By the grace of God and favor of the APOSTOLIC SEE,
BISHOP OF PHILADELPHIA
To the Clergy and Faithful of the Diocese of Philadelphia
May 1st, A.D.1855
Venerable Brethren, Brethren of the Clergy, and Beloved Brethren of the Laity:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Mercies, and the God of all Consolation, who among other favors bestowed upon His Church in an age so full of trials, has vouchsafed through His Vicar on earth, to speak the word which so many generations of Christians have longed to hear; to proclaim the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Virgin Mother of the Saviour of all. In every age, and in every part of the Catholic Church, and her dominion extends from the rising of the sun, to the going down of the same, and therefore can never be destroyed, illustrious members of the household of the faith, Pontiffs and Confessors, Virgins and Martyrs, and apostolic missionaries have fervently prayed that they might not see death before this last homage of veneration was offered to Almighty God and to her, whom above all creatures He has most delighted to honor. Like the venerable Simeon, one of the first to adore Jesus Christ and to acknowledge the pre-eminent dignity of the mother that bore Him, while he indeed prophesied of the Son's Sufferings, and the mother's sorrow, and the strange ingratitude of mankind, these devout clients of Mary were willing to depart from this world, could they only behold the day, when the holy Apostolic See, ever guided by the light of the Holy Spirit, would define the important question of the Immaculate Conception; being quite confident that such an act would be the harbinger of multiplied graces and blessings, which Mary would obtain for Rome and for the entire Church whose Patroness and Advocate she always is. Rejoicing, as we know they are, with God, their prayers united to those of the faithful on earth, have obtained for our age this signal blessing.
The Letters Apostolic of His Holiness Pius IX, have by this time reached the most distant churches in communion with the See of Rome. Everywhere they have been received with joy and thanksgiving. The unanimity of the venerable assembly of Prelates, Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals and other representatives of the multitude of believers spread throughout the world, was only the precursor of that joyful accord with which the faithful in every land have hailed the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, as a doctrine revealed by God, always implicitly held in the Church, though not expressly declared, and as such handed down from age to age by those whom the Christian world of the present day, has received together with the Scriptures all the divine truths it now possesses.
Though we do not require such motives to confirm our faith, built as it is on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. Jesus Christ Himself, being the chief cornerstone, nevertheless, when we consider who are the principal advisors of the Holy See, in all such matters, and with what consummate prudence, they conduct these proceedings, seeking aid and light from heaven, by those means which have never failed; when we reflect that they are, for the most part, men venerable for their years, their virtues, experience and wisdom; for their eminent talents and acquirements, their profound acquaintance with all learning, civil and ecclesiastical, and others renowned even to the ends of the earth, for their labors in the cause of literature, science and religion, we have even humanly speaking the strongest guarantee imaginable for the most sure truth of any and every decree issued in the name and by the authority of him who is our Chief Pastor -who is ever watchful as being to render an account of your souls.
But when in addition to all this, we have the promise of Jesus Christ that He will guide its deliberations and teach it all truth according to these divine words spoken on the last night of His life: "The Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring all things, to your mind whatsoever I shall have said to you", we feel a gratitude, a confidence which none but the true children of the Church can experience or even conceive.
What was before the dictate of piety becomes the conviction of faith. What may have always appeared to us as one of the clearest deductions of reason, stands out in the purer light of revelation. And the belief which we have hitherto held in the company of many thousands of the redeemed who have gone before, leaving their doctrine and example as a path of light for us to follow, that same belief we now hold in union with that multitude of the blest which no man can number, the spirits of the just made perfect, who have safely come to Mount Sinai, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.
for you know full well, Christian Brethren, that the Church of God is one. His elect, whether in heaven or earth, or in the intermediate state of temporary suffering and purification, are all one people, one kingdom of God. His Spirit, the Spirit of truth, wisdom and holiness, animates, protects and governs the Church; and as long as we remain her faithful children, we will no more err from the right way, than the word of God can fail or the throne of His everlasting dominion crumble into dust. It is this firm reliance on His word; this immovable trust in His promises for His own sake and because of His trust which constitutes that divine faith which is the foundation of all Christian virtues. For by faith the just man liveth and without faith it is impossible to please God.
