No matter how much has been said or written, no matter how exalted the words, Our Lady cannot be defined in earthly terms. Suffice for us to know with certainty that she is the Immaculate Conception and the Mother of God, the ramifications of which we will only come to understand in heaven and the reasons why God created her in such astounding fashion.
“I am the Immaculate Conception”
In the Apostolic Constitution of Bl. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, defining the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady is described as follows:
This Mother, ever absolute, 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.1
Here we see that from the beginning Our Lady was a creature, no greater than which could be imagined. We may ask: how could this be, why is this so? What is so special about Our Lady, as a creature, that she could be described in so high a fashion—that, next to God, there is no one greater? Bl. Pope Pius IX explains that Our Lady,
in the first instant of the soul’s infusion into the body, was, by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin.2
The word “immaculate” derives from the Latin macula, which means stain. The prefix “im” means “no.” Therefore, the word “immaculate” means “no stain,” or “without stain.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Our Lady “remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.”3
Prior to the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, numerous saints testified to the purity and sanctity of Our Lady. St. Alphonsus Liguori, in his classic, The Glories of Mary, in the section on the Immaculate Conception, concludes with his prayer to the one he calls the “Immaculate Lady.”4 In this prayer he provides some insights to her perfections as follows:
O thou, who from the first moment of thy life didst appear pure and beautiful before God, pity me, who not only was born in sin, but have again since baptism stained my soul with crimes. What grace will God ever refuse thee, who chose thee for his Daughter, his Mother, and Spouse, and therefore preserved thee from every stain, and in His love preferred thee to all other creatures?5
St. Francis de Sales, in his sermon on the Immaculate Conception of December 8, 1622, in reference to sin states that “Our Lady and holy mistress alone was exempt from this evil.”6
Our Lady confirmed this truth of her Immaculate Conception to St. Bridget of Sweden, as we read in her Revelations:
I did not need purification, like other women, because my Son who was born of me, made me clean. Nor did I contract the least stain.7
In order to more fully understand the meaning of what Our Lady was referring to, when she revealed her name—“I am the Immaculate Conception”—to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, it is important to understand what the word “conception” could have meant in this context. To do so, we need to consider Our Lady’s unique relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Our Lady and the Holy Spirit
According to the writings of St. Maximilian Kolbe, Our Lady lives within the life of the Trinity. He perceives that in the union of the Holy Spirit with Our Lady there “is all the love of the Blessed Trinity” (Sketch: Feb. 17, 1941).8 According to Kolbe, the Holy Spirit represents all of eternal love, the uncreated Immaculate Conception, and Our Lady, all of created love, created Immaculate Conception. This union of eternal love and created love he considers to be the “summit of love” (Sketch: Feb. 17, 1941).9 We may ask: how can this be? It is because Our Lady is without sin. She is the creature most completely filled with the love of God.
When St. Bernadette asked Our Lady what her name was and received the response, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” Our Lady was in truth describing her essence and her name. According to Kolbe, this can be more fully understood in terms of Our Lady’s relationship with the Holy Spirit. He believes that the Holy Spirit is the “divine Immaculate Conception” and that the Holy Spirit lives in Our Lady as uncreated love (Sketch: Feb. 17, 1941).10 Due to their espousal, he reasons, should not Our Lady share the name of her Spouse? St. Maximilian believes that the privilege of this name belongs to her very nature, because “she is Immaculate Conception in person.”11
According to Fr. Manteau-Bonamy, the word “conception” can refer to an act of the will whereby a person can “conceive a deep affection” for another.12 He draws an analogy within the life of the Trinity, whereby the conception springing from the love of the Father for the Son is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Manteau-Bonamy relates, “when [Our Lady] says, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception,’ she means, ‘I am the manifestation, the epiphany, of the Holy Spirit’ … a visible manifestation of the Father’s infinite love for men.”13
With regard to this reasoning of Manteau-Bonamy, it is relevant to note that the Latin word for conception, is conceptualis, which means “of thought.” Taking this meaning together with Manteau-Bonamy’s understanding of conception—a deep affection—then we could say conception refers to a thought of deep affection. If Mary is also understood to be the epiphany of the Holy Spirit and one who is immaculate, then this thought, this affection, must be that of pure love.
