It is proper to rational creatures – that is, those capable of knowing and loving their Creator – to seek perfection not only for themselves, but also as a desirable good for others, especially those whom they love. This quest is an expression of their tendency towards God and constitutes a fundamental principle for understanding the dynamism of human actions.
This is what happens, for example, when we want to give a gift to someone very dear to us. Whether it for is a birthday or any other special date, we try to find the best and finest thing to give, so that the present will be really pleasing.
Now, if we who are imperfect treat others in this way, how would God himself not treat the One whom He loved and chose with unrivalled predilection from all eternity?
As we have just seen, rational creatures act towards a certain end: the pursuit of their own perfection or the good of the one they love. God, on the other hand, does not seek an end when He acts, since He is the primary agent, He does not seek to acquire any perfection. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “He intends only to communicate His perfection, which is His goodness,”1 since goodness can only exist in a creature in the measure of its closeness to God and its participation in divine excellences.
Following this thought of the Angelic Doctor, we may conclude that it was highly fitting that the beloved Daughter of the Father, the admirable Mother of the Son and the most faithful Spouse of the Holy Spirit, albeit a mere creature, should be elevated to the highest point of perfection, that is, of resemblance to the Trinity. From this perspective, could there be anything more coherent than to grant the gift of the Immaculate Conception to the One who, on this earth, would espouse Love and Purity, that is, the Holy Spirit, and give birth to the Lamb without blemish?
This, however, which today we so clearly and naturally believe when we reflect on the excellences of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was not always unanimously professed by Catholics before the definitive and infallible judgement proclaimed by Pius IX in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus. It would be far beyond the scope of these lines to describe the debates that proliferated throughout the Catholic world regarding Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. But let us consider what is essential to understand the history of a blessed fruit that arose from these discussions: the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception.
Fierce battles in defence of the Marian prerogative
Belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary was a peaceful matter, a devout certainty for the faithful in general throughout the first eleven centuries of the Church’s history.2
It was only during the Middle Ages that this doctrine began to be questioned, even by important scholars – some based on strong opinion and others only on their inability to prove it according to theological science – so that, in a sense, Catholics were divided into “Immaculists” and “Maculists”. The former fought for this truth to be elevated to the status of a dogma of the Faith straight away; the latter were firmly opposed to this. In the 15th century, the battle became intense, giving rise to a great controversy.
However, as the disputes grew, so did the number of cities and nations that officially commemorated the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Thus, in February 1477, Pope Sixtus IV approved the feast of the Conception of Mary by means of the Bull Cum præexcelsa, granting the same indulgences reserved for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi to those who celebrated it. The same Pontiff promulgated two Apostolic Constitutions called Grave nimis, the first in 1481 and the other in 1483, addressed to preachers who attacked the mystery of Mary’s conception, reaffirming the institution of the feast on December 8 for the universal Church.
It was in this context that an illustrious Franciscan preacher and great Marian writer appeared: Friar Bernardino de Busti.
The author of the Little Office
Born in Milan in 1450, Bernardino studied jurisprudence before joining the Order of Friars Minor, where he distinguished himself for his piety and knowledge of theology and philosophy, as well as ecclesiastical and civil law. He died in the odour of sanctity, probably on May 8, 1513, and popular devotion did not delay in acclaiming his saintliness.
Amidst the debates about the Immaculate Conception, Friar Bernardino was always a great devotee and defender of this privilege. He published various Marian writings, including the Mariale de singulis festivitatis Beatæ Virginæ Mariæ, in 1492 and considered his magnum opus, and the Officium et Missa de Immaculata Conceptione, approved by Sixtus IV in 1480.3
He is also credited with authoring the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, approved by Pope Innocent XI in 1678 and whose recitation soon spread widely throughout the Catholic world.
This devotion was spread by great Saints such as Alphonsus Rodríguez, coadjutor Jesuit brother, who recommended it to all as a special means of honouring the Blessed Virgin. As porter of the college in Mallorca, he transcribed the hours of the Office by own hand and distributed them among the students, as well as to his fellow Jesuits, teaching them how to pray it, so that the practice spread to many houses of the Society of Jesus.
St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori, Doctor of the Church and founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also prayed the Little Office daily. The Blessed Virgin once appeared to him and ordered him to spread it.
Finally, the Marian Congregations gave us an example in the diffusion of this prayer at the beginning of the 20th century. Many sodalities recited the Office of the Immaculate together at their meetings, and not a few claimed to have received copious graces through this devotion.
The division of the Little Office
Following the traditional division of the Divine Office, defined by the Church on the basis of biblical tradition – “Seven times a day I praise Thee” (Ps 119:164) – and with which God is praised at different times of the day, the recitation of the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception is also divided into hours and, although it can be prayed all at once, it is recommended to adopt this division, which renews the Marian praises throughout the day.
Thus, the hours are divided into seven, as follows: Matins before dawn, Prime at six in the morning, Terce at nine, Sext at twelve noon, None at three in the afternoon, Vespers in the evening and Compline at night.
The Office begins with the verse “Come, my lips, and now proclaim the Blessed Virgin’s spotless fame,” and beginning each hour we ask Our Lady’s help, saying: “Make speed, O Lady, to befriend me. From the hands of the enemy defend me.” This is followed by a Glory be, to signify that “the glory of the Most Holy Trinity is the ultimate and absolute end of all prayer and of the existence of all creatures, including Mary and Jesus himself as Man.”4
Throughout the hours, the Immaculate Conception is poetically extolled in a constant parallel between Mary and her pre-figures in the Old Testament, also emphasizing the victory of the One who, with the moon under her feet, crushes the head of the vile serpent forever and ever.
