Thou Art All Fair, O Mary

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, who appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in the Pyrenees mountains, in Southern France. When, on a next visit, at the request of her priest, the young girl asked the name of the Lady, she answered: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

This was in 1858. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception had just been proclaimed four years before, in 1854, by Pope Pius IX.

The belief was in the Church from the beginning. St Justin Martyr and St Irenaeus of Lyon, in the second century, and many other Fathers of the Church affirmed it, though not in the rather technical term that we use now, and most people believed in the incomparable purity of their Queen and Mother during all Church history. The Latin hymn which appears as the title of this post dates back to the fourth century. There was a liturgical feast and office in many places since high Middle Ages.

But the theology was uncertain and scholars did not find compelling arguments for one position or the other. As long as the controversy was not settled, believers and contradictors alike were allowed their opinion, and were forbidden to try and condemn the other side.

Then how could a girl from the back country, certainly devout but illiterate, have come up with an expression so sophisticated that only a small number of learned Catholics knew it at the time? And moreover, the Lady said it in the regional dialect of the Pyrenees, so the tiny possibility that Bernadette could have heard it in French in a sermon was also ruled out. The priest knew instantly that she was telling the truth.

For an overview of the biblical and patristic arguments on the Marian dogmas, Dr Scott Hahn published a book titled Hail, Holy Queen. In a very lively talk on the subject, he recounts how he became acquainted with the prerogatives of the Holy Virgin even before entering the Catholic Church. (

The Latin hymn Tota pulchra es (Thou Art All Fair) follows.

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