“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and Blessed is the Fruit of your Womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
How many times have we prayed these words without really reflecting on the transcendent realities they communicate? This past year, I have grown in appreciation for our Mother in Heaven and all the amazing miracles-small and large- that she works in our lives as Catholics. But Mary is not someone that everyone shares the same opinion on. In fact, her Immaculate Conception, Assumption into Heaven, and Perpetual Virginity have been such huge points of debate in the Church that many have left throughout the course of history to join or start their own Protestant denominations. And the only times the Pope has spoken by himself, infallibly as successor of Peter, has been twice, once on Mary’s Immaculate Conception and once on Mary’s Assumption. So obviously, Mary must be a big deal to the Church if the Church has defended her teachings on Mary to the point that people have been frustrated and left, and the Pope had to speak infallibly to unite the Church. So what do we believe?
Before we begin to answer that question, we must first understand the difference between official, infallible dogma declared by the Church, and the personal opinions, or even personal teachings of the early Church fathers, Popes, and even saints. While the Church may support a particular person (especially the saints, whom the Church declares infallibly to be in Heaven with God), it is cannot bestow infallibility on everything a person says and believes, even if that person is a great, holy theologian such as St. Thomas Aquinas or Pope St. John Paul II. Many people attack the Church, for the personal beliefs its members hold. The Church can only speak infallibly when it works united on subjects under the umbrella of theology, either as a council, or under the authority of the Pope as successor of Peter.
The Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception is often confused as being the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. It is critical to understand that the Immaculate Conception actually refers to Mary’s conception without original sin in the womb of her mother (St. Anne). In order for Jesus to become Incarnate, He needed to be born of a mother who was sinless and did not bear the effects of original sin that were instilled in the human race by the fall of Adam and Eve, in order that he be left untainted by it as well. As a result, Mary, a poor Israelite girl, was chosen to receive a gift of pure grace from God: a conception left unmarred by the consequences of the fall. Mary’s Immaculate Conception still remains one of the most beautiful and greatest mysteries in our faith today: how God could allow one woman to be conceived without original sin exceeds our human comprehension.
I used to mistakenly view Mary’s sinless nature as something that made everything easier for her. After all, since she did not share the weakened will, distorted passions, and darkened intellect with the rest of humanity following the fall, so life would be a lot easier for her, right? Wrong. I recently read an article on Word on Fire by Fr. Steve Grunow that spoke to how much harder Mary’s life must have been living without a fallen nature. Yes, she could more freely choose good because she was not enslaved to the damaging effects of the fall, but she was also more hurt when her fellow humans fell into sin. Because she was conceived Immaculately, she loved on a much deeper level than is possible than any other human being. She was filled with a deep compassion that ached for her brothers and sisters in God to be in total communion with their Creator. As a result, when they would fall into sin, she must have felt an intense sorrow for their fallen state.
As mentioned before, one of the two times Papal infallibility has been invoked was in regards to the Immaculate Conception. The dogma, issued by Pope Pius IX in 1854, declared that Jesus’ Mother had been, since the moment of her conception, free from the devastating effects of original sin.
Another topic that has been shrouded in controversy for the past two millennia is the subject of Mary’s virginity. First let’s cover the affirmative argument.
In Luke 1:27, we are told Mary is “espoused” to Joseph, meaning they had already been married. As was typical, Joseph would have had relations with Mary the day they were married. But we find in Luke 1:34, that Mary “[had] no relations with a man.” This fact supports the claim that the Protoevangelium of James makes, stating that Mary was consecrated to the Temple by her mother to always be a virgin, much like the prophetess Anna that we meet in the story of the Presentation in the Temple. As a result, we have held through Sacred Tradition that Mary is Ever-Virgin.
Many Protestants claim that Mary must have had relations with Joseph because the Gospels speak of the brothers and sisters of Jesus such as when the town of Nazareth expresses its disbelief in Jesus, declaring “Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?” (Matthew 13:55-56). Another argument for Mary not possessing perpetual virginity is often supported by the verse “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25).
There are simple explanations for why these claims are not founded on solid evidence. For the first argument, the key to understanding that verse is found in the meaning behind the term “brothers” and “sisters.” In writing typical of Sacred Scripture, the word “brother” has multiple connotations. It often can mean a spiritual brother, or, as St. Jerome clarified, it can mean a relative or cousin. As for the second argument, there are many instances in Scripture that use the word “until” simply to designate a period of time, not imply that the action was performed after that event. An example of this is in 1 Timothy 4:13-14, when Paul instructs Timothy “Until I arrive, attend to the reading, exhortation, and teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate.” Paul is not telling Timothy to stop preaching once Paul arrives. Paul is simply using it distinguish a certain period of time.
It is held by Sacred Tradition that Mary, upon reaching the end of her earthly life, was transported–or assumed–into Heaven, body and soul. For almost two millennia, the Assumption was a place of disagreement, until Pope Pius XII invoked his authority as successor of Peter to make the second infallible declaration that a Pope had ever made. He stated, “[T]he Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (from Pope Pius XII’s Munificentissimus Deus).
Whether Mary died before she was assumed and whether we are obligated to take a certain stance on it has been a matter of confusion for many Catholics. The more common opinion is that Mary did die, but it is not a matter of faith. Pope Pius XII cites many sources in his Munificentissimus Deus that hold the position that Mary died before being assumed, but Pope John Paul II clarified during his papacy, “On 1 November 1950, in defining the dogma of the Assumption, Pius XII avoided using the term “resurrection” and did not take a position on the question of the Blessed Virgin’s death as a truth of faith.” Therefore, as Catholics, we are welcome to take any position on the matter, as long as we still believe that, regardless of if Mary died before or not, she was assumed body and soul into Heaven upon the completion of her earthly life.
The Coronation of Mary was the event in which Mary was made Queen of Heaven and Earth with her Son Jesus. The Catechism tells us, “Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things” (CCC 966).
While a confusing topic to tackle, the Genealogy of Mary makes a deep theological point. It traces Jesus’ bloodline all the way back to David, fulfilling many Biblical prophecies, and further traces it to Adam. So where can we find this genealogy? John 3:23-38. Upon first reading it, one may think it is another tracing of lineage through Joseph, seeing how it starts with “[Jesus] was the son, as was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli.” However, upon further research one will find that Matthew says Joseph was the son of Jacob in Matthew 1:16. It has been taught that Mary’s father was Heli, and Luke was merely stating that Jesus was the son of Joseph, but grandson of Heli through Mary.
Alex John Paul