I. The Mystery
In his brilliant book, Cradle of Redeeming Love, John Saward states that
The human birth of the Son of God is a mystery in the strict theological sense: a divinely revealed reality that little ones can understand but not even learned ones can comprehend. Theological mysteries are truth and therefore light for the mind, but the truth is so vast, the light of such intensity, that the mind is dazzled and amazed. When a man meets a mystery of faith, he finds not a deficiency but an excess of intelligibility: there is just too much to understand. (1)
While Saward’s topic was specifically the “Christmas mystery,” his words are not at all inappropriately applied to the “mystery of the Immaculate,” the creature most intimately linked to the Redemptive Incarnation.
Indeed, as is well known, St. Thomas affirmed that “the Blessed Virgin, from the fact that she is the Mother of God, has a kind of infinite dignity (quandam dignitatem infinitam) from the infinite good which is God.” (2) Before him St. Anselm had already declared that “it was appropriate that this Virgin should shine with a purity than which under God no greater can be conceived,” (3) a declaration which was taken up almost verbatim in the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus to the effect that Mary possessed 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 (innocentiæ et sanctitatis plenitudinem præ se ferret, qua maior sub Deo nullatenus intellegitur, et quam præter Deus nemo assequi cogitando potest). (4)
II. Penetration into the Mystery
Clearly, the Church’s ever-deeper penetration into the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in the course of the centuries is an illustration of the development of doctrine described in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum:
The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk. 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her. (5)
Recently Father Stefano Cecchin has made a valuable contribution to the study of how the Church arrived at formulating this mystery, particularly in his chronicling the work of theologians. (6)
To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma St. Pius X published his great Encyclical Letter, Ad Diem illum, of 2 February, 1904, and on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary the Servant of God Pope Pius XII declared a Marian Year from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1953 to the same feast in 1954. He proclaimed that Marian Year with his Encyclical Letter Fulgens Corona of 8 September, 1953, which set in motion Marian celebrations, symposia and congresses devoted to the study of the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception throughout the entire Catholic world. No doubt the most prestigious of these was the International Mariological-Marian Congress held in Rome in 1954 which produced no less than 18 volumes of scholarly studies on the Immaculate Conception which are still available from the Pontifical International Marian Academy. Perhaps the most valuable scholarly volume produced in the English-speaking world to commemorate that centenary was The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception: History and Significance edited by Edward D. O’Connor, C.S.C., (7) which contained a bibliography on the subject from the years 1830 to 1957 in the major languages and spanning just under 100 pages. (8)
III. The Postconciliar Situation
Since that centenary the theological world has undergone many vicissitudes. The major ecclesial event since then which has marked the subsequent life of the Church was obviously the celebration of the Second Vatican Council from 11 October, 1962, to 8 December, 1965. In the eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium, the great Marian treatise of the council, Our Lady is spoken of in #53 as “redeemed in a more exalted fashion by reason of the merits of her Son” (intuitu meritorum Filii sui sublimiore modo redempta) and in #56 as “enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendor of an entirely unique holiness” (singularis prorsus sanctitatis splendoribus a primo instante suæ conceptionis ditata). While it may well be argued, as Pope John Paul II has done, that “the Council’s entire discussion of Mary remains vigorous and balanced, and the topics themselves, though not fully defined, received significant attention in the overall treatment,” (9) it is also true that the battles on Our Lady’s mediatorial role which took place on the council floor and behind the scenes continue to have their effects. (10)
Effectively, the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council’s Marian treatise found most frequently in the English-speaking world, and very often elsewhere, is represented by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.:
The achievements of Vatican II have been called a watershed. The chapter on Mary in the Constitution on the Church seemed to mark the end of an isolated, maximizing Mariology, and the inclusion of Mary in the theology of the Church. (11)
This departs notably from all of the commentaries on the Mariology of Vatican II offered by Pope John Paul II in the course of his long pontificate and constitutes what I refer to as “Vatican II triumphalism.”
“Vatican II triumphalism” is virtually always a partial and one-sided interpretation of the council documents which favors a position espoused by one party at the time of the council and studiously avoids mention of any conciliar statements which would counterbalance the “favored” position. In the case of chapter eight of Lumen Gentium on “the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the mystery of Christ and of the Church,” the “favored” position heavily emphasizes Mary’s role as model of the Church. This reflects the rediscovered insights of ecclesiotypical Mariology (which sees an analogy between Mary and the Church) which were emerging again at the time of the council, while very largely ignoring christotypical Mariology (which sees an analogy between Christ and Mary) and dismissing it as deductive and “privilege-centered.” (12) Father Eamon R. Carroll, O.Carm. consistently presents the ecclesiotypical Mariology as the great triumph of the council even as he discloses his discomfort at the christotypical elements which remained in the eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium:
The Council did indeed favor the notion that Mary is model to the Church, even archetype, without using that word, but its chapter on Our Lady is in fact a complicated compromise that sought to keep a balance between Mary’s association with her Son’s mediation and the obedient faithful Virgin as ideal of the Church’s own response to the Lord. (13)
There were obviously many theological insights which were coming to the fore at the time of the council, largely due to the historical researches begun in the previous century in the areas of biblical, liturgical, patristic and ecclesiological studies. Many of these found expression in the council documents and specifically in chapter eight of Lumen Gentium. All too often, however, an overemphasis on certain of these insights on the part of the majority of commentators to the exclusion of the other insights has, in fact, led to a “low Mariology” which focuses on Mary much more as “woman of faith,” “disciple” and “model” than as “spiritual mother” or “mediatrix” and tends to depreciate the importance of the antecedent papal magisterium. All too often the virtually exclusive emphasis on ecclesiotypical Mariology is coupled with the whole-hearted embracing of the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis and “lowest common denominator” ecumenism. (14) The practitioners of this methodology are almost always notably devoid of that awe before the mystery of Mary which comes instinctively to “little ones.”
