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The Immaculate Conception and Eastern Orthodoxy

On Dec 8, 1854, to the great rejoicing of the Holy Catholic Church, His Holiness Pope Bl. Pius IX proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In Ineffabilis Deus, the Supreme Pontiff taught,

This sublime and singular privilege of the Blessed Virgin, together with her most excellent innocence, purity, holiness and freedom from every stain of sin, as well as the unspeakable abundance and greatness of all heavenly graces, virtues and privileges — these the Fathers beheld in that ark of Noah, which was built by divine command and escaped entirely safe and sound from the common shipwreck of the whole world; in the ladder which Jacob saw reaching from the earth to heaven, by whose rungs the angels of God ascended and descended, and on whose top the Lord himself leaned; in that bush which Moses saw in the holy place burning on all sides, which was not consumed or injured in any way but grew green and blossomed beautifully; in that impregnable tower before the enemy, from which hung a thousand bucklers and all the armor of the strong; in that garden enclosed on all sides, which cannot be violated or corrupted by any deceitful plots; as in that resplendent city of God, which has its foundations on the holy mountains; in that most august temple of God, which, radiant with divine splendors, is full of the glory of God; and in very many other biblical types of this kind.

In such allusions the Fathers taught that the exalted dignity of the Mother of God, her spotless innocence and her sanctity unstained by any fault, had been prophesied in a wonderful manner.

In like manner did they use the words of the prophets to describe this wondrous abundance of divine gifts and the original innocence of the Virgin of whom Jesus was born. They celebrated the august Virgin as the spotless dove, as the holy Jerusalem, as the exalted throne of God, as the ark and house of holiness which Eternal Wisdom built, and as that Queen who, abounding in delights and leaning on her Beloved, came forth from the mouth of the Most High, entirely perfect, beautiful, most dear to God and never stained with the least blemish.

Should not all who profess devotion to the Mother of God likewise have rejoiced? In particular, should not the Orthodox have acknowledged and believed the truth of this dogma? Well, originally, there was a positive response from some quarters. For example a Greek Orthodox Professor, Christopher Damalas, said of the Papal Definition, “We have always held and always taught this doctrine. This point is too sacred to give rise to quarrels and it has no need of a deputation from Rome.” Indeed, it is too sacred, and yet it most certainly needed a declaration, as subsequent history proved.

Unfortunately, less than 40 years later, a Patriarchal Encyclical opposed the dogma and that novel idea has now become common in Orthodox circles, with some admirable exceptions.

The Doctrine of the Fathers and its Reception in the East

Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is able to admit that Eastern Orthodoxy seems to be biased against its own history on this point:

In the past individual Orthodox have made statements which, if not definitely affirming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, at any rate approached close to it; but since 1854 [when Rome dogmatized it] the great majority of Orthodox have rejected the doctrine (The Orthodox Church [Penguin: 1993], p. 259).

One work of recent scholarship is notable on this point: The Immaculate Conception: Why Thomas Aquinas Denied, While John Duns Scotus, Gregory Palamas, & Mark Eugenicus Professed the Absolute Immaculate Existence of Mary by Eastern Catholic priest Fr. Christiaan Kappes. This text contributes greatly to an understanding of this issue, noting in its title two of the most revered Eastern Orthodox saints (Palamas and Eugenicus) who confessed the dogma.

One theological journal review said this:

The Immaculate Conception greatly improves upon other studies which have treated the same question, in that Fr. Kappes does not just gather a florilegium of hand-selected quotes from the theologians under consideration. Rather, his is a groundbreaking historico-linguistic study which treats the development of the word προκαθαρθείσα (“prepurification” – transliterated prokathartheisa) as it is used in progressive Byzantine discussions of Mary’s sinlessness … Her sinlessness from birth, conversely, is designated under expressions like “all-holy,” “ever-blameless,” and “all-immaculate.” The evidence of this Eastern Tradition is an unbroken theological and liturgical transmission of this idea well beyond John Damascene’s time.

St. John of Damascene had said: “O most blessed loins of Joachim from which came forth a spotless seed! Oh glorious womb of Anne in which a most holy offspring grew!”(Homily 1).