St. Maximilian explains that it is through love that creatures are able to “unite themselves” more closely with God and “find their way back to him.” “The creature most completely filled with this love, filled with God Himself” is Our Lady, because she is without sin, and her will is never separated from God’s will.14 Her union with God is, therefore, more perfect than any other creature.
In word, action and deed, of all creatures, she most fully reveals the Holy Spirit. Kolbe explains; “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).15 She is truly the Spouse of the Holy Spirit and the handmaid of the Lord. Manteau-Bonamy goes on to say that “she lives only under the intimate and vital action of the Holy Spirit, the divine Conception of love.”16 “She was born of the Holy Spirit more truly than she was born physically, carnally of her parents.”17
Our Lady in Relationship to the Love of God
Here we see that Mary is a perfectly created conception of the Father’s love. She is truly the Daughter of the Father, for she was conceived in the perfection of the love of God, and she is also the image of perfect love, for she reveals the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love. Mary, creature, created conception, reveals the Holy Spirit, the uncreated conception.
Therefore, according to Bl. John Duns Scotus, the greatest of graces was attributed to Our Lady to be immaculately conceived by “virtue of the foreseen merits of Christ.”18 She who has, as creature, been given the greatest gift of love, becomes the gift of love. St. Bridget of Sweden confirms this in her revelations when she exclaims that in regard to Our Lady “no one of angels, or of men, loved God with as much charity as thou.”19
Let us now consider this love in more depth. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in speaking of love, says that “it is correct to state that love is both God himself and the gift of God.” He adds that “it is not a quality of the Deity; it is God himself, meaning, surely the Holy Ghost.”20 Our Lady explains to St. Bridget that Our Lord “was conceived from the fervent charity of divine love, others from the concupiscence of the flesh.”21 We see that the one who is a perfectly created conception of love conceives Jesus perfectly out of love. That is, what Our Lady does is clearly revealed by who she is—her nature, her essence, as Immaculate Conception.
The Venerable Mary of Agreda, in The Mystical City of God, gives some beautiful and poetic explanations of the charity that existed in the soul of Our Lady. “Mary was great in proportion to the excellence conferred upon Her by the eternal Father.”22 She further explains the unique love of Our Lady:
All the gifts and the blessings of creatures depend in some manner on the love and charity of the Blessed Virgin toward God. In her alone it was possible that divine charity could exist in this world in its highest and ultimate perfection.23
Fr. Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.I., provides further explanation of the Immaculate Conception in relation to the love of God, in an essay on the Predestination of the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception. He relates that
the mystery of the created Immaculate Conception is that of the spousal love of the Father and incarnate Son in Mary. That mystery is her unique union with the Holy Spirit.24
In Fr. Fehlner’s work on the pneumatology of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a deeper understanding of the love that existed in the Immaculate spouse of the Holy Spirit is depicted in terms of Our Lady as “the icon of the love in which Father and Son are one.” The Blessed Virgin is so transformed by grace as to be “the personification of Triune love.”25
How can this be?
At the heart of the pneumatology of St. Maximilian is the understanding that, as the “created Immaculate Conception,” Our Lady is, therefore, the “Spouse of the Holy Spirit,” the “complement of the Trinity,” and—in one of the boldest expressions employed by the Martyr of Auschwitz— a “quasi-part of the Trinity.”26
According to St. Maximilian, “perfect sanctity is perfect charity or Immaculate Conception.”27 St. Maximilian believed it was necessary to call the Third person of the Blessed Trinity (Uncreated) “Immaculate Conception.” Understanding the meaning of the title “Immaculate Conception” in reference to Our Lady requires understanding its meaning with regard to the Holy Spirit, “namely, the mystery of charity whereby all comes forth and returns.”28
Mary has a “unique likeness to the triune God” and is “uniquely similar to God the Father.”29 She is a true Daughter of the Father. “By grace” she reflects “the personal features of Father and Son.”30
In The Hero of Auschwitz, a booklet commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Militia of the Immaculate, we read that “love is a union of perfection.”31 Is this not what we see in the love of Our Lady and her relationship to the Father and, in fact, the entire Trinity? The Hero of Auschwitz then relates that this love finds its nourishment in suffering and sacrifice. We must now, therefore, turn our attention to Our Lady’s relationship of love with the Church.