The fact is that the statements of St. Anselm and Bl. Pius IX which I cited above cannot be understood other than as “maximalist” expressions, and this maximalism is rooted precisely in the eternal plans of God. Those who downplay or minimize the magnitude of those plans as the Church has gradually come to understand them in the course of the centuries are, consciously or not, attempting to reverse the development of doctrine. In attempting to justify their minimalism, they will often say that at the council the Church chose a different direction. Since this very frequently seems to be the case among contemporary mariologists, we should not be surprised that not many of them have shed great light on the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Nonetheless the Holy Spirit continues to breathe where he wishes (cf. Jn. 3:8) and thus to make the mystery of the Immaculate Conception shine brightly often when least expected. What I would like to do is to indicate ways in which the mystery of the Immaculate has continued to be illumined in our days. Obviously, I make no pretension at being exhaustive. I only hope to share some insights which I have discovered in recent years which have drawn me to marvel at the person and role of the Immaculate in God’s eternal plans. All of them remain to be further developed.
IV. The Mystery Manifested in Scripture
In a synthetic presentation of the scriptural bases for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in his Encyclical Letter Fulgens Corona, Pius XII explicitly indicated the protoevengelium (Gen. 3:15) and the angel’s salutation to Mary (Lk. 1:28). (15) This was also the fundamental orientation taken in Bl. Pius IX’s Ineffabilis Deus. (16)
Arguments about the best translation of the text of the protoevangelium as “he (the seed of the woman) shall crush your head” (ipse conteret caput tuum as in the Neo-Vulgata) or “she (the woman) shall crush your head” (ipsa conteret caput tuum as in the Vulgata of St. Jerome) continue to weigh the matter carefully. (17) I believe that Father Stefano M. Manelli’s treatment of the matter in his Biblical Mariology provides an excellent overview of this issue (18) and draws conclusions fully in harmony with the consistent use made of this text in the papal magisterium:
As Pope Pius IX summarizes it, both according to tradition (the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers) and according to the express declarations of the papal Magisterium, the Protoevangelium “clearly and plainly” foretold the Redeemer, indicated the Virgin Mary as the Mother of the Redeemer, and described the common enmity of Mother and Son against the devil and their complete triumph over the poisonous serpent. One can, therefore, without hesitation affirm that the content of the Protoevangelium is “Marian” as well as messianic. Not only this, but the mariological dimension in reference to the “woman” must be also understood literally to be exclusive to that “woman,” to Mary, that is, to the Mother of the Redeemer, and not to Eve. (19)
Pope John Paul II puts it this way:
Since the biblical concept establishes a profound solidarity between the parent and the offspring, the depiction of the Immaculata crushing the serpent, not by her own power but through the grace of her Son, is consistent with the original meaning of the passage. (20)
Already in drafting the Bull Ineffabilis Deus it was confirmed that, for Catholics, it is always necessary to read the biblical texts in the light of the patristic interpretation. (21) This latter point has been further corroborated and validated in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. (22)
Without doubt the fundamental biblical text in which the Church finds the mystery of the Immaculate Conception is the term “full of grace” (kecharitomene) in Lk. 1:28. Pope John Paul II offers us an insightful preamble on this expression:
The title “made full of grace,” which the angel addressed to Mary at the annunciation, refers to the exceptional divine favor shown to the young woman of Nazareth in view of the motherhood which was announced. But it indicates more directly the effect of divine grace in Mary. Mary was inwardly and permanently imbued with grace and thus sanctified. The title kecharitomene has a very rich meaning and the Holy Spirit has never ceased deepening the Church’s understanding of it. (23)
While Father Stefano Manelli provides us with a very useful resumé on the appellation kecharitomene, consistently translated in the Catholic tradition as “full of grace,” (24) I believe that the exegetical work of the late Father Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., furnishes us invaluable background for appreciating the richness and uniqueness of this biblical word as it applies to Mary. (25) He points out that the verb charitoun is a “causative” verb, indicating an action which effects something in an object, and proposes that the perfect passive participle kecharitomene should be translated as “transformed by grace.” (26) He goes on to ask:
What precisely has the grace of God properly produced, changed and realized in Mary? Certain authors like R. Brown and J. Fitzmyer, believe that here it is a question of the grace of the divine maternity which is announced to her. That appears impossible to us, for the maternity of Mary must yet begin. Here, as we have pointed out, the perfect passive participle is used by Luke to indicate that the transformation by grace has already taken place in Mary, well before the moment of the Annunciation. (27)
Here, I believe, he makes his greatest contribution:
In taking account of the later doctrine of the Church, we can now pose the question: can we see in the phrase “full of grace” used by the angel in addressing the Virgin, a relationship to the Immaculate Conception of Mary? In the bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus, in which Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, it is said that in Luke 1:28, “full of grace,” read in the Tradition, is the biblical text which furnishes the most sure foundation (not the proof) in favor of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This is a way of looking at the dogma from which many commentators recoil. Exegesis does not have as its task the definition of dogmas. Yet, if we take account of the explanations just given, the meaning of the phrase “full of grace”—which in the course of time was looked at more profoundly by the Church—seems effectively to establish the better foundation of the dogma. … If it is true that Mary was entirely transformed by the grace of God, that then means that God has preserved her from sin, “purified” her, and sanctified her. (28)
Father Manelli also indicates the image of the bride in the Song of Songs and, in particular, the tota pulchra text (Song 4:7) as alluding to the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (29) and, no doubt, there are other Old Testament images which could be adduced. One of these biblically-inspired images which, I believe, has been largely overlooked, but which is deeply imbedded in the tradition and could repay much more study is that of the “virgin earth.” (30) As the first Adam was formed from the earth (Gen. 2:7), so was the second Adam formed from the “virgin earth,” the Virgin Mary.
