Mary Was Conceived Without Original Sin

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

The Church’s reflection has made explicit the profound meaning of the words ‘full of grace’ spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin of Nazareth

The perfection of holiness that Mary enjoys from the first moment of her conception was the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 15 May. The Pope went on to say that the recognition of this perfect holiness "required a long process of doctrinal reflection, which finally led to the solemn proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception". Here is a translation of his talk, which was the 20th in the series on the Blessed Virgin and was given in Italian.

1. Mary, "full of grace", has been recognized by the Church as "all holy and free from every stain of sin", "enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendour of an entirely unique holiness" (Lumen gentium,n. 56).

This recognition required a long process of doctrinal reflection, which finally led to the solemn proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

The title "made full of grace", addressed by the angel to Mary at the Annunciation, refers to the exceptional divine favour 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 kecharitoméne has a very rich meaning and the Holy Spirit has never ceased deepening the Church's understanding of it.

Sanctifying grace made Mary a new creation

2. In the preceding catechesis I pointed out that in the angel's greeting the expression "full of grace" serves almost as a name: it is Mary's name in the eyes of God. In Semitic usage, a name expresses the reality of the persons and things to which it refers. As a result, the title "full of grace" shows the deepest dimension of the young woman of Nazareth's personality: fashioned by grace and the object of divine favour to the point that she can be defined by this special predilection.

The Council recalls that the Church Fathers alluded to this truth when they called Mary the "all-holy one", affirming at the same time that she was "fashioned as it were by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature" (Lumen gentium,n. 56).

Grace, understood in the sense of "sanctifying grace" which produces personal holiness, brought about the new creation in Mary, making her fully conformed to God's plan.

3. Doctrinal reflection could thus attribute to Mary a perfection of holiness that, in order to be complete, had necessarily to include the beginning of her life.

Bishop Theoteknos of Livias in Palestine, who lived between 550 and 650, seems to have moved in the direction of this original purity. In presenting Mary as "holy and all-fair", "pure and stainless", he referred to her birth in these words: "She is born like the cherubim, she who is of a pure, immaculate clay" (Panegyric for the feast of the Assumption, 5-6).

This last expression, recalling the creation of the first man, fashioned of a clay not stained by sin, attributes the same characteristics to Mary's birth: the Virgin's origin was also "pure and immaculate", that is, without any sin. The comparison with the cherubim also emphasizes the outstanding holiness that characterized Mary's life from the very beginning of her existence.

Theoteknos' assertion marks a significant stage in the theological reflection on the mystery of the Lord's Mother. The Greek and Eastern Fathers had acknowledged a purification brought about by grace in Mary, either before the Incarnation (St Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 38,16) or at the very moment of the Incarnation (St Ephrem, Severian of Gabala, James of Sarug). Theoteknos of Livias seems to have required of Mary an absolute purity from the beginning of her life. Indeed, she who was destined to become the Saviour's Mother had to have had a perfectly holy, completely stainless origin.

4. In the eighth century, Andrew of Crete is the first theologian to see a new creation in Mary's birth. This is how he reasons: "Today humanity, in all the radiance of her immaculate nobility, receives its ancient beauty. The shame of sin had darkened the splendour and attraction of human nature; but when the Mother of the Fair One par excellence isborn, this nature regains in her person its ancient privileges and is fashioned according to a perfect model truly worthy of God.... The reform of our nature begins today and the aged world, subjected to a wholly divine transformation, receives the first fruits of the second creation" (Serm. I on the Birth of Mary).

Then, taking up again the image of the primordial clay, he states: "The Virgin's body is ground which God has tilled, the first fruits of Adam's soil divinized by Christ, the image truly like the former beauty, the clay kneaded by the divine Artist" (Serm. I on the Dormition of Mary).

Mary's original holiness is beginning of Redemption

Mary's pure and immaculate conception is thus seen as the beginning of the new creation. It is a question of a personal privilege granted to the woman chosen to be Christ's Mother, who ushers in the time of abundant grace willed by God for all humanity.

This doctrine, taken up again in the eighth century by St Germanus of Constantinople and St John Damascene, sheds light on the value of Mary's original holiness, presented as the beginning of the world's Redemption.

In this way the Church's tradition assimilates and makes explicit the authentic meaning of the title "full of grace" given by the angel to the Blessed Virgin. Mary is full of sanctifying grace and is so from the first moment of her existence. This grace, according to the Letter to the Ephesians (1:6), is bestowed in Christ on all believers. Mary's original holiness represents the unsurpassable model of the gift and the distribution of Christ's grace in the world.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 May 1996, page 11

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