In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”
What was the view of the Church prior to the definition? A hundred years before the definition, Fr Hunolt preaches in the sermon “On Faith in the Immaculate Conception of Mary”:
Meanwhile, my dear brethren, “we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This we will honor as long as the breath of life remains in us, and honor with our whole heart, and proclaim it openly, and defend it if necessary with our life’s blood! What an honor for us, poor children of Adam, to have a mother who never was infected with the least stain of sin! What a comfort for us, poor sinners, to have as our sure refuge one who overcame all sin! What a joy for us mortals surrounded by many dangers, to have such a powerful protectress, namely the Immaculate and most pure Virgin, in all the temptations that assail us against the virtue of holy purity! But that we may not be friends of hers merely in word, nor honor her Conception only with the lips, let it be our firm resolve to follow the footsteps of this our immaculate and beloved Mother by a truly pure and chaste life. Let him who loves Mary say amen to this with me. So shall it be, Mary! Immaculate Virgin! with the help of the divine grace, which we beg of thee to obtain for us from thy divine Son by thy powerful intercession. Amen.
The book of sermons can be found here:
beginning on page 350.
ON FAITH IN THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF MARY.
The want of a certain faith in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary seems nowadays to be hardly consistent with a true and devout love for the Mother of God.
Preached on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Conceptionem Virginis Mariae celebremus. (From the Matins of the Feast. )
Let us celebrate the conception of the Virgin Mary
That the ever-blessed Virgin Mary never sinned in Adam, but was conceived immaculate and without any stain of original sin, is not a dogma of faith, and every one is allowed to doubt it, nay, to contradict it without thereby incurring the guilt of heresy. Pardon me, ye zealous lovers of Mary! It seems to me I see the blood already mantling in your cheeks at the idea of my saying such a thing on this day of your beloved Mother; as if I too belonged to the number of those who doubt her immaculate conception! And your anger is just; your indignation righteous; for to tell the truth, if I heard another speaking in the same way, I could not prevent myself from giving undoubted signs of anger. But restrain now your pious indignation; for I mean to deal honestly with you. Mary! most holy Virgin, thou knowest my heart and its feelings towards thee! I repeat then: it is indeed not defined in express words by the Catholic Church as a dogma of faith (NOTE. It is unnecessary to remind the reader that this sermon was written long before the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Translator.) that Mary the Mother of God was conceived without sin, nor of him who refuses to believe it, might one say with truth the words of Our Lord in the Gospel of St. Mark: “He that believeth not, shall be condemned,” and be excluded as a heretic from the Church militant on earth as well as from the Church triumphant in heaven. No, such is indeed not the case; yet I fail to understand how he can really love the Mother of God, who in these days of ours does not believe, but doubts the truth of her immaculate conception. I say again :
Plan of Discourse.
Not to believe this for certain, although it is not yet formally defined by the Church as an article of faith, seems hardly reconcilable nowadays with a true and devout love for the Mother of God. This is what I intend to explain and prove in this sermon, and my whole argument is based on this : To be able with good reason to praise and speak well of another, and not to do so, but rather to speak in a way derogatory to his honor, is a sign of a very weak affection and love towards that person. Now that Mary should be conceived without any stain of original sin, is a most honorable thing for her; while the contrary is a shame and disgrace. The former we have just reason for asserting and believing, so that he who asserts the contrary gives proof of having very little love and affection for Mary, or even none at all. All philosophers must approve of this style of argument, if the premises are rightly proved. I do not select this subject because I have a doubt concerning any one of you in this matter, my dear brethren; for I look on you all as true children of Mary. My sole object is to impress more deeply on our hearts and minds the faith in her immaculate conception, that we may have in our minds a greater esteem for the ever-blessed Virgin, and in our hearts an ever-increasing love for her. If I succeed in this, we shall derive ample fruit from this sermon; yet the moral lesson shall not be wanting.
Grant me, O sovereign Mother, Immaculate Virgin, grant me, the poorest and least of thy servants, to speak something to thy praise! Happy me if I could only be the occasion of in creasing love and esteem for thee even in one soul! Grant me today, O dearest Mother, this grace and favor. Nay, I comfort myself with the hope that thy generosity will give me still more. Help me to speak, ye holy angels; what I have to say concerns the honor of your Queen.
