Feast of the Immaculate Conception, by Father B Rohner, OSB

detail from the painting 'Vierge Marie', 1927, Church of Saint Kilian, Dinghsheim, Bas-Rhine, Alsace, FranceNever since the beginning of the world was our blighted earth the witness of so joyful an event as on the day when Saint Ann became the mother of that holy child who, according to the divine promise, was to crush the serpent’s head. For a new sun dawned upon the earth and its genial rays were soon to bring new blessings and produce new fruit. In this spirit of joy, and of hope in a new life in store for fallen man, was this feast of the conception of Mary solemnized during the first ages by our holy Mother, the Church.

But soon there came a new and festive joy. From the writings of the ancient Fathers of the Church it is not clearly established whether in the early ages of Christianity the belief, that Mary was conceived without original sin, prevailed generally among the faithful people. As soon, however, as this wonderful distinction of Mary, at least as a pious opinion, became known to the people, the feast of the conception became the feast of the Immaculate Conception and was so solemnized. Ever since the 8th of December, 1854, when the universally received opinion of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was solemnly proclaimed an article of divine faith in the Catholic Church, every Catholic Christian has celebrated the festival with holy joy on account of the undeniable and never stained angelic purity of our beloved Mother. You too, Christian reader, should solemnize this festival with similar sentiments every year on the eighth day of the Christmas month.

We may well be astonished that this festival of Mary was celebrated at so early a date in the history of Christianity. Georgius, bishop of Nicomedia, who lived in the beginning of the seventh century, tells us that the festival of the conception of the Mother of God was even then of ancient tradition and not of recent institution. The Emperor Emmanuel Comnenus, seeing how time-honored this festival was and how cherished among the people, ordained by law, about the year 1150, that this festival should take its place among those which were solemnly kept by all the subjects of his kingdom. This law reads thus, “The eighth day of the Christmas month is a festival day, for on this day is commemorated the conception of the Mother of God.”

Although this festival was not generally celebrated in the West as early as it was in the East, it was known and recognized there not much later, especially in some localities. Thus we find that Ildephonsus, archbishop of Toledo, introduced the observance of this feast into his diocese as early as the year 667. Naples, which, owing to its situation on the coast and its extensive commerce with the East, had better opportunities of becoming familiar with the usages of the Eastern lands, observed this festival as early as the ninth century. It appears to have been introduced into England as early as the tenth century. From England its observance was carried over into Normandy where the pomp attending it was so magnificent that it was called the “Feast of the Normans.” In France there has existed since the year 1486 a confraternity known as “To the Immaculate Virgin,” although it afterwards became a literary society. Every year the members of this society elected a president whose business it became to award valuable prizes to all the poets who in hymns, odes, canticles, and other strains, sang in the most becoming manner the praises of the Blessed Virgin. Peter Corneille, one of the most renowned tragic poets of France, won the first prize for a poem which he composed in honor of the mystery of this feast, and which was read at the “Feast of the Normans” in the year 1663.

Pope Sixtus IV, by a bull dated the 1st of March, 1476, exhorted all the faithful to observe with unusual piety and devotion the festival of the Immaculate Conception of that year. The occasion was as follows: In the beginning of that year there occurred a heavy fall of snow which melted so suddenly and caused such an overflow of the rivers that people really believed that a second deluge had come upon the earth. Many lives were lost, there was a great loss of property and of works of art, and desolation reigned far and wide both in the city of Rome itself and in the country districts. And yet this frightful inundation was but the forerunner of a still more dreadful calamity. The plague broke out and in a few days the Eternal City became depopulated, for all those who escaped the epidemic fled beyond the walls of the city so acutely infected. In the hope of arresting the progress of the destructive elements and of saving some of the other portions of the country, and other Christian nations, the Supreme Head of the Church established the festival of the Immaculate Conception for the whole Catholic world and granted to the persons observing the day many indulgences.

To modern times, however, and to the glorious reign of Pope Pius IX was reserved the privilege of placing the festival of the Immaculate Conception in the front rank of Mary’s feasts and to set the crown, as it were, on the veneration of Mary.

Prayer of Holy Church

O God, who, by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, didst prepare a worthy habitation for Thy divine Son, grant us through her intercession that we may preserve our hearts and souls pure and loyal to Thee who hast preserved her from all sin. Accept, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the grace-bringing victim whom we offer to Thee on the festival of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and grant that we, who believe that she was conceived without the stain of original sin, may be cleansed from all guilt of sin, through her powerful intercession.

While nourished with the comforting food of heaven, we implore, O Lord, Thy mercy that we, being strengthened by the powerful prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may never through any temptation be separated from Thee. And this we beg through Thy Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who with Thee lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.

– text taken from Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Her Feasts, Prayers, Religious Orders, and Sodalities, by Father B Rohner, OSB, adapted by Father Richard Brennan, LLD, published in 1898 by Benziger Brothers; it has the Imprimatur of Archbishop Michael Augustine, Archdiocese of New York, New York, 22 June 1898