In his study of the Immaculate Conception, the first patristic reference which Father Cecchin adduces is Irenaeus’ evocative allusion to Mary as the “virgin earth” from which Jesus, the “new Adam,” was taken. (31) Father François-Marie Léthel, O.C.D., indicates that the “virgin earth” theme in Irenaeus takes precedence over that of the “new Eve” and is even more fundamental. (32) This fascinating theme has been explored at some length in the pioneering study, Maria Terra Vergine, by Father Emmanuele Testa, O.F.M., (33) who claims that it is one of the oldest titles for the Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition, traceable to the first days of the Mother Church of Jerusalem. (34) While Father Testa traces this theme through the Patristic era, it would be well worth continuing to pursue it in the course of the entire tradition. It appears, for instance, with some frequency in the works of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, and would seem to constitute an important witness to the Church’s implicit belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
V. In the Light of the Theology of the Saints
In treating of the mystery of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte of 6 January, 2001, Pope John Paul II stated:
Faced with this mystery, we are greatly helped not only by theological investigation but also by that great heritage which is the “lived theology” of the saints. The saints offer us precious insights which enable us to understand more easily the intuition of faith, thanks to the special enlightenment which some of them have received from the Holy Spirit, or even through their personal experience of those terrible states of trial which the mystical tradition describes as the “dark night.” (35)
While we are concentrating our attention here on the mystery of Mary Immaculate, the Pope’s words mutatis mutandis retain their value. The saints are theologians par excellence. As Father Léthel boldly puts it, “All the saints are theologians and only the saints are theologians.” (36)
Without wishing to lessen in any way all that it owed to the immense “cloud of witnesses” (cf. Heb. 12:1) “from every nation and race, people and tongue” (cf. Rev. 7:9) who have testified to the truth of the Immaculate Conception, it seems that among these the holy sons and daughters of St. Francis of Assisi hold a special place and this was given expression immediately after the solemn proclamation of the dogma. (37)
This, it would seem, is far from being mere happenstance and here I would like to cite some works of recent scholarship that confirm this.
The patient historical work of Father Johannes Schneider, O.F.M., has brought to light with great clarity the Marian intuitions of the Seraphic founder (38) which have served as a “capital grace” for all of his spiritual sons and daughters throughout the centuries. This he brings out especially in the second part of his work which is given to the meticulous exegesis of the antiphon Sancta Maria Virgo. (39) This link between St. Francis and the Immaculate Conception was convincingly developed by Father Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.I., in a conference given to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception. (40)
Surely there can be no doubt about the role of Bl. John Duns Scotus in articulating this patrimony in a way that proved decisive for the progress of the truth of the Immaculate Conception. (41) Here is the way that our Holy Father described his role in the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception:
Following several 12th century theologians, Duns Scotus found the key to overcoming these objections to the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. He held that Christ, the perfect Mediator, exercised the highest act of mediation precisely in Mary by preserving her from original sin. Thus, he introduced into theology the concept of redemption by preservation. According to it, Mary was redeemed in an even more wonderful way, not by being freed from sin, but by being preserved from sin. (42)
The importance of Scotus’ intellectual patrimony continues to be demonstrated by modern scholars. His explanation of the preservative redemption of Mary (43) is intimately linked in his thought to the joint predestination and absolute primacy of Jesus and Mary in the eternal plans of God. (44) This, in fact, has come to be known as the “Franciscan thesis,” (45) which Pius IX confirmed in the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus by stating that “God, by one and the same decree (uno eodemque decreto), had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom.” (46)
Among the saintly sons of St. Francis who have consecrated their lives to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, none can take precedence over St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. His entire life and especially his bold theological thought, (47) always in continuity with the Franciscan school, have done much to illuminate the mystery of the Immaculate Conception in our times. On the occasion of the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1937 he pronounced these stirring words for the 20th anniversary of the Militia Immaculatae which he had founded:
When will there arise a Library of the Immaculate to chant and to perpetuate the glories of the Immaculate? How many are willing to undertake this laborious and glorious task? To collect, to organize and to pass on all which speaks of the Immaculate along the course of the centuries: Sacred Scripture, the Supreme Pontiffs, the Holy Fathers, the Doctors of the Church, the Theologians and Saints. To create a doctrinal and historical corpus where all can attain knowledge of the mystery of the Immaculate, can grow in devotion, admiration and love of the Immaculate—not only the clergy and religious, but also the simple faithful throughout the world: what a worthy monument to God who willed to give us the Immaculate; what a lighthouse for non-believers; what a bond of love uniting us ever more to the Immaculate! May all nourish themselves on this truth so as to enter into the thought of God who willed the Incarnation to give us much more than what we had lost in Adam, and who in the Incarnation willed the Immaculate to remind us of the innocent man created by God and of the vision of an innocent world, according to the plan of God. (48)
The above quotation is not only an example of the Kolbean zeal for the Immaculate, but also indicates that the “Franciscan thesis” was a constituent element in his mind. We may be grateful that these conferences are now available in English.
