By Virginia G. Guzman-Manzo, MD
In the course of our life as Christians, we encounter many problems and perplexities in our daily life which seem to challenge our beliefs and Christian teachings. As we pray and meditate daily, many questions arise and we want to learn more about our Catholic faith and be taught the real score about God’s truths.
This particular article deals with commonly-asked questions about the Blessed Virgin Mary, particularly the four Catholic Marian dogmas. We know very well that non-Catholics do not give much importance to the Blessed Mother. They find it hard to understand our veneration, devotion and love for her. This article hopes to clear up some doubts and misinformation about our faith.
Jesus is true God and true man. Mary gave birth to Christ’s human nature and not his divine nature, but she bore and gave birth to a divine person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, so she can be truly called the Mother of God. Since Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot be separated, she gave birth to a human person whose divinity is inseparable from his humanity.
When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, she told her... “and you shall conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High...” (Luke 1:31:32). The angel continued, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Even Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, moved by the Holy Spirit, exclaimed upon seeing the pregnant Mary, calling her “the mother of my Lord.” Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in Mary, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Is 7:14). Emmanuel means “God is with us.”
That Mary is the Mother of God is a dogma of faith proclaimed in the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “In fact, the One whom she conceived as Man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly the Mother of God.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria, a member of the Council of Ephesus said, “It amazes me that some people should be in doubt as to whether the Holy Virgin should be called the Mother of God. If our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how can the Holy Virgin who bore him not be the Mother of God?”
Every human being is conceived in the state of original sin. This means that the soul is deprived of sanctifying grace; that is, deprived of sharing God’s life and nature. The word “immaculate” comes from the Latin word meaning “without stain.” When we say that Mary was conceived immaculate, we mean that by a special grace of God, she was preserved from original sin from the very moment of her conception in the womb of her mother.
An implicit reference found in the Scripture is the basis of this belief. The angel greeted Mary in the Annunciation, “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28). The phrase “full of grace” is a translation of the Greek word “kecharitomene,” meaning “having filled with grace” or “fully graced.” Mary was already full of grace when the angel appeared to her, and she remained so throughout her life.
Although there is no explicit reference to the Immaculate Conception in the Scripture, the belief in Tradition is very ancient. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (or CCC) quotes the Second Vatican Council’s teaching: “The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia) and celebrate her as ‘free from any stain of sin as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature.”
A problem arose when some theologians referred to the words of Mary in the “Magnificat” when she said “My soul rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:14). Doesn’t this imply that Mary was conceived in original sin and needed a savior? The Scottish-born Franciscan Duns Scotus resolved the problem. Mary, too, was redeemed by Jesus but that she received her redemption in anticipation, meaning Jesus redeemed her at the moment of her conception, some 50 years before Jesus died on the Cross for the redemption of mankind.
There is an explanation that has been used for centuries to explain this truth. A person who has fallen into a pit and was pulled out is said to have been saved, so too is a person who is about to fall into the pit is held back by someone from falling and is also said to have been saved. Mary was saved from original sin in the latter way.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX on 1854. Mary was preserved by all stain of original by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the redeemer of humankind. Four years after this proclamation, when the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France, she identified herself as the Immaculate Conception.
Besides, why should not God endow his mother with all graces necessary for her to be called Mother of God? Who could imagine the mother of God to be with even the slightest stain? Mary was prepared to be the Mother of God long before she was born. We human beings cannot choose our mother but our Lord can. What will stop him from preparing his own mother by endowing her with all the attributes, virtues and beauty of a perfect woman to be the mother of a perfect Man and perfect God?
The teaching of the Church is that Mary was “ever virgin,” before, during, and after the birth of Christ. She was a virgin before the birth of Jesus because she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by St. Joseph, her husband. She was a virgin during the birth of Jesus and did not rupture her body integrity when Jesus was born. The CCC explains this by quoting Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium: “The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.’ “(LG 57; CCC 499)
The mystery of the “virgin birth” is explained by the Fathers of the Church using the analogy of the rays of the sun passing through glass without breaking it and that of Christ emerging from the sealed tomb or passing through closed doors.
Mary was a virgin after the birth of Christ and remained so until the end of her earthly existence. She had no carnal relations with Joseph and no children after Jesus. The mention of Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” in Mark 3:32 and 6:3 refers to relatives, not actual brothers and sisters. James and Joseph, also mentioned as ‘brothers of Jesus’ are sons of another Mary, a disciple of Jesus, described by St. Matthew as the ‘other Mary.’ They are close relations of Jesus. The Old Testament refers to close relations as ‘brothers and sisters,’ not necessarily actual siblings.
Although there is the impression that Mary had a vow of virginity prior to her marriage, a renowned Scripture scholar, Dom Bernard Orchard OSB, rejects this commonly accepted idea. He says Mary and Joseph “had been looking forward with righteous desire, like all devout Jews, to the time when God would give them the children they longed for, in order to fulfill his command to increase and multiply and share in the work of salvation.” At that time, to be childless was considered by the Jews as a curse and a punishment. Furthermore, because Joseph was of the House of David and every Jew knew that the Messiah will come from that lineage, it would be inconceivable that Joseph and Mary would take the vows of celibacy and regard themselves as an exception to God’s ordering of marriage and denying the possibility of having been chosen by God as the parents of the Son of David.
Orchard says that when Mary learned she would be the mother of the Messiah and Joseph realized he was to be the foster father of the Son of God, “this very fact left them no scope to bring forth further offspring.” It is the opinion of the Fathers of the Church that it would not have been fitting for the womb of Mary, which has borne the very Son of God, to bear other children. It was only then that Joseph and Mary entered into marriage with the vow of celibacy. Their role as parents of God on earth makes them the two greatest saints of all times.
Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus in November 1950: “Mary, the immaculate perpetually Virgin Mother of God, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul to the glory of heaven.” The Pope purposely avoided entering into the question of whether Mary actually died or not. It was left an open question. The reason is because the Fathers of the Church have different opinions on this.
Since Mary was born without original sin, she has that gift of immortality. Some theologians say she did not die but only went to sleep before she was assumed body and soul to heaven. However, the most probable opinion was that she did die, since even her Son Jesus died and she wanted to be in union with her Son. But even if she died, her body was uncorrupted and remained as fresh as if she was just sleeping. That is why the church dedicated to her in Ephesus where she was believed to have died is called the Church of Dormition. Dormition is synonymous to the word “sleep.”
There are other commonly-asked questions not only about the Blessed Virgin Mary but on other aspects of the Catholic faith but due to space constraints, the four questions above will suffice for this issue. Hopefully, the reader’s faith has been enlightened and re-enforced with the answers and explanations.
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