The Immaculate Conception in Mary

Updated: May 29, 2020



Before starting to consider what makes Mary the Immaculate Conception, it is good to stress, as St. Maximilian Kolbe did, that these distinctions we make, and which our intellect needs in order to see more clearly and to understand better the reasons why we should love, must not turn into occasions of diversion and distraction in our life of worship.


Our imagination leads us to think of God the Father, of Jesus, of the Immaculata, as the objects of "devotions" which are more or less similar. Instead, we should think of them as links in a single chain, as elements all leading to a single goal: God, who is One in his Trinity. (Letter to Niepokalanów, Nov. 10, 1934)


He insists on this idea:


Day by day, let us strive to belong more and more to the Immaculata, and in her and through her, to Jesus and to God; never should we try to go to Jesus without her. We do not serve God the Father, and Jesus our Lord, and the Immaculata; but we seek to serve God in Jesus and through Jesus, and to serve Jesus in the Immaculata and through the Immaculata. (Letter to Fr. Salezy Mikolajczyk, July 28, 1935)


Whenever we examine the relationships between Mary and God, we must always keep in mind these affirmations which put into proper perspective the trends of St. Maximilian’s thought. The Virgin Mary occupies the central position in the effort of doctrinal reflection carried on by this great apostle of Mary. The formal veneration of Mary the Immaculata absorbs all his attention. Still, he has not failed to place her in her correct position, which is that of a creature, even if the position she occupies is the noblest of all; for she is Mary, the Mother of God and our Mother. "No one should disapprove," says Paul VI, "if Blessed Maximilian and the Church together with him show such enthusiasm for the formal veneration of the most Blessed Virgin; this enthusiasm will never be too great considering the merits and the advantages we can derive from such veneration, precisely because a mysterious communion unites Mary to Christ, a communion that is documented convincingly in the New Testament. Never let us think of this as ‘Mariolatry’; we know that the sun will never be dimmed by the light of the moon; and never will the ministry of salvation entrusted to the Church’s solicitude in particular be impaired, if the Church is faithful to honor in Mary her most exceptional Daughter, and her spiritual Mother." (Beatification homily, Oct. 17, 1971)


The Immaculata Is a Creature


The Mother of God is a creature. It follows that all she is, she has from God. But she is God’s most perfect creature. For this reason, the homage paid to her is, by the very nature of the case, paid to God himself. If we admire a statue, we honor the artist who created this masterpiece. If we honor Mary most holy we honor God. The more we pay homage to the divine perfections found in Mary, the more perfect is our homage to God; this is perfectly in order, since God created her in the highest state of perfection (Conference, April 9, 1938).


Why do we love Mary Immaculate and consecrate ourselves to her unreservedly? Not because of what she is in herself, but because she is wholly God’s…. We love her because we love God (Conference, April 4, 1938)


Michelangelo produced a masterpiece, no doubt; but his "Moses" did not completely satisfy him, for he knew how far the realization fell short of his inner ideal. True, his "Moses" done in marble revealed the wealth of the artist’s spiritual conception, which was in him all light and love. A true masterpiece is a work in which the artist—because he possesses the genius to do it—is able to transpose his inner conceptions into marble, or onto canvas, or into music. But he cannot, of course, confer on his creation the kind of existence it has in his own mind; it remains only a symbol of the inner, ideal conception; and like any other symbol it remains distinct from what it symbolizes. A flag is not the same thing as the country it stands for.


In terms of human procreation, human parents know perfectly well that they cannot produce the spiritual soul of their child, even though they have already "conceived" him in their minds. That is why we call their action "procreation"; in this process of human generation God himself immediately creates the spirit and soul of man. God alone is the wonderful artist who is able to create a being in his own "image and likeness."


What does this mean?


St. Maximilian explains very precisely how a creature must go back to the principle from which it sprang, in order to achieve the complete fullness of being that the Creator intended it to reach:


Everywhere in this world we notice action and the reaction which is equal but contrary to it; we find departure and return, going away and coming back, separation and reunion. The separation always looks forward to union, which is creative. All this is simply an image of the Blessed Trinity in the activity of creatures. Union means love, creative love. Divine activity, outside the Trinity itself, follows a like pattern. First God creates the universe—that is something like a separation. Creatures, by following the natural law given to them by God, reach their perfection, become like him, and go back to him. Intelligent creatures love him in a conscious manner; through this love they unite themselves more and more closely with him, and so find their way back to him.