If we love another, we think of him only what is good, great, and worthy of praise; and we are always ready to speak well of him. Moreover, it gives us a secret pleasure, and makes our heart bound with joy when we hear others speak favorably of him. Origen says that " one makes a god of him whom he loves in an especial manner." On the other hand, if we hear him spoken of unfavorably, we feel ill at ease, and unhappy; we try in every manner possible to hide his faults; nay, as St. Jerome says, “we interpret even the faults of our friend in a good sense.” His very failings appear praiseworthy to us; his vices seem to have something virtuous in them. I ask all who love truly to tell me if this is not the case? Hence it often happens that many, captivated by love, are unable to see any faults in the object of their affections, and even look on deformity as beauty; thus it is that parents blinded by love, cannot and will not imagine anything of their children but what is good. Some times a neighbor comes in, and with the best intentions warns a mother to look better after her children, and to be more strict in punishing them; but to no purpose. No, exclaims the mother, my child is not so bad; he is good and dutiful; I know him better than you do; look after your own affairs. In a word, love overlooks everything; conceals faults, makes straight what is crooked, and finds nothing easier than to form a good opinion of the beloved one. On the other hand, if there is one whom you cannot bear, towards whom you feel an aversion, oh, then little indeed is required to make you think ill of him. If only a whisper is directed against his good name, you are at once ready to support it, although you may otherwise know very little of the matter. Hence as love makes us form a good opinion of another, so to refuse to think well of him, although we have reason enough to admire him, is a sure sign of very little love and affection on our part, or indeed of none at all. I do not think it necessary to dwell farther on this argument.
And from it I draw this conclusion to prove my subject: if we truly and with all our hearts love Mary, then without hesitation and at once we should be ready to believe that she was conceived, not in original sin, but immaculate, if we had the slightest proof, nay, only a mere suspicion and imagination in support of our belief. For, how great the honor she would be deprived of, how great the ignominy attached to her good fame, if she were only for a moment in the state of original sin! To make this clearer to you, my dear brethren, let us consider the misery and wretchedness of the soul defiled and laden with this sin. Recall to mind everything you know of in the world that is horrible, everything disgusting that you have seen or read of. Even then you will have no idea of what a monster sin is in the soul. For all natural abortions, no matter how horrible they may appear to us, how terrible and intolerable to our senses, are in the eyes of God neither bad nor disgraceful, and they are deliberately created by the Author of all good, who cannot create anything evil. It is sin alone that has inherited nothing good from God, and it makes the soul an enemy of God, a horror to the angels, a monster unworthy of a place on earth, an abomination even to senseless creatures if they could see it, a slave of the devil, and so deformed, that if it could see itself it would run away from itself as if unable to bear its own hideousness.
When the holy Fathers try to describe the state of the soul before baptism they cannot find words to depict its fearful condition, its filth and its misery; the most horrible of all seems to them the fact that it is hated and rejected by the God of infinite goodness. Ask St. Augustine what is the state of such a soul, and and he will tell you that it is a " victim of the divine anger." Ask St. Chrysostom, and he will tell you that it is a " sacrifice of wrath." St. Paul speaks still more emphatically, and wishing to describe truly the condition of such a soul, he says that it is “by nature a child of wrath.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, explaining these words, thus addresses the Almighty God: It is true, O God! that Thou art an inexhaustible Fountain of mercy and goodness, and an Abyss of love: yet we must confess that, on account of sin, which we inherit from our first parents, Thou hast just reason to be angry with us; and not only hast Thou cause for anger, but with justice dost Thou hate and persecute us; and as we are an abomination in Thy sight, Thou must indeed behold us with aversion. There you have the three movements of the mind which the Almighty God experiences towards such a soul. Man before being washed in the laver of baptism is in the sight of God an object of aversion, horror, and abomination; so that if he dies in that state the God of infinite goodness must cast him off forever. Truly the children of Adam are unhappy, since they bring such a shameful inheritance with them into this world, and still more unhappy are sinners, who by their own malice increase and intensify their misery! And it was this sad and amazing reflection that forced from Job the sorrowful words in which he regrets having been born, and curses the day of his birth: " Let the day perish wherein I was born; and the night in which it was said: A Man-child is conceived." Why so? “Because it shut not up the doors of the womb that bore me, nor took away evils from my eyes.” Because I have been conceived in sin; because in the very first moment of my life I was vicious, a sinner, an object of the divine hatred and anger.
