Catholic Q&A: The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Catholic Q&A: The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

By Fr. Rick Poblocki

What is the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary?

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is “the dogma proclaimed in Christian tradition and defined in 1854, that from the moment of her Conception, Mary – by the singular grace of God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ – was preserved immune from Original Sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church

[henceforth: CCC], Glossary, p. 883).

Is there any biblical basis in this dogma?

While there is no explicit revelation of the Immaculate Conception in the Scriptures, Pope Pius IX cited three references as the biblical basis for the Immaculate Conception to be “a doctrine revealed by God.”  The three citations are:

  • Genesis 3:15 – “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.”
  • Luke 1:28 – “And coming to her, he [the Archangel Gabriel] said ‘Hail, Full of Grace! The Lord is with you.'”
  • Luke 1:24 – “[Elizabeth] cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’ “

When is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception observed?

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on December 8.

What truths does the dogma of the Immaculate Conception teach?

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches:

  • Mary was free from Original Sin and Actual Sin (mortal and venial sins) from the first moment of her Conception.
  • Our Lady’s freedom from sin is the result of a very special grace from God; this made Our Lady free from Original Sin, and so she was a recipient, in a foreseen manner, of the redemptive merits of Christ.  This is sometime referred to as preredemption.
  • Theologians (those responsible for explaining the Church’s teaching) say Mary’s “preredemption” was the pouring out of grace at the moment of her soul’s instance into her body – it was a very special exemption that allowed Our Lady to be free from all sin throughout her entire life.  Our Lady was sinless.
  • This special exemption also made our Lady free from concupiscence.  Concupiscence is the result of the damage done by Original Sin to our human nature, which appears as an attraction, or a desire, or a tendency for sinful sense-pleasure.

What does the word Immaculate mean?

The word Immaculate means “without soil” or “without stain.”  Since Mary was conceived without the stain of Adam’s sin, we say that her Conception was “Immaculate.”

What effect did the Immaculate Conception have upon Our Lady?

When humans are conceived, their parents pass on to them Original Sin.  Original Sin enslaves us to the power of sin and inclines us to rebel against God’s Will.  By her Immaculate Conception – that is, being conceived without Original Sin – Our Lady was free from Original Sin and was given a powerful and radical freedom to do God’s Will with perfect love, and to please Him in all things.  Her freedom was so great that Our Lady remained sinless throughout her entire life.

Why was it necessary for the Blessed Virgin to be immaculately conceived?

From all eternity it was God’s plan to create Our Lady in this condition, making Mary the worthy Mother of His Divine Son.  If Our Lady was given over to sin, she would have been under the mastery of the Devil as Adam, Eve, and we are.  It would also follow that if the Blessed Virgin was under the power of sin as we are, she would not have been able to give a complete “yes” to God when she was asked to become Jesus’ Mother.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (490) states: “In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary for her to be wholly borne by God’s grace.”

How did the dogma of the Immaculate Conception develop in the Catholic Church?

An examination of the Church’s history indicates that from the very beginning, the early Christians considered it an historical fact that Mary Most Holy was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, and was preserved from Original Sin by God Himself.  This belief is clearly present in the prayers the Church composed, in the Church’s public worship, and in the preaching and the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  However, it took centuries to fully express and uncover the wonders of God’s grace with regard to Mary and her place in His saving plan.  The broadest lines of development of the Church’s deepening understanding of the Immaculate Conception proceeded over centuries in various stages.

