The student of ecclesiastical history need not be told through what stages the pious belief of the faithful in and the devotion of religious Orders to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin passed, from the beginning of the Christian era to the day when, amid the acclamations of more than two hundred millions of Catholics, the saintly Pius IX. defined it as an article of faith. Nor can the attentive reader of American history fail to see the finger of God manifested in the way in which Mary Immaculate claimed America, and America Mary Immaculate, from the earliest period of the authentic history of the New World. It is not necessary to speak of these: they are too well known to American Catholics. The following, however, may be given as an example. When Alexander O’Reilly came to Louisiana in 1769, as the Spanish governor of that province, he gave the form of oath which was to be taken by all the officials, containing, among other things, the following: “I, —, appointed —, swear before God, on the holy Cross and the Evangelists, to maintain and defend the mystery of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady the Virgin Mary.”1 It may be interesting to pass in review the action of the American prelates in authoritatively promoting devotion to the Immaculate Conception, until the time when they obtained their petition from the Holy Father, that our Blessed Lady under the title of the Immaculate Conception should be the patroness of the United States, and later, that her feast should be a holyday of obligation. It is worthy of note that the Blessed Virgin under this beautiful title was not chosen merely as Patroness of the Church in the United States, but as Patroness of the United States. Neither in the decree of the Fathers of Baltimore, as will be seen later on, nor in the document from Rome confirming their action, is the phrase “of the Church” found; Mary is everywhere called Patroness “of the United States.” It cannot, of course, be doubted that the Mother of God takes a livelier interest in her devoted children than in others; but the mantle of her protection covers all who dwell in the Great Republic.
No sooner had the illustrious John Carroll been consecrated bishop of the Church in the United States—which event took place on the 15th of August, 1790—than the special devotion to Mary which had, characterized the Church here received new life and vigor. It was decreed in the fifth session of the first Synod, held in Baltimore in November, 1791, that the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, the principal patron of the vast diocese of Baltimore, should be sung or recited before Mass on Sundays and holydays. The bishop declared in another decree that from the beginning of his episcopate he was most anxious to select the holy Mother of God as the principal patron of the diocese, that, through her intercession, the faith and piety of the people committed to him might flourish and be more and more increased. And he further decreed that the feast of the Assumption should be the principal feast of the diocese, urging upon both clergy and people to celebrate it with the greatest solemnity.2
But it was not until the Sixth Provincial Council, held in May, 1846, that devotion to the Immaculate Conception was solemnly discussed by the American prelates. In the third congregation, held May 13th,—an auspicious date,—the first decree of the council was promulgated in these memorable words, which show clearly that, although this was the first solemn pronouncement, the devotion had long been flourishing. The decree reads as follows: “The Fathers, with ardent desire, and with unanimous applause and consent, have chosen the Blessed Virgin conceived without original sin as the Patroness of the United States; without, however, imposing the obligation of hearing Mass and resting from servile works on the feast itself of the Conception of the Blessed Mary; and therefore the Sovereign Pontiff shall be humbly petitioned that the solemnization of the feast may be transferred to the following Sunday,—unless the feast falls on a Sunday,—on which day the Masses, both private and solemn, of the feast shall be celebrated, and Vespers of the same feast shall be recited.”
The decree was not, however, approved and confirmed by the Holy See until February 7, 1847. In his letter to the Archbishop of Baltimore, July 3d of that year, Cardinal Fransoni, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, announced the decision, and enclosed the decree, remarking that the Holy Father had most, willingly confirmed the choice of the council.
In the fourth private congregation of the same Council, held May 15th, it was decreed that the Holy See should be petitioned for the privilege of adding, throughout the United States, the word, “Immaculate” before “Conception,” in the Office of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin and in the prayers and Preface of the Mass of the same feast, and the invocation “Queen conceived without original sin, pray for us,” to the Litany of Our Lady. The Pope granted these petitions in perpetuity, September 13, 1846.3
A remarkable circumstance connected with the selection of Mary conceived without sin as our patroness is given by the late celebrated Indian missionary Father De Smet, S.J., in a letter to the editor of the Precis Historiques, Brussels, dated New York, May 16, 1857, on the life and labors of the Rev. Theodore de Theux. Says Father De Smet: “In 1844 the Bishop of Cincinnati found himself frequently menaced, as well as the Catholics of his diocese, by tumultuous mobs, composed of the enemies of our holy faith. He asked counsel of Father de Theux. After some moments of reflection the father answered that he should obtain peace and security in those difficult times if he would have recourse to the Sovereign Pontiff, and would encourage the other bishops of the United States to follow his example, so as to obtain the favor of adding, in the Preface of the Mass, to the word ‘Conception’ the prefix ‘Immaculate.’ The worthy bishop received the advice with respect, and the request was soon after made at Rome and crowned with success.”4 The acts of the Council do not state by whom the question was introduced; but this being the first provincial council after the Bishop of Cincinnati had spoken of it to Father de Theux, it may safely be presumed that it was brought up at the instance of the ordinary of that see.
While the Holy Father was still in exile at Gaeta, he commenced the preliminaries for the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He established a special Congregation to take the matter into consideration, and addressed a circular letter to all the bishops of the Christian world asking them to lend their aid and co-operation, to ascertain the devotion of their clergy and people to this mystery, etc. In reply, the Fathers of the Seventh Provincial Council of Baltimore, which was held in May, 1849, declared, in their first decree, that the clergy and faithful of the United States were animated with a most ardent devotion to the Immaculate Conception; and, in the second decree, expressed, with but one dissenting voice, the joy they would feel at its definition as an article of faith, if the Holy Father should deem such definition opportune.5
The Church in this country having been divided, in 1850, into several ecclesiastical provinces, matters relating to discipline among Catholics in general were, thenceforth, to be discussed in Plenary Councils, or assemblies of all the prelates. The first of these was held in May, 1852, when it was decided that a Plenary Council should be held every ten years. No action remained to be taken by the Fathers of the First Plenary Council, from the fact that the Blessed Virgin had already been chosen the Patroness of our country, and the prelates had already expressed their opinion regarding the definition as an article of faith; all that was left was to await the actual definition by the Vicar of Christ. But with the decree of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith approving the decrees of the Council, the members of that body expressed a wish that the bishops of the Church here would labor to have the feast of the Immaculate Conception added to the other days of obligation in the United States.6
The civil war, which was unhappily waging in 1862, prevented the assembling of the Second Plenary Council at the proper time, and it was not until October, 1866, that it was deemed expedient for the Fathers to meet. In the tenth private congregation of this Council, which was held on October 19th, the question of raising the feast of the Immaculate Conception to the dignity of a holyday of obligation throughout the Union was discussed by the prelates, and decreed, five only voting in the negative. The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, whose province it is to examine and pass upon the decrees of Councils held in missionary countries like ours, examined the question in their general assemblies on the 17th, 23d, and 27th days of September, 1867, and issued their decree. Finally, the decree was approved January 24, 1868, by His Holiness, Pius IX., who had labored so strenuously and so successfully during his long pontificate in promoting the honor of the Immaculate Mother of God. The Catholics of our day should deem it a special privilege to have been permitted to live at a time when their Mother in heaven received so precious a jewel in her glorious crown.
1 Shea, “Life and Times of Archbishop Carroll,” p. 548.
2 “Concilia Baltimorensia,” 1829-1852, pp. 19-21.
3 “Concilia Baltimorensia,” pp. 240-257.
4 “Western Missions and Missionaries,” p. 480.
5 “Concilia Baltimorensia,” pp. 274-278.
6 “Concilium Plenarium,” etc., vol. i. p. 56, nota.