See, my dear brethren, you who love the Mother of God, such is the shameful and unhappy state attributed to her! A slave of the devil, a child of wrath, of vengeance, of malediction, of cursing, must she be “of whom was born Jesus.” Jesus the supreme God! Do you believe this? Can any one who loves the Blessed Virgin imagine such a thing? O Mary, my dearest Mother, is it true that thou wert ever in that condition? Alas, if so, how I pity thee! What a shameful stain it is on thy glory! Now may men say of thee what they will; thy honor is lamentably disgraced! It is true, and undeniably true, as the Church sings of thee in the words of the royal Prophet David: " Glorious things are said of thee", O holy Mother of God, O great Lady and admirable Virgin! Truly, O Mary! great things, glorious things have been said of thee in all times; but, pardon me for what I am about to say, if it be true that thou art not conceived without sin, then all the praise, no matter how great it may be, ever given thee by the holy Scriptures, the holy Fathers, the universal Catholic Church, is not by any means a perfect praise, but is and remains always wanting; there is a shadow on it that can never be blotted out for eternity.
It is with thee, allow me to use a simile, but not by any means a comparison, as with the famous Alexander who stained and sullied all his heroic exploits by the crime he committed in cruelly slaying the celebrated Philosopher Callisthenes, who had dared to reprove him for his vices. When Seneca the Roman moralist heard of this, he broke out into the following exclamation : " This crime of Alexander’s is eternal, and no valor or fortune in war can blot it out! " no matter how great his victories may be, the stain of that crime shall always remain on his name. For whenever men may say of him: Alexander has conquered his enemies; they can also say: and he has killed Callisthenes. As often as they will say: Alexander has conquered Darius, the mightiest monarch of Persia; they can add: and he has killed Callisthenes. When histories will tell of him that he carried his victorious arms to the very seashore, and subdued the sea itself by his numerous fleets; they can add too that he killed Callisthenes. “And although he has surpassed the famous deeds of the great captains and generals of antiquity, none of his exploits shall be so great as the crime he committed in slaying Callisthenes.” Thus far Seneca.
And I too say: great and glorious things are said of the holy Mother of God: yet, O Mary, if we were to praise thee still her more, and indeed there is no end to thy praise even to this day, yet all this glory is stained and lessened by original sin, if the guilt of it has ever been on thy soul. It is an eternal stain, that no virtue nor excellence can wash out. We may call thee: always a virgin; but at the same time we must sigh forth that once thou wert in the clutches of the devil. We may extol thee as the most chaste Mother, but we may add that at one time thou wert defiled with the filth of sin. We may call thee with the angel: full of grace; yet we must add that at one time thou wert in disgrace; the Lord is with thee, but once He was against thee; thou art blessed amongst women, but at one time thou wert subject like all other women to the curse, and wert not in the Book of Life. If with the woman in the gospel we congratulate thy Son that thou didst bring Him forth: “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee;” yet must we at the same time lament that thy soul was once possessed by that accursed sin ! Finally, if we call thee the Mother of God, the greatest praise we can give thee; still have we to acknowledge that thou wert once a child of reprobation and malediction, in a word, that thou wert conceived in original sin. And how could we then with truth say of thee: " Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee: " since thou wert once not very unlike the hideous demons themselves on account of original sin? And how could we understand the symbols we find referring to thee in Holy Writ? Thou art called “the lily among thorns;” how could that be, if thou wert once thyself a thorn? How couldst thou be " a garden enclosed," in which the evil spirits never found an entrance? How couldst thou be “a fountain sealed up,” into which the hellish serpent had never infused his poison? How couldst thou be “an unspotted mirror,” if thou wert once defiled by sin? Or " a vessel of honor," if thou wert once a vessel of guilt and filth? And you, O holy angels, how could you honor as your Queen, one who was once subjected to the yoke of Lucifer, whom you thrust out of heaven and hurled into hell? Truly, O Mary, that would be for thee an eternal stain, an undying dishonor that no subsequent praise or glory could obliterate.
