The Immaculate Conception & The Co-Redemptrix

On February 17, 1941, the “Property” of the Immaculata, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, was arrested by the Nazi Gestapo, eventually leading to his martyrdom in Auschwitz. During the few hours before his arrest, Fr. Maximilian was inspired to write the heart of his unparalleled mariological ponderings regarding the “Immaculate Conception.”

The following are excerpts from this last written testimony:

IMMACULATE CONCEPTION: These words fell from the lips of the Immaculata herself. Hence, they must tell us in the most precise and essential manner who she really is.

Since human words are incapable of expressing divine realities, it follows that these words: “Immaculate,” and “Conception” must be understood in a much more beautiful and sublime meaning than usual: a meaning beyond that which human reason at its most penetrating, commonly gives to them . . . Who then are you, O Immaculate Conception?

Not God, of course, because he has no beginning. Not an angel, created directly out of nothing. Not Adam, formed out of the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7). Not Eve, molded from Adam’s rib (Gen. 2:21). Not the Incarnate Word, who exists before all ages, and of whom we should use the word “conceived” rather than “conception.” Humans do not exist before their conception, so we might call them created “conception.” But you, O Mary, are different from all other children of Eve. They are conceptions stained by original sin; whereas you are the unique Immaculate Conception.

. . . Creatures, by following the natural law implanted in 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, with God himself, was 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, she is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature.

What sort of union is this? It is above all an interior union, a union of her essence with the “essence” of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in her, lives in her. This was true from the first instance of her existence. It is always true; it will always be true.

In what does this life of the Spirit in Mary consist? He himself is uncreated Love in her; the Love of the Father and of the Son, the Love by which God loves himself, the very love of the Most Holy Trinity. He is a fruitful Love, a “Conception.” Among creatures made in God’s image the union brought about by married love is the most intimate of all (cf. Mt. 19:6). In a much more precise, more interior, more essential manner, the Holy Spirit lives in the soul of the Immaculata, in the depths of her very being. He makes her fruitful, from the very instance of her existence, all during her life, and for all eternity.

This eternal “Immaculate Conception” (which is the Holy Spirit) produces in an immaculate manner divine life itself in the womb (or depths) of Mary’s soul, making her the Immaculate Conception, the human Immaculate Conception. And the virginal womb of Mary’s body is kept sacred for him; there he conceives in time—because everything that is material occurs in time—the human life of the Man-God. (1)

In a 1933 Letter from Nagasaki, St. Maximilian explains further that in the name, “Immaculate Conception,” the Mother also gives us the secret of her very nature:

In her apparition at Lourdes she does not say: “I was conceived immaculately,” but “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This points out not only the fact that she was conceived without original sin, but also the manner in which this privilege belongs to her. It is not something accidental; it is something that belongs to her very nature. For she is Immaculate Conception in (her very) person. (2)

The uncreated Immaculate Conception and the created Immaculate Conception. The Divine Spirit and the human spouse perfected in His grace are united by an interior, essential union. Uncreated love conceives and dwells within the depths of her soul, and she becomes His quasi-incarnation. (3) For this reason, as St. Maximilian tells us, Mary is also the Mediatrix of all graces and gifts of the Spirit:

The union between the Immaculata and the Holy Spirit is so inexpressible, yet so perfect, that the Holy Spirit acts only by the Most Blessed Virgin, his Spouse. This is why she is Mediatrix of all grace given by the Holy Spirit. And since every grace is a gift of God the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit, it follows that there is no grace which Mary cannot dispose of as her own, which is not given to her for this purpose. (4)

Does St. Maximilian go too far in speaking in this manner of the wonders of the Immaculate Conception? Or does he say too little? The Mariology disclosed by the saint of the Immaculata, generous and profound as it is, in no way exhausts the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. His unrivaled pneumatological discoveries prepare the way for a new comprehension of the inseparability of the Uncreated Immaculate Conception with the created Immaculate Conception. But the mystery continues. The brilliance of St. Maximilian’s methodology in his return to Trinitarian Mariology specific to the Holy Spirit also propels us to ponder more deeply the other relationships of the Immaculata with her Triune God.

