blessed Mother.”
“She gave Christ a humanity not tainted by sin,” added Msgr. Richard Lopez, teacher and school chaplain at St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, about Mary’s preservation from sin. “Her holiness matched her office,” of mother.
This is an especially good topic for priests to study, Msgr. Lopez said. Since priests are also responsible for bringing Christ into the world through the Eucharist, priests should strive to imitate Mary’s holiness.
Celebrated during the season of Advent, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception provides an opportunity for Christians to reflect on Mary’s role in the Incarnation of Christ, as well as her example of submission to God’s will. Msgr. Lopez suggested that in addition to attending Mass, Catholics should offer up a rosary for the United States as part of the recognition of the feast day, since Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception has been named as patroness of this country.
“We need to call on her to help us bring Christ to the U.S.,” said Msgr. Lopez.
As the church takes time to honor and recognize the birth of Christ, it is also appropriate to commemorate this significant teaching, an example of God’s power over creation and his faithfulness to his people.
“As we continue with this Advent season, as we prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, we ought to make a fitting home for the Lord in our hearts,” Father Dhabliwala said in a homily on the Immaculate Conception. “We ought to cleanse our hearts of our pride and our sinfulness and ask our Lady especially to give us pure hearts like her own, so that the Lord may truly enter into our hearts not only this Christmas, but every day of our lives.”
“When we give honor and glory to Mary, what we are really doing in the end is giving honor and glory to the Creator,” said Father Dhabliwala.
The Immaculate Conception
- The Immaculate Conception refers to the dogmatic teaching that Mary was conceived by her parents, Sts. Ann and Joachim, without the stain of original sin. This was officially declared as dogma of the Church by Pope Pius IX in the document “Ineffabilis Deus,” issued in December 1854.
- Celebrations of a feast date back to the fifth century, though debate over the theology of original sin and the sinless conception of Mary continued and understanding evolved until solidified in the papal text.
- The solemnity is celebrated by the universal church on Dec. 8.
- Like all dogmas, the Immaculate Conception is to be understood in relationship to the full teaching deposit of the faith, particularly Christ’s salvation and redemption of mankind.
- The oldest Catholic church in Atlanta is the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Six years before the Catholic Church defined its official dogma that Mary the Mother of Jesus was preserved from original sin at the first moment of her conception, the Catholics of Atlanta named their church in honor of this belief in 1848.
- In 1846, Archbishop Samuel Eccleston and 22 U.S. bishops chose the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of her Immaculate Conception, as patroness of the United States. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., is the largest Catholic church in the United States and North America, with altars dedicated to Mary under her many titles that have been sponsored by nationalities and devotional groups.