Can I then imagine such a thing of thee? Can any one who loves thee believe it, if self-evident truth does not compel him and fully convince him? I repeat what I said in the begining : if the Catholic Church does not compel me by an express definition to believe that Mary was conceived in sin, I will never believe it, as long as there is even the smallest reason for a suspicion that the contrary is true, and the Church does not forbid me to attach credence to that reason; for I and every true lover of Mary must maintain that she was conceived without the least stain of original sin.
But I and with me all true lovers of Mary, have cause to be filled with consolation and joy of heart; for it is not a mere suspicion that supports our belief, nor is there only one of the holy Fathers who teaches it, nor is the belief confined to one place or country. There are so many evident proofs from the holy Scriptures, from the apostles, the Popes, and General Councils of the Church, that it is no longer a merely reasonable and well-grounded truth that Mary was conceived immaculate; but to speak humanly of the matter: it appears to be a most certain, undoubted, and infallible truth, and nothing is wanted to confirm it but the authoritative declaration of the Church making it a dogma of faith.
It has been believed for such a long time in all parts of the world from west to east; it has been the belief of so many saints, of so many thousands of pious souls, of universities and schools, of whole countries and kingdoms. Nay, the great bulk of Christians, in spite of diversities of opinion on other matters, have always been united in defending and proclaiming the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Nay, they have bound themselves on oath to shed the last drop of their blood in defence of it. “Thou art all fair,” they say and sing and shout out, until the whole Church rings with the joyful sound; thou art all fair, and there never was and never will be any spot in thee !
Thus in the times of the apostles, St. James the Lesser praised her in his Liturgy, when he called her immaculate and faultless in every respect. St. Matthew, as quoted by Francis de Sousa, who found the passage in a very old volume in a library at Valladolid in Spain, thus addresses Mary: “O blessed Mary, thou wert not conceived in sin! " The holy apostle St. Thomas says: “Thou wert not condemned with all others on account of the sin of Adam foreseen by God.” St. Matthew, as we read in the Polyanthea Mariana of Marinecius, speaks as follows: " O immaculate Mary! the Holy Ghost has protected thee from eternity.”
My dear brethren, if I can bring forward so many testimonies from the apostles, how many might I not adduce from the holy Fathers of the Church, who preached and defended the Immaculate Conception of Mary as an undoubted truth? The whole day would not suffice for me to bring forward all the magnificent testimonies they supply in defence of this truth. Read, if you wish, St. Jerome, St. Cyprian, St. Anselm; SS. Bonaventure, Bernardine, Dominic, Lawrence, Justinian, Peter Damian, John Damascene, Gregory the Thaumaturg, Ephrem, the ancient Origen, Theodoret, Euthemius, and countless other doctors, who all declare positively that Mary was always an immaculate virgin, never stained with any sin, but exempted from the common lot and from the inheritance of original sin. Let St. Augustine speak for the others, that great saint, who in his treatise on Nature and Grace, that he wrote against the Pelagians, who denied original sin, says that we are all conceived in it, and adds these words: “except the Blessed Virgin Mary, of whom on account of the honor due to God,” whose mother she is, “I do not at all wish to speak when there is any question of sin.” Let our opponents now, if there be any such, keep silence. St. Augustine and the whole army of the Fathers stand up for Mary, and do not wish to hear her name mentioned in connection with sin since she brought forth Him who is spotlessness and holiness itself. I say nothing of the many miracles that God wrought at different times to confirm the truth of the Immaculate Conception; for it is not my intention to-day to enter at large into the proofs of this truth, but only to show that we have good grounds for believing it.
