On this day in 1854, Blessed Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin as a dogma of the Catholic Faith:
It bears noting that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not an innovation of the 19th century, but something that had been latent in Catholic theology since the earliest times. Blessed Pope Pius describes the history of the doctrine in some detail in the Apostolic Constitution he issued on this day. The idea that our Blessed Lady could ever have been stained by sin has always been repugnant to Catholic thinking, and it always seemed probable that this freedom from sin extended back to the early moments of her earthly existence. If there was any argument among theologians before 1854, it had to do either with the erroneous science of the middle ages which taught that some period of germination was necessary after conception and before the animation of unborn child, or with the theory that some small instant of time had to take place between Mary's conception and her redemption. For the most part, middle age speculation on the matter accepted the Immaculate Conception as we know it today, or in terms of nearly instantaneous purification after Conception. Today, of course, since 1854, the matter is no longer the subject of debate.
The Gospel of today's Mass offers the most significant scriptural evidence we have of Mary's freedom from original sin. The Archangel addresses her as "full of grace." And, as Saint Jerome points out, she was "full of grace" at that time in history, before the redemption of mankind by her Son, when no one could have been expected to be "full of grace" -- when everyone would have been presumeed to have been in the state of at least original sin -- at a time when even the great prophets and fathers of the Old Testament could not have been described as "full of grace."2 As we learn from the Collect of today's Mass, the Blessed Virgin Mary enjoyed the unique privilege of being "preserved from all sin by benefiting in advance from the sacrifice of the cross ... in order to prepare a worthy dwelling place for God's son."3
"And therefore the angel says, 'Blessed art thou among women,'" Saint Jerome continues, "more blessed than all other women ... whatever curse devolved upon mankind through Eve was removed by the blessing given to Mary." "Come my dove, my immaculate one" Saint Jerome applies the words of Solomon in the Canticle of Canticles to Mary in the form of an Old Testament prophecy."4 This freedom from sin seems even to be communicable, for tradition has long interpreted the words of Elizabeth when "the babe leapt in her womb" to suggest that the sinless Mother carrying her Redeemer Son, brought about the purification of John the Baptist from original sin.
Pope Pius mentioned a number of "types" found in the Old Testament -- "prophetic symbols" we mighht call them. He mentions, of course, the promise of God in the Garden of Eden, as He told the serpent "I will put enmities between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed...." And this seems to be the most convincing argument that can be made for the Immaculate Conception -- Mary's most basic reason for being was to undo the damage of original sin; she was to be the "second Eve" who would give mankind a fresh start. It is unreasonable to think that God would give dominion over her to the very thing she was here to destroy
The Pope lists also, "the Ark of Noe, which was built by divine command and escaped entirely safe and sound from the common shipwreck of the world" -- "the ladder which Jacob saw reaching from earth to heaven, by whose rungs the angels of God ascended and descended" -- "the bush which Moses saw burning on all sides, which was not consumed or injured in any way" -- "the resplendent city of God, which has its foundations in the holy mountains" -- the temple of God, radiant with divine splendors, full of the glory of God."5
Blessed Pius also alluded to those majestic passages from the Old Testament wisdom books which are accommodated by the Church's liturgy to the Blessed Virgin. The one we read yesterday in the Vigil Mass: "I am the mother of fair love, and of fear and of holy hope.... they who work by me shall not sin."6 and the one we read this morning: "The Lord begot me, the firstborn of His ways ... I was poured forth at first, before the earth."7 These two Old Testament passages add a somewhat speculative dimension to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Using the words of the Scriptures, we can consider the possibility that Mary's Immaculate Conception took place long before there were a Joachim and Anne to conceive her. It certainly seems reasonable that the All-knowing God took her into account before the beginning of time, as He pondered His plans for the human race. Certainly He knew that Adam and Eve would fall, and that He would promise and send His Son as their Redeemer -- and certainly, sending His Only-begotten Son into the world would have been planned with even more infinite detail than the rest of all creation. It is quite reasonable to assume that the Immaculate Conception took place in the mind of God before He "marked out the vault over the face of the deep" -- that, in some way, her sinless person existed from before eternity. "Before the mountains were settled into place, before the hills [she] was brought forth."
Twenty-four years before the declaration of Pius IX, a Sister of Charity by the name of Catherine Labouré was directed by the Blessed Virgin to have a medal commissioned to honor her Immaculate Conception. Pope Pius mentioned, indirectly, that the news of this intervention by our Lady had some influence on his decision to proclaim the dogma. Many Catholics have these medals and wear them -- we have a few here that were blessed on November 27th, the feast day of the medal -- if you don't have one, take one of them and make a point of wearing it regularly -- they are of a size that will attach nicely to the Brown Scapular you also should be wearing. Around the edge of the medal are inscribed the words with which I began this sermon. If you remember nothing else, remember those words! They are a promise to all faithful clients of the Blessed Virgin. They are a promise that has been so well kept that the medal has come to be nick-named "the miraculous medal." Before the creation of the universe, God planned for the human race to have the very special intercession of the Immaculate Bride of the Holy Ghost, the Mother of our Redeemer. So we honor not only the Blessed Virgin, but we honor God Himself as we celebrate this feast, and indeed every time we call upon Mary for her intercession:
"O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."