A Sermon for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception
A Sermon preached by Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth
in the London Oratory, December 8th, 2011.
Tota pulcra es, Maria: et macula originale non est in te! Thou art all beautiful Mary and the stain of original sin is not in thee! [Alleluia Verse from this Mass of the Immaculate Conception.]
I never fail to be moved by the grandeur of this wonderful feast and not least with regard to its particular significance for this great Oratory Church and the Congregation of Fathers who so faithfully serve it. I am sure that everyone present at this Solemn Mass is fully aware of this link but for the benefit of the visitor who may not know, I take a moment to recall the story.
When the major cities of Europe were overshadowed by the threat of destruction during the darkest days of the Second World War, the Fathers of the London Oratory made a solemn pledge to Our Blessed Lady that if this Oratory Church, dedicated to her Immaculate Heart were spared destruction, they would keep this feast of her Immaculate Conception with particular splendour and solemnity in perpetuity. Thank God their prayer was heard and in war-torn London, the Oratory miraculously remained unscathed and we gather this evening in fulfillment of that pledge.
It is most appropriate that splendour and solemnity be the expression of our belief in this dogma of the Immaculate Conception, for above all other Marian Dogmas it expresses the superabundance of God’s grace, the immensity of the Divine condescension in the mystery of the Incarnation and the beauty of the plan for our salvation as conceived in the Eternal Will. This is not a day for any kind of neo-protestant minimalism which sees Our Blessed Lady merely as a woman like any other and consigns and limits her significance to that of exemplifying the perfect Christian. No, today’s feast opens our hearts and our minds to the awesome truth which inspires the words of Our Lady herself in the song of her Magnificat: Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae: ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes. God has made in the humility and the humanity of Our Blessed Lady something before which we can only marvel.
Such was the reaction of Blessed Pius IX in the moment of his declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, 1854. Having spent all his holy life, his boyhood, his priesthood, as bishop, cardinal and Pope under the conscious protection of the Mother of God, during the time of his exile at Gaeta, he spent long hours in prayer before an image of the Immaculate by Scipione Pulsone, and he pondered the challenging words of the saintly Cardinal Luigi Lambruschini, formerly Archbishop of Genoa, sometime Secretary of State to Gregory XVI and most bitter opponent of the Masonic architects of the Risorgimento. Cardinal Lambruschini had said:
“Holy Father, you will not be able to heal the world unless you proclaim the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Only this dogmatic definition will reestablish the meaning of Christian truth and bring minds back from the paths of naturalism upon which they have become lost.”
The counsel of Cardinal Lambruschini encouraged the Holy Father to consult the Bishops of the Church. Speaking to the Sacred College gathered for the consistory of December 1st, 1854, Pope Pius IX demonstrated his joy and surprise that the written responses from the world’s episcopate not only confirmed the piety of priests and people in regard to this most hidden of Our Lady’s privileges, but even crowned heads were among those who petitioned for the universal belief in the Immaculate Conception to be declared dogma. For this reason, on December 8th 1854, in the most solemn manner known to our Catholic Magisterium, Pope Pius IX defined ex cathedra, before one hundred and seventy bishops and innumerable pilgrims gathered in the Basilica of Saint Peter, the dogma of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.
The voice of the Sovereign Pontiff broke and tears filled his eyes as he paused before uttering the infallible words: “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful….”
Contemporary accounts of the occasion record that as the Pope began the words of the solemn definition, he became very pale and there was concern among bystanders that he might faint. Commenting on this, some time later, the Pope said that he hadn’t been feeling ill in the slightest but rather, in the moment of defining the dogma, God had permitted him to look upon the purity of Our Blessed Lady and he felt himself completely overwhelmed in peering into the abyss of such holiness.
Following the solemn definition of the dogma, the cannon of nearby Castel Sant’Angelo boomed and the bells of the basilicas and churches of Rome rang out the glorious news. The Catholic faithful of the world rejoiced, and grace flooded their souls as they prayed the prayer Our Lady herself had given St Catherine Laboure some twenty years earlier, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
In considering the great truth of this dogma, it would be a mistake to see it in purely negative terms concerning only Our Lady’s preservation from the stain of sin, but we should also consider that this privilege, which is uniquely hers, places Our Blessed Lady at the apex of any classification in terms of holiness, she is quite simply honorificentia populi nostri, the highest honour of our race. As Dom Gérard Calvet, OSB, the saintly founding abbot of Sainte-Madeleine, Le Barroux, wrote:
“To say that the Blessed Virgin is the Queen of the Universe and that she is exempt from all stain, is to establish between her and creation a relationship which is entirely unique, for the royalty of Mary is experienced in our earthly universe in such a way that neither her purity nor her brilliance are compromised, rather in the manner that the stars are not affected by impurities in the air.”
It is for this reason that we poor sinners are made confident in approaching one who was conceived without sin, for we see in her, in a most marvelous way, God’s plan of salvation which is nothing less than the rescue of sinful humanity, our sanctification and reconciliation with the Eternal Father.
At compline, the Church dwells on this thought in the last verse of Psalm 90: Clamabit ad me et ego exaudiam eum, cum ipso sum in tribulatione, eripiam eum et gloricabo eum. Here we have the assurance that the sinner will cry out to God and be heard, for God is with us in our great troubles and will deliver us from all the harm that sin and the world can affect and will in his time glorify us. Who can doubt the importance of the role of Our Blessed Lady in this rescue operation? For did she not reveal herself to St Bernadette as the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes only four years after the declaration of the dogma, asking for prayers for sinners ? It is here that we understand that perfect purity is united to the most tender mercy and is wonderfully revealed in the Immaculate as it us in God himself.
In matters spiritual, only God is truly able to match the remedy to the affliction, and in the mystery of the Immaculate Conception we gaze upon something of the perfection of his response to the enormity of our human dilemma. It will probably not be for us, as it was for Blessed Pius IX, to whom it was granted to perceive, albeit for just a moment, the immensity of the marvel which God has accomplished in Our Blessed Lady. For us, his courage and prudence in declaring this dogma should be a consolation and an assurance in this “vale of tears.” The words of St Bernard entreat us: Respice stellam, voca Mariam! We look to the star and we call upon Mary and we do so in the hope that such great purity and perfection as we find in her may aid us in our own battles with the poison of sin and enable the joy of this day and our solemn celebration to be a foretaste of what, please God, we shall know one day with her in heaven. Thou art all beautiful Mary and the stain of original sin is not in thee!