In another favorable review, Orthodox priest Fr. A.F. Kimel observes that, “[the Immaculate Conception] is encapsulated in the title given to her by St Gregory the Theologian: prokathartheisa (prepurified).” Fr. Kimel notes from this St. Gregory’s Festal Orations:

He approaches his own image and bears flesh because of my flesh and mingles himself with a rational soul because of my soul, purifying like by like. And in all things he becomes a human being, except sin. He was conceived by the Virgin, who was purified beforehand in both soul and flesh by the Spirit, for it was necessary that procreation be honored and that virginity be honored more (p. 71).

When this was translated into Latin, the Greek word prokathartheisa was translated into the Latin word immaculata.

Shortly after this, Patriarch St. Sophronius of Jerusalem said of Mary Prokathartheisa, or Immaculata, “Many Saints appeared before You [Mary] But none was filled with grace as You. No one has been purified in advance as You have been” (Oratio II, 25; PG 87:3248 A).

Cardinal Lambruschini, known to Pope Bl. Pius IX, in a work written in the year 1855, summarizes the weight of the Fathers:

More than forty [Fathers] in turn attest this tradition, which stretches from the cradle of Christianity to the days of St. Bernard, when the banner of opposition was first raised : here we find St. Denis of Alexandria, St. Justin, St. Epiphanius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Tertullian, Origen, St. Ephraim, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Fulgentius, Theodore of Ancyra, St. Maximus, St. Peter Chrysologus, St. Sabbas, St. Andrew of Crete, Esychius and Tlieodore of Jerusalem, St. Germanus, John the Geometrician, Fulbert of Chartres, Paschase Radbert, St. John Damascene, St. Sophronius, St. Peter Damian, St. Anselm, St. Bruno : such are the names found amongst a crowd of less famous names and of anonymous authors.

Some of these testimonies suppose the Immaculate Conception, others express it in equivalent terms, others formally define it, and so by divers ways all end in the same point, the Immaculate Conception; and such is the energy of their words and the drift of their assertions, that if Mary knew for one instant the stain of sin, we must admit that all these men, so great by virtue, so illustrious by genius, so venerable by antiquity, have made a compact to connive at error through all time and space. (Pg 41)

As for Russia, Eastern Orthodox theologian Fr. Lev Gillet admits,

The Academy of Kiev, with Peter Moghila, Stephen Gavorsky and many others, taught the Immaculate Conception in terms of Latin theology. A confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was established at Polotsk in 1651. The Orthodox members of the confraternity promised to honour the Immaculate Conception of Mary all the days of their life. The Council of Moscow of 1666 [which included the patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria] approved Simeon Polotsky’s book called The Rod of Direction, in which he said: ‘Mary was exempt from original sin from the moment of her conception.’

Thus also among the Russian Old Believers, says Vitalis Varaioun, the Immaculate Conception “was accepted almost by everyone.”

Eastern Liturgy on the Immaculate Conception

Does the Sacred and Divine Liturgy likewise bear witness to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, now sadly denied by many Orthodox, though happily admitted by others? Yes.

Eastern Orthodox Priest Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck, in his book, His Broken Body, tells us,

The Eastern Tradition has always considered the Conception of the Theotokos to be a miraculous event. Joachim and Anna, elderly and barren were given the power of God’s blessings on account of their prayers. The Orthodox Churches celebrate Her Nativity on the 8th of September, but the Feast of Mary’s Conception was advanced to 9th December. If the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi is to be applied to this issue, it seems that Orthodox Hymnography presents Mary as Truly Panagia (All-Holy) entirely free from sin and stain (“Immaculate”) from the point of Her Conception.

Here are some of the eastern liturgical texts for the feast of Mary’s Conception:

This Day, O Faithful, from saintly parents begins to take being the Spotless Lamb, the Most Pure Tabernacle, Mary.

Having conceived the Most-Pure Dove …

The Unique All-Immaculate [Mary] is today made manifest to the Just by the Angel. He who announced the Conception of the All-Immaculate Virgin gave our human race news of great joy. The prelude of God’s Grace falls today [on the day of the Theotokos’ Conception by St. Anne] in the Conception of the All-Immaculate.

Because the Papacy has defended this dogma, Catholics faithfully understand and rightly preserve this doctrinal Tradition. Unfortunately most Orthodox still misunderstand and reject it.

