How Abbot of Solesmes Explained the Immaculate Conception

Abbey Republishes a Work That Was Key for Proclamation of Dogma

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SOLESMES, France, DEC. 8, 2004 ( The Abbey of Solesmes, long renowned for its Gregorian chant, also is known for another key contribution: a deeper understanding of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

At the origin of this endeavor is the figure of Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875), the abbot who restored the Benedictine monastery, after the French Constitutional Assembly prohibited religious vows in 1790, scattering the monks of that community.

Impressed by Guéranger’s contribution to liturgical reform and by the publication of his “Mémoire sur l’Immaculée Conception” in 1850, the following year Pope Pius IX commissioned him to write a document proposing a definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Three years later, the same Pope would formulate the dogma with the bull “Ineffabilis Deus.”

To better understand the importance of Dom Guéranger’s book on the Immaculate Conception, republished this year by the abbey, ZENIT interviewed Brother Jacques de Préville, a monk at Solesmes.

Q: Why did Dom Guéranger write his book in 1850?

Brother Jacques: The definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, desired by many, judged inopportune by some, had been the object of important works in the years that preceded it.

Pius IX, with the encyclical “Ubi Primum” of February 2, 1849, had invited bishops worldwide to give their point of view on the possibility and opportuneness of this definition. In France, many bishops created commissions of theologians to prepare their response. With his book, Dom Guéranger, first abbot of Solesmes, wished to contribute to the effort of reflection on this privilege of Mary.

Q: Of what importance was the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the life of Dom Guéranger?

Brother Jacques: The privilege of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was something that was especially dear to him.

He recalled, in fact, the grace of light he received on December 8, 1823, the feast of Our Lady’s conception, when he was studying in the seminary, still depending too much on a rational view.

He himself recounted the event: “It was then when the merciful and compassionate Queen, Mother of God, came to my assistance in a way which was as triumphant as it was unexpected. On December 8, 1823, while I was doing my meditation with the Community, and I approached my argument — the mystery of the day — with my rational viewpoints, as usual, suddenly I was led to believe in Mary immaculate in her conception. Speculation and feeling were united effortlessly in this mystery.

“I felt a sweet joy in my consent; without rapture, with a gentle peace and sincere conviction. Mary deigned to transform me with her blessed hands, without anxiety, without vehemence: One nature disappeared to leave room for another. I did not say anything to anyone, especially because I did not imagine the significance that this revelation would have for me. I was undoubtedly overwhelmed; but today I am still overwhelmed when understanding the scope of the favor that the Holy Virgin deigned to grant me that day.”

Q: What did he wish to do with his “Mémoire”?

Brother Jacques: Dom Guéranger wished to show in a book why belief in the Immaculate Conception might be the object of a dogmatic definition. It was published in April 1850. With great clarity and very extensive information, Dom Guéranger established this possibility.

For the belief to be defined as a dogma of faith, he explained, it is necessary that the Immaculate Conception form part of Revelation, expressed in Scripture or Tradition, or be implied in beliefs previously defined. Needed, afterward, is that it be proposed to the faith of the faithful through the teaching of the ordinary magisterium. Finally, it is necessary that it be attested by the liturgy, and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.”

Dom Guéranger showed that these three conditions were met and that, consequently, the definition was possible. “The Church,” he said, “had to wait a suitable time to recollect herself, to confirm this universal agreement which today is the proof that this is the doctrine of the Catholic Church” [see “Mémoire sur l’Immaculée Conception,” p. 129].

Q: How does Dom Guéranger explain the link that exists between Revelation and the definition of the “new” dogma?

Brother Jacques: Dom Guéranger recalls that “there is no new revelation when the Church defines a dogma of faith” [ibid., p. 2]. The Church adds nothing to the datum of faith. The only thing she does is to recognize that this newly defined truth already formed part implicitly of the treasury of Revelation.

The same would occur with the dogma of the assumption of Mary, defined by Pius XII in 1950. Before these truths defined in this way, the believer must now give his full adherence of faith.

Dom Guéranger then shows, toward the end of the work, how the definition of the Immaculate Conception was extremely appropriate, something that he himself ardently desired. It would be to honor the Virgin Mary with the official recognition of her privilege.

It would be “beneficial for the human race, as it is not possible that earth raise its praise to Mary without this Mother of mercy not acknowledging with new benefits her children’s impulse of heart toward her, especially when this praise has as its objective to glorify in her the gift she most loves, the integrity of her soul, her exemption from any stain, in a word, holiness” [ibid., p. 131].

Q: Wherein lies the originality of this work?

Brother Jacques: In these pages, one can admire Dom Guéranger’s great spirit of faith, his profound sense of Church, his fervent love of the Virgin Mary.

In them resounds the voice of the monk familiar with the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, and liturgical prayers. One perceives the contemplative, who has meditated for a long time on the mystery of Mary Immaculate.

Q: Why have you republished the book?

Brother Jacques: After seeing the book, during a trip of the abbot of Solesmes to Rome, Pius IX asked him to work on a plan of the text in view of the definition. We thought it would be useful to publish Dom Guéranger’s “Mémoire” again in 2004. It might help to understand better the breadth of Blessed Pius IX’s bull and the great light it gives us.

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[“Mémoire sur l’Immaculée Conception” may be purchased through]

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