Three foundational insights of St. Maximilian into the mystery of the Immaculate Conception were his characterizing Mary as 1) “Complement of the Trinity,” as 2) “Spouse of the Holy Spirit” and as the 3) “created Immaculate Conception” in contradistinction to the Holy Spirit described as the “uncreated, eternal Immaculate Conception.” (49) These are explained and commented upon with great clarity by Father Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.I. in his recent book (50) in which he also responds to contemporary criticisms of St. Maximilian’s pneumatology and Mariology.
VI. The Mystery of the Immaculate Conception in the Liturgy
The Church’s public worship is a privileged place for coming to grasp her deepest belief. This is particularly true in the case of the Immaculate Conception because it was precisely on account of the observance of the feast in various places by the faithful that saints, prelates and theologians struggled to understand the theological import of celebrating the Feast of Mary’s Conception and debated at length about its object. (51) Pope John Paul summarized this data in the following way:
After Sixtus IV’s approval in 1477 of the Mass of the Conception, this doctrine was increasingly accepted in the theological schools.
This providential development of liturgy and doctrine prepared for the definition of the Marian privilege by the supreme magisterium. The latter only occurred many centuries later, and was spurred by a fundamental insight of faith: the Mother of Christ had to be perfectly holy from the very beginning of her life. (52)
Here is how the relationship between the Church’s liturgy and her faith is put in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles—whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine (5th cent.)). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition. (53)
The Servant of God Pope Paul VI cited this classic dictum lex orandi, lex credendi in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus with specific reference to the place of Mary in the Church’s worship:
The Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is an intrinsic element of Christian worship. The honor which the Church has always and everywhere shown to the Mother of the Lord, from the blessing with which Elizabeth greeted Mary (cf. Lk. 1:42-45) right up to the expressions of praise and petition used today, is a very strong witness to the Church’s norm of prayer and an invitation to become more deeply conscious of her norm of faith. And the converse is likewise true. The Church’s norm of faith requires that her norm of prayer should everywhere blossom forth with regard to the Mother of Christ. (54)
A notable first example of how the norm of faith blossomed in prayer after the council is the new Preface of the Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception:
You allowed no stain of Adam’s sin to touch the Virgin Mary. Full of grace, she was to be a worthy mother of your Son, your sign of favor to the Church at its beginning, and the promise of its perfection as the bride of Christ, radiant in beauty. Purest of virgins, she was to bring forth your Son, the innocent lamb who takes away our sins. You chose her from all women to be our advocate with you and our pattern of holiness.
(Qui beatissimam Virginem Mariam ab omni originalis culpæ labe præservasti, ut in ea, gratiæ tuæ plenitudine ditata, dignam Filio tuo Genetricem præpares, et Sponsæ eius Ecclesiæ sine ruga vel macula formosæ signares exordium. Filium enim erat purissima Virgo datura, qui crimina nostra Agnus innocens aboleret; et ipsa præ omnibus tuo populo disponebas advocata gratiæ et sanctitatis exemplar).