Perhaps least developed of these, from a Trinitarian perspective, is the relationship between the Immaculate Conception and the Heavenly Father. The Father-daughter relationship is one of the most precious of human relationships, and no other relationship captures more the love of the Creator for creation, and the appropriate reciprocal love of creation for the Creator than the relationship between the Eternal Father and Mary Immaculate. At the heart of this union of Perfect Daughter to Perfect Father, which represents and exemplifies how every creature should be united to its Creator, is the stainlessness and fullness of grace possessed by the Immaculate Daughter. This “stainless-fullness” is given to her by the Eternal Father through the Spirit and in view of the foreseen merits of the Son, which is the foundation of her perfect response of fiat-love to everything given to her and asked of her by her “Abba,” God the Father of all mankind.

As the example of St. Maximilian makes clear, the dogmatic proclamation of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 does not end its doctrinal development, but rather encourages more unveiling and more appreciation of its sacred mystery. Certainly Contemporary Mariology would do well to follow the example of St. Maximilian in striving to incorporate a more Trinitarian perspective and methodology in relation to the Blessed Virgin if we seek to be true to the full glory of Mary Immaculate.

We must seek to view Mary from the perspective of the Father, as the Virgin Daughter Immaculate, his greatest masterpiece. We must view Mary afresh from the perspective of the Son, as perfect Mother in the order of love, and most intimate partner and co-redeemer in the historic sufferings of Redemption. We must view Mary from the perspective of the Spirit, as his entirely pure and eternally faithful spouse, in a certain sense his “quasi-incarnation,” and the Mediatrix of all of the Sanctifier’s gifts to humanity. Only by seeking to comprehend the Immaculate One with the mind of the Trinity, and striving to love her through the heart of the Trinity, can we hope to do even partial justice to her.

Western Mariology must be on guard against the subtle tendency (even unconscious at times), to think first in terms of apologetics, rather than in terms of mystery. If the first question of our mariological methodology is, “how can I explain this to someone who does not believe it?,” rather than, “what is the depth and fullness of this revealed Marian mystery?,” the resulting product will be a Marian minimalism, a “too summary an attitude” as the Council prohibits, (5) which will always fall short of what the human mind and heart should truly grasp with the help of grace about the Mother of the Word, who is God’s climax of creation.

Here we see light from the East. The Eastern Church looks first to the transcendence of the all pure Theotokos, the “God-bearer,” which it liturgically praises as the “ever holy, ever pure, ever blessed and glorious Lady.” (6) In his 1998 Marian Lenten letter to the Orthodox world, the present Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, writes:

The Lady, the Virgin Mother, shines as the one who conceived joy for the world. She shines as the meaning of history; the goal of creation; She who made our composition heavenly . . . . She deliberately followed her Son, Himself God, from His Birth to His Passion and Cross. And the God-man from high on the Cross, sent forth His Most Holy Mother to all of us as our Mother in the order of grace.

She supports our life and sanctifies our time . . . . We are purified through her tears; through the divine beauty we are saved; and we keep holy silence in the presence of the overwhelming awe. (7)

The inestimable magnitude of the Immaculata in her overflowing plentitude of divine grace (cf. Lk. 1:28) and her absolute freedom from all sin (cf. Gen. 3:15), is described by Bl. Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus:

Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.

“The Co-redemptrix” Because “The Immaculate Conception”

The Immaculate Conception, the unparalleled prodigy of grace granted by the Eternal Father, is (along with her Divine Maternity), the foundation for all of the subsequent roles assigned her by the Trinity for the benefit of humanity.

Indeed, the humble Virgin of Nazareth is the Co-redemptrix not only because she is Mother of God, but also because she is the Immaculate Conception. Stainless, full of grace, and in total enmity with Satan and his seed of evil and sin, the Immaculate One is created by the Father, in view of the merits of the Son, precisely to be the perfect human cooperator “with Jesus” in the historic work of human salvation.

