The Immaculate Conception
by Fr. William P. Saunders
Many people, especially non-Catholics, think that the term "Immaculate Conception" refers to Mary conceiving Jesus. My Protestant friend was surprised when I told her that it is about Mary being free of original sin. She then said, "Where is that in the Bible?" What is a good explanation for her?
Actually, the confusion over the "Immaculate Conception"
is not uncommon. Some people mistakenly think the term is related to Mary's
conception of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, the
Immaculate Conception is the belief that "the most Blessed Virgin Mary was,
from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege
of almighty God and in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Savior of the
human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin..." (Pope Pius
IX, Ineffabilis Deus).
Keep in mind that in our liturgical calendar, the
Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25 marks the time when Mary conceived
our Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nine months later, on Dec. 25, we
celebrate the Solemnity of Christmas, the birth of our Savior. To have Mary
conceive our Lord on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and
then have Him born on Dec. 25, does not make sense. Rather, Dec. 8 marks
when Mary was conceived without original sin, and then Sept. 8 celebrates
In examining the history surrounding the dogma of the
Immaculate Conception, we see the beauty of a Church founded by Christ,
whose faithful followers struggle to grasp ever more clearly the mystery of
salvation. This struggle is guided by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus identified
as "The Spirit of Truth," who "will instruct you in everything and remind
you of all that I told you" and "will guide you to all truth" (cf. John
14:17, 15:26, 16:13).
Part of the "struggle" with the Immaculate Conception is
that there is no specific, crystal-clear scriptural citation for it.
Nevertheless, the references in the Gospels to the Blessed Mother and her
role in the mystery of salvation intimate this belief. In the Gospel of St.
Luke, we find the beautiful passage of the Annunciation, where Archangel
Gabriel said to Mary (in our familiar wording as translated from St.
Jerome’s Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible), "Hail Mary, full of
grace. The Lord is with you." While some scripture scholars haggle over "how
full is full," the testimony of St. Gabriel definitely indicates the
exceptional holiness of the Blessed Mother. When one considers the role Mary
was to play in the life of our Lord — whether His incarnation, His
childhood, or His crucifixion — she must have been outstanding in holiness,
truly "full of grace" in accepting and in fulfilling her role as the Mother
of the Savior, in the fullest sense of Mother.
Going further to the original Greek text of the Gospel,
we find the wording chaire kecharitomene. Chaire means
"grace." The verb kecharitomene means "having been favored." The form
of the verb is also important: here the verb does not simply imply
"fullness," but rather instrumentality. The late Scripture scholar, Fr.
Carroll Stuhlmueller noted, "Luke’s word puts the emphasis upon the source
of goodness rather than upon its effects. In regard to Mary, therefore, he
points out that she is the object of God’s grace and favor. Because the verb
is also a participle, Mary is shown to have been chosen for a long time
past; God’s full flow of favor has already been concentrating upon her....
In her, more than in anyone else, God’s messianic fulfillment is achieved.
As such, she has received more– from and through God’s anticipation of
Jesus’ redemptive work– than anyone else in the Old Testament of New
Testament" (The Jerome Biblical Commentary).
Moreover, Archangel Gabriel announces, "the Lord is with
you." Such a proclamation coming from God Himself implies a particular
office or a special prerogative. Again, Fr. Stuhlmueller noted, "The
Redeemer-God professes to find an eminent fulfillment of His promises in the
recipient of the greeting." Given this scholarly examination of Scripture,
we rightly believe, therefore, that an exceptional, grace-filled holiness
extended to the very beginning of Mary’s life, her conception, and that God
had prepared her to play an integral role in the plan of salvation.
On the practical side, if original sin is inherited
through our parents, and Jesus took on our human nature in all things except
sin, then Mary had to be free of original sin.
