Without Sin, Always — How Amazing Is That?

‘For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.’ — ‘The Song of Bernadette’

Nicolás de la Cuadra, “Immaculate Conception,” 1698
Nicolás de la Cuadra, “Immaculate Conception,” 1698 (photo: Public Domain)

“I am the Immaculate Conception.”

The young girl shook her head — she didn’t understand what she was hearing. The Lady had just told her who she was, but it made no sense to Bernadette. She had never heard those mysterious words before.

Between Feb. 11 and July 16, 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, the illiterate daughter of a miller, 18 times at the grotto of Massabielle, near the small town of Lourdes in southwest France.

On Feb. 24, 1858, Bernadette was instructed to bathe and drink from a spring that began to flow on the following day — a spring that was to pour forth healing waters.

By March of that year, with word of the apparitions spreading throughout France, more than 20,000 pilgrims had gathered at the apparition site, but Mary was visible only to Bernadette. On March 24, Bernadette was instructed to have a chapel built on the site in honor of the Blessed Virgin. On the following day, the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette asked the woman how she would like to be called; Mary identified herself as the Immaculate Conception.

The title, familiar to our ears today, was unknown to Bernadette — but that fact made news of the apparition all the more relevant to Pope Pius IX and theologians of the time. Just four years earlier, Pius IX had officially declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Bernadette grew and entered the Convent of St. Gildard in France, where she lived a life of prayer as a Sister of Charity and Christian Instruction. Bernadette died in 1879 and was canonized in 1933. Since her death, her body has been preserved from corruption — a miracle in itself. Peaceful in death, she lies in a crystal coffin at the convent in Nevers. A friend of mine, on seeing her in final repose, once remarked that she looks “like Sleeping Beauty.”

Just what is the Immaculate Conception, anyway?

Recently, an on-the-street interviewer asked this question, and got a wheelbarrow full of humorous responses from the clueless respondents. Even within the Church, many people have a misconception regarding this dogmatic teaching. How much do you know? Let’s play.

The Immaculate Conception means that (choose one):

  • A. Mary was a virgin at the time of Christ’s birth.
  • B. Jesus was born without sin.
  • C. Mary was conceived without sin. Like the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant, which was beautifully crafted because it held the precious Torah, so Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, since she carried the Christ Child within her womb. Since she was destined to be the Mother of God, she was preserved by God from any stain of original sin, and she remained sinless throughout her life.

If you guessed “C,” you’re right! The Immaculate Conception is one of the four main Marian dogmas.

Three other clear teachings of the Church regarding Mary are:

1. Divine Motherhood. Mary was the Mother of God (Theotokos), as well as of the human person Jesus. This teaching was defined by the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) in response to heresies at the time, and is generally accepted by all Christian denominations today.

2. Perpetual Virginity. The constant tradition of the Church has been that Mary was “ever virgin” — that she bore no children other than Jesus. The Protoevangelium of James, written perhaps 60 years after the conclusion of Mary’s earthly life, supports this tradition. Many Protestants dispute this, referring to Gospel passages about the “brethren of the Lord” — this is refuted and Catholic teaching is explained in a Catholic Answers pamphlet by that title,

3. The Assumption. According to the Catholic dogma of the Assumption, “Mary, Immaculate Mother of God ever Virgin, after finishing the course of her life on earth, was taken up in body and soul to heavenly glory.” It’s important to distinguish between Ascension and Assumption. Jesus “ascended” into Heaven of his own volition; whereas Mary, a created being, was taken into heaven by God. The dogma of the Assumption is contained implicitly in the divine Revelation.

More details about each of these teachings, and of their basis in Scripture and Tradition, can be found at the University of Dayton's Mary Page.