From this faith springs that obedience to God in His Church and the merit accruing to your souls, for which you can never be sufficiently thankful. This filial obedience to which the apostle exhorts us, "Let us serve, pleasing God with fear and reverence", our Redeemer Himself has made the crowning proof of all His true disciples; the sure bond of membership with His mystical body, the Church; the witness of union with Him who is our Head, our life, our salvation. For He has said - and are there any words of the Holy Writ more worthy of being written in letters of gold, or which should be more familiar to Christians? - "If you love Me, keep My commandments. He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me. And he that loveth Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him. If any man love Me, he will keep My words and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and will make an abode with him. He that loveth Me not, keepeth not My words. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; as I also have kept my Father's commandments, and do remain in His love. You are My friends, if you do the things I command you." (John 14:15-24; 15:10-14)
Such was the language, such were the thoughts of Jesus Christ on that last evening, when as the God-Man turning once more to His heavenly Father with the words, "that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father hath given Me commandment, so I do: arise, let Me go hence." He bent His steps to the garden of Gethsemane, there to pour forth His prayers, His tears, His blood; and the next day to die on the cross of Calvary. Oh! How profitably may man draw near and with all the powers of his soul attend and learn obedience from an Incarnate God who for our example is obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
As we stand around that throne of infinite wisdom and eternal life, how should the parting words, never to be forgotten, sink into our souls, which we now hear from lips that on the judgment day will be compelled to condemn so many for their pride and disobedience. "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends; you are My friends, if you do the things I command you." (John 15:13-14) And, what is, Christian Brethren, one of His most solemn commandments? Is it not that, so often and in so many forms substantially repeated throughout the sacred writings? "Hear the Church: If a man will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican" (Matt. 18:17); that is, as those who have no part in the inheritance of salvation. To whom but to the very same pastors whom St. Paul had in his mind, when he admonishes us, "Remember your prelates, who have spoken to you the word of God" (Heb. 13:7) did our Redeemer say: "He that heareth you, heareth Me, and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me, and he that despiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me." (Luke 10:16)
Again, what a fountain of joy and strength to all the faithful -"for you are the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" do we possess in that last, most sacred declaration of our Redeemer before His Ascension, whereby He teaches all that would be benefited by His most precious Blood that it is the Faith in His Word which begets obedience to His Church that saves mankind. We give the words as recorded by St. Matthew and St. Mark: "Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature: Go ye therefore, teach all nations": ie., make them your disciples, even as youth are assembled and taught the principles of any salutary knowledge, do you teach mankind the science of salvation: "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: he that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved, he that believeth not, shall be condemned": that is, he whose faith is followed by obedience, shall be saved; but faith without obedience will save no one from destruction: "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you, all days, even to the consummation of the world." (Matthew, Chapter 28; Mark, Chapter 16)
In proportion to the greatness of the commitment is the virtue and merit of obedience to it. The more sacred the law, the more pleasing to God is our reverence for it, and greater is the reward for its faithful observance. Hence, among other views taken of the recent decree on the Immaculate Conception, we should regard it as an opportunity given to the faithful of these later times, to exercise toward Jesus Christ and His Vicar that filial obedience which the members of the Church in earlier ages were happy to manifest on every proper occasion.
In the voice of Pius IX, we recognize the voice of St. Peter. In the person of St. Peter we recognize the authority of the Redeemer who appointed him to be our Chief Bishop; whose pastoral counsel as though he were this day in the midst of us, and witnessed the trials to which our religion is subjected, we hear him in these words; words truly becoming his office and the representative of the Divine Master, who had committed to him the care of His whole flock. "As children of obedience, knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible gold or silver but with the Precious Blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled, have your conversation good among the Gentiles, that whereas they speak against you as evil doers, considering you by your good works, they may glorify God in the day of visitation. For so is the will of God, that by doing well you may silence the ignorance of foolish men, being always ready to satisfy everyone that asketh you a reason for that hope which is in you. As free and not as making liberty a cloak of malice, but as the servants of God: for this is thankworthy, if for conscience toward God, a man endures sorrows, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if sinning and being buffeted you suffer it! But if doing well, you suffer patiently, this is thankworthy before God. For unto this you have been called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow His steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth: who when He was reviled, did not revile; when He suffered, He threatened not, but delivered Himself to him who judged Him unjustly; who His own self bore our sins in His body on the tree; that we being dead to sin might live unto justice: by those whose stripes you were healed. For you were as sheep going astray: but you are now converted to the Pastor and Bishop of your souls." (I Peter 1:14; 2:12,16,19-25)
Another revealed truth of vital importance in the actual religious state of the world is brought before us by this Decree of the Sovereign Pontiff. We refer to the doctrine of the Church on the nature of Original Sin and the duty of being purified from it in the Sacrament of Baptism.