This prayer is a beautiful instance of the balancing of christotypical and ecclesiotypical imagery and of the liberty that has been too often tolerated with vernacular translations. Mary is seen as the prototype of the Church, the spouse for whom Christ gave himself up. It is unfortunate that the English does not clearly render the evocative reference to Eph. 5:27 (sine ruga vel macula) and Mary’s unique role as advocate of grace (advocata gratiæ). (55)
Now it is my intention simply to indicate some of the evidence of the Church’s belief in Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception in the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary (56) issued according to the Decree Christi mysterium celebrans of the Congregation for Divine Worship of 15 August, 1986. The latter volume is described in this way by Fathers Cuthbert Johnson, O.S.B. and Anthony Ward, S.M.:
The Collection is not strictly a new liturgical book nor a supplement to the Roman Missal, nor is it a wholly original composition. The Masses given in the Collection have, for the most part, been drawn from the Roman Missal or from the Propers of Masses of local Churches or Religious Orders and Institutes. It is precisely what its name indicates: a gathering under one cover of several Masses in honour of the Virgin Mary. The material is gathered and sanctioned by authority for use in Marian sanctuaries, in the celebration of Saturday Masses of Our Lady, and other such occasions provided for by law. (57)
In some ways it might be said that the Collection fulfills the function of the various Marian Masses published in editions of the Roman Missal prior to that of Pope Paul VI in the Proper of the Saints for Certain Places (Proprium Sanctorum pro Aliquibus Locis), but with the exception of the Masses for the Advent, Lenten and Easter seasons whose use is restricted to Marian shrines, (58) these Masses are available to priests and congregations of the entire Roman Rite. (59)
While many of the Masses in the Collection, and virtually all of the Prefaces, are of relatively recent composition, they nonetheless conform faithfully to the norm lex orandi, lex credendi in expressing the faith of the Church. Thus Paul VI wrote in his Apostolic Letter Signum Magnum:
Nor is it to be feared that liturgical reform, if put into practice according to the formula “the law of faith must establish the law of prayer” may be detrimental to the “wholly singular” veneration due to the Virgin Mary for her prerogatives, first among these being the dignity of the Mother of God. (60)
It will be noted that in this case the Pope was citing the principle lex orandi, lex credendi from the perspective of the faith of the Church establishing the law of prayer. In fact Pius XII had proposed two formulations of this maxim in his Encyclical Letter Mediator Dei, the first and most ancient which comes from Prosper of Aquitaine (+ c. 465) affirming the constitutive nature of the liturgy of the Church for her belief and the second rightly insisting on the normative value of the Church’s belief in establishing the liturgy. (61) My primary concern, as already indicated, will be, in line with the ancient formulation of the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi, simply to indicate the Church’s belief in the mystery of the Immaculate Conception as this is expressed in the contemporary liturgy of the Roman Rite. Here I will only provide a few examples indicating the great wealth to be unearthed and commented upon by other researchers.
We find this beautiful description of Our Lady in the Prayer over the Gifts for the Advent Mass of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Lord, may our gifts be sanctified by the Holy Spirit, who formed the Blessed Virgin Mary to be a new creation, and bathed her with the dew of heavenly grace, so that she might bear the fruit of salvation … (Munera nostra, quæsumus, Domine, Spiritus ille sanctificet, qui beatam Virginem Mariam novam plasmavit creaturam, ut ex ipsa, cælesti rore perfusa, fructus oriretur salutis …) (62)
The Mass of Holy Mary, the New Eve (Sancta Maria, Mulier Nova) gives us this characterization of Mary in the Opening Prayer:
Lord our God, you chose the Blessed Virgin, formed by the Holy Spirit, as the firstfruits of the new creation; … (Deus, qui beatam Virginem, a Spiritu Sancto plasmatam, novæ creationis constituisti primitias, …) (63)
and further develops the theme in the Preface:
You gave to Christ, author of the New Covenant, the Blessed Virgin Mary as his mother and companion and you made her the firstfruits of your new people. Conceived without stain, enriched by gifts of grace, she is indeed the new woman, the first disciple of the New Law. (Quia beatam Virginem Mariam Christo, novi fœderis auctori, matrem et sociam dedisti eamque novi populi tui primitias effecisti. Ipsa enim, concepta sine macula, et gratiæ cumulata muneribus, vere est mulier nova, novæ legis prima discipula; …) (64)
The Preface of the Mass of Mary, Pillar of Faith (Beata Maria Virgo, Fidei Præsidium) relates the mystery of the Immaculate Conception to that of the Assumption:
You kept her untouched by the stain of original sin and the corruption of the grave. (Illa enim nec de originali culpa suscepit contagium, nec resolutionem pertulit in sepulcro; …) (65)
while the Preface of the Mass of Mary, Mother of Fairest Love (Beata Maria Virgo, Mater Pulchræ Dilectionis) presents the mystery in both negative and positive light:
Beauty was hers at her conception: free from all stain of sin, she is resplendent in the glory of grace. (Illa pulchra fuit in conceptione, qua, ab omni peccati labe immunis, decora renidet gratiæ fulgore) (66)
While I believe that these magnificent texts can speak for themselves, there is surely much that may be drawn from them as well as from other texts not cited. They embody some of the best fruit that has been born from the postconciliar liturgical reform. Speaking of the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cardinal Virgilio Noè stated:
As the publication itself amply explains, a good number of the prayers, chants and chosen readings from the Sacred Scriptures had in the first place arisen among local Christian communities, but their coordination and reshaping for the benefit of the wider pastoral needs of the Roman Rite is an event of far from negligible importance in the development by the magisterium and in the experience of the Christian people of the great riches that are represented by Mary, the Mother of God. (67)
So it is that the liturgy of the Feast of the Conception of Mary, which preceded the dogmatic definition by centuries, continues to develop under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to yield insights into the mystery, enriching the magisterium of the Church.
