A persistent confusion seems to exist over the “Immaculate Conception.” 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…” (Ineffabilis Deus).
In examining the history surrounding this belief, 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 called “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 Luke, we find the beautiful passage of the Annunciation, where Archangel Gabriel said to Mary (in our familiar wording), “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28). While some scripture scholars haggle over “how full is full,” the testimony of St. Gabriel definitely indicates the exceptional, singular holiness of the Blessed Mother. St. Gabriel recognized that the Lord is with her even more than with himself, an angel. She is blessed among all women, even among all people. 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. We believe, therefore, this exceptional, grace-filled holiness extended to the very beginning of her life, her conception.
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. Sin could not touch our Savior. 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, consubstantial 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 century.
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. On December 8, 1854, Pius IX solemnly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in his bull Ineffabilis Deus.
Finally, it is also interesting that in several apparitions of our Blessed Mother, she herself has attested to her Immaculate Conception: On December 9, 1531 (the date for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in the Spanish Empire) at Guadalupe, Mary said to Juan Diego, “I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God, through whom everything lives…,” indicating a freedom from all sin. 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.”