The widespread disregard of this divine Sacrament among those who are separated from the Catholic fold, has reached a height that is hardly conceivable among any people bearing the Christian name. With the command of Jesus Christ before their eyes, which you have heard a few moments ago, many question its worth, doubt its necessity. Many others discard it altogether; while another numerous class neglect it without remorse, who if they would give a moment's thought to the subject could not but know that the doctrine of Baptism was always an article in their Confessions of Faith. If such be the practical unbelief of vast bodies of men in a divine ordinance of the Christian religion, and that ordinance the very first, and in a certain sense, the easiest of all to comply with, we may with grief for such indifference judge what must be the condition of a great portion of the so called Christian world. But this unbelief is only the development of a still deeper error.
The spirit of the age is to take little account of all sin, whether actual or original. With no thought of God's infinite holiness, before whom the angels themselves are not pure: with no sense of the malignity of sin when theologically speaking, even a slight venial fault is in His sight a greater evil than would be the material destruction of the whole world; it is not to be wondered, though it is to be deplored that multitudes both within and out of the Church, live on and sin as though there were no retribution, good or evil, to be expected hereafter. Hence the words of St. Paul: "The sensual man perceiveth not the things that are of the spirit of God: for it is foolishness to him and he cannot understand: because it is spiritually examined." (I Cor. 2:14)
To meet so fatal an error God does not fail to provide a remedy. He has done so in the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. For this doctrine vividly makes known to us that such is God's abhorrence of all iniquity, that He could not tolerate for one instant, even the appearance of sin in that Virgin who was destined to be the mother of His Incarnate Son when He would descend to save the world. That Mary never committed any actual sin, even the slightest venial fault, has been from the beginning, the faith of the Catholic Church. But now it is moreover certain that not so much as even the shadow of original sin ever dimmed from the first moment of her existence, the perfect purity of her soul.
God worked a miracle of goodness and power to preserve her from the effects of the original transgression: to exempt her from that law by which all who come into this world, are born children of wrath and subject to Satan. The legitimate effect of such a dogma must be to counteract the soul-destroying influences which are always around us, and perchance never more so than at present. It is the doctrine which the spiritual wants of mankind at this moment demand. It holds up to our contemplation a God of infinite purity, in whose sight, were it not for His infinite mercy, no man could stand. It reveals to us His eternal abhorrence of all sin; its hideousness, its enormity. It enforces the unavoidable duty of doing penance, if we would have the faintest hope being saved; -It enforces the duty of constant endeavor, constant cheerfulness, humility, watchfulness and prayer: and with these the wisdom of not being without fear for sin forgiven.
The nature of the Sacrament of Baptism, its divine character, origin and efficacy; its necessity for Salvation, the fatal error of unbelief in its regard, the sin of neglecting, nay sometimes, of delaying its reception, all these facts, compared with which, the pursuits, cares, pleasures, riches and honors of this world are shadows; all these heavenly facts are also brought before our minds by this tenet of Mary's Immaculate Conception. For the same God who wrought a wondrous miracle to preserve her from original sin, has wrought another miracle whose elements are His humiliations, toils and sorrows, through more than thirty years; His anguish, tears and blood in Gethsemane and on Calvary, to provide this Sacrament of Baptism for all mankind. Here in these waters of salvation, they are purified, almost as soon as they are stained by sin. Here they are made the children of God, almost as soon as they take their place among the children of men. Here they are enrolled among the citizens of heaven, before they can know that they are for a time, exiles on earth. Here they are saved from the power of Satan; are taken out of his kingdom, and if they die with the robe of their baptismal innocence, they are at once admitted into the choirs of angels to live and rejoice in the presence of Mary, the Immaculate, forever.
No words can describe, no tears can deplore the fatal error of those who believe not, or believing, disregard this holy Sacrament. It is an offense in which the strongest ingratitude, cruelty and unbelief are combined. And this to the dishonor of an ever indulgent and gracious Redeemer, who, clothed with all the attributes of Divinity; as the Incarnate God, triumphant by His own power over death, and now about to ascend in His own right to the highest heavens, -again makes known His most sacred Will and Commandment to those who are to perpetuate His Kingdom among men; nay, to all who will share in His salvation: 'Go ye into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature: He that believeth and baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.