Any sin on Mary’s part, original or personal, would establish a bond or union between herself and Satan, the historic foe of the Redeemer. Mary, then, would become a type of “double-agent”—working with Jesus, but also having an association with his Adversary, the very person and power from which Jesus seeks to buy back humanity.

No, the woman chosen to be humanity’s representative, to participate intimately and proximately with God himself in restoring supernatural life to souls, must be without any union through sin with the Enslaver and Defiler of humanity. Thus was she created immaculate by God the Father of all mankind, crafted from incorruptible “wood” so as to be the New Ark of the New Covenant, carrying the Redeemer of the world in her immaculate womb and dying with Him in her immaculate heart for the Redemption of the world (cf. Lumen Gentium 58, 61).

Pope John Paul II teaches the essential relationship between the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady’s coredemptive role with Jesus in salvation, and explains that her complete immunity from all sin allowed for the perfect fulfillment of this co-working role in Redemption:

We must above all note that Mary was created immaculate in order to be better able to act on our behalf. The fullness of grace allowed her to fulfill perfectly her mission of collaboration with the work of salvation; it gave the maximum value to her cooperation in the sacrifice. When Mary presented to the Father her Son nailed to the cross, her painful offering was entirely pure. (8)

We do not seek mediation from one who is himself at odds with the person with whom we desire to be reconciled. We do not seek relief from a debt by asking assistance from someone who is himself in a state of debt to the person we owe.

This is why the Father in his infinite wisdom, in assigning to the Virgin Daughter the providential role of Co-redemptrix and its consequential roles as Mediatrix of all graces and Advocate for all humanity, created her in full union with the Redeemer, with no association in any dimension with the Enemy, and in absolute segregation from sin. In this way, Mary Immaculate becomes the Co-redemptrix with Jesus the Divine Redeemer in the historic work of Redemption, which indeed “buys us back” (redimere—to buy back). She becomes the Immaculate Mediatrix of all grace, who with the one Mediator “brings us the gifts of eternal salvation.” (9) She becomes the all pure Advocate who presents our petitions to our Divine Judge and King.

There is yet another sense in which the Immaculate Conception brings clarity to Mary’s coredemptive mission. The objection is sometimes raised, “How can Mary be Co-redemptrix if she herself was in need of Redemption?” (10) The answer is found in a proper understanding of her Immaculate Conception.

Indeed, it is true that Mary needed to be “redeemed” for her own salvation, and in order to actively participate in the process of human Redemption for the rest of humanity.

In the papal definition of the Immaculate Conception, Bl. Pope Pius IX states that Mary, from the first instant of her conception was freed from original sin and all its effects “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ.” (11) This refers to the higher or more sublime manner in which Mary was redeemed, beyond all other children of Adam and Eve. In Mary’s redemption, she did not have to suffer the experience of original sin and its effects and later be cleansed through sacramental baptism, but rather by an application of the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ at Calvary. Preserved from any experience or effect of original sin, she is redeemed in a more sublime manner than the rest of humanity. For this reason, the immaculately conceived Mother owes more to her saving Son’s redemption than any other redeemed creature.

How, then, is Mary’s redemption enacted so as to allow her to participate in the historic accomplishment of Redemption at Calvary? This higher form of redemption is effected at Calvary in the first intention of the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which is precisely to redeem Mary. (12) The graces of the first intention are applied to Mary at the moment of her conception, which in turn allows her to become the sinless Co-redemptrix in union with the universal Redeemer in the Redemption of the rest of the human family—both in intention and accomplishment—at Calvary. There is no contradiction in the historic role of the Co-redemptrix in the participation of the Redemption and Mary’s own personal need and reception of the graces of Redemption. God, who is outside of time, indeed who is the creator of the temporal order, is not limited by historical necessities, still less is he restrained by our limited understanding of his purposes. He can do as he wills. And in the absolutely unique gift of the Immaculate Conception, he has done so. As Vatican theological consultor, Fr. Jean Galot summarizes:

The first intention of the redemptive sacrifice was concerned, according to the divine plan, with the ransom of Mary, accomplished in view of our ransom . . . Thus, while she was associated in the sacrifice of Calvary, Mary already benefited, in advance, from the fruits of the sacrifice and acted in the capacity of a ransomed creature. But she truly cooperated in the objective redemption, in the acquisition of the graces of salvation for all of mankind. Her redemption was purchased before that of other human beings. Mary was ransomed only by Christ, so that mankind could be ransomed with the collaboration of his mother . . . .

