The History Of The Blessed Virgin, Translated From The French By The Very Rev. F. C. Husenbeth, D.D., V.G., Part 6.

Chapter 2


Islamism itself declares for the immaculate conception, and the Arab commentators on the Koran have adopted, in their way, the opinion of those Catholic divines who have declared themselves for that doctrine. "Every descendant of Adam," says Cottada, "from the moment of his coming into the world, is touched in the side by Satan: Jesus and Mary, however, most be excepted; for God placed a veil between them and Satan, which preserved them from his fatal contact."

These testimonies in favour of the immaculate conception of Mary become more feeble and less abundant in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; few authors of note wrote then in this sense, and many men eminent for their learning and sanctity maintained the contrary opinion. To make up for this, the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin was established in several kingdoms.

William the Conqueror established this feast in Normandy as early as 1074; and from the reign of Henry I., his son, King of England and Duke of Normandy, it was celebrated at Rouen with extraordinary solemnity. "It was instituted," say the ancient chroniclers, " on account of the holy apparition made to an abbot worthy of credit, who had encountered the perils of the sea during a tempest." An old history of the antiquities of Rouen adds, that "from the very time of the institution of the feast, an association was founded of the most respectable personages of the town, who still elect every year one of their number to be the prince of the confraternity, who, holding the puy, or platform for all speakers, in all languages, gives excellent and valuable prizes to those who most elegantly, faithfully, and appropriately shall have celebrated the praise of the Virgin Mary on the subject of her holy conception, by hymns, odes, sonnets, ballads, royal songs, &c. 1

Thus the Virgin, full of grace, presided over the revival of poetry, and her immaculate conception furnished pious subjects for the country of the minstrels. 

From Normandy the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin came amongst the English. The first council of Oxford, held by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the year 1222, places it in the number of holidays kept without servile work. In France, in the year 1288, a bishop of Paris, Renoul de Hombiere, left by his will a considerable sum to found the office of this Feast of the Holy Virgin, which was introduced at the same time in the Lyonnais. In fine, a manuscript martyrology of the thirteenth century, found in the library of the Dominicans of Dijon, marks the Feast of the Conception of Our Lady, on the 8th of December; " which shows plainly enough," say the learned Benedictines who have read this ancient MS.," that this feast was already celebrated almost everywhere in the Church in the time of St. Dominic."

The doctrine of the immaculate conception had been banished from the pulpits and schools for a long space of time, when certain divines who had been convinced that this belief came down from the highest and purest sources of Christianity, undertook to revive it. The Franciscans, who first began to make public profession of it by writing 2 and word of mouth, supported it by reasons so strong and convincing that not only the mass of the faithful, but the most learned bodies in Europe adhered to it with enthusiasm. The Sorbonne, which was then called the " firmament of science, the support of truth and piety in the Church of God," ordained that all who should be promoted to the degree of doctor should engage upon oath to maintain this religious belief, 3 This was done successively by the universities of Mentz, Cologne, Valentia, Alcala, Coimbra, Salamanca, and Naples.

Among those religious orders who did honour to France for so many centuries, the Dominicans alone, or nearly alone, showed themselves hostile to the pious doctrine of the immaculate conception; but the learned Benedictines, who are held in veneration by the Protestants themselves for their immense scientific labours; the Carthusians, the Carmelites, the Order of St. Augustin, of Cluny, of Citeaux, of the Premonstratensians, and a multitude of others, whom it would be tedious to enumerate here, adhered with enlightened piety, ardent zeal, and profound conviction to the doctrine of the immaculate conception.

Councils have been favourable to this belief. That of Basle, in its session of 27th of September, 1429, says that "the doctrine which teaches that the glorious Virgin Mary was conceived without sin is a pious doctrine conformable to the worship of the Church, to Catholic faith, to right reason, and to Holy Scripture. 4 The Council of Avignon confirmed, in 1457, the decree of the Council of Basle; and in their session of 1564 5 the fathers of the Council of Trent declared that in the decree which they had made in 1546, on original sin, they had never intended to include the blessed and immaculate Mother of God.

