Lourdes, have mercy!

Today our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are celebrating the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France in 1858. The title by which Mary is venerated today is Our Lady of Lourdes.

What happened that day? Briefly, Saint Bernadette, a poor child in Lourdes, was going to gather firewood to sell in order to buy some bread. Bernadette had to wade through some water near a cave, or grotto, and as she was taking off her socks, she heard two gusts of wind. The wind was enough to get her attention and she happened to look into the grotto and saw a young woman, about her height (4’ 7”) standing there wearing a white dress, with a blue sash around her waist, a yellow rose on each foot, and holding a rosary. The cave behind the lady was shining.

Bernadette was understandably afraid, and the Lady asked if she would pray the rosary with her. Later that day, after her parents heard of the apparition, Bernadette was spanked for making up stories.

On the 14th of February, Bernadette returned to the grotto with some holy water. When she saw the apparition, she threw holy water at it and demanded that, if the Lady was of demonic origin, she would flee otherwise, if she was of God, she could stay. The Lady smiled, bowed, and did not flee.

Though Bernadette was forbidden from visiting the grotto again, she did so and on February 24th the apparition asked her to pray and do penance for the conversion of sinners. The next day, the Lady asked her to dig in the ground nearby and uncover a spring of water, which is said to have miraculous healing properties.

On March 25th, while visiting, the apparition revealed herself to be the Immaculate Conception, a title bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin by the Church.

Though the local Catholic Church tried to stay out of the ongoing drama the local bishop authorized a commission to investigate the claims. On January 18th, 1860, the bishop declared that the Blessed Virgin Mary did appear to Bernadette. Since then, Lourdes has become one of the most frequented pilgrimage sites of Marian devotion.

What this apparition today leads us to is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a belief that Our Lady identifies as in her visitation to Saint Bernadette. There is much confusion around this doctrine and though its celebration is December 8th, I thought it appropriate today to speak to it.

The official declaration of the doctrine (also called dogma) was given by Pope Pius IX.

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful. (Apostolic Constitution “Ineffable God” (Ineffabilis Deus) promulgated December 8, 1854.)

Above, the pope is speaking ex cathedra. When a pope speaks “from the chair”, his declaration is without error, or infallible. While some may shake their heads in derision at the prospect of papal infallibility with the belief that popes do it all the time, theologians all agree that at the very least there have only been two infallible statements given by popes, the first is on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the second is on the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary. Personally, I do not subscribe to the idea that a pope can be infallible, but it is important to understand what we are disagreeing with.

In any case, Pius IX declared that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin, that which we are all guilty of by the deeds of Adam and Eve, and this singular act of grace, meaning that it has only happened once, was given to her by the sacrificial death of her Son Jesus Christ upon the Cross.

A few thoughts:

1. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (IC) is not the same as the doctrine of the Virginal Birth of Christ. The IC deals with the conception of Mary, not Jesus.

2. Sacred Tradition clearly teaches that Mary was born of a mother and a father (Saint Anne and Saint Joachim).

3. How can Mary be conceived without original sin by the Crucifixion of Jesus if He had not been born yet? Because God is not limited to human time. We experience the mystery of God’s time every Mass when we exist on Earth, in Heaven, at the Last Supper, at the foot of the Cross, and at the Empty Tomb.

4. If Mary was without original sin, was she then sinless in life? Though there has been disagreement on the possibility that Mary could sin during her life, it follows that if she was conceived without original sin then she would not be under the power of concupiscence (our desire to sin) and thus would easily be able to avoid sin. Though she might be able to choose sin, the Council of Trent affirmed that Mary was under a ‘special privilege of God’ and thus she did not sin.

5. Mary’s sinlessness is not the same as Jesus’. Through the IC, Mary is sinless because Jesus redeemed her while she was in the womb. It is through Jesus that she is sinless whereas Jesus was sinless of His own accord.

6. There is support for IC in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, though this support does not rise to the level of a categorical fiat on the IC.

7. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Saint Thomas Aquinas were not fully aboard the IC train. Aquinas was not against the sinlessness of Mary but had issue with the timing, as it were. Aquinas felt that if Mary were conceived without original sin then she would not need the redemption of Christ which means that Christ is not the Universal Savior of All. From this point, he argued that Mary’s conception in the womb of Anne could not have been immaculate but that after her ensoulment (the time when God gives us a soul), then she could have been redeemed. Aquinas’ point, though it may seem like splitting zygotes, was that in order for Jesus’ death to redeem all humanity, Mary could not have been redeemed at her conception but later on (even if only a millisecond later) when God gave to her a soul. Aquinas wanted to keep Jesus in His proper place.

a. Notice that the papal declaration above specifically notes that Mary was conceived without original sin because of Jesus’ act upon the Holy Cross. Aquinas had a good point and so the pope’s words satisfied both Thomistic theology and those who believed in the sinless conception.

8. Because the doctrine of the IC was made ex cathedra, it is incumbent upon all Roman Catholics to believe it, even though it is not taught in the Holy Scriptures.

So, what about Anglicans? Thanks to Sainted Queen Elizabeth I (God Bless Queen Bess!) we exist in a tradition which takes seriously the finer points of both Protestantism and Catholicism, and so where do we stand on this issue? Of course, within Anglicanism there is a wide variety of thought regarding Marian apparitions with some completely disregarding any Marian apparition to some believing all of them. You will find faithful Episcopalians who believe in IC and who do not believe in IC.

But officially? The Anglican Tradition has always had a strong affinity for Mary. In the American Book of Common Prayer Kalendar (in the BCP itself, not including Lesser Feasts and Fasts) we have four Marian celebrations. We celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation of May 31st, we celebrate the Feast of the Parents of Mary on July 26th, and we celebrate the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin on August 15th. We also celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple on February 2nd. This has also been called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Is it a Marian feast? Depends on how you look at it.

Anglicans believe that Mary, as the Theotokos (God-bearer) is worthy of a veneration greater than that given to the other saints but, and Romans would agree, is not deserving of worship which is properly given only to God. We do not accept the doctrine of the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception mainly because they are not contained within the Holy Bible. While Anglicans can believe in these dogmas, they are not required.

What about Marian apparitions? Once again, Anglicanism does not require belief in Marian apparitions. However, I believe that is incumbent upon all Anglicans to believe in the appearance of Our Lady in Walsingham, England purely as a matter of English pride. Interestingly enough though, in 2008 Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke at a conference in Lourdes and claimed Our Lady’s apparition to Saint Bernadette as true. The implication of this, of course, is that if we believe that Mary appeared to Bernadette then it follows that we must believe in the IC? The archbishop’s words caused quite the stir at the time but since an Archbishop of Canterbury is not a Pope, we can decide for ourselves if we believe in Lourdes or not.

I’m not sure if I believe in the Immaculate Conception but even so, I do encourage you to develop a special devotion to Our Lady. It is my experience that the Blessed Virgin, like a mother, is always there waiting for us to call to her for help. Mary consistently points us to her Son and any devotion which sees Mary as an end unto herself, is not a true Christian devotion. Our Lady always points us to Jesus and a right and proper devotion to her will do the same. As St. Louis de Montfort said, “To Jesus through Mary.”

I hope this blog post (which was longer than expected) can help shed some light on the meaning of the Immaculate Conception and our views as Anglicans on the subject.

Till next time, Peace, Love, Jesus.

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