Gerard Manley Hopkins on the Immaculate Conception

The sermon below was preached on December 5th 1879 at St. Joseph’s Church in Bradford, in order to open a triduum honouring the twentieth-fifth anniversary of the doctrine’s definition. Hopkins provides a brief but insightful survey of the meaning of the Immaculate Conception – why it was defined, how it relates to our Blessed Mother’s earthly life, etc, before suggesting how this particular teaching may be honoured by us and what inspiration we may draw from it:

THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION On the 8th of December 1854, twenty-five years ago, Pius IX the last Pope before the now reigning Pope Leo XIII, defined the Immaculate Conception, that is to say he taught the whole Catholic world what we were to believe and hold about this doctrine. The occasion was solemn, the bishops in large numbers had been assembled, and the holy Pope himself was so deeply affected as he read the decree that, it is said, his handkerchief was wet through with his tears.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is this— that the Blessed Virgin Mary was never in original sin; that, unlike all other men and women, children of Adam, she never, even for one moment of her being, was by God held guilty of the Fall ; and this great grace was granted her beforehand for the merits of her son our Lord Jesus Christ, that was then not for fourteen or fifteen years to be born. So that the Blessed Virgin was saved and redeemed by Christ her son not less than others but more, for she was saved from even falling but they were let fall and then recovered (that is, redeemed) : now, as the proverb says, prevention is better than cure. Well then may she say in her Magnificat that her spirit rejoices in God her saviour. All others but Mary, even the holiest, have fallen at least in Adam, St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist so fell: her privilege has been granted to none but her. This then is the meaning of the Immaculate Conception, that the Blessed Virgin Mary was for Christ her son’s sake never in original sin.

I must also add that she was not only not guilty of it but that God kept her also from the worst effect of it, which effect of original sin always accompanies the guilt of original sin. This worst effect is concupiscence, that is to say, a readiness to commit sin, fresh sin of their own, which all men have in them. Everybody feels at least some inclination to heat of temper, to gluttony or drunkenness, to impurity, to love of money, and so on, one or all of these things, and more or less they fall into them, some more, some less. But if God by a special grace were ever to have kept anyone, as perhaps he may have kept St. John Baptist, from falling into any the least sin, still such a man would have the inclination to sin left though he did not yield to that inclination : a watch wound up but kept from going has the spring always on the strain though no motion comes of it. Such a mainspring of evil in us is the concupiscence that comes in with original sin and lasts even when original sin has been taken away by baptism. Now Our Lady had none of this. She had neither the guilt nor yet concupiscence, the worst effect, of original sin. Eve too before she fell was free from concupiscence within, but the Blessed Virgin, for a further privilege, it is believed was never even tempted. If she had been tempted she would not have fallen, any more than Christ her son fell when he was tempted, but she was not tempted. Yet this does not make her merit the less, for goodness lies not only in not doing evil but, much more, in doing good. She did all the good she possibly could, acted up to all the countless graces God gave her ; whereas if God were to keep us from all temptation, perhaps instead of being better we should turn into mere nondescripts and rest at a standstill doing neither good nor evil. Such then was the Blessed Virgin’s Immaculate Conception : she was from the first conceived without original sin and also without concupiscence, the leaning towards evil which goes along with it, and this for the sake of Christ her son. And here I will mention before I have done dealing with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception that original sin has another great and terrible consequence and punishment besides concupiscence ; I mean death. Now since the Blessed Virgin was saved from the guilt of original sin and even from its first great consequence one might have thought that God would have saved her also from so great an evil as death, being a consequence of the same sin : she had done nothing to deserve it and was not under the sentence that had been passed on other men. And perhaps he would have kept her from it if she had so wished, but her son had undergone it, Jesus Christ her Lord had died, and she could but wish to be like him. So she died, but not by violence, sickness, or even age, but as, it is said, of vehement love and longing for God. From sickness indeed she was, like her son, always free, her bodily frame perfect in beauty and health.

This is all I shall need to say of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Pius IX a quarter of a century ago published to all the world to be held as of faith and under pain of sin. It was known and believed by almost all Catholics long before ; it was told by Our Lord to His apostles, it is to be found in the Scriptures, in the works of the Holy Fathers and of great divines ; still there were some who denied it and a small number were left even in 1854 still disputing against it. But when the Pope spoke they obediently bowed their heads, gave in their submission, and made an act of belief like other Catholics. It is a comfort to think that the greatest of the divines and doctors of the Church who have spoken and written in favour of this truth came from England: between five hundred and six hundred years ago he was sent for to go to Paris to dispute in its favour. The disputation or debate was held in public and someone who was there says that this wise and happy man by his answers broke the objections brought against him as Samson broke the thongs and withies with which his enemies had tried to bind him.

And now I must speak of how we should pay honour to the Immaculate Conception. We cannot copy our Blessed Lady in being conceived immaculate, but we can copy her in the virtues by which she became her privilege and her privilege became her. She did not indeed merit this privilege of God nor could claim it as a right ; it was God’s favour and free grace granted her before she was conceived or could know or do good or evil ; nevertheless God could foresee that she and she alone among men would, if it were granted her, not dishonour it, would honour it and do it justice. A king looking among his subjects for a bride to share his throne might say of many a young woman : I could indeed raise so-and-so to be my queen ; but she is unworthy, her lowbred manners would soon break out and disgrace the lofty station she was never born to : at last he might find one of whom he could say : Here is a maiden that now thinks of no such honour, but if I raise her to it she will make it seem that she was born to nothing else, so well will it become her : here is the maiden for me, she and no other shall share my royalty. It was thus God foresaw of the Virgin Mary and predestined her first to be conceived without spot and then to be the mother of His son.

What then were the great virtues He saw in her and so pleased Him, which we too may see in her and please Him by copying suppose the two virtues she is most famous for are her purity and her humility.

How beautiful is purity! All admire it, at least in others. The most wicked profligate man would wish his mother to have been pure, his wife, sisters, daughters to be pure. And in men it is honoured as in women: the man that this same profligate knows he can trust where he could not himself be trusted he cannot but deeply honour. When purity is lost comes shame and a stain within the mind which, even after God has long forgiven us, it seems our own tears would never wash away. And for this virtue the Blessed Virgin became the mother of God and St. John the bosom friend of the Sacred Heart.

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