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The Immaculate Conception

30 November, 1999

Henry Peel OP sketches the events of December 8, 1854, when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception a dogma.

On Friday, December 8, 1854, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Pius IX (or Pio Nono as he was called) solemnly proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be a dogma of the Catholic Faith.

The following are the words of the definition included in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus: “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the most blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant 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.”

The definition was the response to requests from all over the world that the pope should do this. In order to do so the pope had to ensure that the doctrine was truly an expression of the faith of the Church. He appointed a commission of cardinals and theologians to examine the question. From Gaeta where he was in exile because of a Revolution in Rome, the Pope wrote an encyclical letter dated February 2, 1849 requesting all the bishops to report to him in writing the belief and devotional practice of their clergy and people regarding the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Mother of God. He also asked the bishops to give him their opinion regarding the definition of the doctrine.

Whole Church requested definition
In the Bull of the definition, the pope referred to the replies he had received. He wrote: “It is with no ordinary consolation we felt Ourselves moved when the replies from Our venerable brethren arrived. For, with an incredible degree of gladness, delight and earnestness, they, in penning their replies, confirmed anew not only their own singular devotion and settled sentiments, but those also of their respective clergy and of the faithful committed to their charge, towards the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin; and united as if in the same object of petition, they of one accord earnestly entreated Us, that the Immaculate Conception of the Glorious Virgin should be pronounced, by our supreme decision and authority, a dogma of faith.”

The commission of cardinals and theologians which the Pope had set up to examine the question also concluded that the pope should finally settle the question of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God. A small minority of bishops opposed the definition as ‘inopportune’. These were from countries with a substantial Protestant population and they felt that a definition would increase hostility to the Catholic Church but throughout the Catholic world the definition was welcomed with joy and devotional celebrations.

St. Peter’s packed for the occasion
Bishops from all over the world arrived in Rome for the promulgation of the dogma. Ireland was represented by three archbishops, Dr. McHale of Tuam, Dr. Dixon of Armagh and Dr. Cullen of Dublin, and by three bishops, Dr.McNally of Clogher, Dr. Derry of Clonfert, and Dr. Murphy of Cloyne. Preparatory meetings of the bishops were held where details of the Bull proclaiming the dogma were discussed. Dr. Dixon of Armagh wrote an account of these events concluding that “His Holiness signified his wish that the bishops and all should pray for the benediction of heaven on the great work of the 8th of December, that so it might be the occasion of more abundant blessings on the world.” The Pope also decided that the Thursday preceding Friday the 8th of December should be a day of strict fast and that meat should be allowed on Friday the 8th.

From dawn on Friday the 8th of December great crowds hurried to St.Peter’s. At the appointed time the Pope came down the great staircase from the Sistine Chapel, preceded by a long procession of cardinals, bishops, members of the secular clergy and religious orders, Swiss and Noble guards while countless numbers of people, Romans and foreigners packed the basilica.

No rain fell
Doctor Dixon of Armagh described the scene after the pope had intoned the Gloria of the High Mass: “It was delightful to behold the rays of an unclouded sun greeting him through the lofty windows of St. Peter’s. For let it be ever remembered – and if I had only recorded this fact, I should not have written this book in vain – that although the rain fell in torrents for days before the 8th of December and for days after it, yet on the day itself from the earliest dawn of the morning until twelve o’clock at night, not one drop of rain fell on Rome.”

“After the Gospel had been sung in Latin and in Greek, His Holiness stood up at the throne, to perform one of the most solemn and important acts which a chief Pontiff can ever be called on to perform. Amidst the profound attention of the vast assembly present, he began to read in a clear voice, the decree of the Immaculate Conception. Having read the prefatory parts and arrived at the decree itself, His Holiness who was ever remarkable for his tender devotion to the Holy Virgin, overpowered as of by the sense of the favour which God was conferring on him, in vouchsafing that he should be the instrument of rendering such an honour to his beloved Mother, burst into tears. He went on to read with a faltering voice, which betrayed the deepest emotion the word declaramus [“we declare”] but for some minutes could proceed no further. The effect on the vast auditory may be more easily conceived than expressed. It may be safely said that there were but few present who were not profoundly moved, and many wept like children.”

“The Pope having recovered from his emotion finished the reading of the decree, and almost immediately after, the booming of the canon of Fort St. Angelo began to echo through the vast dome of St. Peter’s, and the bells of the churches through Rome rang a merry peal. The great act was consummated.”

Just four years later the Immaculate Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette in the grotto at Lourdes which has since become the greatest Catholic pilgrim site in the world.

This article was first published in

St Martin de Porres Magazine, a publication of the Iirsh Dominicans.

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