The question then arises, "How is Christ the Savior of
Mary?" Actually much of the debate concerning the Immaculate Conception
during the Middle Ages focused on this problem. Duns Scotus (d. 1308)
posited one solution saying, "Mary more than anyone else would have needed
Christ as her Redeemer, since she would have contracted original sin... if
the grace of the Mediator had not prevented this." Quoting the Dogmatic
Constitution on the Church, the Catechism adds, "The 'splendor of
an entirely unique holiness' by which Mary is 'enriched from the first
instant of her conception' comes wholly from Christ: she is 'redeemed, in a
more exalted fashion by reason of the merits of her Son'" (#492). In
essence, since Mary was chosen to share intimately in the life of Jesus from
her conception, He was indeed her Savior from her conception.
Perhaps one reason why the discussion over the Immaculate
Conception was prolonged is because the early Church was outlawed and under
persecution until the year 313, and then had to address various problems
surrounding Jesus Himself. More reflection about Mary and her role occurred
after the Council of Ephesus (431) solemnly affirmed Mary's divine
motherhood and gave her the title, "Mother of God" in that she conceived by
the power of the Holy Spirit and bore Jesus who is second person of the Holy
Trinity, one in being with the Father. Several of the early Church Fathers
including St. Ambrose (d. 397), St. Ephraem (d. 373), St. Andrew of Crete
(d. 740), and St. John Damascene (d. 749) meditated on Mary's role as
Mother, including her own grace-filled disposition, and wrote of her
sinlessness. A feast day in honor of the Immaculate Conception has been
celebrated in the Eastern part of the Church at least since the sixth
As time passed, further discussion arose about this
belief. In 1849, Pius IX asked the bishops throughout the Church what they
themselves, their clergy, and the people felt about this belief and whether
they would want it defined solemnly. Of 603 bishops, 546 responded favorably
without hesitation. Of those opposing, only 5 said the doctrine could not be
solemnly defined, 24 did not know whether this was the opportune time, and
10 simply wanted a condemnation of any rejection of the doctrine. Pope Pius
also saw the spiritual malaise of the world where the rationalist school of
philosophy had denied truth and anything of the supernatural, where
revolutions were causing social upheaval, and the industrial revolution had
threatened the dignity of the worker and family life; therefore, Pope Pius
want to spiritually recharge the faithful and saw no better way than
presenting again the beautiful example of our Blessed Mother and her role in
salvation history. On December 8, 1854, Pius IX solemnly defined the dogma
of the Immaculate Conception in his bull Ineffabilis Deus (quoted in
the opening paragraph).
Finally, it is also interesting that in several
apparitions of our Blessed Mother, she herself has attested to her
Immaculate Conception: On Dec. 9 (the date for the Solemnity of the
Immaculate Conception in the Spanish Empire) in 1531 at Guadalupe, Mary said
to Juan Diego, "I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the
true God, through whom everything lives...." In 1830, Mary told St.
Catherine Laboure to have the Miraculous Medal struck with the inscription,
"Mary conceived free from sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."
Lastly, when she appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, Mary said,
"I am the Immaculate Conception."
In a homily on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
delivered in 1982, Pope John Paul II wrote, "Blessed be God the Father of
our Lord Jesus Christ, who filled you, Virgin of Nazareth, with every
spiritual blessing in Christ. In Him, you were conceived Immaculate!
Preselected to be His Mother, you were redeemed in Him and through Him more
than any other human being! Preserved from the inheritance of original sin,
you were conceived and came into the world in a state of sanctifying grace.
Full of grace! We venerate this mystery of the faith in today's solemnity.
Today, together with all the Church, we venerate the Redemption which was
actuated in you. That most singular participation in the Redemption of the
world and of man, was reserved only for you, solely for you. Hail O Mary,
Alma Redemptoris Mater, dear Mother of the Redeemer."
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the
proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and as we continue
our Advent preparation, may we invoke the prayers of our Blessed Mother,
Mary Immaculate to draw ever closer to our Lord, Her Son, this Christmas.
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'Straight Answers' reproduced with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald
. Copyright © Fr. William P. Saunders. All rights reserved.