VII. The Mystery of the Immaculate Conception in the Magisterium
It is beyond the scope of this modest work to sketch the development of the papal magisterium on the mystery of the Immaculate Conception in the course of the past fifty years. Even to trace the teaching of Pope John Paul II on this mystery could well constitute an ample doctoral study. For our sake, it will have to suffice to offer a few evocative texts of Pope John Paul II’s magisterium to illustrate how the richness of the mystery continues to be drawn out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Let us look at a passage from the Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Mater which situates the mystery in a context which is both christotypical and ecclesiotypical:
If we wish to meditate together with Mary on these words (Lk. 1:28), and especially on the expression “full of grace,” we can find a significant echo in the very passage from the Letter to the Ephesians quoted above (Eph. 1:4-7). And if after the announcement of the messenger the Virgin of Nazareth is also called “blessed among women” (cf. Lk. 1:42), it is because of the blessing with which “God the Father” has filled us “in the heavenly places, in Christ.” It is a spiritual blessing which is meant for all people and which bears in itself fullness and universality (“every blessing”). It flows from that love which, in the Holy Spirit, unites the consubstantial Son to the Father. At the same time, it is a blessing poured out through Jesus Christ upon human history until the end: upon all people. This blessing, however, refers to Mary in a special and exceptional degree: for she was greeted by Elizabeth as “blessed among women.”
The double greeting is due to the fact that in the soul of this “daughter of Sion” there is manifested, in a sense, all the “glory of grace,” that grace which “the Father … has given us in his beloved Son.” …
When we read that the messenger addresses Mary as “full of grace,” the Gospel context, which mingles revelations and ancient promises, enables us to understand that among all the “spiritual blessings in Christ” this is a special “blessing.” In the mystery of Christ she is present even “before the creation of the world,” as the one whom the Father “has chosen” as Mother of his Son in the Incarnation. And, what is more, together with the Father, the Son has chosen her, entrusting her eternally to the Spirit of holiness. In an entirely special and exceptional way Mary is united to Christ and similarly she is eternally loved in the “beloved Son,” this Son who is of one being with the Father, in whom is concentrated all the “glory of grace.” (68)
In his book, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., called attention to the fact that the verb charitoun is only found twice in the New Testament: in Lk. 1:28 and Eph. 1:6, and he relates the two texts in order to arrive at his translation of kecharitomene as “transformed by grace.” (69) The original Flemish edition of his work appeared in 1985 (70) and it seems entirely possible that the Pope could have benefited from Father de la Potterie’s exegetical work, even if developing the theme in his own unique way. The Pope has further linked these New Testament texts in two of his Marian catecheses. (71)
Without presuming to exhaust the depth of this remarkable excerpt, I would like to make the following points. The Pope is very clear that the unique blessing given to Mary which justifies her being called “full of grace” is a gift that flows from the heart of the Trinitarian life. It is a gift “which is meant for all people” even while “it refers to Mary in a special and exceptional degree.” This follows from the fundamental principle that when God confers a special privilege on one it is always for the benefit of all. In the case of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, this unique privilege was bestowed precisely in view of her role in the Incarnation and Redemption. This leads the Pope to make a statement of extraordinary depth which seems to have been missed by many commentators:
in the soul of this “daughter of Sion” there is manifested, in a sense, all the “glory of grace,” that grace which “the Father … has given us in his beloved Son.” (in anima huius «Filiæ Sion» patefacta est quodammodo tota «gloria gratiæ», illius videlicet qua «Pater … gratificavit nos in Dilecto».) (72)
This is an assertion of capital importance for understanding the mystery of the Immaculate Conception: in a real sense every grace with which the Father has blessed us in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3) is revealed in Mary’s soul. This has profound implications in terms of Mary’s mediation of all graces which have yet to be grasped and assimilated.
There is another factor to be underscored: the Pope in his own original way has corroborated the “Franciscan thesis” by stating about Mary that in the mystery of Christ she is present even “before the creation of the world,” as the one whom the Father “has chosen” as Mother of his Son in the Incarnation. And, what is more, together with the Father, the Son has chosen her, entrusting her eternally to the Spirit of holiness. (In mysterio Christi ea est præsens iam «ante mundi constitutionem», utpote quam Pater «elegerit» Matrem Filii sui in incarnatione et cum Patre elegerit Filius, eam Spiritui sanctitatis ex æternitate permittens.) (73)
In both of the above citations the Pope emphasizes the Trinitarian dimension of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception which St. Maximilian refers to as complementum Trinitatis.
I can only allude here to the Pope’s penetrating treatment of the mystery in #7-11 of Redemptoris Mater (which remains to be analyzed from many different perspectives), to the more popular weekly Marian catecheses which he gave on the Immaculate Conception from 8 May to 19 June, 1996, (74) from which I have been quoting in the course of this essay, and from his numerous references to the Immaculate Conception in homilies, Angelus addresses and various other documents.
VIII. The Immaculate Coredemptrix
We have already noted the importance of Gen. 3:15 for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This is a text which has attracted preachers and scholars from the first days of Christianity. Pope John Paul II rightly demonstrates that its Marian connotation points in two directions:
In the light of the New Testament and the Church’s tradition, we know that the new woman announced by the protoevangelium is Mary, and in “her seed” we recognize her son Jesus who triumphed over Satan’s power in the Paschal Mystery.
