Carmel in the World
2004. Volume XLIII, Number 2

  • Ave Maria Purissima
  • Carmel and the Immaculate Conception (below)
  • John Baconthorpe and the Immaculate Conception
  • Blessed be her Holy and Immaculate Conception
  • The Immaculate Conception and the Carmelite Liturgy
  • Francis Poulenc and Dialogues des Carmélites
  • Mary’s Gift: Doctrine and Ritual
  • Carmel around the World

Carmel and The Immaculate Conception

Emanuele Boaga, O.Carm. (translated by S. Nolan, O.Carm.)

From the earliest times Christian people, both Eastern and Western, in the articulation of their faith and in their celebration of the liturgy, invoked Mary, all holy and without sin. This cult of Mary continued to spread during the following centuries, eventually coming to be discussed among the theologians of the eleventh century in the form of the question of the ‘immaculateness’ of Mary—or as it was called—the ‘sanctification of Mary’ in the womb of Saint Anne. The Carmelites entered into this context of worship and of theological debate as they spread throughout Europe and subsequently entered the medieval universities.
Near the end of the thirteenth century—more precisely in 1296—the first signs of Carmelite interest in the cult of Mary, conceived without sin, are to be found in the granting of indulgences, by fifteen bishops, to those faithful who visited the churches of the Order in Germany and Italy on the occasion of Marian feasts, among which the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is mentioned. In 1306 the General Chapter celebrated at Toulouse decreed that this feast should be celebrated with due solemnity. Following this decree the celebration of the feast was greatly developed, and the solemnity took on an official character within the Order rather like that accorded to the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel today It was for this reason, during the period of the Avignon papacy (1309-1377), the Roman Curia-the Supreme Pontiff, Cardinals and others—participated in the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Carmelite church, just as they took part in the celebration of feasts dedicated to the founders of other religious orders in their churches. On this occasion eminent speakers were invited to hold forth in the praises of Church Avignon Our Lady, all pure. Among the sermons which have come down to us, most notable is that given in 1342 by Richard FitzRalph, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland.
That such observance continued is evident from the acts of a fifteenth-century general chapter which imposed a tax on the Order in order to facilitate the celebration of the feast. Even when the patronal feast of the Order became the Commemoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in July, the solemn liturgical celebration of the Immaculate Conception continued too.
The status this feast had achieved was highlighted during the thirty-sixth session of the Council of Basel (1439), when the ambassador to the King of Spain pointed to it as one of the proofs in favour of Marian privilege.
In the theological controversy which from the eleventh century onwards divided theologians between those who upheld the Immaculate Conception and those who did not, the Carmelite authors of the first generation, with the exception of three isolated cases, were supporters of the Marian privilege. A characteristic line of argument of these authors was to revive an ancient tradition in the Order according to which the prophet Elijah had perceived in the little cloud rising from the sea (cf 1 Kgs 18:43-44) the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Among the medieval Carmelite authors, the most important were: the Englishman John Baconthorpe (d. 1348) who, even if he held a contrary opinion at first, developed in his sermons on the Immaculate Virgin the doctrine of the Marian privilege, and accordingly came to he viewed as one of the authors most important for the eventual triumph of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; Michele Aiguani from the Italian city of Bologna, prior general of the Order (d. 1400), author of a number of works on the Immaculate Conception, one among which was widely read throughout the north of Italy; the Catalan Francisco Marti who put together a renowned compendium on the truth of the Virgin Immaculate. One could also mention St Peter Thomas (d. 1 368) to whom was attributed a tract on the Immaculate Conception, remembered also during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but which some would attribute to a Franciscan bearing the same name.
From the middle of the fourteenth century onwards, all Carmelite authors held to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Furthermore, in Spain and Portugal from the seventeenth century it became customary to take an oath (the so-called sanguinary or ‘bloody’ vow) to defend always and everywhere, even on pain of death, this Marian privilege until its definition. The frescoes of Podesti in the room of the Immaculate Conception in the Vatican palace recall the position of the Carmelites in favour of the doctrine.
It is good to remember that among the enclosed monasteries of the Mantuan Congregation, from the seventeenth century, a spiritual federation thrived, dedicated to the honouring of the Immaculate Conception. There were fifteen participating monasteries, Sutri being one of them. Each of the monasteries, taking turns on a weekly basis, dedicated itself to undertaking special activities so as to honour of the Virgin Immaculate and to promote devotion to her. These activities included: special prayers on the part of the community to the Madonna, according to a text agreed by all the monasteries; celebration of mass with a homily on the Immaculate Conception in the church or public chapel of the monastery; and other pious exercises with the people.
The mystery of the Immaculate Conception was also promoted by means of paintings and works of art commissioned by the Carmelites for their churches and convents. Furthermore, the image of the Immaculate Virgin, under the form of the ‘Lady clothed in the Sun’ of Apocalypse, became part of the Vexillum Ordinis (the official banner of the Order) and remained so for a long time.
By the fourteenth century, a certain deepening in the understanding of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception was evident. Various authors sought to relate the Virginity of Mary and her Immaculate Conception the nature of the Order, as expressed by the colour of the white mantle worn by the Carmelites and in the official title of the Order itself. These authors began to pay attention to the notion of the Virgo purissima (‘most pure Virgin’) whose purity leads us to contemplate in her the example of how one should unite oneself to God. The image of the Tota pulchra (‘All Beautiful’), of the Lady of the Apocalypse, surrounded by the light of God is a means of contemplation, reminding Carmelites that continuous prayer and absolute purity were the greatest things they could desire for their lives.
This devotion to the Immaculate Conception inspired the Carmelites also to spread among the Christian people a firm sense of hope: that one cannot imitate Mary as uniquely privileged, but that one can imitate her through union with God by means of prayer and of victory over sin, to be obtained with clue cooperation with the merciful and all-powerful action of God.
Finally, by way of conclusion, it is interesting to note that during the preparation of drafts of the bull proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception Pope Pius IX had two Carmelite advisors: Mons. Giuseppe Maria Mazzetti (1778-1 850), titular bishop of Seleucia, and Fr Paolo di S. Giuseppe (1784-1866), the first belonging to the Ancient Observance, the second to the Discalced reform. Fr Paolo was granted the honour, as a gesture of thanks, of a special place in the Vatican Basilica when Pius IX proclaimed the dogma on 18 December 1854. Three years later, while on a journey which took the Pope through the Papal States on pilgrimage to Loreto, during a visit to a monastery, apparently of Carmelite nuns, one sister asked the Holy Father what were his feelings at the moment he declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. She received the famous reply: Happier even than the joy felt by a religious sister on the day of her investiture and profession!

Copyright © Edizioni Carmelitane