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History and Significance of Dogma of Immaculate Conception

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Interview With Father Jesús Castellano Cervera

ROME, JULY 19, 2004 (Zenit) - The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed 150 years ago, rediscovers in its profundity the expression "full of grace," says a consultor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Discalced Carmelite Father Jesus Castellano Cervera, a specialist in Marian studies, reflects in this interview with us on the origin and significance of this dogma. Next month John Paul II will make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the place in France where the Blessed Virgin appeared in 1858 and confirmed the truth of her immaculate conception.

Q: What is the history and significance of this dogma?

Father Castellano Cervera: It is a long and complex history. It goes back to the understanding of the mystery of Mary in her privileged relationship with God and with the mystery of salvation, to which she is associated from the first moment of her existence, as being full of grace and love of God.

Q: Can you explain how it has developed from its origin?

Father Castellano Cervera: Such awareness is developed first at the level of the people's faith, in the understanding of her conception as a moment of grace; first of all, beginning with the apocryphal Gospels, which recount the grace of the meeting of her parents Joachim and Anne. From this narrative is derived the feast of Anne's conception [of Mary] in Byzantine liturgy, celebrated since the eighth century on December 9.

This feast was introduced in the West around the 10th century, and it celebrates explicitly the Conception of Mary without original sin. The feast was extended to the universal calendar by Sixtus IV in 1476 with a very beautiful formulation, but sadly reduced to a simple memorial of the "Conception of Mary" in the Missal of 1570.

Popular piety and liturgical celebration spark a great debate between theologians of opposing tendencies. On one hand, there are theologians who defend Mary's conception without original sin, and on the other those who deny it in order to affirm that Mary also had to benefit from the redemption of Christ.

Duns Scotus gives the theological key to understand the mystery, affirming that Mary was preserved from original sin in view of the merits of Christ.

The sense of the faithful, the liturgy and theology finally receive the confirmation of the magisterium of the Church which, following situations of different kinds, arrives at the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX on December 8, 1854, with the bull "Ineffabilis Deus."

Q: What were the reasons that led to the definition of this dogma?

Father Castellano Cervera: First of all, a better understanding of the facts of revelation, in the Bible and in the Tradition of the Church, foundation of all dogmatic definitions, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church to the fullness of truth.

In a particular way, the expression "full of grace" has been rediscovered in its profundity, the words that the angel addressed to Mary at the annunciation as revealing of the condition of Mary before the Trinity from the beginning of her existence and as she was willed to be from all eternity in the plan of God: "You who are and have always been full of the grace of God."

In light of the key word, one also sees all the reality of Mary as collaborator of Christ in the Redemption. She who is called to collaborate as Mother of the Redeemer could not be, not even for an instant, outside of the grace of God in his victory over sin and death.

However, in addition to this negative aspect -- the absence of original sin -- Mary is presented from the first instant of her existence as the favorite daughter of the Father, the Mother of the Son-Redeemer, the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, All Holy, designed and made a new creature by the Holy Spirit, greatly loved by God.

It is the fullness of the understanding of the dogma, as it is explicitly expressed in "Lumen Gentium" and in the beautiful present Preface of the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which sings of her as Mother of the spotless Lamb, and origin and figure of the Church, Spouse without wrinkle or stain.

In this way it is made clear that Mary is an exception of original sin and in her is intact the original plan of God and the future destiny of the Church, called to be for ever "holy and immaculate in love."

As Max Thurian affirmed, immaculate conception means that in Mary everything is grace from the beginning and she is witness that everything comes from God. And that Mary corresponds to this with absolute freedom of love, not stained by sin.

Q: The Holy Father will travel to Lourdes. What is the significance of this trip?

Father Castellano Cervera: Lourdes is the place where Mary, with her apparition to Bernadette in 1858, confirmed the truth of her immaculate conception, proclaimed by the magisterium. From the beginning, Lourdes has become a charismatic place enveloped by a special presence of the mystery and of the spiritual maternity of Mary Immaculate as remedy for the illnesses of body and soul.

It is a therapeutic place in the most beautiful sense of the word, that is, where Mary continues to exercise her protection and her characteristic maternal function in favor of Christ's brothers, sick in body and spirit because of sin which has introduced in the world illness and death, physical and moral weakness.

With his presence, the Pope highlights these aspects; he goes to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the place where a special confirmations was received by the Virgin Mary herself, and as a pilgrim he bears in his person the weakness of this world and the imploration of the spiritual presence of Mary to heal the wounds of our society, which needs the Gospel of hope.

Q: Mary is the expression of God's charity toward humanity. Might it not be for this reason that she appeared in Lourdes? And that she continues to be our Advocate?

Father Castellano Cervera: Mary's maternal presence always accompanies the life of the Church and of every faithful one; what is more, of every person, entrusted by Christ to her from the Cross.

However, this presence in particular circumstances becomes an "epiphany," a visible and solemn manifestation -- in this case, to indicate that the Immaculate Conception is a mystery of faith and salvation, a manifestation of the love of God that conquers sin and death, and a sign of hope for all.

How many in Lourdes have experienced healing of infirmities of body and spirit, the many "pneuma-pathologies" of our humanity, are witnesses of a special presence of Mary that calls to conversion and a new life, source of reconciliation with God and with brothers.

Mary, united to the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, continues to be, as we invoke her in the "Salve Regina," "our Advocate," the one who prays for us, who defends us from evil and the Evil One, but who also inspires us and stimulates us to live in Christ.


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