We also observe that in Mary the enmity God put between the serpent and the woman is fulfilled in two ways. God’s perfect ally and the devil’s enemy, she was completely removed from Satan’s domination in the Immaculate Conception, when she was fashioned in grace by the Holy Spirit and preserved from every stain of sin. In addition, associated with her Son’s saving work, Mary was fully involved in the fight against the spirit of evil.
Thus the titles “Immaculate Conception” and “Cooperator of the Redeemer” show the lasting antagonism between the serpent and the New Eve. The Church’s faith attributes these titles to Mary in order to proclaim her spiritual beauty and her intimate participation in the wonderful work of redemption. (75)
In other words the enmity between the Woman and the serpent point both to the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, a totally gratuitous gift from God, and to the mystery of Mary’s active collaboration in the work of the redemption. The gratuitous gift was necessary in order for Mary to play the role which God intended for her in our redemption. Here is the way the Pope draws this truth out for our benefit:
The same biblical text (Gen. 3:15) also proclaims the enmity between the woman and her offspring on the one hand and the serpent and his offspring on the other. This is a hostility expressly established by God, which has a unique importance, if we consider the problem of the Virgin’s personal holiness. In order to be the irreconcilable enemy of the serpent and his offspring Mary had to be free from all power of sin, and to be so from the first moment of her existence.
In this regard, the Encyclical Fulgens Corona, published by Pope Pius XII in 1953 to commemorate the centenary of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, reasons thus: “If at a given moment the Blessed Virgin Mary had been left without divine grace, because she was defiled at her conception by the hereditary stain of sin, between her and the serpent there would no longer have been—at least during this period of time, however brief—that eternal enmity spoken of in the earliest tradition up to the definition of the Immaculate Conception, but rather a certain enslavement” (AAS 45 (1953) 579) (76)
Hence it is clear according to the papal magisterium, that Mary was conceived without original sin and filled with grace precisely so that she could fulfill her role as Mother of God and Coredemptrix. The enmity between the Woman and the serpent, according to God’s plan, must have begun at the first moment of her existence so that she would have no “Achille’s heel” whereby she could be attacked and so that she could be “God’s perfect ally” in the supreme battle fought on Calvary. In fact the use of Gen. 3:15 in the modern papal magisterium almost always comprises these two points of reference: Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her role as Coredemptrix. (77) This is readily verifiable in Ineffabilis Deus, (78) as it is in the entire tradition. (79)
There are many other areas that time and allotted space have not allowed me to touch upon, such as how the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception relates to her earthly knowledge, (80) to her spiritual maternity of the faithful, (81) to spiritual warfare, (82) to our spiritual life. (83) The mystery of the Immaculate Conception opens us to the infinity of God Himself. If God was a “maximalist” in the creation of Mary, how can we be “minimalists”? St. Maximilian’s inspiration about a Library and Academy of the Immaculate is not foolish romanticism; it is the wisdom of the saints. De Immaculata numquam satis!
Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins is an official of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” in Rome, a contributing member of the Pontifical International Marian Academy and the author of Totus Tuus. He is internationally known for his numerous articles on Our Lady and for his scholarly work in the fields of dogmatic and spiritual theology.
(1) John Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002) 47-48.
(2) ST I, q. 25, a. 6 ad 4.
(3) De conceptu virginali 18 (PL 158:451; F. S. Schmitt, S. Anselmi Opera Omnia II:159.) Cf. the illuminating comments of Luigi Gambero, S.M. in his Maria nel pensiero dei teologi latini medievali (Cinisello Balsamo: Edizioni S. Paolo, 2000) 128, n. 4 on the analogy with St. Anselm’s Proslogion and with the prayer in which the saint expresses that Nihil est æquale Mariæ; nihil, nisi Deus, maius Maria.
(4) Amleto Tondini (ed.), Le Encicliche Mariane (Rome: Angelo Belardetti Editore, second edition, 1954) 30 (Our Lady: Papal Teachings, trans. Daughters of St. Paul (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1961) = OL #31).
(5) Dei Verbum #8 (Austin Flannery, O.P., ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1988) 754).
(6) Stefano M. Cecchin, O.F.M., L’Immacolata Concezione. Breve storia del dogma (Vatican City: Pontificia Academia Mariana Internationalis “Studi Mariologici,” No. 5, 2003).
(7) University of Notre Dame Press, 1958.
(8) pp. 532-630.
(9) Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II (Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana) = Inseg XVIII/2 (1995) 1369 (Pope John Paul II, Theotókos – Woman, Mother, Disciple: A Catechesis on Mary, Mother of God with a Foreword by Eamon R. Carroll, O.Carm, S.T.D. (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000) = MCat 51).
(10) Michael O’Carroll, C.S.Sp. Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc.; Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1982) 242-245; 3551-356; Ralph M. Wiltgen, S.V.D., The Rhine Flows into the Tiber: A History of Vatican II (Rockford, IL: Tan Books & Publishers, 1985) 90-95; 153-159.
(11) Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., “Mary Since Vatican II: Decline and Recovery,” Marian Studies LIII (2002) 12.
