GRACE PRESERVED MARY FROM SIN
John Paul II
June 5, 1996
1. The doctrine
of Mary's perfect holiness from the first moment of her
conception met with a certain resistance in the West, on account
of St Paul's statements about original sin and about the
universality of sin, which were taken up again and explained
with particular force by St Augustine.
This great doctor
of the Church certainly realized that Mary's status as Mother of
a completely holy Son required total purity and an extraordinary
holiness. This is why, in the controversy with Pelagius, he
stressed that Mary's holiness is an exceptional gift of grace
and stated in this regard: "We make an exception for the Blessed
Virgin Mary, whom, for the sake of the Lord's honour, I would in
no way like to be mentioned in connection with sin. Do we not
know why she was granted a greater grace in view of the complete
victory over sin, she who merited to conceive and give birth to
him who obviously had no sin?" (De natura et gratia, n.
stressed Mary's perfect holiness and the absence of any personal
sin in her because of her lofty dignity as Mother of the Lord.
Nonetheless, he could not understand how the affirmation of a
total absence of sin at the time of conception could be
reconciled with the doctrine of the universality of original sin
and the need of redemption for all Adam's descendants. This
conclusion was later reached by an ever more penetrating
understanding of the Church's faith, explaining how Mary had
benefited from Christ's redemptive grace from her conception.
overcame the objections to the Immaculate Conception
2. In the ninth
century the feast of Mary's Conception was also introduced in
the West, first in southern Italy, in Naples, and then in
Around 1128, a
monk of Canterbury, Eadmer, writing the first treatise on the
Immaculate Conception, complained that its respective liturgical
celebration, especially pleasing to those "in whom a pure
simplicity and most humble devotion to God was found" (Tract.
de conc. B.M.V., 1-2), had been set aside or suppressed.
Wishing to promote the restoration of this feast, the devout
monk rejected St Augustine's objections to the privilege of the
Immaculate Conception, based on the doctrine of the transmission
of original sin in human generation. He fittingly employed the
image of a chestnut "which is conceived, nourished and formed
beneath its bur and yet is protected from being pricked by it" (Tract.
10). Even beneath the bur of an act of generation
which in itself must transmit original sin, Eadmer argues, Mary
was preserved from every stain by the explicit will of God who
"was obviously able to do this and wanted to do so. Thus if he
willed it, he did it" (ibid.).
the great theologians of the 13th century made St Augustine's
difficulties their own, advancing this argument: the Redemption
accomplished by Christ would not be universal if the condition
of sin were not common to all human beings. And if Mary had not
contracted original sin, she could not I have been redeemed.
Redemption in fact consists in freeing those who are in the
state of sin.
3. Duns Scotus,
following several 12th-century theologians, 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.
introduced into theology the concept of Redemption by
preservation, according to which Mary was redeemed in an even
more wonderful way: not by being freed from sin, but by being
preserved from sin.
The insight of Bl.
Duns Scotus, who later become known as "the Doctor of the
Immaculata", was well received by theologians, especially
Franciscans, from the very beginning of the 14th century. After
Sixtus IV's approval in 1477 of the Mass of the Conception, this
doctrine was increasingly accepted in the theological schools.
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.
4. No one fails
to see how the affirmation of the exceptional privilege granted
to Mary stresses that Christ's redeeming action does not only
free us from sin, but also preserves us from it. This dimension
of preservation, which in Mary is total, is present in the
redemptive intervention by which Christ, in freeing man from
sin, also gives him the grace and strength to conquer its
influence in his life.
The dogma sheds
light on the effects of grace
In this way the
dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception does not obscure but
rather helps wonderfully to shed light on the effects in human
nature of Christ's redemptive grace.
to Mary, the first to be redeemed by Christ and who had the
privilege of not being subjected, even for an instant, to the
power of evil and sin, as the perfect model and icon of that
holiness (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 65) which they are
called to attain in their life with the help of the Lord's
Weekly Edition in English
12 June 1996, page 11
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