At the end of each hour, a prayer is recited in which it is declared that the Blessed Virgin neither forsakes nor despises anyone, and She is asked to turn a gaze of pity upon those who implore Her to obtain from her Divine Son the forgiveness of sins and the crown of eternal beatitude.
Finally, Our Lady is asked to accept our devotion in praise of her pure conception, and the Little Office ends with a final prayer asking God that, through the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception and “purified by her intercession,” we may be granted entry to Heaven.
Praise to Mary for every moment
Let us briefly consider each hour of this simple devotion, which begins with Matins: “Hail, Queen of the Heavens, Hail Mistress of earth! Hail Virgin most pure of Immaculate birth. Clear star of the morning, in beauty enshrined! O Lady, make speed to the help of mankind. God chose You eternally His Word’s Mother to be, by whom He created the earth sky and sea. You He ordained the fair Spouse of His heart, for in Adam’s sin You never had part. Amen.”
A possible point for meditation at this hour is Mary’s suppliant omnipotence, exalting her Immaculate Conception through it.
In Prime, Our Lady’s integrity is celebrated, founded on her exalted holiness and election: being the “Virgin most wise,”, destined to be “Deity’s shrine”. The hour of Terce praises Mary’s dignity as the Mirror of the Holy Spirit: the “fair Rainbow and Bush which the patriarch saw,” for She was to be the divine Mother and Spouse, the “Portal of God”. In Sext, the Blessed Virgin is portrayed as a fertile and sacerdotal soil, a: “Land set apart,” because She is the “Cedar of chastity” and “the Celestial Balm.”
As dusk approaches, the hour None is prayed, in which Mary is invoked as the Virgin prefigured in the Old Testament by outstanding women such as Judith, Abigail and Rachel, and her spiritual beauty exalted – “Thou art all fair, my beloved” – while affirming her invincible fortitude – “City of refuge, David’s high tower, with battlements crowned and girded with power” – against the enemies of God. In Vespers, Our Lady is praised as the bearer of the Light, her Divine Son: “You shine as the morn on the confines of night.” She is the “lily amid thorns” who, like a beautiful moon, illuminates the wanderer’s way.
Finally, in Compline, Mary reappears as “Queen with the stars as a diadem, crowned,” who, “in glory untold” is the kind Mother of the weak, and intercedes for them, “standing next to the King, in vesture of gold.” She is called the “Mother of Grace,” the star of the sea who will guide us to port.
Do these beautiful figures and images used by the inspired author of the Little Office exhaust the praise due to the Blessed Virgin? Not at all! As Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira comments, “human vocabulary is insufficient to express Our Lady’s sanctity. In the natural order, the Saints and Doctors compare her to the sun. But were there another star inconceivably brighter and more glorious than the sun, they would compare her to that star instead. And they would moreover say that it was but a pale, defective and inadequate image of her. In the moral order, She is declared to have far transcended all the virtues, not only of all the celebrated men and women of antiquity, but – and what is immeasurably more – of all the Saints of the Catholic Church.”5
A devotion for our times!
Many are the Saints throughout the ages who have recommended devotion to the Blessed Virgin, despite those who have questioned and even contested it… I leave it to the reader to conclude which is the best path to follow, with this simple thought: if God chose to come to us through Mary, why should we not go to Him by the same route? If we have this straight and safe road, why run the risk of going astray?
The one whom the Archangel Gabriel called “full of grace” (Lk 1:28) is an inexhaustible source of gifts and graces for us, of which She herself wants to make us partakers:
“Above all creatures did God so love Her that truly in Her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, so far above all the Angels and all the Saints so wondrously did God endow Her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of His divinity that this Mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.”6
In an age when people seem to hold virtue in disdain, banishing it from society, the Little Office, with its filial praise of the Immaculate Virgin, emerges as a particularly appropriate prayer, one in complete contrast with the heinousness of a world that is increasingly distanced from God.
Dear reader, set aside a few moments of your time to practise this pious devotion, if you are not in the habit of doing so! The Little Office gives us the opportunity to reaffirm our Marian devotion at different hours of the day; by praying it we can be sure that Mary Most Holy will also be for each one of us a Mother and Advocate throughout the trials and phases of this great office that is our life. ◊
1 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. I, q.44, a.4.
2 Many Fathers, from the first centuries of the Church, explained and reaffirmed devotion to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Among the most prominent are: St. Irenaeus, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Justin, St. Augustine and St. Ephrem.
3 Cf. DI FONZO, Lorenzo. Bernardino de’ Bustis. In: PASCHINI, Pio (Dir.). Enciclopedia Cattolica. Firenze: Sansoni, 1949, v.II, p.1406.
4 ROYO MARÍN, Antonio, OP. La Virgen María: Teología y espiritualidad marianas. 2.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1997, p.471.
5 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. A santa intransigência, um aspecto da Imaculada Conceição [Holy Intransigence, one Aspect of the Immaculate Conception]. In: Catolicismo. Campos dos Goytacazes. Year IV. N.45 (Sept., 1954); p.2.
6 PIUS IX. Ineffabilis Deus.