In the midst of such errors and dangers, which need not be exaggerated, for they are evidently great, it is your lot, Beloved Brethren, to be in this world and to have on hand the work of your salvation. A moment of life and all is over. Either the work is done, according to the measure of grace which God has given you, and you are saved: or it is left undone, and you are lost forever. Only the upright and the earnest can realize the value of this moment. For not nearer to certain destruction were the three children in the furnace of the Assyrian King, than are the far greater number even of Christians, every day that we spend in this "free-living, easy-mannered, fair-spoken world." The God who saved them, can and will save us if we do not forsake Him: if in humility, faith and obedience we commend our souls to His protection. And when we name those virtues, we point our the steps by which Mary has risen to that throne, than which there is only one other more glorious in heaven, the throne of the Triune God. That these virtues are the foundation of her glory, we learn from her canticle, the Magnificat; from the inspired salutation of St. Elizabeth, the mother of the greatest of the prophets, and from more than one passage in the life of her Redeemer and ours. Her humility, faith, obedience, repaired the pride, unbelief, disobedience of our first parents; and obtained for Mary that more than angelic purity which gave her strength to crush the Serpent's head, grace to become the Mother of God and Queen of all His elect.
To whom, with more reason, propriety, confidence and veneration can we turn than to a being, whom, from all eternity God has so loved and honored -the advocate of Eve, and therefore the Refuge of all her children- the consoler of him, that was first formed by God, the father of the world, and therefore, the compassionate protector of all his descendants. At the same time no more powerful friend have we with God. The humbler of our chief enemy, Satan, she is in a noble sense, the strength of the weak, the Help of Christians. The overthrow of the apostate angel who is also the spirit of error, Mary has been always regarded as the destroyer of heresies, the guardian of the Faith, the same defender of God's people in the hour of affliction. We only repeat, therefore the counsel of His chosen and most illustrious servants, when we exhort you, Beloved Brethren, to cultivate a tender devotion to the Immaculate Mother of Jesus Christ. Let it be done by all, faithfully and fervently. You can hardly address her in any prayer, salutation or hymn, without uttering the very words which angels and saints have employed before you. No day should be allowed to pass, without some actual proof of your confidence in her protection, of your perpetual joy and gratitude for her Immaculate Conception; and for all the other graces, glory and the power which God has bestowed upon her.
That the Letters Apostolic defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as a Dogma of faith, have been published in our age, is also an event calling for frequent thanksgiving to God and prayer for the prosperity of our Holy Father Pius IX. To have been present on so glorious an occasion; to have taken part therein, as chief pastor of the diocese of Philadelphia, and one of the representatives of the Church in America, is an honor and happiness which my words cannot describe, but for which I return, and forever will return the most humble thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ.
To all the religious societies, to those of the Scapular, Rosary, Bona Mors and the Guardian Angels; to the Sodalities of the Blessed Virgin, originally established in Rome, and now happily found in many parts of our country; to the different Benevolent, Literary and Beneficial Associations, all which we cordially regard as so many means of promoting practical piety, domestic happiness and the general welfare of the Church, we extend our special benediction and earnestly recommend the cultivation of this spirit of filial love and reverence for Mary, the Immaculate, whom says St. Anselm, God has made His Mother that she should be the Mother of all. The same great authority also declares no one who is truly devout to Mary will ever be lost.
On each day of the Triduum, one Mass of the Immaculate Conception either solemn or not, may be celebrated. So those who will worthily approach the sacraments and devoutly assist at the exercises on one of the three days, an indulgence of seven years, and of as many Quadragences, is imparted. They who will assist at all the exercises will gain a plenary indulgence, the usual conditions being fulfilled. These indulgences are applicable to the souls in Purgatory. The Rev. Pastors may adopt such devotional exercises as they will judge best, for this joyful season, and for awakening the piety of the faithful. An evening service, with the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, and the Benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament will, in many Congregations, be suitable.
All will pray for the intentions of our Holy Father, for the welfare of the Church, for the return of peace to the world. And may the Virgin Mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, being now more honored on earth, obtain for you and for all mankind an abundant share of those graces and blessings, which will lead you to the possession of the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that cannot fade, reserved in heaven for you.
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, Brethren, Amen.
+ JOHN NEPOMUCEN
Bishop of Philadelphia
May 1, 1855.