It was a festive holiday and holy day weekend here, with a focus on the December 8th feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holiday in the Vatican and throughout Italy. Millions of Italians traveled this weekend, many to Rome to be present for Friday’s inauguration of the Vatican’s sand nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square and the lighting of the 75-foot tall red fir Christmas tree, a gift of Italy’s northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and the diocese of Concordia-Pordenone. The 700-ton nativity sand sculpture is a gift of the resort town of Jesolo, north of Venice, and the Patriarchate of Venice. The scene seems as if it was carved of beige marble!

Saturday, the feast of the Immaculata, is the day that Popes traditionally travel to the Spanish Steps to place a floral homage at the foot of the column atop which is a statue of Mary Immaculate and to recite a prayer of petition. The tradition of offering flowers to her image here on this feast day was begun by Pope Pius XII. Francis continued that tradition Saturday and also visited the basilica of St. Mary Major. On his way home to the Vatican, the Pope stopped off at the main office of one of Rome’s major newspapers, Il Messagero, causing a bit of a traffic jam on this always-busy shopping street that overflows with shoppers on December 8. (photos Marina Testina EWTN)

Both Saturday and Sunday, the Holy Father recited the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square. Vatican gendarmes estimated the Saturday crowd of faithful at 45,000.

This feast day, of course, commemorates the conception of Mary in her mother’s womb without original sin.

The Immaculata is a very important feast for Americans as Mary Immaculate is the patroness of both the United States and the US seminary in Rome, the Pontifical North American College. On December 8, the seminarians, staff, faculty and invited guests, attend Mass in the chapel, after which they enjoy a special meal. Three toasts are always made – to the Holy Father, the United States and the seminary.

The Spanish Steps, this famous square in the heart of Rome, is named for the Palazzo di Spagna, a magnificent building on the piazza that has housed the Spanish embassy to the Holy See since 1647.

Every year, early in the morning of December 8, Roman firemen place a garland atop the statue of Mary Immaculate and by day’s end, thousands of Romans will have followed in their footsteps, offering floral homages to Mary. The column and statue were originally erected with the help of 220 firemen, which is why the floral tributes always include a garland of flowers placed in Our Lady’s arms by a member of Rome’s fire department.


Single flowers as well as bouquets are placed on a table at the foot of the column bearing the statue and Conventual Franciscan Friars and Minim Friars arrange them in an orderly fashion, often creating elegant wreaths.

The ancient Roman column of cipolin marble was found in 1777 in the monastery of Our Lady of the Conception in central Rome and brought to Pza. di Spagna on September 8 (the traditional birthday of Our Lady) 1857. to commemorate the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception three years earlier.

That pedestal is adorned with two bas-reliefs. One represents Saint Joseph being warned by the Angel during his sleep about the mystery of the Incarnation; the other shows Pius IX proclaiming the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Under the first bas-relief are written the simple but sublime words of the angelic greeting: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.

Pius IX’s solemn definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854, a “day forever memorable in the Church’s annals.” After centuries of discussion and the 1849 consultation with the world’s bishops, the pope proceeded with the solemn definition that “the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved free from all stain of original sin. …”

The Immaculate Conception also speaks to us of Mary’s love for God. Mary is the “most excellent work” of Christ’s salvation, redeemed by a “sublime grace.”

An important step in the development of the belief was the miraculous Medal, originally the Medal of the Immaculate Conception. In the second of three apparitions, on November 27, 1830, St. Catherine Laboure, at the time a novice of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, saw an image of Mary standing on a globe with rays of light coming from her hands, a sign of the help she wished to bestow. The image was framed with the words, “0 Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” The reverse of the medal showed the letter M surmounted by a cross with a bar; below it were the hearts of Jesus and Mary, all surrounded by the Twelve Stars of the Apocalypse. Catherine was instructed: “Have a medal struck from the image and those who wear it will receive the protection of the Mother of God.” Ad this was long before the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed.