In studying the dogmas of the Catholic faith we have no surer guide than the teaching of the Popes, especially recent Popes. This is certainly so in the case of the Virgin Mary's Immaculate Conception, defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus (1854).
Pope John Paul II, for example, in making his Angelus address on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 1988, declared, "The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is a marvellous synthesis of the Christian faith." Here he was simply re-stating what the Fathers of Vatican II had said in Lumen Gentium (65): "Mary in a certain way unites and mirrors with herself the central truths of the faith."
Starting with the fact of Our Lady's Immaculate Conception, we see flowing in logical progression the whole span of the economy of salvation. Paul VI tells us that "knowledge of true doctrine of Mary will always be a key to the exact understanding of the Mystery of Christ and the Church" (1973); and in Marialis Cultus (1974) he tells us that "the Solemnity of 8 December is a joint celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, of the basic preparation for the coming of the Saviour and of the happy beginnings of the Church without spot or wrinkle" (3).
Paul VI says further on: "In the Virgin Mary everything is relative to Christ and dependent on him. It was with a view to Christ that God the Father from all eternity chose Mary to be the all-holy Mother and adorned her with gifts of the Spirit given to no one else. Christian piety has never failed to highlight the indissoluble link and essential relationship of the Virgin to the Divine Saviour" (25). John Paul II continues in the same line: "Above all in the Incarnation the Church encounters Christ and Mary indissolubly linked."
The solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is essentially a celebration of the unique holiness of Mary.
Pius IX wrote in Ineffabilis Deus: taking into account the condition of created nature, she approached as far as possible, the nearest of all other beings, angelic as human, to God himself, and she soars far above the highest possible praise that can be bestowed upon her."
Vatican II speaks similarly when it refers to the place of Mary in the Church: "It was customary for the Fathers to refer to the Mother of God as all holy and free from every stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creation"; and it restates the meaning of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: "[The Virgin of Nazareth was] enriched from the first moment of her Conception with the splendour of an entirely unique holiness ..." (Lumen Gentium, 56).
Glory of grace
Pope John Paul sums up all these thoughts when he says "According to the belief formulated in the solemn documents of the Church, this 'glory of grace' (Eph. 1:6) is manifested in the Mother of God through the fact that she has been redeemed in a more sublime manner" (Redemptoris Mater, 10); and Paul VI says the same more fully in his Credo of the People of God (1968): "We believe that Mary is the Mother, who remained ever a virgin, of the Incarnate Word, our God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and that by reason of this singular election, she was, in consideration of the merits of her Son, redeemed in a more eminent manner, preserved from all stain of original sin, and filled with the gift of grace more than all other creatures."
One cannot fail to note also the manner in which the Popes, when speaking of the Immaculate Conception, see Mary in a Trinitarian setting. Pius IX wrote: "To her did the Father give His only-begotten Son - the Son, whom, equal to the Father and begotten by Him, the Father loves from His heart - and to give this Son in such a way that he would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was she whom the Son himself chose to make his Mother and it was from her that the Holy Spirit willed and brought it about that he should be conceived and born from whom he himself proceeds."
Paul VI wrote in Marialis Cultus (25): "It was with a view to Christ that God the Father from all eternity chose her to be the all-holy Mother and adorned her with the gifts of the Spirit granted to no one else."
And John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Mater (8): "In the mystery of Christ Mary 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."
The contemplation of Mary's sinlessness is surely one of the most potent means for us to overcome and atone for our own sinfulness.
It seems that our attention is all too little drawn to the transcendental beauty of the work of grace; so much of our moral and spiritual energy is devoted to the Good that we seem nowadays often to hold cheap the other two transcendentals: Truth and Beauty. Pope John Paul tells us that "in the Immaculate Conception the Church sees projected and anticipated in her most noble member the grace of Easter" (R.M., I): the most noble because the most beautiful in grace.
As Pius IX wrote: "The Church has made it clear that the conception of Mary is to be venerated as something extraordinary, wonderful, eminently holy, and different from the conception of all other human beings."
In Mary grace is complete: sinless in her conception, free from the effects of original sin which we poor sinners necessarily bear, even if we do not advert to them, free from personal sin, even venial, and free too from the bonds of death in her glorious Assumption, Mary is full of grace.
To quote Pius IX again: "... the Blessed Virgin was through grace, entirely free from every stain of sin, and from all corruption of body, soul and mind: she was always united with God and joined by him to an eternal covenant; she was never in darkness but always in light; and therefore she was entirely a fit habitation for Christ, not because of the state of her body, but because of her original grace."