The creature most completely filled with this love, filled with God himself, is the Immaculata, who never contracted the slightest stain of sin, who never departed in the least from God’s will. United to the Holy Spirit as his spouse, in an ineffable manner, she is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature.


It is from this point of view—of action and reaction, of flux and reflux, that St. Maximilian considers the relationships between God and the Immaculata, between the Creator and his creatures, even the noblest of them all, the Virgin Mary. He had borrowed this notion from the field of natural science, in which he had achieved a certain competence.


Everywhere in nature we observe the phenomenon of action and reaction. This is a reflection of the activity of the Blessed Trinity itself. (In the relationships between God and creatures, we might say that) "the action is God’s, who creates from nothing; the reaction is that of creatures insofar as they tend toward and return to their Creator, more or less perfectly." (Conference, June 27, 1936)


He makes himself clearer and broadens his idea to take in the domain of grace, before he turns his consideration toward the most excellent of all creatures, the Immaculata.

We know by divine revelation that from all eternity the Father begets the Son, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This inner life of the Trinity repeats and re-echoes itself in innumerable and varied ways in the creatures that have come forth from the hand of God, who is One in his Holy Trinity, as more or less distant images of him. The universal principle which holds that every effect must have some likeness to its cause, applies here all the more fully and exactly because God creates out of nothing; nothing exists in all creation that he has not made.


Now, every act of God’s love comes down from the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit, creating, sustaining, giving life and growth in the natural order as well as in that of grace. This is how God pours out his love on the numberless limited resemblances of himself that he has made. And the reaction of love on the part of the creature must follow the selfsame path in order to go back to the Father: by the Holy Spirit and through the Son. We may not always realize this, but so it is. The act of love in the creature has no other author but God himself; still, when the creature is intelligent and free, this act of love cannot happen without its consent (Sketch, 1940).


St. Maximilian thus takes his place in the ranks of those mighty Christian thinkers, who like to consider in this way the whole cycle of life: in God first of all, and then in creatures which come from God. It is interesting to see this apostolic man, so much at home with the humblest folk, and so adept at leading them to God, not hesitating to address them in language similar to that used by the Doctors of the Church. Note how closely his teaching follows that of these great saints.


Issuing from the Primary Principle, creatures accomplish a sort of circuit, a gyratory movement, such that all things when they tend to their proper end, are returning to the Principle whence they came forth. It is to be expected therefore that this return to their proper end should be brought about by the same causes which effected their going forth from the source. Now we know that the order of the origin of the divine Persons is the supreme reason for the production of creatures by the Primary Principle; it must then be the reason for their return to their end. We were created by the Son and by the Holy Spirit; and hence it is by them that we are brought back to our end. Such was the idea expressed by St. Augustine when he spoke of the Principle (the Father) to which we are returning, of the Model (the Son) that we must follow, and of the Grace which reconciles us with God (the Holy Spirit). Such was also the concept of St. Hilary (St. Thomas, in The Book of Sentences, I, dist. 14, q. 2 a.2).


St. Irenaeus had said something very similar.


Thus, the master theologians speak the same language as the zealous apostle—a language that can be grasped by all, even simple people. It is not difficult, in fact, to consider these various movements of action and reaction, of falling and rising, of going forth and coming back, of flux and reflux, so as to find in them a precise image on which faith can find footing when it seeks to penetrate the ineffable mystery of the God who reveals himself to us. That image has the same pedagogical value as those used by Jesus in his parables, to lead us to the unspeakable truths about God he was trying to inculcate.


As early as 1938 St. Maximilian had outlined his main thoughts on the unique place occupied by the Immaculata the story of salvation. In the first lines, he mentions this favorite comparison of his: action and reaction, with its starting point and its point of final return in God the Father, so as to show that in this return current the Holy Spirit is the moving principle, just as in the going forth he is the terminus ad quem.


In 1939, in another sketch developing this same theme he did not hesitate to write:


Every action has the reaction in view. The reaction is the fruit of the action. God the Father is the primary Principle and the Last End. The Immaculata is full of grace; nothing in the way of grace is lacking to her. The path of grace is always the same: action: from the Father through the Son (Christ said, I will send him to you), and by the Holy Spirit (the Immaculata); then the inverse reaction: from creatures through the Immaculata (the Holy Spirit), and Christ (the Word) back to the Father. Action and reaction=love=grace and good works. (Notes, 1939)


He finds the Virgin Mary, the Immaculate one, therefore at the end of the action we see in the life of the Trinity, which passes from the Father through the Word to the Holy Spirit; and he finds her at the starting point of the reaction in which we see divine life flowing back from the Holy Spirit through the Incarnate Word to the Father.


