In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Catholic faith.* In the apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus, he writes that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin…”
But how can this be?
St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., says that, “those whom God chooses for a particular purpose, He prepares and disposes so that they may be found suitable for the purpose for which they are chosen” (ST, III, 27, 4). Since Mary was chosen to be the Mother of God and the dwelling place of the Divine Word, preparation began at the very moment of her conception.
As a member of the human race, Mary, like all us, was in in need of redemption. But the redemption of Mary was different from all others. In addition to the graces given to her because of her special calling, by the merits of Christ she was not merely cleansed from sin, but preserved from contracting it.
“Before time began, the Eternal Father chose and prepared for His only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate, and from whom, in the fullness of time, He would be born into this world,” Pope Pius IX proclaims. Recognizing the important role she plays in salvation history, it’s only fitting that she be immaculate and preserved from sin.
But in order to better understand that role, we need to go back to the beginning, when the first sin occurred. In Genesis 3:15, after the fall of our first parents from grace, God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they will crush your head, while you strike at their heel.”
Today we often see depictions of Mary’s foot crushing the head of a serpent, signifying her participation in Christ’s victory over Satan. Such a victory would be tarnished if Mary had not been preserved from original sin. If that was not the case, then to some degree she would have been under the dominion and influence of Satan. Instead, God decreed that from the first instant of her conception, Mary would do battle with the Evil One.
While Adam and Eve fell into Satan’s trap, closing the gates of heaven, Mary (the new Eve), by the divine power of Jesus (the new Adam), faces the dreaded foe. After the enemy is defeated, she joins Christ in opening the gates of paradise, where she reigns as Queen.
Only four years after Pope Pius IX’s decree, Mary confirmed the dogma herself. In 1858, the Blessed Mother appeared in Lourdes to a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous. After Bernadette asked the beautiful lady her name, Our Lady answered, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
*The term Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of Saint Anne, not the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary.