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Dogma of Immaculate Conception Opened a New Era

Interview With Journalist Vincenzo Sansonetti

ROME, JAN. 8, 2005 (Zenit) - Proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was a providential event that reinvigorated "an exhausted Church" by reminding the faithful of "the existence of original sin and Christ's redemption."

So says Vincenzo Sansonetti, who worked for the Italian episcopal conference's newspaper Avvenire from 1976 to 1989.

In this interview with us he highlighted striking passages of his new book "The Immaculate Conception. From Pius IX's Dogma to Medjugorje" ("L'Immacolata Concezione. Dal Dogma di Pio IX a Medjugorje"), published in Italy by Piemme.

Since 1989, Sansonetti has been special envoy of and responsible for the cultural pages of the weekly Oggi; he also contributes to reviews such as Mass Media, Studi Cattolici, and Timone.

Q: When and why did the Holy See, all of a sudden, change its position on this mystery of faith, the object of devotion since the very first years of the Church?

Sansonetti: Rather than a change, one may speak of progressive maturation through the centuries which led the Popes to "support," with discretion but attention, popular devotion and the liturgical feast, for centuries already present in the Church.

The Popes were like arbiters in the disputes, often bitter, between the "maculates" and the "immaculates," led by Dominicans and Franciscans.

However, if one wishes to identify a crucial point, it must be found in the forced exile of Pope Pius IX, forced to flee to Gaeta, a fortress located in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, to remove himself from the fierce anti-Catholic and anti-papal persecution of the Roman Republic, led by Freemason Giuseppe Mazzini.

The book opens with an almost cinematographic scene, on a cold morning of January 1849, when Pope Mastai Ferretti went out on the balcony of the palace that offered him hospitality and saw a stormy sea. He was worried. Cardinal Lambruschini, who was by his side, said to him: "Your Holiness, the world will only be cured of the evils that oppress it ... by proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Only this doctrinal definition will re-establish the sense of Christian truths."

A few days later, from Gaeta, Pius IX published the encyclical "Ubi Primum" in which he asked all bishops worldwide to define themselves on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

The result was virtually a plebiscite and, on December 8, 1854, the Pope pronounced the solemn declaration that "the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by special grace and privilege of God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was preserved immune from all stain of original sin."

Q: The promulgation of this dogma took place in a period, heir to the Enlightenment, which in Italy enabled Giuseppe Mazzini to say: "A new era is arising which does not admit Christianity" and that was, as you affirm, characterized by a certain decadence in the life of the Church. Do you believe that this historical and ecclesial event had some affinity with what happened, for example, with the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe and, therefore, that it must be interpreted as the response of grace to an impossible human situation?

Sansonetti: The Guadalupe apparition in Mexico completed the evangelization of Latin America in the 16th century. The proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, gave back vigor, in the mid-19th century, to an exhausted Church in a tight spot, by recalling the existence of original sin and the redemption of Christ.

They were providential events, which corresponded to a mysterious divine plan. And it is amazing that, four years after the proclamation of the dogma, on February 11, 1858, Our Lady appeared in Lourdes calling herself the Immaculate Conception, confirming the dogma.

She could have done so earlier -- there were tens, if not hundreds, of Marian apparitions prior to Lourdes -- but the Virgin respects the human way, the steps of the Church. And she described herself as the "immaculate" only "after" Pius IX's Bull of December 8, 1854.

Q: Can you tell us something about the supernatural events that reporters of that time wrote in regard to the promulgation of the bull "Ineffabilis Deus"?

Sansonetti: On the morning of December 8, 1854, in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, a ray of light fell on Pius IX at the moment of the reading of the bull "Ineffabilis Deus." An amazing phenomenon, because in no season, and much less so just before winter, and from no window of the Vatican basilica, could a ray of light reach the apse where the Pope was. It was seen as a kind of heavenly approval, the hope of a joyful future in the midst of the tormented life of the Church at the time.

A few months later, on April 12, 1855, Pius IX was visiting the "Propaganda Fide" School in Rome. All of a sudden the pavement opened up. That instant, the Pope cried out: "Immaculate Virgin, help us!" Miraculously, no one was hurt. For a century in that school the custom continued among the students, when dismissed for a break, to repeat the prayer "Immaculate Virgin, help us!"

Q: In "Ineffabilis Deus," Pius IX, in declaring the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, said that it was destined for "the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the enhancement of the Christian religion." What were the benefits obtained with the definition?

Sansonetti: It was another Pope who described the benefits for the life of the Church: St. Pius X, in the encyclical "Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum," published in 1904, fifty years after the proclamation of the dogma.

In addition to "the hidden gifts of graces" given by God to the Church through the intercession of Mary, Pope Sarto recalled: the convocation of Vatican Council I in 1870, with the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility; the "new and never before seen fervor of piety with which the faithful of all classes and nations, have been coming, for a long time, to venerate the Vicar of Christ"; the longevity of the pontificates of Pius IX and Leo XIII, most wise pilots of the Church; the "apparitions of the Immaculate in Lourdes and the flourishing of miracles and piety."

Missions, charity and culture flourished again, and the presence and visibility of Catholics returned to social life. An amazing example: On the day of the Assumption of 1895, after the courageous example of the Catholics of Roubaix, Eucharistic processions, which had been prohibited, resumed throughout France.

Q: During John Paul II's visit to Lourdes [last] year, on the day of the Assumption, papal spokesman Navarro Valls said: "The Pope has come to ask for healing not only of physical illness but of the gravest sickness that torments the modern world: forgetfulness of original sin."

Sansonetti: In reality, with his reminder of original sin, John Paul II did nothing other than repeat something already clear at the end of the 19th century, the century of Pius IX and of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. And, on top of that, in environments that were certainly not clerical.

At the end of the 19th century, the poet Baudelaire, who was certainly not a flatterer, said: "The greatest heresy of our time is the negation of original sin!" This heresy is still alive and acting.

Suffice it to think of the campaign against the former Italian Minister Rocco Buttiglione, a Catholic, obliged to give up his candidature for European Commissioner for Justice and Liberties, for having used the word "sin" during a hearing.

Sin and original sin are denied because there is the desire to affirm the idea of man totally liberated from a supernatural dependence, from a Creator, a man who does not acknowledge his limitations and puts himself in God's place.

But man, freed from this bond, without a religious reference, becomes a tyrant to himself, prey to utopias and totalitarianisms. From a man without God, spring Nazism, Communism and the present terrorism that uses the word "god" for its bloody ends.

Mary Immaculate, with her gentle and benevolent smile, just as she has been pictured, has crushed the serpent's head and leads us by the hand toward Paradise, toward the immaculate condition that is her privilege, though promised to us all.

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