Our Lady in the Heart of the Church
In Chapter 8 on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church, in the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium, Our Lady is described as a “pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity.”32 To further describe her role of love in the heart of the Church, the Council Fathers go on to say that “embracing God’s salvific will with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, under Him and with Him.”33 Her charity is then referred to in terms of the fact that “she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in giving back supernatural life to souls.”
St. John Eudes, in his explanation of Mary’s Heart as the Temple of Jerusalem (bearing in mind that Jerusalem is analogous with the Church), provides an insightful understanding of the charity borne in Our Lady’s Heart for the Church:
The Heart of our amiable Mother is filled with love of God and charity towards us. It is entirely transformed into love and charity, and completely identified with the purest love and the most perfect charity. Its love is more ardent, more pure and divine, its charity more fervent, holier and more excellent than the love and charity of all the Seraphim.34
Venerable Mary of Agreda, in describing the love of Our Lady, relates it to her heartfelt role for the Church:
She is also the Mother of beautiful love, for she alone engendered in her soul the perfect love and charity and the most beautiful affection. All the rest of the creatures combined could not attain the beauty and faultlessness of her charity, for theirs was not worthy to be called absolutely beautiful. She is the Mother of our love, for she drew it toward the earth for us.
She reached the highest knowledge of the uncreated Charity and drank of it at its very fountain; and as she thus learned how God was to be loved for his own sake and the creature for the sake of God, [she] also [learned] how to practice and execute this love with the most intense and fervent desire.35
Could any more perfect love of a creature be imagined than the love in Our Lady’s Heart?
Fr. Fehlner explains that the Immaculate Conception is “the realization of the most perfect holiness in Mary,” and that the Feast of the Conception of Mary was celebrated in the Eastern Church because it was recognized as the “first dawn of a new order… of a new humanity.”36 He further explains that
to the degree the mystery of the Immaculate Conception is incorporated into the Church collectively and into each of her members singly, the Church will more and more be without spot and without wrinkle.37
Fr. Fehlner relates the above statement to the Gospel of John, in which we read that the disciple, responding to the command of Jesus on the Cross—“Behold, your Mother!”—“took her to his own home” (Jn 19:27). This means that the whole Church is to “take her into our homes,” “into our hearts”: to take her as our own.38 In his encyclical letter, Redemptoris Mater, Pope St. John Paul II takes this one step further. He says:
This “new motherhood of Mary,” generated by faith, is the fruit of the “new” love which came to definitive maturity in her at the Foot of the Cross, through her sharing in the redemptive love of her Son.39
We see here Mary’s unique role as Mother of the Church: a role, a mission, that is pivotal in the dawning of a new day for the Church through her perfect love.
Ven. Pope Pius XII, in the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, in which he defines the Dogma of the Assumption, describes Our Lady as the “Ark of the Covenant, built of incorruptible wood.”40 Our Lady is clearly someone so precious, so pure and undefiled, that she is like the incorruptible wood of the Ark of the Covenant, upon which the shekinah (the glorious presence of God) descended (1 Kings 8:10).
