Pius IX and the Immaculate Conception
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
In the Bull Ineffabilis signed by Pope Pius XI on December 8, 1854, he says:
“Our mouth overflows with joy and our lips with exultation. We give, and shall always give, the humblest and deepest thanks to Jesus Christ Our Lord because, through a singular grace, He has granted to us, unworthy though we be, to decree and offer this honor and glory and praise to His Blessed Mother.
“We repose all our hope in the most Blessed Virgin – in the all beautiful and immaculate one who has crushed the poisonous head of the most cruel serpent and brought salvation to the world. In her who is the glory of the prophets and apostles, the honor of the martyrs, the crown and joy of all the saints; in her who is the safest refuge and the most trustworthy helper of all who are in danger; in her who, with her only-begotten Son, is the most powerful Mediatrix and Conciliatrix in the whole world; in her who is the most excellent glory, ornament and impregnable stronghold of the holy Church; in her who has destroyed all heresies and snatched the faithful people and nations from all kinds of direst calamities; in her do we hope who has delivered us from so many threatening dangers.
“We have, therefore, a very certain hope and complete confidence that the most Blessed Virgin will ensure by her most powerful patronage that all difficulties be removed and all errors dissipated, so that our Holy Mother the Catholic Church may flourish daily more and more amidst all peoples and in all countries…”
These passages could seem awkward to the present generations for two reasons: first, for its long sentences and, second, for its use of superlatives.
The modern style likes short sentences and few superlatives. The merit of the long sentence, however, is to relate a series of thoughts in one sentence. And the merit of superlatives – when properly applied – is to break the common patterns in which we move and make us understand profound realities – which are the superlative realities – those for which human language can only find a superlative to express them. Everything invisible, everything supernatural, everything that is vastly more than the visible order in which we move, is so much greater than we are that language only refers to such things with superlatives.
And if this is true of all that is invisible, it is particularly true of Our Lady, who is the Queen of all things visible and invisible, and who is above everything visible and invisible. For this reason, having only God above her, the superlatives themselves are shattered, and we find in our language no way of adequately describing her. So, adding one superlative to another, we end by only affirming the failure of them all to say what should be said. But through such an effort, we somehow manage to make one understand that we have some idea of the greatness of Our Lady.
The Glory and Privileges of Our Lady
Pius IX amasses a number of ideas in these sentences. These long sentences are circles, each one a type of diadem with many jewels to adorn the crown of Our Lady. Presenting this series of ideas about the Immaculate Conception, he is making us see that because Our Lady was conceived without original sin – and this in anticipation of being the Mother of God – she reached the summit of glory in all the orders.
First, he makes an act of thanksgiving for the fact that he has been chosen, as Pope, to define the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He says, “Our mouth overflows with joy and our lips with exultation.” The whole sentence is superlative. And really, there is no human tongue that can sufficiently express its joy that the Immaculate Conception was defined, all the more so that of the man who is called the Prince of Pastors and successor of St. Peter.
So, the mouth of Pius IX exults with joy. It is a super joy that pours forth from his lips and becomes exultation. This great joy is because the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady was defined, and because he was the instrument for that definition.
He explains, saying that he “gives, and shall always give, the humblest and deepest thanks” – everything is superlative – “to Our Lord Jesus Christ because, through a singular grace ” – it is no normal grace but one without equal – “He has granted us, unworthy though we be, to decree and offer this honor and glory and praise to His Blessed Mother.”
The Power of the Papacy that can define a Dogma
Here you see the greatness of a Pope, the grandeur of the Roman pontificate, which is the Power of the Keys. Our Lady is above all the Angels and all the Saints. She is, so to speak, seated on a throne next to Our Lord Jesus Christ.
But a Pope, a simple man living on this earth, was able to say that he defined and decreed this title that gave new honor, praise and glory to the Most Holy Mother of God. That is to say, the Power of the Keys gave him the means to place a new crown on the forehead of one who is so far above him! That is the immense power and grandeur of the papacy.
A Virgin Beautiful and Immaculate
This is his first thought. It is followed by a second – that Our Lady, being Immaculate, crushed the head of the Devil: “We repose all our hope in the most Blessed Virgin – in the all beautiful and immaculate one who has crushed the poisonous head of the most cruel serpent and brought salvation to the world.”
