December 8 – Patapius; Immaculate Conception

Patapius (IV cent.) was born in Thebes and hermitified at a young age in the nearby desert. To avoid disciple wannabes, he moved to Constantinople, but just as a city on a hill cannot be hid (absent technology sorely lacking in that then and there), Patapius’ holiness shone forth. A blind boy came to his hut and saw his way home, if you see what I mean. Soon many saw their way to the hut. Patpius cured a man of dropsy (sufferers of which constitute his patronage), healed a worm-infested sore on a woman’s breast, and drove a nasty demon out of an unfortunate youth. After working these and many other wonders, he died and was buried in the Monastery of the Egyptians, which he had (by then) founded.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (of the Blessed Virgin Mary) has its roots in fifth-century Syrian feast of “The Conception of Anne, the Ancestress of God,” celebrated December 9. (For the story of Mary’s conception, or at least as much as is seemly to tell, See July 26.) The feast was widespread in the East by the seventh century, and made its way into the West in the eighth, starting at the Byzantine tip of Italy, moving up through the “boot,” and fanning out into greater Europe like a fountain. (Close your eyes and you can probably picture it.) Along the way it shifted to December 8, but these things happen.

Mary had long been referred to as “spotless” (αχραντος)[1], but it wasn’t until about the eleventh century that “immacculata” (the Latin equivalent) was applied to her conception—taken to mean that she was conceived without stain of Original Sin. Thomas Aquinas (Jan 28) did not approve, reasoning that unless Mary at some point had been subject to sin, Christ could not be her redeemer. John Duns Scotus argued that the Immaculate Conception was her redemption, and his position stuck.

As late as the fifteenth century, however, Pope Sixtus IV (after whom the Sistine Chapel was named) (and if having the Sistine Chapel named after you isn’t cool, coolness isn’t worth having) explicitly accepted both those who referred to the conception as immaculate and those who did not, on the grounds that no official pronouncement had been made. (If the idea of officially pronouncing the lack of an official pronouncement hurts your head, you are not cut out to be a church historian.) The Council of Trent in the next century endorsed his lack of endorsement. In the nineteenth century the clamor for defnitiveness led Pope Pius IX to appoint a commission to study the subject. Based upon their recommendation, he, in 1854, with the backing of “the overwhelming majority” of Catholic bishops (and thanks to Mariano Spada’s ingenious interpretation of Aquinas that made it clear(ish) he was actually not denying the Immaculate Conception, really), declared ex cathedra that “the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin.” The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the patronal feast of the Spanish infantry, and 68 dioceses and archdioceses.

The Feast of the Conception by Righteous Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos is still kept in the East on its original day (tomorrow), albeit without the “Immaculate,” for reasons concerning original sin that would take a theology grad student a week to explain.

[1]Out of curiosity I looked up “χραντος” on Google Translate: it returned “horseradish,” proving Our Lady isn’t horseradish, if you were confused on that point. (God help you if you were confused on that point.)