For if there never had been a miracle wrought in its favor, if the holy Fathers had never spoken of it, if there were not so many arguments at hand to support it; still I should be induced to hold it as an undoubted fact, considering that the Catholic Church does not forbid me to do so, and not only permits me to believe it, but even forbids each and every one publicly to teach the contrary, or to support their opinion with arguments; while at the same time she allows, encourages, and exhorts all to defend this belief so glorious to the Mother of God, and to instill it into the faithful from the pulpit. Moreover, the Church, Greek as well as Latin, wishes to have the Conception of Mary honored as a most holy conception, and has fixed a special feast day in honor of it. And according to the testimony of St. Thomas of Aquin, the Church never keeps a feast day unless in honor of some saint; and she urges the celebration of this feast on the faithful by granting all manner of spiritual privileges and indulgences, as we see by the Constitution of Pope Sixtus V, approved of by the Council of Trent; which Council also declared that when speaking of original sin, it was not at all its intention to include in its decree the Blessed Virgin. Now, what is the meaning of all this, if not that the Catholic Church certainly approves of and commands at least by signs, the belief in the Immaculate Conception?
And should not that authority suffice to convince us of this truth? If St. Denis the Areopagite freely acknowledges when he saw Mary, he would have adored her as God, if faith had not prevented him and taught him better; if, I say, faith alone kept Denis from adoring Mary, much more would he have with both mind and will embraced and defended the truth of her Immaculate Conception, which faith and the Church instead of contradicting, rather exhort all to uphold. And if any of the holy doctors of the Church in whose writings there seems to be a doubt of her Immaculate Conception, were to come amongst us now, and see the general unanimity of Christian people on this point, and how the feast of this mystery, which was not held in their time, is now so solemnly celebrated in all places; how would they not, I say, bow down in lowly reverence before this great mystery? And they would rejoice with all their hearts to find that they had made a mistake in this matter, that their doubts were unfounded, and that it is now allowed in the Church without any suspicion of error to acknowledge and praise the Immaculate Conception of Mary to her great glory.
In the face then of so many arguments, of so many testimonies of the apostles and doctors of the Church, and of the authority of the Church and the general belief of the faithful, shall I still obstinately refuse to believe and still persist in taking away this great honor from Mary? And shall I continue to hold the contrary opinion, simply because it is not condemned by the Church as a heretical error, and because perhaps there were formerly one or two who maintained it? Oh, if I did that (I am speaking for myself alone) I should not be worthy to see the light of day, nor to call myself, O Mary! thy child, and thee my Mother! If there be any other who still refuses to believe, I leave it to you, my dear brethren, to form what opinion of him you choose. I have shown already that he who has good grounds to speak well of another, and yet puts forward opinions contrary to his honor, proves clearly enough that he regards that other with very little love or affection. And I have shown too how derogatory it is to the honor and glory of the Blessed Virgin to say that she was ever in original sin, or ever infected with its poison. Now I leave it to yourselves to judge of the opinion you are to form of those who attribute such a disgrace to her, and when they have good reason for defending her honor, rather prefer to attack it. The conclusion is evident. At least as far as I am concerned, let him who still harbors a doubt about the Immaculate Conception of Mary tell me a thousand times, if he likes, that he loves her, and I would never believe him.
Meanwhile, my dear brethren, " we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary." This we will honor as long as the breath of life remains in us, and honor with our whole heart, and proclaim it openly, and defend it if necessary with our life’s blood! What an honor for us, poor children of Adam, to have a mother who never was infected with the least stain of sin! What a comfort for us, poor sinners, to have as our sure refuge one who overcame all sin! What a joy for us mortals surrounded by many dangers, to have such a powerful protectress, namely the Immaculate and most pure Virgin, in all the temptations that assail us against the virtue of holy purity! But that we may not be friends of hers merely in word, nor honor her Conception only with the lips, let it be our firm resolve to follow the footsteps of this our immaculate and beloved Mother by a truly pure and chaste life. Let him who loves Mary say amen to this with me. So shall it be, O Mary! O Immaculate Virgin! with the help of the divine grace, which we beg of thee to obtain for us from thy divine Son by thy powerful intercession. Amen.