Mary, in se, is neither the end nor the starting point; but it should be emphasized that she is present at the end and at the beginning or starting point by reason of her tremendously intimate union with the Holy Spirit.


To help us understand—to get some faint idea, rather—of this deep union between the Holy Spirit and the Immaculata, he compares it to the union between Christ’s humanity and the Person of the Word. If we follow him in what he says we shall see that it is rich in insights which throw light on the true place Mary occupies: that of God’s "first born daughter." His words are perfectly measured, for he never forgets that Mary is only a creature:


The Immaculata comes forth from the Father, through the Son and the Holy Spirit, as from her Creator who calls all creatures out of nothing to existence—in the very image of the Trinity—because he loves to find in them the image of himself that they bear. Creatures endowed with reason and will know and recognize that they come from God and receive all from him, i.e. what they are, what they can do, what they possess moment by moment. (Sketch, 1940)


The Union of the Divine and the Human in Mary


To avoid any possible misunderstanding, let us state it clearly at the outset: Christ is the incarnate Word of God, God made man. The Immaculate Virgin is not an incarnation of the Holy Spirit; she is a pure human creature, a descendant of Adam. St. Maximilian repeats this untiringly.


If he likes to compare the union of the divine and the human in Christ, on the one hand, and in Mary on the other, he is careful to point out the essential differences that characterize the two cases.


The Holy Spirit is in Mary after the fashion, one might say, in which the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word, is in his humanity. There is, of course, this difference: in Jesus there are two natures, divine and human, but one single person who is God. Mary’s nature and person are totally distinct from the nature and person of the Holy Spirit. Still, their union is inexpressible, and so perfect that the Holy Spirit acts only by the Immaculata, his spouse…. (Letter to Fr. Salezy Mikolajczyk, July 28, 1935)


If we wish to avoid error when speaking of the mystery of Christ we must affirm both of the following propositions: a) The man Christ never began to be; and b) Christ did begin to be a man (Cf. St. Thomas, S. T. III, q. 16, a. 9; ad 3). In these two propositions which, we repeat, we must never separate but rather consider together, we have the expression of the mystery of God’s Son become man. In Jesus Christ the divine and the human are joined so closely that there is one single being, the Son of the Eternal Father, who is God even as the Father and the Holy Spirit are. Our difficulty in understanding this arises no doubt from the mystery itself; but also from the fact that we are not capable of defining with rigorous precision what we mean by the word "being."


Either a "being" means "one who is, who exists"; and then it is true to say that the man Christ never began to exist ("Before Abraham was, I am"—Jn. 8:58). Here he speaks as God, even in his human form; "I am who am." He shows that he exists as a divine Person, even when he is acting in a human manner.


Or again, "to be" may mean to exist in some determined manner: one can be here or there, one can be great or small, one can be a man, be intelligent, be alive. … In this sense one must say that Jesus began to be a man, i.e. began to exist as a man. The Second Person of the Trinity, on becoming incarnate, began to be a human being, because he had determined that he would become one of us, starting from his conception in a woman’s womb. Still, even though he had become a man he never ceased to be the eternal "I am." This is why St. Maximilian is careful to express the dogma correctly: "In Jesus there are two natures, the divine and the human, but only one Person, who is God."


How then can we speak of a similar union between Mary the Immaculata and the Holy Spirit? St. Maximilian never forgets that it was Mary herself who stressed this union when she said at Lourdes: "I am the Immaculate Conception."


In contrast with the mystery of the hypostatic union in Christ, the words "I am" do not here indicate divine existence but the concrete existence of a human person, born of Adam’s race, just like every other daughter of humankind. What she said to Bernadette was: "I, who speak to you, whom you see as a woman, as a member of your own race, am the Immaculate Conception."


She is really and truly a human person, who began to exist in time, like every other individual of our race; but at the same time the name she uses reminds us of the names proper to the Holy Spirit.


Should we perhaps conclude that Mary has become the Holy Spirit? Certainly not! for she is and remains a pure creature. But we should say that this young woman of our race has never existed apart from the Holy Spirit, who is the Immaculate Conception in God. In more or less the same way St. Paul wrote: "I am crucified with Christ; and if I live, it is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:19-20). Through his Spirit Christ had taken over all the vital energies of Paul, his ardent apostle, to such an extent that the latter really lived with Christ’s own life. In how much more sublime a way did not the Spirit of Christ take possession of the entire life of this daughter of Adam, from the very first moment of her existence, to make of her the Mother of Christ? Her life was then nothing but the life given her by the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.


