Bl. John Duns Scotus was born in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland, around 1265. He was immediately baptized after birth and was named after St. John the Evangelist. He grew up a good boy, healthy and pure like a little angel. He received a solid Christian formation from home and from the parish priest. He frequented the Cistercian Abbey of Melrose for his catechism lessons. There, he absorbed the ardent love for the Mother of God which St. Bernard had left as a patrimony to the Cistercians.
As a little boy, Bl. John suffered very much from the obtuseness of his intellect. He wanted to read, to write and to study the profundity of the truths of the faith, but his mind just could not manage to learn or understand anything. By means of with prayers and sighs, he had recourse to Mary, the Seat of Wisdom, asking Her to heal his dullness so that he could advance in his studies. Mary appeared to him and granted his request. Going back to school, the “pea-brained” could only astonish his classmates and teachers. Bl. John resolved to make use of the heavenly gift of sublime intelligence, above all, to glorify the sweet and glorious Virgin Mary, Treasurer of every good.
At the age of 15, he entered the Novititate of the Order of Friars Minor(the Franciscans) at Dumfries, in the Kingdom of Scotland. There he made praiseworthy progress day by day in piety and in seraphic virtue. After a year he consecrated himself to God by the Religious Profession of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He was then sent for his studies in various theological schools of the Order. He was ordained a priest by Msgr. Oliver Sutton, Bishop of Lincoln, England, on March 17, 1291, at the church of St. Andrew of the Monks of Cluny. After his ordination, he began a series of travels between England and France to pursue advanced philosophical and theological studies.
During the night of Christmas, 1299 at the Oxford Convent, Bl. John, immersed in his contemplation of the adorable mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, was rapt in ecstasy. The Blessed Mother appeared to him and placed on his arms the Child Jesus who kissed and embraced him fondly. This was perhaps the occasion which inspired Bl. John to write so profoundly and fluently on the absolute primacy of Christ and the reason for the Incarnation. Christ’s Incarnation, which is decreed from all eternity even apart from the Redemption, is the supreme created manifestation of God’s love.
After about four years of teaching at Oxford and Cambridge, at the end of 1301, Bl. John returned to Paris. He was granted his bachelor’s degree in theology. Later, on the vigil of receiving his doctorate, he had to leave France suddenly, to return to England. Philip, the Fair, in a disgraceful quarrel with Pope Boniface VIII demanded all clerics, nobles religious, bishops and the University of Paris to appeal to the Council against the Pope. Bl. John Duns Scotus, among the few members of the faculty, refused to accede to the wishes of the King and chose the way of exile, sometime between the 25th and 28th of June 1303.
After a year, the situation abated and Bl. John was back again at the University of Paris where he received the doctorate in theology and thus inaugurated his official professorship which was to lead him to singular glory among the great medieval scholastics. Soon the fame of his genius and learning spread abroad and students came in great numbers to attend the lectures of the new master. On account of his habit of making refined distinctions during theologic argumentation, the title “Subtle Doctor” was conferred on him by his contemporaries. Rodulphus wrote of him: “There was nothing so recondite, nothing so abstruse that his keen mind could not fathom and clarify; nothing so knotty, that he like another Oedupus, could not unravel, nothing so fraught with difficulty or enveloped in darkness that his genius could not expound.” Another author wrote: “He described the Divine Nature as if he had seen God; the celestial spirits as if he had been an angel; the happiness of the future state as if he had enjoyed them; and the ways of Providence as if he had penetrated into its secrets.”
It was also in Paris that Bl. John came to be called as the “Marian Doctor” after he championed the privilege of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In England, Bl. John taught the truth of this Marian privilege without any opposition. But at Paris the situation was reversed. The academic body of the University admitted only the purification of Mary in the womb of Her mother St. Anne, like St. John the Baptist. Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Parisian Masters, were not able to solve the problem of the universality of original sin and of the efficacy of Christ’s Redemption. They thought that even the Blessed Virgin Mary was included in this universality, and therefore subject to contract the original stain even if only for an instant, so that she may also be redeemed. Scotus in his attempt to introduce and teach a theological position different from that upheld by the university, had to appear in a public dispute before the whole academic body, at the risk of expulsion from the university if he failed to defend his doctrine. Bl. John Scotus prepared himself for the event in prayer and recollection and in total confidence to the Immaculate Virgin, the Seat of Wisdom.
When the fixed day of the dispute arrived, on leaving the convent, he passed before a statue of Our Lady and with suppliant voice entreated her: “Allow me to praise You, O Most Holy Virgin; give me strength against your enemies.” Our Lady responded with a prodigious visible sign: the head of the statue moved and bowed slightly before him. It was as if to say: “Yes I will give you all the strength you need.”
Two Papal legates presided over the dispute. Then with powerful dialectic and with deep and subtle reasoning, Bl. Scotus refuted all the objections of the learned men in attendance, undermining the foundation of every argument contrary to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Bl. John Scotus pointed out: <“The Perfect Redeemer, must in some case, have done the work of redemption most perfectly, which would not be, unless there is some person, at least, in whose regard, the wrath of God was anticipated and not merely appeased.”> Bl. John triumphed. From that day the University of Paris took up the same cause to defend this privilege of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Bl. John Duns Scotus had to leave the university at Paris one more time, partly for some political reasons and partly because some doubts had been cast on his theology by opponents. The Franciscan Minister General sent Scotus to Cologne, Germany ,where he lectured for some time in the Franciscan house of studies until his untimely death on 8th November, 1308, barely 43 years of age. He was called “blessed” almost immediately after his death.
Through the centuries his tomb has been visited by large numbers of the faithful and public veneration has been offered to him in the dioceses of Edinburgh, Scotland, Nola, Italy, and Cologne, Germany, as well as throughout the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans).
In 1854, Pope Pius IX solemnly declared that the Marian doctrine of Bl. John , was a correct expression of the faith of the Apostles: “at the first moment of Her conception, Mary was preserved free from the stain of original sin, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ.” The seal of the Church’s approval was also placed on Bl. John’s doctrine on the universal primacy of Christ when the feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925. On March 20, 1993 Bl. John Duns Scotus was beatified by Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Bl. John Duns Scotus, “The minstrel of the Word Incarnate” and “Defender of Mary’s Immaculate Conception” is presented by Pope John Paul II to our age “wealthy of human, scientific and technological resources, but in which many have lost the sense of faith and lead lives distant from Christ and His Gospel,” as “a Teacher of thought and life.” For the Church, he is “an example of fidelity to the revealed truth, of effective, priestly, and serious dialogue in search for unity.” It is also the Holy Father’s hope that “his spirit and memory enlighten with the very light of Christ the trials and hope of our society.”