  • The First Stage of Development (Apostolic times – 11th century): In the 3rd Century, the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyon speak of Mary as “the new Eve,” thus foreshadowing and laying the groundwork for the fuller expression of the dogma.  This was followed in 431 AD , when the Council of Ephesus declared Mary as Theotokos, which in Greek means “God Bearer” or “Mother of God.”  This declaration opened many discussions about the nature of Our Lady’s Motherhood, and ultimately resulted in examining many questions surrounding her Immaculate Conception, perpetual Virginity, and her glorious Assumption.  By the 7th century, the Church was celebrating the feast under the title of the “Conception of Mary by St. Anne.”  The evidence from the prayers used and calendars of Feasts indicate that by the 8th century, the celebration of the Immaculate Conception was well-established and was regularly observed in the Eastern Churches.  By the 11th century, this trend had established itself in the Roman or Latin Rite, most notably in England.
  • The Second Stage of Development – Formulation of the Dogma becomes more explicit (The Middle Ages – 18th Century): Despite the observance of the Feast in the Eastern and Roman Churches, many theologians, and even great Saints (St. Bernard, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure) objected to the Immaculate Conception, on the basis that it seemed to place Our Lady outside of the need to be “saved” by Jesus.  This objection was overcome by a major breakthrough, when the Franciscan theologian, John Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308) answered that objection and clarified the problem by making the distinction that, although Our lady deserved Original Sin like all other humans, she was preserved from it at the moment of Conception by a pre-redemptive act made possible by the Cross and merits of Christ.  The 14th Century saw this Feast included in the Church’s Universal Calendar, which meant that the Feast was to be celebrated everywhere throughout the Catholic world on its assigned date.  Pope Clement XI made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception a Holy Day of Obligation in the year 1708, when he published the papal bull Commissi Nobis.  The Collect (Opening Prayer) of that time is almost word-for-word identical with the Collect the Church still uses today in the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal.
  • The Third Stage of Development – Pope Pius IX Consults the Faithful and Proclaims the Dogma: The explicit formulation and proclamation of the Dogma began around 1849, when Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical entitled Ubi Primum.  When consulting the world’s Bishops, the Pope asked them if they, their Clergy, and the Faithful believed Our Lady was immaculately conceived, and if the Bishops, the Clergy, and the Faithful would like to see the Immaculate Conception defined and proclaimed as a dogma of the Church.  The affirmative response to the Holy Father’s inquiry indicated that the Bishops, Clergy, and the Faithful all wished to see the immaculate Conception proclaimed as a dogma of the Church.  Therefore, in 1854, Pope Pius IX, in the encyclical Ineffabilis Deus (“Ineffable God”) defined the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Faith – practically using the very words found in the Collect used from the time of Pope Clement XI’s elevation of the Feast into a Holy Day of Obligation.
  • The Fourth Stage of Development – Subsequent Developments (the Apparitions at Lourdes and Vatican II):  the dogma received even greater attention and emphasis in 1858, after a series of stunning apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France.  The Blessed Virgin declared in patois – the French dialect Bernadette spoke – “Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou,” or “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  An image of the Blessed Virgin was placed on the apparition site, and Our Lady’s words were translated into French: “Je suis L’Immaculee Conception.”  These stunning events were taken as Divine confirmation of the Truth of this Dogma.  In the period of 1962-1965, the Second Vatican Council was convened.  Contrary to popular belief, the Second Vatican Council affirmed each and every Marian doctrine, title, and devotion to Mary!  In fact, Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) is entirely devoted to the Blessed Virgin, absolutely affirming her place in the authentic Christian life.

What were the names of the Blessed Mother’s parents?

Ancient tradition and legend (The Protoevangelium of James) tells us that the names of Mary’s parents were Joachim and Anne.  Catholics commonly call them St. Joachim and St. Anne.  While never on par with inspired Scripture, these documents are believed to contain some truth about the parents of Mary.

Why is the Blessed Virgin addressed as “Full of Grace?”

Luke 1:28 tells us that upon his arrival, St. Gabriel greets Our Lady with the words: “Hail, Full of Grace! The Lord is with you!”  By calling Our Lady “Full of Grace” (gratia plena), the Angel recognizes her status as one conceived without Original Sin.

Why is the narrative of the Annunciation used on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception?

The use of this Gospel passage is not intended to confuse Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception with Our Lord’s Virginal Conception (Jesus being conceived without a human father by a woman who never experienced sexual relations).  The focus is upon the words of the Angel Gabriel in Luke 1:28 – Mary is “Full of Grace,” and thus conceived without the stain of Original Sin.