A marvelous mystery lies hidden here: the mystery of the presence of a divine Person in a creature taken up so totally, down to the very roots of her being, into his control, and for all time. But like every other mystery, this one too is an overabundance of light, which stimulates the weak intelligence of the believer, and will not let it rest.

If the spirit of evil is capable of "possessing" a human creature to the point of identifying the latter with itself, even in a sort of personal way (see Mt. 8:29; Mk. 1:23-25; Lk. 8:28-30), then surely a fortiori the Spirit of God can take possession of his privileged creature, Mary. The evil spirit enslaves the poor creature which he takes over, whereas the Holy Spirit stirs up and strengthens liberty deep in the soul of the one in whom he deigns to dwell. Better than anyone else, Mary reveals the presence of the Holy Spirit in her by all she is, by her words, her actions, her whole life. And under this impulse of the Holy Spirit Mary declared: "I am the Immaculate Conception."


For this reason St. Maximilian does not hesitate to say:


Jesus Christ has two natures, divine and human, which are united in one single divine Person; such is the exact and precise formulation of the dogma. The Immaculata is united to the Holy Spirit so closely that we really cannot grasp this union. But we can at least say that the Holy Spirit and Mary are two persons who live in such intimate union that they have but one sole life. (Conference, June 27, 1936)


Such a daring affirmation is merely the echo of a no less surprising one which we find in Pius IX’s Bull Ineffabilis Deus, defining the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. "Even before the Virgin Mother of God was conceived by Anne, her mother, it was necessary that grace should have been at work and produced its fruit; it was necessary that she who was to conceive the ‘first-born of every creature’ should herself have been conceived as God’s first-born daughter."


Of course, we are not using the word "before" in a purely temporal sense here, as though the Most Blessed Virgin had existed corporally prior to her conception in the flesh! But at the very instant in which she was physically conceived, this child was; she existed in God as his first-born daughter, divinely conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Hence, from the moment of her physical conception she is already defined as the Immaculate Conception, because she lives only under the intimate and vital action of the Holy Spirit, the divine Conception of Love.


Vatican II says the same thing in different words: "The Mother of God, the all-holy Mary, was preserved from every stain of sin, for she had been formed by the Holy Spirit as a new creature." (Lumen Gentium, n. 56)


The fifth century heresiarch, Nestorius, tried to imagine what sort of union joined the Son of God and the man Jesus. He maintained that the Person of the Son of God was not the same person as Mary’s son. According to him, these two persons were united first of all by inhabitation, in that the Word of God dwelt in the man Jesus as in a sanctuary; next, by unity of sentiments, in that the man’s will was always conformable to that of the divine Person; finally, by unity of action, in so far as the man was the instrument made use of by the Word.


Nestorius was wrong concerning Christ because in his hypothesis, Jesus, however intimate his union with the Word, still remained a mere creature. Hence Mary would have been, not the true Mother of God, but the mother of a man who was united to the Son of God.


It would be wrong to suppose, however, that Nestorius and his followers made of Jesus nothing more than a mere man, entirely separable from the divine Word. This would certainly not have been the Jesus presented to us in the Gospels, who claimed to be God’s Son in a unique manner, who had been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of God, so that he could be the Messiah, the Son of God.


If we keep in mind this union between Jesus and the Word of God, as Nestorius understood it, to illustrate the union between Mary the Immaculata and the Holy Spirit we shall not be far from understanding St. Maximilian’s way of looking at her as the spouse, the handmaid, and the living tabernacle of the Holy Spirit.


The Immaculata, Spouse of the Holy Spirit


On this point St. Maximilian follows the great tradition of the Fathers of the Church, which St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort made his own. St. Maximilian wrote to Father Vivoda: "The devotion taught by Blessed Grignion is ours exactly" (Letter, Dec. 4, 1933).


He further points out that the doctrinal basis for St. de Montfort’s devotion lies in the fact that "The Holy Spirit has made Mary his own spouse" (in an article in Miles Immaculatae, 1938, n. 2).


The image of the Holy Spirit and Mary as spouses shows that we have here two persons with two distinct wills, but that these two wills act as one.