Our Lady of Fatima:
Heavenly Witness to the Immaculate Conception and Russia

Our Lady of Fatima, in the Five First Saturdays Devotion, said heaven asks for reparation owing to five great blasphemies and sins, mostly committed by Protestants and secularists: (1) Blasphemies against her Immaculate Conception; (2) Blasphemies against her Perpetual Virginity; (3) Blasphemies against her Divine Maternity, while refusing at the same time to accept her as Mother of all men; (4) Instilling indifference, scorn and even hatred towards this Immaculate Mother in the hearts of children; (5) Direct outrages against her sacred images or icons.

Our Lady of Fatima icon written by Orthodox iconographer Ivan Lvovich

Very happily, Orthodox Christians are not guilty of the last 4. They fully agree with the Church on that. But Orthodox Christians, and Russia specifically, have sadly been guilty of the error of (1).

Nevertheless, Our Lady has promised to show mercy and grant pardon to those who thus greatly blaspheme and offend God and her, provided they repent and return to the Catholic Church, the One True Church, the Only Church that preserves the dogmatic truth correctly.

Here, also we see the perfect wisdom and infinite providence of Almighty God in directing His Church’s pastors to consecrate russia to the Immaculate Heart – it is necessary for the whole Church to solemnly acknowledge Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart, and for the Orthodox to do the same, as the condition of their return to, and re-union with, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Conclusion: A Call to our Separated Brethren to acknowledge our Loving Mother as All-Immaculate

Dearly beloved Orthodox Christians, the day draws near when Russia and Rome will be re-united. We Christians who believe and profess ourselves blessed and happy children of God and the holy Theotokos, the Virgin Mother of God, must also believe Her to be All-Immaculate. She is full of grace (Lk. 1:28), the woman unconquered by the serpent (Gen 3:15), who with her Son crushes his heel, she is the paradise to which the serpent never had access, her conception is a miracle of grace rather than a product of nature. She is the one especially exempted by grace, because of her dignity and merit as Mother of God, and also by the free choice and special love Almighty God had for His own beloved Mother.

She is altogether pure, the specially Chosen One, the Bride of the Spirit, the Dove of God, His Beloved, to whom He said, “Thou art all fair, My Love, and there is no stain in thee” (Canticle 4:7. She is the Mother of the Church, and a living Image already of what Mother Church will be on the last day, “without spot or wrinkle” (cf. Eph 5:27; Rev 22:17), the Mystical Bride of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, St. Ambrose in the West and St. Ephrem in the East call Mary a type of the Church.

We Catholic and Orthodox Christians who believe so much in common, must be completely one and united in a common faith under one hierarchy. It is only then that we will be able to successfully withstand and even overcome the assaults of atheistic Communism, Islamism, anti-Christian naturalism, and Christian persecution worldwide.

Orthodox Bishops, to whom we are grateful, have promoted wider use of the TLM in the Latin Church. We traditional Catholic Christians can never forget Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow was one of the first Bishops to publicly support Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, which set the Traditional Latin Mass free to grow and expand, as it has done this last decade.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians are natural allies. We must be one, united in love for Jesus and Mary, and the Pope and all the Bishops, including the major patriarchs. The schism has gone on far too long and is continued now by mere inertia. It is enough. Come home. We are praying for you, and waiting for you, and believe and firmly hope we will be re-united soon.

We rejoice that Orthodox Christianity is being restored in Russia over the former atheistic Communism of the Soviet Union. We look forward to warm fraternal relationships also with Patriarch Bartholomew, who is on good terms with Pope Francis, and the rest of the Orthodox Christian world, including the Oriental Orthodox Churches who are Miaphysite in Christology.

In the end, the Immaculate Heart of the Holy Theotokos, the Virgin Mother of God, will triumph. She will do by herself what all the best and brightest and holiest men in all of Christendom, both East and West, through their combined prayer and efforts for over a millennium, could never do. She will make the Orthodox churches one with the Catholic Church, as she already holds us both in her Immaculate Heart as her beloved children. The East and West, as Pope John Paul II said, are like two lungs of the Church, and no doubt the Church can and must learn to breathe through them again in this third Christian millennium.

God wills it. It is for the greater glory of God, the common good of Christendom, the spread of the Gospel of Christ as taught by the Church all over the world, and the salvation of souls. We recall Our Lord taught in Mat 24:14 that His Gospel must spread to every nation before the end of time. It is only a fully re-united Church that will be able to accomplish this mission.

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