Hence there is no contradiction: Marian co-redemption implies the foreseen redemption of Mary, but not the foreseen fulfillment of the redemption of mankind; it expresses the unique situation of the mother who, while having received a singular grace from her own Son, cooperates with Him in the attainment of salvation for all. (13)

Does this primordial intention of Jesus Christ to redeem his mother and then, as subsequent intention, the rest of humanity violate the “one sacrifice” of Jesus Christ offered for all as discussed in Hebrews (cf. Heb. 10:10)? It does not, as the Redemption remains one, although its intentions and efficacious applications are twofold. The one redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Calvary does not constitute “two redemptions,” but one sublime Redemption with two saving applications: the first application effecting the Immaculate Conception of Mary and thus preparing her to be the Co-redemptrix in her cooperation in objective Redemption; the second application effecting the Redemption of the human family accomplished with the Co-redemptrix. (14)

We can see then how foundational was the grace of the Immaculate Conception. Indeed, Mary is “The Co-redemptrix” because she was first “The Immaculate Conception.”

Development and Controversy

The crowning of Our Lady with the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 was preceded by a history of intense theological controversy. It was, in fact, one of the fiercest and lengthiest theological debates in the history of Catholic doctrinal development. (15) Much light can be obtained by examining the controversy leading to this Marian dogma, in terms of the process of general doctrinal development (which encompasses the guidance of the Spirit of Truth working through the instrumentality of frail and fallen human nature), and in evaluating contemporary mariological doctrinal development, specifically the present discussion concerning the doctrine of Mary Co-redemptrix.

We can summarize the extensive history of the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which spans numerous centuries and hundreds of theologians, by examining the major pronouncements and teachings, as well as censures and penalties, promulgated by the Papal Magisterium in the course of the second Christian millennium. The teachings and disciplines of the Holy See offer an example of the ebb and flow, the agonies and ecstasies relative to the Immaculate Conception doctrine which preceded the ex cathedra victory of Bl. Pius IX in 1854, when, guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, he proclaimed it as a Marian dogma.

Founded upon the inspired Word, which implicitly reveals the Mother of the Redeemer as being in “enmity” with sin (Gen. 3:15) and “full of grace” (Lk. 1:28), the Fathers of the Church attributed numerous titles to Our Lady, which bespeaks their gradual awareness of her immunity from original sin and her plenitude of grace. Bl. Pius IX provides examples of this Patristic witness in the defining constitution:

This doctrine so filled the minds and souls of our ancestors in the faith that a singular and truly marvelous style of speech came into vogue among them. They have frequently addressed the Mother of God as immaculate, as immaculate in every respect; innocent, and verily most innocent; spotless, and entirely spotless; holy and removed from every stain of sin; all pure, all stainless, the very model of purity and innocence; more beautiful than beauty, more lovely than loveliness; more holy than holiness, singularly holy and most pure in soul and body; the one who surpassed all integrity and virginity; the only one who has become the dwelling place of all the graces of the most Holy Spirit. God alone excepted, Mary is more excellent than all, and by nature fair and beautiful, and more holy than the Cherubim and Seraphim. To praise her all the tongues of heaven and earth do not suffice. (16)

The Patristic testimonies, particularly from the East, were generous and numerous. In the fourth century, St. Ephraem incorporates the venerated New Eve model in comparing Mary’s stainlessness to Eve before Eve’s fall: “Those two innocent . . . women, Mary and Eve, had been created utterly equal, but afterwards one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life.” (17) The Syrian “Harp of the Holy Spirit” then sings of her in an address to Jesus: “Thou and Thy Mother are the only ones immune from all stain; for there is no spot in Thee, O Lord, nor any taint in thy Mother.” (18)