by Fr. Wade L. J. Menezes, C.P.M.
The great Auschwitz martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe, during the 1920s, translated from the original French into Polish the official depositions given to both state and Church officials by Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes. Between the dates of February 11 and July 16, 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette claimed to have seen, a total of 18 times, “a lady wearing a lovely white dress with a bright belt” who had on each of her feet “a pale yellow rose, the same color as her rosary beads.”
Following strict investigations, the Church approved these sightings as apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They were judged “worthy of belief,” in part, no doubt, because of the fruits they effected. Among these were a miraculous spring-turned-pool and the fact that some 200,000 faithful pilgrims had flocked to Massabielle (the sight of the apparitions by the River Gave) within the first month. But of all the events surrounding these apparitions, the most striking involves the self-identification of “the lady” to Bernadette during the apparition of March 25. During this apparition, the lady told the teenage peasant girl in her native French dialect: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
It is this same revelation that St. Maximilian Kolbe so effectively reproduces for us from his own writings in The Knight of the Immaculate, the bulletin of the Militia of Mary Immaculate, an organization which he founded to help spread Marian devotion throughout Europe and Japan.
More than a Title
St. Maximilian Kolbe tells us that on March 25, Bernadette was instructed by her parish priest to ask the lady who she was. Bernadette posed the question to the heavenly apparition twice, and each time the lady only gazed upon her, silently, with a faint smile. At the third posing of this question, Bernadette received the answer. St. Maximilian translates the scenario from Bernadette’s own deposition:
At my third request her face took on a serious expression, and at the same time an expression of deep humility. . . . Joining her palms as if for prayer, she raised them to the height of her breast. . . . She looked up to heaven . . . then slowly opening her hands and bending down towards me, she said to me in a voice in which one could sense a slight trembling, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” (emphasis added)
Here, note especially Mary’s deep humility and the seriousness of her expression while identifying herself to Bernadette. Mary’s own voice expressed a “slight trembling” upon her self-identification as the Immaculate Conception. Note, too, that Mary did not respond to Bernadette, “I am immaculately conceived” or “I am the one who was immaculately conceived.” Rather, Mary said: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Our Lady’s identification of herself as “the” Immaculate Conception is something which goes beyond mere title: It is, rather, a state of being, referring to the very substance of a thing’s existence, a permanent state. In this regard, some theologians have gone so far as to draw an analogous comparison between this aspect of Mary’s “I am” of the Immaculate Conception to the “I AM WHO AM” of God in the Book of Exodus (3:14). In Exodus, God identifies Himself to Moses as the first cause of all, God, whose essence and existence are one and the same: “THE” Almighty God, who is the creator, preserver, and provider of all. Everything else besides God is not existence, but has existence, having received it from Him. In other words, what God IS to all that exists, Mary is, in an analogous way, to “immaculateness” itself. As noted by St. Maximilian Kolbe, she is “ the Immaculata.”
Many Catholics, sadly, do not know or understand the Church’s beautiful teaching on the Immaculate Conception. This is a consequence, mostly, of poor catechesis. Many will say that the Immaculate Conception refers to the virginal conception of Christ in Mary’s womb, or that it concerns the fact that Mary herself was not conceived in a natural human manner, with natural parents. These beliefs concerning the Immaculate Conception are not correct.
The Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception did not evolve from the Lourdes apparitions; rather, St. Bernadette’s visions confirmed something the Church had already held for centuries. In 1854, some four years before the apparitions of Our Lady to young Bernadette, Pope Pius IX solemnly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which stated that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin” (Ineffabilis Deus, no. 29). According to this doctrine, Mary was conceived in the state of perfect justice (just as Adam and Eve were created), free from original sin and all its consequences and penalties, in virtue of the redemption won by Jesus Christ on the Cross. In other words, while the rest of humanity benefits from the Cross after the Cross took place on that first Good Friday, it may be said that Mary benefited from the Cross before the Cross took place. In this sense, the privilege of the Immaculate Conception was the anticipated fruit of Christ’s saving Passion, death and Resurrection—indeed, of the entire Paschal Mystery!
Understood from the Scriptures
This dogmatic teaching presented nothing new for the Church. The perfect sinlessness of Mary had, since Apostolic times, been taught by the Fathers of the Church, who appealed to such Scriptural texts as Genesis 3:15 (known as the proto-Evangelium or “First Gospel”) and Luke 1:28, readings which appear in the Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. For this Mass, the first reading from Genesis describes the drama of God’s response to original sin. In it, we are given a prelude as to the opposition between Eve’s descendant and Satan, the first implicit reference to the promised Redeemer: Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity and only begotten Son of the eternal Father, who took on our human nature.
The first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of the Annunciation, Mary’s election by God to be the mother of the Redeemer (Lk. 1:26–38). This Gospel passage is read each year for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Applied to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, the early Church Fathers taught that it was fitting that she who was to bear the Savior of the world should herself be preserved by Him from sin and its consequences, and thus be the first to benefit from what He would win for the whole human race. The Church has commemorated a feast in honor of the conception of Our Lady since the seventh century in the East, and since the ninth century in the West. By the sixteenth century, when the Council of Trent (1545–1563) excluded Mary from original sin in its decree on that topic, the doctrine had become the common teaching of all theologians.
Does the teaching of the Immaculate Conception, then, imply that Mary is divine or that she at least possesses some element of divinity? No. In fact, the very notion of “conception” per se implies a beginning in time! As St. Maximilian Kolbe taught, “She (Mary) is called ‘Conception.’ Therefore, she is not God, Who has no beginning; neither (is she) an angel created directly by God; nor (is she) like our first parents who did not begin their existence by conception.” Mary, indeed, is human; she came forth as other children of this earth, having been born of a family and having a real father and mother. But the Church has infallibly defined that her case is different in that she was preserved from all stain of original sin, which we inherit from our first parents.
A Celebration for All People
What, then, does the Immaculate Conception mean for all of us? The Solemnity’s second reading from Ephesians is a profound revelation as to how God elected Mary—and us, too!—from all eternity. The Solemnity’s responsorial psalm, whereby the gathered faithful chant the words from Psalm 97, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous deeds!” is yet another revelation of all this. We know, of course, that Mary’s election was unique. She alone was called to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word; for this, God graced her with freedom from original sin from her very conception. But Mary’s election and ours both belong to the same mystery of God’s infinite love: that of redemption and a hoped-for salvation for all! By preserving Mary from sin, God wished to show us that we, too, could be freed from sin. Although our freedom occurs after our birth through the rebirth of baptism, both what happened to Mary and what happens to us reflect God’s overwhelming, gracious love for mankind.
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, therefore, is a day of celebration not only for Mary’s privilege, but also for us—indeed, for all human beings. For whatever God wills for one human being—Mary—God also wills for all human beings, namely, one’s entry into heaven and beholding of the Beatific Vision for all eternity.
Fr. Wade L. J. Menezes, C.P.M., is member of the Fathers of Mercy, a missionary preaching religious order based in Auburn, Kentucky.