Notwithstanding the prudent reserve which the Holy See prescribed to itself in an affair where famous doctors and illustrious divines appeared on both sides, it could .not help making it appear to which side its sympathies leaned. From the year 1483, Pope Sixtus IV. had expressly forbidden any disputation in pulpits and schools upon the conception of Our Lady. 6 This might be taken for a simple act of neutrality if this pontiff had not approved of the Office of the Conception, composed by a religious of Verona, and granted an indulgence of a hundred days to all who should assist at it. 7 The successors of this great pope uniformly trod in the path which he had struck out and followed. In 1506, Cardinal Xim enes established in Spain, with the consent of Pope Julius II., a confraternity of the Conception. The same pope confirmed by a brief dated 17th of September, 1511, an Order of religious women, founded under the same title by Innocent VIII. 8 In the hymns which Zachary, Bishop of Gordia, composed by order of Leo X. and Clement VII., it is said that Our Lady was created in a state of grace. In 1569 Pope Pius V. granted permission to the Franciscans to celebrate the Office of the Immaculate Conception, attaching to it the same indulgences as to the feast of the Blessed Sacrament. Paul V., by a bull in the year 1616, forbid any one to maintain, in public lectures, the contrary opinion to that of the immaculate conception; and Gregory XV., in 1622, extended this prohibition even to private discourses and particular conversations. It only remained for the popes to celebrate this feast in Borne itself, and this was done by Alexander VIE. in 1661. It results from this conduct of the Holy See that all its sympathies are on the side of the doctrine of the immaculate conception. Nevertheless, it would not condemn the contrary opinion, doubtless out of regard for high and holy names.

One voice of immense weight, the great voice of Bossuet, lias been heard in this cause; the buckler of religion has been nobly held up before the Blessed Virgin. " The opinion of the immaculate conception," says he " has an indescribable power to persuade pious souls. Next to the articles of faith, I see hardly anything more certain. Hence I am not surprised that this school of divines of Paris should oblige all her children to defend this doctrine. For my own part, I am delighted in these days to follow up her intentions. After having been fed with her milk, I willingly submit to her decrees, and the more so as they are, as it appears to me, the will of the Church: she has a most honourable opinion of the conception of Mary; she does not oblige us to believe it to have been immaculate, but she gives us to understand that such belief is pleasing to her. There are things which she commands, in which we make known our obedience; there are others which she insinuates, where we may testify our affection. It becomes our piety, if we are true children of the Church, not only to obey the commandments, but to bend to the smallest signs of the will of a mother so good and so sacred." 9

Devotion to the immaculate conception of the Virgin was popular in Western Europe from the middle ages—that is certain ; and since then it has made immense progress : but , be it said, without offence to France and Italy—those two nations so eminently devout to the Virgin—Spain has shown the greatest zeal and ardour in the propagation of this doctrine. The church of Spain, protesting against the pretensions of the church of Normandy, which claims the institution of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady in the West, professes to have celebrated it in the seventh century; 10 —what is certain is, that in 1394, Don John I. of Arragon, who instituted it, by his royal authority, in the several provinces of Spain which had shaken off the yoke of Islamism, affirms that many of his predecessors had celebrated this feast before him 11. We shall not decide between the two churches; but if the church of Spain has only doubtful claims to the institution of this feast of Mary, which was called in France and England the Feast of the Normans, she cannot be denied the honour of having been the first to erect churches and altars under the title of the Mystery Of The Immaculate Conception.

1 Antiquites et Singularites de la ville de Rouen, by N. Taillepied, D.D.

2 Montfaucon, who travelled through Italy about the year 1698, having paid a visit at Pavia to the library of the Chevalier Beleridus, renowned for his piety, was much surprised to see that this immense collection of hooks was entirely composed of treatises written by the Franciscans in defence of the immaculate conception.