His thinking is very clear here. Being immaculate and beautiful, Our Lady crushed the head of the Devil. You see that these ideas are inseparable. The Pope thinks about the beauty of Our Lady and about her power. By way of contrast, he immediately thinks of the heinousness of the Devil that is crushed by her. That is to say, her beauty would not be complete unless it was a triumphal beauty that smashes the Devil.
Because she is so pure, so beautiful, it is not enough that all the creatures of this world and of Heaven and Purgatory pay her homage. It is necessary that the enemy be broken under her feet.
Therefore, the full idea of her glory entails the idea of the Devil slavering, smashed and humiliated, his face to the ground, because she so desired it and because she was the instrument of God to carry this out. This is part of her beauty. It is also another manifestation of the idea that man can only understand all the splendor of truth, beauty and goodness when it is placed in contrast with error, evil and ugliness. This becomes very clear in the image of the Immaculate Conception.
Her Intercession for Repentant Sinners
Then the Pope says, “We confide all our hope in her.” This is because she is beautiful and immaculate, but also because she crushes the Devil. If only we would remember this in times of temptation! We are tempted, the Devil is trying to draw us into some evil, we are afraid of falling into sin. Our Lady crushed the head of Satan and, therefore, can save any sinner from his clutches. She can snatch any tempted soul from his influence and empire. This is a reason to confide in her and should encourage us in our spiritual life.
Thus we should consider first , how Our Lady, being Immaculate and beautiful, crushed the head of the Devil;
Second, how she, being Immaculate, is the glory of the Prophets and Apostles, the honor of the Martyrs, the joy and glory of all the Saints. She not only crushed the Devil, but she is the joy and beauty of Heaven. She is “together with her only-begotten Son, the most powerful Mediatrix and Conciliatrix in the whole world.” Here is a thought that no longer concerns just individuals, but rather all human society as such; she reconciles all of mankind, all the States, nations and public order.
Third, how she is the most secure refuge and most faithful support for all who are in danger. Here again, we find superlatives – Our Lady is not just a safe haven or faithful support. No, she is the most secure haven, the most faithful support for those in distress.
What relation does this have with the Immaculate Conception? Our Lady, who never experienced such danger because she was confirmed in grace from the first instant of her being, has an enormous pity for her children who are subject to these dangers in this world. There is no true Catholic mother in this world who does not harbor fear about what can happen to her children. Now, Our Lady discerns this danger much more clearly. We can say that the more “afflicted” she is by our situation, the more certainty we can have of being rescued when we pray to her. This is what is understood here.
Her Protection and Powerful Intercession Against Heresy
She is “the most excellent glory, ornament and impregnable stronghold of the holy Church.” She is, then, the terror of demons, the honor and glory of Heaven, the protector of men and the ornament of the Church. Why? Because the Church is a paradise, a prefigure of the heavenly paradise, and if she is the honor of the heavenly paradise, she has to be the honor of the Catholic Church.
He continues, “We reaffirm our hope in her who has destroyed all heresies.” All heresies, he says, including those that cause us the greatest distress. She has saved the faithful from the gravest evils of all kinds – including those that most alarm us, and she has rid us of the many dangers that threaten us.
We must confide that, with her most efficacious protection, she desires to make our Holy Mother Church overcome all difficulties, including the most unexpected and most tremendous. Thus, after smashing all errors – even those that people can incidentally embrace, like those that we see in the newspapers today – the Catholic Church “may flourish daily more and more amidst all peoples and in all places.”
Our Lady, the Conversion of the World and the Reign of Mary
This affirmation that the Church should prosper among all the peoples and in all places seems to be a foretaste of the Reign of Mary.
What should we ask Our Lady today, the day of her Immaculate Conception? I have the impression that we should say to her: “May your Reign come, may your will be done on earth as in Heaven.” We should ask that her Reign come soon and that this state of affairs end where her will is not done on earth. Even in places where one would expect that her desire would be fulfilled, there is no such compliance. When man fulfills her will on this earth, this will be her Reign.