How is the title “Full of Grace” to be understood?

The title “Full of Grace” designates Our Lady as one who was redeemed from the first moment of her Conception.  Through the centuries, the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “Full of Grace” by God’s power (Luke 1:28), was redeemed from the first moment of her existence – that is, her Conception.  The title “Full of Grace” expresses this insight.

Doesn’t Mary’s Immaculate Conception place her outside of the need to be saved by Jesus?

This objection proved to be the cause of some serious doubts about the Immaculate Conception, even among the Saints!  Among those raising serious doubts were St. Bernard of Clairvaux (who was credited with writing the Memorare), St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure.  They argued that the Immaculate Conception seemed to exempt Our Lady from needing to be redeemed and saved by her Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the whole world.  Other theologians, especially among the Franciscans, challenged and reexamined the apparent stumbling block.  The “real breakthrough” came with the Scottish Franciscan John Duns Scotus, who, as previously mentioned, introduced the idea of “preservative redemption.”  His answer to this objection was so brilliant that Pope Pius IX included it in his official teaching about Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.

What is the idea of preservative redemption?

In essence, John Duns Scotus argued that Mary was free from sin at the first moment of her Conception by virtue of a special grace from God.  This made her free from Original Sin.  Thus, she was a recipient, in a foreseen manner, of the redemptive merits of Christ.  The key idea here is that Mary needed to be saved just as much as we need Jesus to save us.  The “foreseen manner” of Mary receiving this grace means that God gave her that grace in order to “equip” her for the work of becoming the Mother of Jesus Christ the Divine Redeemer.  It would be extremely wrong to think that Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception and sinlessness exempted her from needing to be saved by the Lord Jesus!  The very reason why Mary was conceived without the stain of Adam’s sin and remained sinless her whole life is because these graces come wholly from Christ and no other! “She is redeemed in a more exalted fashion by reason of the merits of her Son” (CCC, 492).

Does this mean that Mary’s Immaculate Conception is part of the saving work of Christ?

Absolutely!  As Pope Pius IX claimed in 1854:

“The Most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her Conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of Original Sin” (CCC, 491, quoting Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854; Denzinger-Schonmetzer 2803).  So it is clear that the Church believes that Jesus, indeed, is Mary’s Savior and Lord.

Are Catholics the only Christians who believe in Mary’s immaculate conception and her sinlessness?

No, the Eastern Churches in Union with Rome share identical beliefs with us.  The Eastern Orthodox Churches also believe in Mary’s sinlessness, but instead of saying that she was preserved from Adam’s sin from the first moment of her Conception, they speak of her as being “sanctified in the womb” of St. Anne.  Mary is called “Panagia,” (pronounced pond-nah-jee-yah) or “The All Holy [One].”  The Eastern Fathers praise Mary as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature” (CCC, no. 4930).

What do the Scripture Readings used for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception teach us?

The Scriptural texts illuminate the beauty and richness of the Solemnity:

  • Genesis 3:9-15, 20: The disobedience of the sinful virgin Eve who obeyed Satan stands in stark contrast with the absolute and perfect obedience given to God by the Virgin Mary.  The disobedience of our first parents introduced humanity to Original Sin, sickness, and death.  Despite humanity’s treacherous rebellion against God, He does not abandon the first parents, nor us!  Instead, God promises a Savior, Who will crush the head of the ancient Serpent, the Devil (Genesis 3:15). This is why some statues of the Blessed Virgin show her standing upon a serpent and crushing it.
  • Psalm 98:  This Psalm rejoices in God’s “wondrous deeds,” the victory won by God’s right hand, and the making known of the salvation God has promised us.  This Psalm is exultant with praise and joy.  Applied to the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we see the victory and power of God as he acts on our behalf through Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.
  • Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12: While not speaking directly of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, St. Paul praises God for having “destined us for adoption to Himself through Jesus Christ.”  Our adoption as children of God reverses the separation caused by, and the effects of, Original Sin, restoring us from enmity with God to the status of His children.  As Adam and Eve lost God’s friendship through sin, God restores us by granting us the spirit of adoption!  This is given to us through the Sacrament of Baptism, and completed by Confirmation and the Eucharist.
  • Luke 1:26-38: Again, it may strike us as odd that the story of the Annunciation and the virginal conception is being proclaimed on the Feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  Yet, this Gospel reading is most appropriate, because Our Lady’s obedience to God is contrasted by the disobedience of Eve in the first reading.  Applied to the Immaculate Conception, the Gospel illustrates the truth – in order to be the worthy Mother of the Son of God, Mary couldn’t be a slave of the Devil, as all people who sin are!  So, Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception grants her freedom from Satan – a radical freedom that allows an obedience proper to being “the Handmaid of the Lord” and Mother of the Savior.  The Angel’s greeting to Mary – “Hail, Full of Grace!” – acknowledges Our Lady’s grace-filled state in her Immaculate Conception and sinlessness.  God triumphs over Satan by use of the same means the Devil used to attack humanity, except instead of the virgin Eve being tricked into disobedience by a fallen Angel, God triumphs by a Virgin who lovingly and obediently gives her consent to the Angel of the Lord.

What do the prayers used in the Mass on this day mean?

The mood of the Collect is joyful as it acknowledges God’s preservation of Mary from all sin, so that she may be a worthy Mother of His Divine Son.  Jesus’ death on the Cross happened in time but extends in power to all ages, past, present, and future, even to the moment of Mary’s conception!  Jesus’ saving power not only saves everyone who accepts God’s grace and offer of salvation, but in Mary’s unique case (because of her mission as “Mother of God”), God preserved her from any taint of sin from the first moment of her Conception.  Contemplating Mary’s Immaculate Conception and sinlessness, the Church petitions God that “through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to Your presence.”

In the Prayer over the Offerings, the Church asks God to “accept the saving sacrifice” we are offering on this Feast, and “to grant that, as we profess” Mary as “untouched by any stain of sin” (a reference to her Immaculate Conception) so through her intercession, “we may be delivered of all our faults.”  Even though we are sinners who were not preserved from Original Sin, as was Mary, we can still hope for freedom from our sins through Mary’s intercession, and by the power of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary, as it is renewed and presented to us at every Mass.

The Preface of every Mass serves as a listing of reasons to thank God as we begin the Eucharistic Prayer, the consecration of the bread and wine, and the reception of Our Lord in Holy Communion.  On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Preface gives thanks to God:

  • For preserving “the Blessed Virgin Mary from all stain of Original Sin”
  • For endowing Mary with the full richness of His grace
  • For preparing Mary to be a “worthy Mother” of His Divine Son
  • For allowing Mary to signify the beginning of His Church, “His beautiful Bride without spot or wrinkle” – words recalling Ephesians 5:27 – “that He might present to Himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing that she might be holy without blemish.”
  • For allowing “the Most Pure Virgin” (again, a reference to the Immaculate Conception that rendered Mary “most pure”) to bring forth a Son, the Innocent Lamb (He Himself is Immaculate and Pure), Who would wipe away our offenses
  • For “Placing her above all others” as an “Advocate of Grace” and “Model of holiness” for all Christians.  As an “Advocate of Grace,” Mary intercedes for us with motherly care and tenderness, and as a “Model of holiness,” she is a model to follow given to us by God.

The Prayer after Communion petitions God to grant that the graces we have received in Mass and the taking of Holy Communion “would heal in us the wounds of that fault” (i.e. Original Sin) from which God “preserved Mary in her Immaculate Conception.”  The Prayer after Communion creates a powerful contrast between our need to be healed of the wound caused by Original Sin, and Mary, so singularly and uniquely preserved from Original Sin because of her Immaculate Conception.  The Church begs God for the healing of our sinfulness (a petition Mary never needed to make!), so that in heaven we may attain the sinless holiness Mary now enjoys – solely because of the saving power of Jesus, and no other!

 

 

 

 

 

2017-01-02T01:42:18+00:00

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