3 The decree of the Sorbonne is as follows:—"We decree and declare that no one shall be admitted in future into our faculty without promising on oath to defend all his life this doctrine of the immaculate conception." "Statuentes ut nemo deinceps huic nostro collegio adscribatur, nisi se hujus doctrinæ assertorem semper pro viribus futurum, simili juramento, profiteatur."

4 "There has arisen in this holy council (that of Basle) a difficult question on the conception of the glorious Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and on the commencement of her sanctification; some saying that her soul was for some time, or at least for some moments, actually subject to original sin; others maintaining, on the contrary, that the love which God had for her extended to the first moment of her creation; that the Most High, who himself established her, and the Son, who formed her to be his mother upon earth, loaded her with singular and extraordinary graces; that Jesus Christ redeemed her in a superior and quite peculiar manner, by preserving her from the original stain, and sanctifying her in the first moment of her conception. Having therefore examined discreetly the reasons and authorities which, for several years, have been alleged on one side and the other, in' the public acts of this holy council—having moreover given attention to many other things on tho same subject—all being weighed and maturely considered, we decide and declare-that the doctrine which teaches that the glorious Virgin Mary, Mother of God, by a special favour, and by a preeminent and operative grace, was never subject to original sin, but that she was always holy, immaculate, and exempt from all sin, original and actual; we declare that the doctrine which teaches all this is a pious doctrine, conformable to the worship of the Church, to the Catholic faith, to right reason, and to the Holy Scripture; and that as such it ought to be approved, held, and followed by all Catholics, so that it may not be lawful for any one henceforth to preach or teach the contrary. Renewing, moreover, the institution of the Feast of the Holy Conception, which, by an ancient and laudable custom, is celebrated on the eighth day of December, both at Home and in other churches, we will and ordain that this feast be celebrated on the same day, under tho name of the Conception of the Virgin, in all churches, monasteries, and communities of the Catholic religion, and that the faithful express themselves upon it in canticles of praise and joy." The council attaches even indulgences to this solemnity.

5 "Declarat hæc sancta synodus non esse intentionis suæ comprehendere in hoc decreto, ubi de peccato originali agitur, beatam et Immaculatam Dei genitricem."—(Concil. Trid. Sess. v. 1546.)

6 See the Constitution of Sixtus IV., which begins by "Grave xiimis.''

7 See the Constitution of Sixtus IV., beginning with "Cum præexcelsa . . . Extrav. Commun."

8 In this Order of the Immaculate Conception, each sister consecrated herself expressly to this mystery by these words, which are by no means ambiguous: " I, Sister N , for the love and service of Jesus Christ our Lord, and of the immaculate conception of his Blessed Mother, promise," &c.

9 Bossuet, On the Conception.

10 "La Iglesia Espanola fue la primera que celebro la Inmaculada Concepcion de la santisima Virgen; cuya festa tuvo lugar en ella desde el siglo septimo."—(El maestro Villados, en el cap. de los Festiv. Ecles, t. i. part 2.)