(12) Cf. the comments by Fathers George F. Kirwin, O.M.I. and Thomas Thompson, S.M. in Donald W. Buggert, O.Carm., Louis P. Rogge, O.Carm., Michael J. Wastag, O.Carm. (eds.), Mother, Behold Your Son: Essays in Honor of Eamon R. Carroll, O.Carm. (Washington, DC: The Carmelite Institute, 2001) 17 & 202.
(13) Eamon R. Carroll, O.Carm, “Revolution in Mariology 1949-1989,” in The Land of Carmel: Essays in Honor of Joachim Smet, O.Carm. (Rome: Institutum Carmelitanum, 1991) 457-458. On the former page one also finds his evaluation of Fathers Cyril Vollert, S.J., Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M. and Charles Balic, O.F.M., all of whom represent the christotypical approach to Mariology.
(14) Cf. Carroll, “Revolution in Mariology” 455.
(15) Tondini 732 (OL #590-591).
(16) Cf. Tondini 44-46 (OL #49-52).
(17) Cf. H.-L. Barth, Ipsa conteret. Maria die Schlangenzertreterin. Philologische und theologische Überlegungen zum Protoevangelium (Gen 3, 15) (Kirchliche Umschau 2000). This work was reviewed by Brunero Gherardini in Divinitas XLV:2 (2002) 224-225. Cf. also Thomas Mary Sennott, The Woman of Genesis(Cambridge, MA: The Ravengate Press, 1984) 37-60; Ibid., “Mary Coredemptrix,” in Mary at the Foot of the Cross, II (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2002) 49-63.
(18) Stefano M. Manelli, F.I., All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed: Biblical Mariology trans. Peter Damian Fehlner (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 1995) 21-33.
(19) Manelli 23-24.
(20) Inseg XIX/1 (1996) 1389 (MCat 93).
(21) Cf. Cecchin 191.
(22) Cf. Dei Verbum, especially #8, 10, 23.
(23) Inseg XIX/1 (1996) 1252 (MCat 90). Emphasis my own.
(24) Manelli 131-133.
(25) Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., “Kecharitomene en Lc 1,28: Étude philologique,” Biblica 68 (1987) 357-382; “Kecharitomene en Lc 1,28: Étude exégétique et théologique,” Biblica 68 (1987) 480-508; Il mistero del cuore trafitto. Fondamenti biblici della spiritualità del Cuore di Gesù (Bologna: Edizioni Dehoniane, 1988) 147-153. A further corroboration of de la Potterie’s exegesis may be found in Ernesto della Corte, “Kecharitomene (Lc 1,28) Crux interpretum,” Marianum LII (1990) 101-148.
(26) Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant trans. Bertrand Buby, S.M. (New York: Alba House, 1992) = MMC 17-18.
(27) MMC 18.
(28) MMC 19-20.
(29) Manelli 72-75.
(30) Cf. Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.I., “Virgo Ecclesia Facta: The Immaculate
Conception, St. Francis of Assisi and the Renewal of the Church,” in Donald H. Calloway, M.I.C., (ed.), The Immaculate Conception in the Life of the Church (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 2004) 96-97.
(31) Cecchin 7-8.
(32) François-Marie Léthel, O.C.D., Connaître l’amour du Christ qui surpasse toute connaissance: La théologie des saints (Venasque: Éditions du Carmel, 1989), p. 78.
(33) Emmanuele Testa, O.F.M., Maria Terra Vergine Vol. I: I Rapporti della Madre di Dio con la SS. Trinità (Sec. I-IX); Vol. II: Il Culto mariano palestinese (Sec. I-IV) (Jerusalem: Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, 1984). Cf. review by Peter Damian Fehlner, O.F.M. Conv. in Miles Immaculatae XXII:3-4 (1986) 402-407.
(34) Cf. especially Testa I:330-332; 416-432.
(35) Inseg XXIV/1 (2001) 58 (L’Osservatore Romano (English edition) #1675:V).
(36) Léthel 3.
(37) Cf. Cecchin 195.
(38) Johannes Schneider, O.F.M., Virgo Ecclesia Facta: The Presence of Mary in the Crucifix of San Damiano and in the Office of the Passion of St. Francis of Assisi (New Bedford: Academy of the Immaculate, 2004; German original: Eos Verlag Erzabtei St. Ottilien, 1998; Italian translation: Edizioni Porziuncula, 2003).
(39) Schneider 102-232.
(40) Cf. Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.I., “Virgo Ecclesia Facta: The Immaculate Conception, St. Francis of Assisi and the Renewal of the Church,” in Donald H. Calloway, M.I.C., (ed.), The Immaculate Conception in the Life of the Church (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 2004) 82-96.
(41) Cf. Cecchin 61-73.
(42) Inseg XIX (1996) 1454-1455 (MCat 98-99).
(43) Cf. Ruggero Rosini, O.F.M., Mariologia del beato Giovanni Duns Scoto (Castelpetroso: Editrice Mariana «La Corredentrice,” 1994) 74-100; Alessandro M. Apollonio, F.I., Mariologia Francescana da san Francesco d’Assisi ai Francescani dell’Immacolata (Rome: Dissertationes ad Lauream in Pontificia Facultate Theologica «Marianum,” 1997) 75-82.