Credit must be given to the Oriental Church for having been the first to institute the feast of Mary’s Conception. St. Andrew of Crete (660-740), in his canon In conceptionem Sanctae ac Dei aviae Annae, provides us with the first historical document bearing testimony to the existence of the present feast. It was only many years later that the West accepted it, and not without strong opposition. The very first testimony to the existence of the feast in the West is had from a celebrated marble kalendarium found in Naples dating as far back as the ninth century. It is England, in fact, that first introduced this Marian feast into the Latin liturgy.
In a precious document, Leofric’s kalendarium (eleventh century), in which is found the present feast, the collect states: “Deus qui beatae Mariae Virginis conceptionem angelico vaticinio parentibus praedixisti.” We note from this that in England, as in the Orient, traces remained of the Protoevangelium narrative establishing a parallel between Mary’s Conception and that of St. John the Baptist. Judging also from other kalendaria of that same period wherein no mention is made of this feast, it would seem that at the outset this feast was limited to Winchester, Worcester, Exeter, Canterbury, and the surrounding localities.
Shortly thereafter it passed into Normandy and the northern part of France. But, “in general, the introduction of this feast and the enthusiasm for its purport seem to have been lacking in theological guidance. Childlike piety, incited by accounts of miracles and revelations, had the upper hand. In favour of the doctrine and the feast these miracles were advanced together with the appreciation of its eminent appropriateness, but positive theological reasons were not stressed. Further, a clear exposition of the idea of the feast was also lacking.”
In the closing years of the twelfth century it had penetrated into many regions of Germany and Belgium, and also into Navarre, in Spain. In summing it up, Roschini states that, notwithstanding strong opposition on the part of such great men as St. Bernard and St. Thomas, it may be safely said that in the middle of the fourteenth century the feast of Mary’s Conception, in the sense of a preservation from original sin, had found its way into every single diocese of the world and in every monastery of some importance, with the exception of Cistercian and Dominican monasteries.
The attitude adopted by the Roman Pontiffs during the many years of controversy about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, to which was intimately linked, in the West, the very existence of the feast itself, may best be described as that of tolerance first, of assent next, and finally of approbation. In 1477 Sixtus IV approved the Mass and Office and four years later gave his approval to another office for Mary’s feast. He also issued a papal bull, Grave nimis, forbidding censure of those who believed in the Immaculate Conception because of the attacks of the opposition. Years later, Alexander VII declared in his famous bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum (1661) : “The devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is of long standing among the faithful followers of Christ who feel that her soul, from the very first instant of its creation and infusion into her body, was preserved immune from the stain of original sin by a special grace and privilege of God, through the merits of her Son Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the human race, and who in this sense esteem and solemnly celebrate the festivity of her conception.”
In 1693, Innocent XII proclaimed that the octave of the feast of Mary’s Conception be universally celebrated, elevating it at the same time to the rank of double of second class. Pius IX in 1863 (having defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854) promulgated a new Mass and Office. — Excerpted from Mariology by Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M.