11 The following is the decree of Don Juan I., of Arragon:— "We, Don Juan, by the grace of God King of Arragon and Valentia, &c.—Why are some persons astonished that the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, should have been conceived without original sin, while we doubt not that St. John Baptist was sanctified in his mother's womb by that same God, who, coming from the highest heaven, and from the throne of the most Holy Trinity, was made flesh in the blessed womb of a virgin? What graces do we think the Lord could refuse to the woman who gave birth to him by the splendid prodigy of her fruitful virginity? Loving his mother as he loves her, he must have surrounded her conception, her nativity, and the other phases of her life, with the most glorious privileges.
"Why call in question the conception of a virgin so privileged, and of whom the Catholic faith obliges us to believe grandeurs and wonders which we cannot sufficiently admire? Is it not a much greater subject of admiration for all Christians to see that a creature has given birth to her Creator, and that she became a mother without ceasing to be a virgin? How then shall the human mind suffice to praise this glorious Virgin, whom the Almighty predestined to possess, without the least corruption, the advantages of the divine maternity, conjointly with the glory of the purest virginity; and to he exalted above all the prophets, all the saints, and all the choirs of angels, as their queen ? Could there then have been wanting any purity and any grace to that excellent Virgin in the first moment of her conception, so that the stain of original sin might have been imputed to her—her to whom the angel of the Lord sent from heaven spoke these words,' Hail, Mary, full of grace! the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women!' Let then those who speak thus improperly hold their peace: let those who have nothing but vain and frivolous arguments to propose against the immaculate conception, fio privileged and so pure, of the Blessed Virgin, be ashamed to publish them, because it was fitting that she should be endowed with so great purity, that next to that of God, none like it could be imagined. It is indeed fitting that she who had for her Son the Creator and Father of all things should have been, and should be ever, most pure and most perfect, having from the beginning and before all ages, by an eternal decree of God, been chosen among all creatures to contain in her womb Him whom the whole world and the whole immensity of the heavens cannot contain.
" But we, who among all Catholic kings have received from this Mother of Mercies so many graces and benefits without having •deserved them, we firmly believe that the Conception of this Blessed Virgin, in whose womb the Son of God vouchsafed to be made man, was entirely holy and immaculate.
"Thus we honour with a pure heart the mystery of this immaculate and blessed conception of the most holy Virgin, Mother of God; and we, and all those of the royal family, celebrate the festival of it every year with solemnity, in the same manner as our most illustrious predecessors of glorious memory have celebrated it, having had established for it a perpetual confraternity. Wherefore we ordain that this Feast of the Immaculate Conception shall he celebrated annually for ever, with great solemnity and respect, in all the kingdoms of our obedience, by all the Catholic faithful, whether religious or secular, priests or others, of whatever state or condition they may be; and that henceforth it shall not be lawful, and we even forbid all preachers, and all those who publicly lecture on the gospel, to say anything, to publish and advance anything, which in any way whatever might prejudice or be injurious to the purity and sanctity of this blessed conception; but, on the contrary, we ordain that preachers and other persons who have had opposite opinions shall keep strict silence, since the Catholic faith does not place us in any necessity of maintaining and professing the contrary opinion: and that others who hold our holy and salutary opinion in their heart shall publish it in their discourses, and eagerly testify their devotion by •celebrating, by the praises of the Most High, the glory and honour of his holy Mother, who is the Queen of Heaven, the gate of Paradise;— she who has care of our souls, the secure haven of salvation, and the anchor of hope of all sinners who have confidence in her. By the tenor of these presents we expressly establish, in perpetuity that if it happens in future that any preacher, or any other person among our subjects, of what state or condition soever he may be, does not observe this ordinance, without any necessity for any other decree from us, let him be banished from his convent or house; and while he remains in this contrary opinion, let him depart as our enemy from the whole extent of our kingdoms.
Willing also and ordering, of our knowledge and mature deliberation, under pain of incurring our anger and indignation, all and each of our officers, who are on this side and beyond the sea, those who are there now and who shall be there hereafter, to keep and cause to be kept with great diligence and respect our present edict, as soon as they shall have cognisance thereof; and that each, in his district, shall cause it to be published correctly, solemnly, and with sound of trumpet in all the usual places, so that no one may plead ignorance of it; and that the devotion of the immaculate conception of the most Blessed Virgin, which Christians have long cherished in their hearts, may more and more increase; and that those people of an opposite opinion may no more in future be heard to open their mouths. In testimony of which we command these presents to be expedited, authorised by our seal, which is attached to them.—Given at Valentia, on the 2nd of February, the day on which we celebrate the Feast of the Purification of this most holy Virgin, in the year of Our Lord 1394, and the eight-of our reign.''