John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, reflecting upon the third Glorious Mystery of the Most Holy Rosary, describes Pentecost as the great icon of our “new life in Christ lived in the heart of the Church.” He explains that Pentecost “reveals the face of the Church as a family gathered together with Mary, enlivened by the powerful outpouring of the Spirit and ready for the mission of evangelization.”41 How appropriate it is that the immaculately conceived one, full of the grace of the Holy Spirit and the love of God, should be gathered with the Apostles at Pentecost. God has indeed done great things in her who is called blessed throughout all generations, in view of the merits of His Son. St. John Eudes amplifies this Pentecostal fire of love burning in the Heart of Our Lady in his chapter on the Corporeal Heart of Mary:
The fire of divine love, burning day and night in the ardent furnace of this virginal Heart, so purified, consumed and transformed her passions into its own substance, that, as the heavenly fire had no other object save God alone, towards whom it constantly tended with incomparable ardor and impetuosity, so these passions were always turned towards God and exercised in his service. They were moved and led exclusively by the love of God, which possessed, animated and inflamed them in so marvelous a manner that they became a perpetual and admirable sacrifice in honor of the Blessed Trinity.42
As Our Lady is without sin, a pure image of God’s love has been revealed in a created person. She is the icon of the love of the Holy Spirit and a pure conception of love in the heart of the Church. We, also, as temples of the Holy Spirit, are called to reflect the incorruptible love of God, so that it may be more perfectly manifest in the Church.
In light of the revelation of the Immaculate Conception to the Church, what is the appropriate response to Our Lady? Let us turn to this heartfelt prayer from St. John Eudes for the answer:
O Blessed Virgin Mary, I humbly beseech thee, by thy Immaculate Conception and through thy pure heart, to take full possession of my heart. Give it completely to thy divine Son and beg Him to banish from it all sin and to establish in it forever the perfect reign of His divine love. 43
1 Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854. (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media).
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1994), 508.
4 St. Alphonsus de Liguori, The Glories of Mary. (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 1977), 284.
5 Ibid., 285.
6 Nuns of the Visitation, trans., The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales on Our Lady Vol. II (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 1985), 193.
7 St. Bridget of Sweden, Revelations of St. Bridget on the Life and Passion of our Lord and the Life of His Blessed Mother. (Fresno, California: Academy Library Guild, 1957), 41.
8 Fr. H. M. Manteau-Bonamy, O.P., Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit. (Kenosha, Wisconsin: Franciscan Marytown Press, 1977), 5.
11 Ibid., 7.
12 Ibid., 27.
13 Ibid., 31-32.
15 Ibid., 44.
17 Ibid., 55.
18 Fr. Maximilian Mary Dean, F.I., A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ. (New Bedford, Massachusetts: Academy of the Immaculate, 2006), 63.
19 St. Bridget of Sweden, Revelations, 23.
20 Watkin Williams, The Mysticism of S. Bernard of Clairvaux. (London: Burns Oats and Washbourne Ltd, 1931), 77.
21 St. Bridget of Sweden, Revelations, 79.
22 Venerable Mary of Agreda, The Mystical City of God. (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1978), 156.
24 Fr. Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.I., “The Virgin Mother’s Predestination and Immaculate Conception,” in Mark I. Miravalle, ed., Mariology, A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons. (Goleta, California: Queenship Publishing, 2007), 271.
25 Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, F.I., St. Maximilian M. Kolbe, Martyr of Charity – Pneumatologist. (New Bedford, Massachusetts: Academy of the Immaculate, 2004), 67.
26 Ibid., 91.
28 Ibid., 117.
29 Ibid., 66.
30 Ibid., 67.
31 The Hero of Auschwitz. (Kenosha, Wisconsin: Franciscan Marytown Press), 41.
32 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG), 53.
33 LG, 56.
34 St. John Eudes, The Admirable Heart of Mary. (Buffalo, New York: Immaculate Heart Publications, 1947), 83.
35 Venerable Mary of Agreda, The Mystical City of God, 157.
36 Fr. Peter M Fehlner, F.I., “The Virgin Mother’s Predestination and Immaculate Conception,” 233.
37 Ibid., 272.
38 Ibid., 273.
39 John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 1987, (Boston, St. Paul Books & Media), 23.
40 Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 1950. (Boston, St. Paul Books & Media), 26.
41 John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 2002. (Boston, St. Paul Books & Media), 23.
42 St. John Eudes, The Admirable Heart of Mary, 16.
43 Ibid., 204.