The Mother of God is the most perfect of all creatures; she is immaculate, full of grace, all beautiful. From her God receives the highest glory a creature can possibly give him. So perfect is she, so closely bound to the Holy Spirit, that we can call her his spouse. (Conference, June 20, 1937)


St. Maximilian calls attention to the fact that this title of spouse of the Holy Spirit stresses the intimate union between the will of Mary and the unique will of the three divine Persons. This is precisely what he says in his testament-text of February 17, 1941:


In the union of the Holy Spirit with her, not only do we have the love of two beings; in one of the two we have all the love of the Trinity itself; and in the other we have all of creation’s love. Hence, in this union heaven and earth meet; all of heaven with all of earth, the totality of divine eternal love with the plenitude of created love. It is the true summit of love (Sketch, Feb. 17, 1941).


Obviously, if Mary can be wed to the will of the Holy Trinity in the Holy Spirit, this is because she enjoys a very intimate union with him, so intimate that it transcends all that we can even imagine.


For Mary, as the spouse of the Holy Spirit and therefore raised above all created perfection, accomplishes in all things the will of the Holy Spirit who dwells in her from the first instant of her conception (Miles Immaculatae, 1938, n.2).


The Immaculata, Handmaiden of the Holy Spirit


St. Maximilian has the flair of a true theologian; he possesses a fine feeling for analogies and illustrations. A single one is hardly sufficient to allow the feeble intellect of the believer to begin to grasp something of this mystery. This union between Mary Immaculate and the Holy Spirit, such as she affirms it in the apparitions at Lourdes, certainly implies that she is the one wedded to the will of God. Because of her closeness to the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, she desires nothing else but to love God, and everything that God loves, to such an extent that she identifies herself with the fruitful Power of the divine Love: "I am the Immaculate Conception." But the message of Lourdes does not contradict that of Nazareth. The one who speaks is still, as always, the handmaid of the Lord who knows so well how totally she lies in God’s hands. This St. Maximilian realizes too.


Into this world there comes the Immaculate one, with no slightest taint of sin, the masterpiece of God’s hands, full of grace. God, in the Blessed Trinity, looks down on his handmaid’s lowliness (i.e. her humility, the root of all virtues in her), and does great things in her, for he is the Almighty (Notes, 1940).


The word "handmaid" suggests something different from the word "spouse." Husband and wife are two persons on a certain plane of equality, at least when united in love; each one keeps his own responsibility for the initiative of his actions, even though these tend to coalesce. A handmaid is one who abandons her own right to decide for herself; she allows herself to be commanded by a superior authority; she does this willingly, of course; still, her submission hands over to this superior authority the right to control her activity. The most apt image here is that of an instrument in the hands of an intelligent being, making use of it for his own purposes.


In all he does, God always wills to make use of instruments…. God, who gave us free will, wants us to serve him freely in the role of instruments, by bringing our wills into harmony with his, even as his Most Holy Mother did when she said: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to thy word" (Conference, June 3, 1933).


Let us pray more and more that we may understand better and better what the Immaculata said at the moment of the Annunciation: "I am the handmaid of the Lord… let it be done as he wills." In this attitude alone will we find real happiness. This is the resumé of our mission on this earth. God made us to be his instruments… so, let us ask the Virgin Mary to teach us how our souls too can become the handmaids of the Lord (Conference, April 2, 1938).


As a creature, as a servant, Mary embraces the will of the Lord on Annunciation Day. She is already with the Lord, and he with her; the angel says as much. It is up to the Lord to bring about within her whatever he wishes. One can sense how profoundly the Holy Spirit must already be living within her, as he comes to her anew in this moment when the Son of God is made flesh in her womb. In union with the Holy Spirit, who is God’s Love personified, Mary pledges herself freely, from that moment on, to her role of divine motherhood.


Still, this comparison of the handmaid goes no further than to suggest a moral union, a union of like sentiments between the Trinity, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and Mary. It does not completely clear up her use of the expression: "I am the Immaculate Conception."


The Holy Spirit dwells in the Immaculata, lives in her, and does so from the first instant of her existence, and thenceforth forever (Sketch, Feb. 17, 1941).


The Immaculata, Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit


Mary’s affirmation at Lourdes: "I am the Immaculate Conception" refers not only to her spiritual "I," but to the total, personal "I": to her body united to her soul as to its vital principle, both making up her personal reality.


It is in this perspective that we should consider the audacious words penned by St. Maximilian a few days prior to his arrest, and which constitute so to speak his last word on the subject: